Both Sides of the Mirror
Character codes: R, T, Crew
And the face you're looking into
Is both sides of a mirror
Any way you look, you see through me.
"You Don't Believe," Alan Parsons
Captain's Log, Stardate 45221.6: While they cannot be considered a failure, neither can the negotiations with San Chromius III be considered a success. Despite Commander Riker's considerable skill in the art of diplomatic persuasion, the Chromin Ruling Council steadfastly resists our every effort to render medical relief in their current dilemma. While the vast majority of the planetary population pleads for intervention, the governmental leadership clings to the traditional beliefs of their ancestral heritage, insisting that the plague is some form of cleansing punishment and salvation from it can come only through the forgiveness of their Gods. As a protectorate of the Federation, the dichotomy on San Chromius III presents a unique challenge fraught with unaddressable questions that pit our moral obligation to the Chromin population against the letter of the Prime Directive. In this instance, can the lives of billions of sentient beings outweigh the imperative of non-interference in the governmental structure of their society? Can the justifications of Prime Directive absolve us of the death of the Chromin race as a whole? At what point does a plea for help from the population of an officially-designated Federation protectorate override their government's desire for autonomy and the right to self-determination? The right to die for their beliefs? Beliefs not held by the population in general?
These questions, and many more, plague me as I await Commander
Riker's return to the Enterprise. Due to the unusual and highly
disruptive composition of San Chromius III's upper atmosphere--a vast
magnetic mantle of ionic particulates and isotopic hydrocules of
continually fluctuating polarity--and the resultant implausibility of
transporter function or communication in any form, he alone has been
privy to the workings of the Chromin homeworld. As senior negotiator
and direct link to the Chromin Ruling Council, his perspective on the
matter will hold great weight in the final determination.
"Uh oh," Ensign Clay muttered. He punched several buttons, but the readings on the tactical console didn't change.
Picard twisted in his chair. He glanced up expectantly at the young officer, awaiting clarification of the quietly tense utterance.
"She's in trouble, sir," Clay said quickly. His fingers worked another array of controls. "I'm reading an explosion...
The bridge sparked with tension. Picard pushed to his feet, his gaze swinging to glare at the small, silver-encased planet hovering on the main viewscreen.
"Open hailing frequencies," he ordered tightly.
Clay shook his head. "No can do, sir. She's not responding to any hail. I doubt we're even reaching her through all this silver soup."
"Mister Data... ?"
Data glanced back at the captain. "There is no way to ascertain life readings through the electromagnetic interference," he reported calmly.
Although Picard suspected as much, the verification did not please him. He took another step closer to the main screen. "Magnification twelve," he snapped.
Obediently, the planet jumped twelve times closer. It filled the screen with its mass. The silver mantle of atmosphere spread from one edge of the main viewscreen to the other, an unbroken blanket of glittering static and snow. It resembled nothing more than the scrambled transmission of a faulty video monitor viewed at far too close a range. Dead center of the sea of disruption, a vague shadow, a slight darkening of the multicolored static twisted and struggled.
"Magnification twenty," Picard ordered.
The screen flickered again, and the shadow grew significantly. It did not, however, become any more distinct.
Picard touched his commbadge. "Transporter room," he summoned, "lock onto the shuttle and prepare for emergency beam-out."
"There's too much interference, sir," O'Brien, who'd been monitoring the shuttle's progress through the Chromin atmosphere, answered almost before Picard finished speaking. It was obvious the chief had not only anticipated the request, but had already taken steps to facilitate a rescue attempt."I can't establish a clear lock."
"Keep trying. Mister Data, attempt to lock on tractor..."
"I'm getting a transmission," Clay interrupted.
"On screen," Picard snapped. Data tried and failed to carry out the order Picard never finished.
The main viewscreen flickered. The transmission began to coalesce, then it blanked and then went back to pure static. After several seconds of absolute still, a fuzzy, highly-defracted image formed amid the multi-color array of jagged static dots.
"...port thrusters," Riker was saying. One side of his face was streaked with blood; and, even through the haze of disrupted image, it was impossible not to notice that the first officer's normally smiling blue eyes were murky with stun. "Gyro compensators off line. I can't control..." They lost the image for a second, and then it came back. "...or less," Riker finished wearily.
"Number One, we are attempting to lock onto you." Picard leaned into his words. Though his expression remained calm -- nearly impassive, even -- his voice rang fierce against the tense silence. "Do you read me, Number One?"
Evidently, Riker didn't, for the commander's expression in no way acknowledged the news. Instead, he continued the report as if recording for the sake of posterity: "Lost Bailey. Perry, too. Commendations for both..." Again, the image blinked. "...in the line of duty."
Smoke roiled in the background. It swarmed in from the rear compartment like a gathering line of thunderheads. Serpentine tongues of orange and green flame licked at the structural supports. Another small explosion, and then a larger one, rocked the image on the viewscreen. The first officer choked on thickening atmosphere. His lips moved as if they had something more to say, but his voice had faded to nothing.
"Try to escape the outer mantle, Will," Picard ordered. His fists were clenched, the line of his shoulders tense with frustration. "Try to get far enough out that we can break through the disruption."
Riker's eyes rose. He stared into the imaging screen as if trying to see through the link, as if trying to determine whether or not anyone was out there. His expression solidified to a mixture of resignation and expectation.
"We've enhanced transporter function," O'Brien offered a moment later. "I've got enough power to break through to him now, but I still can't establish a clear molecular pattern."
The turbolift door hissed open. Troi lurched from it, her dark hair wild and her off-duty jumpsuit badly wrinkled. She looked as if she'd been sleeping.
"Attempting transport," O'Brien announced. A quiet whine trilled through the tense silence on the bridge.
On screen, Riker's blurred image stiffened. His focus sharpened, and for a moment, hope lit the quiet desperation in his eyes. "That-a-boy, Chief," he breathed, his voice barely carrying across the static interference of the transmission. "Get me outta here, and I'll up that bet to a whole caseof Irish whiskey."
"O'Brien?" Picard prompted.
"I'm trying, sir," O'Brien snapped.
Troi descended the ramp from tactical to the command arc. Her eyes never left the view screen. She stopped at Picard's side, taking up her rightful place on the bridge though she was neither on duty nor in uniform. Her expression was a reflection of horror. It served as a repository for the palpable emotion of her companions, just as Picard's deflected that same emotion without absorbing even the implication of it into the burnished stone cast of his rigid features.
"Come on, Miles," Riker murmured through the static disruption. "Come on, come on, come on."
The third explosion in less than a minute ripped the small shuttle. It was worse than the others, did more damage. The force of it was an invisible fist that burst several control panels into geysers of shards. One of the support beams buckled. Riker jolted like he'd been kicked in the back. His head snapped brutally back and then forward again. The transmission broke apart. When his image reformed on screen, the dazed expression was farther away. He barely clung to the threads of conscious thought. It was an obvious struggle to keep himself upright.
Troi moaned quietly.
Riker stared at the imaging screen, at her, with hollow eyes. The hope, the expectation had faded. Only resignation remained. One corner of his mouth made the attempt to crook into a grin, but failed.
"Tell Deanna goodbye," he whispered.
The image flickered and snapped to pure static.
"Power escalation critical," Data stated. "The shuttle is breaking up."
"Energize now, O'Brien," Picard ordered.
"I still don't--"
"We're out of time," Picard retorted. "Energize!"
The silver static on the screen twitched and flickered and seemed to swirl in great funnels of particulates. The vague shadow blossomed orange. Over the com link, the transporter whined.
"I've got...dammit!" O'Brien cursed. "I can't..."
And then it was over. The shadow that was the Enterprise shuttle flared once and was gone.
Riker felt the heat of death against his back and knew it was done.
For a moment, earlier, the trip of a transporter lock had jolted along his bones. He'd felt a wild rush of triumphant elation as it rearranged his molecules, digging for the elusive handhold that would enable his friends to yet again yank the legendarily lucky Commander William T. Riker back through the void of space and into the safe and rightful embrace of the woman known as Enterprise.
But then, it left him. His link to the Enterprise -- to life -- frayed, separated, bled away. He was, once again, alone.
The explosion seared into his uniform. Synthetic fibers melted to flesh. A shiver traced his spine, recalling the biting winds of Valdez, Alaska to his mind with startling clarity. For a brief moment, he was home again. He stood on the majestic slopes of Mount McKinley, facing the climb ahead. The weight of his parka as it pressed to skin sheathed by thermal FilmSeal was a stark contrast to the knife-edged caress of crystal clear wind burning exposed skin to ice. He drew a deep, searing breath of bitter cold. It smelled of pine and spruce and the distinctive musk of elk in rutting season. The blinding glare of whiteout was a frosted acid wall that ate through tinted goggles in search of eyes and retinal nerves and ultimately his brain. He squinted into it, raising a single hand to serve as a primitive visor.
He'd have to get home soon, if he expected to stake claim on his share of Aunt Stella's hot cherry cobbler.
Riker's mind sensed death. It eased shut, sending him to a sanctuary of cold, clear winter and the smell of freshly brewed coffee to spare him the pain of being ripped apart.
"Imzadi," he whispered with his last breath.
Will Riker disintegrated in a column of glitter as the shuttle around him came apart.
Beverly Crusher stood balanced on the balls of her feet, fingers clenched into O'Brien's console as if it were a barre; and she, once again, a dancer. The empty transporter pad mocked her. The medipac dangling from her shoulder weighed heavy and useless with no patient to treat.
"O'Brien?" Picard whispered coarsely over the open channel. He didn't need to tell them the shuttle had come apart: it was inherent in the desperation of his tone.
O'Brien didn't pause in his manipulations of the delicate machinery to answer the captain. To be perfectly honest, he couldn't afford the distraction. At this particular moment, every nano-byte of his attention was focused solely and exclusively on the task at hand. Riker's essence was trapped in the transporter matrix, and it was up to Miles O'Brien to bring him in.
The computer didn't agree. The computer was convinced that it was all over. It had informed O'Brien twice already that he was locked onto nothing at all. That Riker was gone.
But the computer didn't know Riker the way O'Brien did. It didn't know that Will Riker was the type of man who would manage to survive without a scratch even if he was standing at ground zero during a matter/anti-matter family reunion. It didn't know that Riker would hold himself together with spit and bailing wire if necessary until O'Brien found just the right combination to bring him in. And it didn't know that Will Riker had never welshed on a bet in his life, and since he still owed O'Brien a fifth of real Irish whiskey from last Tuesday's poker game that meant he was still alive.
How could it know that? It was just a computer.
But O'Brien knew. And he also knew the feel of his transporter console. He knew by the pitch of the sympanic vibrations and the amount of throw-off energy tingling his palms that it had something.
And that something was Will Riker.
He would stake his last dollar on it: Riker was there. He was trapped in the buffer patterns as little more than a bio-mathematical computation, but he was there. He had to be there, because pure and simple, there just was nowhere else for him to be. The shuttle was gone. Only the cold black void of space awaited failure.
And Riker still owed him that fifth of Irish whiskey.
So O'Brien didn't answer. He concentrated. He concentrated on every
aspect of the high-wire act that he and the commander were performing
without a net. It was a long fall to the hardpack, so he focused
completely on what he was doing; and he absolutely, utterly and
unequivocally refused to let the captain or Doctor Crusher or even
God himself distract one iota of his attention from manipulations so
delicate, so precise that any slip at all -- and perhaps even no
slip, but just the hint of a slip -- would shred all hope of
retrieving Riker alive.
Crusher stared at the still-empty pad as if mere force of will might somehow aid in the materialization that was struggling to take place while O'Brien played out the hand they'd been dealt.
Power indicators did a spirited jig along the entire length of their range. Ionization from the Chromin atmosphere scrambled phase indicators to nonsensical gibberish. O'Brien ignored the readouts and concentrated fiercely on the feel of the controls beneath his hands.
It had something.
He felt it, felt it in his hands, felt it in the way the delicate console hummed beneath his fingers.
It had something.
No matter what the sensors said, it had something.
The tell-tale column of light began to form. It took on substance: depth, weight, volume. Warning lights flashed. His console verified what he'd known all along: the commander was coming in. With or without a complete lock, even if he solidified in a scrambled lump of organs and tissue that was nothing more Human than a man exposed to high-dosage delta rays, Riker was coming in.
O'Brien held his breath.
Crusher held her breath.
A huddled mass began to take form on the transporter pad. It shimmered deceptively in the glitter of transport, undulating like a mirage in the desert. Crusher squinted, staring hard at the red that might be his uniform, at the dark smear that might be his beard. She'd seen transporter accidents before. She'd seen enough of them to find herself praying now that if he hadn't made it intact, he hadn't made it at all.
And then, suddenly, he was there. Slumped in a pile on the transporter pad like the remnants of a shuttle that had just blown itself to pieces, Will Riker was there.
"We got him!" O'Brien whooped exuberantly as Crusher lunged to the first officer's side.
She caught him as he toppled. His back and neck were burned, horribly burned. The uniform was melted into his skin. Blood seeped vividly from both his ears and his mouth, and one whole side of his face was garish with purple-greenish-black bruise.
"Massive internal injuries," Crusher told the nurse hovering at her side. "Skull fracture. Possible brain case damage." She touched his side and felt the bite of naked bone. "Compound fractures of the sixth and seventh ribs, left side." She glanced to O'Brien. "Beam us directly to Sickbay," she demanded as she pressed a hypospray to the first officer's neck and injected a cardiac stimulant.
O'Brien fiddled with the controls. Three seconds later, Commander William T. Riker once again vanished in a column of glitter.
The movement around him was frantic. He felt it more than saw it. Though his eyes were open, they could focus on nothing. Light and dark...dancing whorls of shadow...blue...black...gold-red hair that floated on his skin.
"You're going to be all right, Will. Everything is going to be all right."
He tried to turn toward the voice, but it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. The barrage of sound lay muffled behind layers and layers of absorbent silence. Metal clattered on metal. Voices called to one another. They called to him.
The motion of bodies disturbed the air.
Fingers brushed along his face, tracking ice in their wake. "You're going to be okay," she assured him again.
It sounded like Beverly Crusher.
That, of course, was ludicrous. Whoever scurried around him was frantic to save him. He could feel it in the way she touched him, the way she talked to him even when he couldn't discern individual words.
Pain bled grudgingly away. The pressure in his head became less crippling. Again, the woman ran fingers along his face. They lingered near his lips. She smiled encouragement and reminded him to live.
He found her eyes. They were eyes he remembered. They were Beverly Crusher's eyes.
Riker tried to speak, to protest, but he couldn't. The fingers of sedation rooted out his urge to escape and quelled it. He stared at her in dumb, helpless horror.
Eyes he knew.
Eyes he did not know.
She smiled, and Riker realized then that the nightmare was only beginning.
"How is he?" Picard asked quietly. The captain studied the still first officer from across the medical bay like he was afraid the weight of his gaze might be too much for Riker's fragile body.
"He's going to be all right, Jean-Luc." Crusher rubbed tiredly at her eyes. It had been close. Too close. They'd lost Riker three times, reclaiming him only through a mixture as gravid with pure luck as it was with any sort of skill. "It's going to be a while before he's up and about, but he will be."
Riker's vital indicators fluctuated slightly.
"Imzadi," Troi whispered. She leaned closer to the unconscious commander's deathly-still body, holding his lax, motionless hand fiercely to her breast as she stroked tremulous paths along the contours of his bruised face. She touched his lips, his cheek. Her fingers trembled where they ran afoul of the duriplast patches white and stark on his temple.
"There are some things I don't understand, though," Crusher allowed after a moment.
"Things?" Picard murmured. He watched Riker's features flex where Troi stroked him. An oppressive weight began to ease inside his chest.
Something in the cast of the doctor's voice drew Picard's attention. "He has a scar -- a large scar -- from his sternum to his belly. And his blood shows a concentration of deltanatia."
Picard frowned. "Deltanatia?" he questioned.
"It's an anti-toxin. A treatment for jellinium poisoning."
Picard's eyes darkened. They swung back to Riker, and to Troi. "Jellinium poisoning is fatal, isn't it?" he asked cautiously.
"If not treated," Crusher verified. "And it never works itself free of the victim's system. Once introduced, it remains bonded to the DNA for life. One missed deltanatia treatment and the degeneration begins anew. Body cartilage crystallizes, turns brittle, shatters. Capillary aneurism. Pulmonary edema. It's a painful way to die. Very slow, and very rare. There are only three known sources of jellinium in the galaxy, and all three are heavily regulated."
"Then how could Will...?"
"I don't know. If he's been exposed, he's kept it a secret from me." Crusher shoved her hands into the pockets of her smock. "And that's not all. That scar is at least a year old, but it's from nothing I've ever treated him for. And...he didn't have it last week when I ran his yearly physical."
Picard considered the information for an interminably long time before breaching the silence. "Hypothesis?" he asked finally.
Crusher shrugged. "I haven't a clue," she admitted reluctantly. "Not a single, solitary clue."
Riker woke slowly. His sense of awareness was foggy with sedation. He couldn't remember where he was or how he'd gotten there. He was not even certain he was alone.
He tried to rouse himself and failed. His thoughts swam random, aimless patterns in the grey gelatinous pudding of his brain.
Crusher. Beverly Crusher.
The memory of her eyes knifed fear into muddy thoughts. He twisted, tried to sit up. The pressure on his chest and in his skull flexed. Dull-edged pain pulsing in tandem with his heart overtook his desire to resist and did so with such consuming bravado that it was all he could do to remain conscious, to resist the need to fall back into the embrace of comforting blackness from which he had newly emerged.
He sank back into the bio-bed mattress without ever actually moving from it. It was useless. He lay helpless in the lair of his enemy. She would feed on him when she chose, and he had not even the strength to protest.
"Hello there," a familiar voice greeted. The soft stroke of it on his mind eased the fear writhing in his belly. Delicate hands pressed to his face, his throat. He knew then that he was safe. As long as she was here, he was safe.
"Imzadi," he whispered, forcing thousand kilo eyelids to lift so he might see her.
The tender smile in Troi's lips was a comfort. The dark glow of her luminous eyes made him less wary of the way his thoughts milled about in his head without focus or intent. She would protect him. She would stave off the jackals until he was once again able to perform that function for himself.
He was lucky in that. Even surrounded by those who benefitted by his position, it was a dangerous thing to lie cocooned in daze. There were always those who could be turned: promotion, the promise of a larger cut, sexual favors.
It was extraordinary that, in his position of power, there was even one person he could trust with the profundity of weakness that lay in him now. One person who would not betray him to the favor of the captain.
"How do you feel?" Troi murmured. Her breath lingered on his skin. The musky, sexual scent of her enveloped his senses.
"Imzadi," he murmured again. Thoughts began to establish an order in his head. He instructed a hand to touch her, and it did. His fingers hooked into the line of her delicate jaw and drew her close so that he might taste her lips.
"You must be feeling better," Beverly Crusher commented from the door of her office.
Riker stiffened. It hadn't been a hallucination. Crusher was here. His heart hammered against his chest, pushing blood painfully through sedation-constricted vessels. His flesh went cold. If not for Troi's nearness, he might have panicked.
The acceleration of his vitals on the overhead board drew Crusher across the medical bay with a worried frown.
A shark to blood, Riker thought grimly.
"Will?" Troi's fingers began moving in slow, soothing circles along the hollows of his face. "It's all right, now. You're safe. Don't be frightened."
His eyes sharpened into the Betazoid counselor with a surprise that segued quickly to anger. It was a betrayal for her to speak of his apprehension--no, his fear--to the approaching CMO. Why she would do it, what possible reason she could have, he couldn't imagine. He wanted to trust her, needed to trust her, now. Desperate to slay the immediate snake of suspicion that writhed through him, he opened his mind to an explanation. She gave him nothing.
Troi returned his sharp-eyed glare with a quietly searching one of her own. It was then that he realized the three of them were alone in Sickbay. His reluctant suspicion transmuted instantly to betrayed outrage. She had dismissed his personal guard. There was no other explanation. They wouldn't have left for Picard, for Crusher. They would only have left at Troi's order, and only then, because he himself had informed them that the Betazoid counselor's word was to be taken as his own.
Laren's face flashed unbidden through his memory.
"I'm going to sedate you again, Will," Crusher was saying. Her hands held a hypospray, adjusting the dosage level with careful precision. Horror whipsnaked under his brain. He could only imagine what form of toxin she was preparing. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be an easy death. Of that he was certain. Not after the things that had passed between them.
Not after Wesley.
He pushed himself off the biobed with more strength than he thought left in him. The floor rushed to his wounds. He nearly died then...nearly wanted to die.
"Will!" Troi lunged to his side. She cradled his head and let the clench of his body form around her when he would have thought she would push him away, that she would stand and laugh, eyes growing hard with satisfaction as she and her new ally watched his agony together.
"Imzadi --," he moaned into the soft warmth of her breasts. "Help me."
It sickened him to beg mercy of her when it was so obvious that she had not forgiven him, that she would never forgive him. But beg he did. Not for life, not even for a quick death. He asked her now for only what he had asked of her all along: forgiveness.
"Beverly," Troi pleaded, "Help him."
Riker felt the cold bite of metal against his throat. He tried to jerk away, but it was too late. The snake hiss of dispensed venom breathed through him from a million kilometers away. The complex array of drugs began to settle immediately against his system.
He had been a fool--a fool to think she would ever forgive him, a fool not to kill her one of the many times he'd had the chance.
Lwaxanna's parting threat echoed again in his skull as it had all those years ago: We never forgive, darling. And we never forget. But we are, by nature, a very patient race. So when you think everything is as it was, when you think your Imzadi has granted you absolution for your sins, you remember. You remember that she is Betazoid first, and Human second. And you remember that she is the daughter of a Daughter of the Fifth House and heir to the Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed. But above all, you remember that Betazoids never forget. Never.
He should hate her. He would have preferred to die that way--hating her-- but he couldn't. He could no more hate her than he could help the way his hands clung to her.
Troi continued to hold him. She stroked his face, rocking him like a wounded child. Her voice caressed words of soothing nothingness as if she cared. It was a comfort to him to know that, somewhere in her ice furnace heart, she still felt for him at least enough of what he had tried so hard (and had failed so completely) not to feel for her to allow him the mercy of illusion.
The rage of despair faded against his thoughts as he listened to her mutterings. Though she had killed him, as surely as if the hand on the hypospray had been her own, he could not find it in himself to hate her. She was the only one he trusted. The Imzadi. He had no control over that: He never had.
His fingers worked clumsily over her thigh, across her belly. When they brushed the swell of her breast, he remembered all the nights she'd held him. All the nights he'd held her. He found her arm and followed it to the warmth of her tiny hand. She quit stroking his face to press his fingers against her lips.
Salt tears fell warm against his flesh.
"Imzadi." He felt the word in the way her lips moved against him.
The quiet seep of death across his brain was a surprise. He'd expected Crusher's revenge to be more brutal: expected more pain, a lingering helplessness that she would relish with calm, watching victory.
Deanna made a deal.
He understood that as he stared into her dark, liquid eyes with his last remaining wisps of awareness and saw the pain of his passing pooling in their haunted reflection. She would watch him die -- retribution for that one betrayal so very long ago -- but she would watch him die a merciful death. It did not surprise him that Picard would agreed to her terms. They had, after all, been worthy opponents. Even profitable allies, at times.
But he'd expected worse of Crusher.
Riker's hand tightened reflexively in Troi's. He struggled vainly against the gentle passing of thoughts, twisting in Troi's lap until he found himself faced with Beverly Crusher. She, too, seemed to suffer his fate in her eyes. Perhaps she remembered the time when they had been friends. Perhaps she knew that Wesley's death was as much her own doing as it was his.
A curtain of blackness worked it's way out from Riker's brain to his eyes until only the gentle, wordless humming of the Imzadi's voice remained.
And then, that too was gone.
"It was frightening, Jean-Luc."
Beverly Crusher sipped at the cooling tea, staring without focus in the direction of the lionfish that floated serenely in the corner aquarium. Her complexion was unnaturally pale; her tired eyes, dull with something much more than exhaustion. "He looked at me with such...such hatred."
Picard studied the doctor. She sat on his couch with her legs tucked under her and an oversized sweater wrapped tightly around her slender shoulders. He watched the deeply unsettled way her expressions wavered and changed. He noted the slight clench to her graceful fingers as they fidgeted along the scrolls and whorls carved into the fine milk-white Nipponese porcelain.
"Perhaps he was confused," Picard ventured. "Unsure where..."
"Hatred, Jean-Luc," Crusher repeated. "Not fear. Not confusion. Hatred."
Picard sighed. He leaned back in his chair and sipped of his own tea. "Did Deanna sense anything?"
"Rage...hatred...fear...an overpowering sense of betrayal."
Picard's eyebrow arched. "Betrayal?"
"Betrayal." Crusher shuddered with the memory. "I'm telling you, he saw us as the enemy. I think he thought I was trying to kill him."
"Why would he think that? What possible reason...?"
"I don't know," Crusher snapped. She leaned forward, fingers whitening to the hue of bone china against the delicate rose-patterned tea cup. "But I know what I saw. And what I saw was Will Riker staring at me with the eyes of an enemy."
A very different Will Riker awoke in a very different Sickbay. He opened his eyes to a very different Troi, and felt a rush of gratitude at the remarkably similar expression that swam in their very different, endlessly ebony depths.
"Imzadi," she whispered. Her lips brushed his in a lingering caress that promised a great deal more than he was up to accepting.
"That's not a bad way to wake up," he muttered with a gentle smile.
Her eyes blinked shut for a moment, trying to hide the flood of relief that brushed against his thoughts. Despite her attempt, tears gathered until they broke free of long, dark eyelashes to trickle across flawless flesh. He noticed she'd changed the way she was wearing her hair. It hung in loose waves, tumbling free well past her shoulders. The effect was stunning. He'd never seen her look so exotic, so ... wild. Almost savage. It enhanced the alien aspects of her Betazoid heritage, embellishing the distinctly sexual air she normally took such great pains to conceal.
"Nice hair," he observed.
She kissed him again, touching first his face and then his throat and his chest in a way he remembered from a long time ago. He wondered vaguely if Crusher was in her office and trying not to notice.
"How do you feel?" a deep voice inquired calmly.
Montoya was standing less than a meter away. His dark features were impassive, but a glimmer of humor shown in black eyes that watched Troi's attentions to the first officer.
"Uh ..." Riker shifted slightly. Pain rebounded in his ribs and he winced.
"Shhhh," Troi soothed. "Don't try to move, Imzadi." She continued to linger, to touch. "You're safe now."
Riker began to blush. "Deanna, uh ..." He reached out and caught the hand she rested flat against his belly because he knew enough about the way she moved to realize it was heading further south than he felt comfortable with, considering that Montoya was still anchored off the port bow. "I'm okay. Really."
"Okay may be an over-estimation, Commander," Montoya observed calmly. "But you will recover." He glanced again at Troi. And again, the glitter sparked in his dark eyes. "Unless, of course, the counselor continues to play nurse."
With a knife of unsettling comprehension, Riker realized that the glint in the doctor's eyes was not humor. It was something far more carnal, and it was specifically directed at Troi in a fashion that bordered on sinister. A frown settled into the first officer's expression.
"Where's Beverly?" he asked carefully.
"There's no need to worry about Crusher," Troi soothed. "We won't allow her close enough to be a danger." Her hand slipped from his and resumed its place on his body. She stroked his rib cage and the flat of his belly, but this time, the motions restricted themselves to at least what might be considered nominally proper in liberal company.
Riker's frown deepened. Confusion twisted to a deeply disturbing sense of wrong. He glanced around the medical bay and found things that stoked the agitation to near panic.
Just past Troi and Montoya, two armed security men flanked the bay door like a pair of chimera guarding a Ming dynasty palatial entrance. While their uniforms resembled Starfleet dress code, there were differences. Obvious differences. Like the wide sashes of gold tied at the waist that lent a vaguely savage air to their appearance. Or the phasers and what appeared to be ceremonial daggers that were strapped to those belts. Shoulder boards and gold braid put the military back into a deliberately de-militarized uniform design. Riker's pulse accelerated against his breastbone.
His sedation-heavy gaze skated back to Troi. She'd changed more than her hair. Eyes that had always depended on their striking natural beauty were shadowed with blue and a deep, rich purple. The outside corners pulled up in a swash of color that made her appear almost Vulcanoid. Her uniform, too, was different. A glittering rope of diamond-like jewels lay across the swell of breasts far too exposed by a neckline that would have made even Lwaxanna seem prudish by comparison. The wide, flaring skirt of her turquoise dress was gashed by a slit that ran nearly to her waist. Even standing still, as she was now, the opening bared a great deal more upper thigh than Deanna Troi would have deemed proper, let alone professional.
Riker's breathing caught in his throat. His head pulsed with pain, and his chest ached. He glanced to Montoya, and realized, for the first time, that the Peruvian doctor was different as well. Aside from the rock-hard way his eyes set in his face, vaguely obscene in their evaluation of Troi, Santiago Montoya had grown a beard.
"Is everything all right?" Guinan asked carefully. Her ageless features were a careful mask of calm.
Picard's stomach tightened. Guinan's unsolicited appearance on the bridge had been disquieting, to say the least. Now that they'd retired to his ready room, her cautious inquiry made him downright nervous.
"Why do you ask?" he countered after a long moment.
Guinan appeared to shrug without really shrugging. "I'm not sure." Her eyes circled the room, lingering first on the viewing portal, and then on the lazily floating lionfish that occupied the aquatic tank in one corner. "Something seems...out of place."
She chose the words carefully. Too carefully. Picard studied them from every angle, trying to find a veiled meaning in their order. "Out of place how?" he asked finally.
"Out of place wrong," she clarified. "Not as it is supposed to be."
Picard studied the enigmatic hostess. She gazed back at him, dark eyes unblinking in their focus. "Can you be more specific?"
The large shadow her oversized hat threw across her features twitched. "No," she stated. "I cannot."
Picard rose and began to pace. "Commander Riker..." he started. Something in what he was about to say stalled the words in his throat.
"Yes?" Guinan prompted.
"There are some inconsistencies," Picard went on after a moment. He found himself standing before the viewing portal, gazing out over the starfield that lay like an enormous expanse of diamonds on black velvet. "Some things that don't make sense."
"Since the shuttle accident," Guinan assumed.
"Yes," Picard muttered. "Since the shuttle accident."
"What kind of things?" she pressed when he didn't speak for several minutes.
"Unexplained scars. Deadly toxins in his system to which Will Riker has never been exposed."
"And something more?" she prompted.
Picard winced. He wondered passingly if the woman read his voice, his body language, or his mind. "He's changed somehow. He seems fearful. Defensive. Paranoid, even."
"And you have no answer for any of it," Guinan surmised.
Picard sighed. "Not only don't we have an answer," he informed her quietly. "We don't even know the question."
He was watching her, distrust coiled like a viper beneath a mask of indifference. Crusher smiled, but his stone expression reflected the attempt. She finished with the diagnostic scan and laid the tricorder aside.
"Where did you get this scar, Will?" she asked, running one finger along the ugly slash of purple that bisected him from mid-chest to belly.
Riker snorted. It was an ugly sound, an expression of derisive contempt. Bitterness was a stain in his expression. He met her eyes but refused to answer.
Crusher watched him for a long moment before she spoke again. "Will," she started finally, "I don't know what's happening, why you hate me so, but I'm not your enemy. I won't hurt you. I'm only trying to help."
She laid her hand on the flat on his belly, and the muscles there flinched like her touch was fire. "Does that hurt?" she asked carefully.
Riker laughed. "Do you think I would tell you if it did?" he countered. His blue eyes were glittering ice.
Crusher's lips tightened to a grim line as she reached for the tricorder again. "It shouldn't still hurt," she announced, defiantly disregarding the hatred that skated his features every time she touched him, every time she spoke. "I fused the ribs myself, and we repaired the muscular and vascular damage to a point where, with slight topical sedation, you shouldn't feel it at all." She frowned as she studied the readings on her scanner. "Ah..." She glanced up and smiled at the first officer. "This explains it. You seem to have sprung a leak, Commander. Nothing serious, but something we should take care of right away." She set the scanner aside and picked up a laser scalpel. "This will just take a moment..."
He grabbed her wrist when she reached across him to engage the diagnostic screen on the far wall. "Planning to split me open again, Beverly?" he snarled.
For a moment, Crusher couldn't think of how to respond. She stared at him in silent stun, unable to focus on anything except the vivid hatred glinting in his eyes and how much his grip was hurting her.
"You burst a couple of sutures when you fell, Will," she explained slowly. "You're bleeding internally again. While it's not a problem yet, it will be if we don't seal it."
"Seal it?" Riker snarled. He dragged himself upright, using her arm to steady his sway of balance. "With a scalpel?"
Crusher blinked. "I can't seal it if I can't get to it. Now lie back down." She winced at the twist he put in her wrist as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "I'm serious, Will," she insisted. "You're going to make it worse by trying to stand. It's a minor procedure. Take less than five minutes."
Riker laughed. It was an ugly sound. "Minor?" he sneered. He eased cautiously from the biobed and established an unsteady balance on his feet. His fingers were white where they dug into her. "Minor like the implantation?"
"Implantation?" Crusher echoed.
Riker's eyes burned into hers. His face was only centimeters away. She could smell his breath, feel its warmth bathe her skin as he spoke."You forgot to tell me I would have to remain conscious during the procedure," he whispered. "That sedation of any kind would damage the symbiont."
Crusher gasped. "You mean...Odan?" she asked in a hush that barely cleared her lips.
"A minor operation," he went on. "When the captain ordered me to serve as host, you told me it was a minor operation. Nothing more than carrying another being in the way I carry my own stomach or kidneys." He grinned sharply. It was an expression that had nothing at all to do with humor. "But you knew the truth, didn't you, Beverly?" He twisted her wrist between them. The gasp of pain that tore from her seemed to please him. "You knew he would force himself into my mind, into my thoughts." For a brief moment, the hatred in Riker's eyes mutated to horror. And then, once again, it was hatred. Raw, pure, simple hatred. "You knew he would take over."
"Will," she murmured. "You're hurting me."
"Am I?" He tightened his grip, using her wrist to drag her against him.
Crusher blinked back tears of pain. She stared at a man she'd known for years and realized there was nothing about him that she recognized. "Are you going to break it, Will?" she asked tightly.
Again, he smiled. "Perhaps." But he didn't. Instead, he released her wrist to establish a new grip on her upper arms. When she tried to step away, he turned them, wielding his superior size like a weapon until she was trapped between his body and the biobed. One of his hands released her arm, slid across her shoulder blade, down her spine. It settled in the small of her back, forcing a capitulant sway into the ramrod resistance of her stiff posture.
"Tell me, Beverly," he hissed. "Did you do it to punish me, or to save Odan?"
She resisted him, and he responded by pushing harder against her back, molding her to him with pain.
"Or perhaps, merely to remind the captain of your power over other men?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Will," Crusher told him firmly. She could feel her heart hammering against her breastbone. She wondered if he could feel it as well. Only once before had she been this close to him. She hadn't been frightened then. She was now. He was bigger than she remembered. More threatening. More overpowering. His broad shoulders, his chest ... she felt fragile by comparison. He could break her if he wanted.
And it was in his dark gaze that he wanted to.
"Jean-Luc didn't much care for that, did he?" Riker pressed. He lowered his lips until they were scant millimeters from hers. She could taste his breath as he spoke, but he never quite touched her. "Our time together? The things we did?"
"Stop it, Will," Crusher demanded. She pushed at him with her free hand, but it was a futile gesture. He didn't budge. If anything, he sank deeper against her. The metal edge of the biobed cut into her back just below the spread of his fingers. Trapped between his weight and the immovable bed, she began to bruise.
His eyes cut into hers, glittering with rage. "You and me...and Odan?"
A wolfish grin twisted into Riker's lips. He kissed her: hard and brutal and with a rage that frightened her more than anything he'd yet said or done. For a moment, she considered hitting him. She knew where to hurt him, where an impact of moderate strength could turn a slight vascular disruption into life-threatening hemorrhage. Only the idea that it was Will -- Will Riker -- kept her from doing exactly that. She had to tell herself that no matter what was wrong, no matter what had happened to him to change him this way, it was Will whose iron fingers were crushing her biceps, it was Will who had her trapped against the biobed, the heel of his hand shoved into her spine.
And because it was Will, she had to trust that he wouldn't hurt her.
Will Riker would not hurt her.
Riker pulled abruptly away. He glared at her as if awaiting a response.
So she slapped him.
Riker laughed. "It's just as well he found out," the first officer observed, releasing her and stepping back. "Had you been more discrete, he would never have demanded that you remove the symbiont." The ice eyes grow hard with memory. "We might have both died, rather than just Odan."
Crusher trembled. "Odan..." she breathed, "... died?"
Riker turned and walked away with the measured stride of a man in pain. "Come now, Beverly," he admonished over one shoulder. "He was only a diplomat. Hardly a being worthy of your charms."
Crusher closed her eyes. When they opened again, there was nothing but nothing in them. She watched Riker with an expression as blank as his best poker face until he reached the door.
"Commander," she called. Her voice shattered with cold.
"If you'd truly cared for him," Riker continued, "you would never have seduced him. You knew the captain wouldn't stand for it. It isn't like he hasn't killed for you before."
"I'm not releasing you from Sickbay, Commander," Crusher told him icily. "Get back on the biobed. That is an order."
"Or do you still choose to believe Jack's death was an accident?"
Crusher didn't react to the inquiry. Her expression didn't change. Her stance didn't alter. Nothing in the calm of her features gave away the raging horror that flooded her with his words. She reached up one numb hand to tap her commbadge.
"Security to Sickbay," she requested calmly.
Riker was to the door now, but he seemed to have run out of strength. His knees buckled and he had to reach out to the nearest bulkhead for support.
"Aren't you afraid it will be Worf?" the unsteady first officer asked. "You know where his loyalties lie."
"The biobed, Commander," Crusher repeated.
Riker made no move to comply.
Together, glaring at each other in a virulent standoff, Crusher and Riker waited for security to arrive. When the door slid aside, it was Worf who shadowed the doorway like a mobile mountain. A slow smile spread across Riker's features.
"Worf," he breathed. "Old friend."
The Klingon looked surprised. "Commander," he responded hesitantly. His dark eyes flicked to Crusher.
"Get him on a biobed," the doctor instructed calmly.
Worf reached out to lend a hand. Riker let the security chief touch him, let him slip one massive shoulder beneath his arm.
"I need an escort to my quarters," the first officer informed Worf grimly. "And find out what happened to my personal guard."
Worf froze in place. He glanced from Riker, to the doctor, to Riker again. "I believe," he said slowly, "Doctor Crusher intends for you to remain in Sickbay for a while longer, sir."
Riker stared at the Klingon in stunned disbelief. Surprise melted to rage in his eyes. "You, too, Worf?" he demanded.
"You may consider that an order, Commander," Crusher said.
Worf started to take a step in the direction of the biobed, but Riker held him up. "I thought you above their petty bribes," he told the security chief coldly. "So much for Klingon honor."
Worf's face fell. His expression sagged with stun and then hardened again to righteous fury as he stared in dumb surprise at the wounded man propped on his arm.
Riker lost his ability to stand suddenly. His knees buckled, and he slumped to Worf's shoulder. His head lolled limply to one side. For a moment, Worf stood stun-still, a massive, immovable prop beneath one arm of the collapsed form of his commanding officer.
"Worf," Crusher demanded harshly, reaching for a tricorder even as she spoke. "Get him to the bed."
Worf shifted his grip, and Riker came alive. He got a hand on the security chief's phaser. He brought it up hard into Worf's belly, thumbing the power source to kill as he moved.
"I should have known better than to expect loyalty from the whelp of a Klingon traitor," he hissed as he stepped away. "You carry your father's blood well, Worf. I'm sure he's proud."
The words lashed Worf like a whip. His eyes narrowed with more than the passing thought of attack from the wrong end of a phaser set on kill.
"I should kill you now," Riker stated coldly. The fury in his expression made the threat far more than idle. "But you saved my life once, on the Pagh. I let you live for that." He slashed the phaser across Worf's face, splitting the Klingon's browridge with the force of the blow even as he nearly doubled himself up with the effort it took to deliver it. "But betray me again, Klingon," Riker warned, coughing blood while the security chief struggled to stay on his feet, "and I will butcher you as we butchered Kurn. You'll die in the night, without honor."
Riker eased himself past the dazed security chief and out into the corridor. The door slid shut. He melted the opening mechanism with a single bolt of high-setting phaser fire.
For a long moment, Riker could do nothing more than gaze at the dissipating glow of orange on the bulkhead. He was breathing through blood. It had cost him almost more than it was worth to strike the Klingon. What had been a mere inconvenience beneath his ribs escalated to screaming, tearing, agony. He was not sure he could make it to Troi, but he had to try.
Riker turned and started down the corridor, one shoulder dragging against the bulkhead as he went.
Riker shook his head to dissipate the lingering image of confused betrayal on the Klingon's dark features. It wouldn't go.
More than anyone except perhaps the imzadi, he would have laid his trust in Worf. Together, they reeked vengeance on the Klingon council for the discommendation. Together, they toppled Duras's empire and cut his vile, corrupt heart from his still-writhing body. Together, they hunted down Kurn and taught him of Klingon honor and the price for betrayal of one's own blood.
It was a coup for Picard to turn the Klingon against him. A coup Riker would have never believed possible, had he not borne witness to it with his own eyes.
Riker stumbled and nearly fell. Worf's expression cut again into his thoughts. He closed his eyes and pressed doggedly on.
Something was wrong here. Something was terribly wrong.
He made it to her cabin, but it took three tries for his barely functioning fingers to key in the security code that would admit him entrance. The quiet hiss of a bulkhead drawing back was jubilant music. He slid into the darkness and keyed the re-lock code into the wallpad.
Her quarters were dark. The viewing portals had been left open, and only the cool light of a thousand stars relieved the sultry blackness. Furniture stood out as shadows. He navigated the dim obstacle course to reach her bed.
It smelled of her. Her exotic scent lingered on the sheets, the blankets. He lowered himself into its embrace. The blackness descended around him.
"I can't locate him, sir," Clay said finally. "His commbadge has either been destroyed or disabled."
"Very well, Mister Clay," Picard allowed. "I shall take it from here. Picard out." He watched Beverly Crusher tend to the injured security chief, waiting patiently for Worf to gather his scattered, slightly-sedated wits and form an answer to his question.
"He made reference to the Pagh before he struck me," Worf stated. Though his words emerged slightly slurred, his eyes were bright, alert and Klingon angry. "That he would spare my life because I had once saved his." Dark, thick features flexed dangerously. The pulsation of brilliant, purple-red blood from Worf's cranial ridge intensified. "He impugned my honor, and the honor of my ancestors. I do not believe Commander Riker would have said such things."
Picard glanced to the doctor. "Beverly?"
"He said a lot of things."
"Such as?" Picard prompted.
Crusher hesitated for just a moment. She kept her eyes diligently on Worf's bloody skull. "He told me that Jack's death wasn't an accident," she conceded finally. "That you'd killed for me before, and would do so again. Hold still, Worf."
Picard jolted, her calm words falling like blows. Rage and horror welled up in him at the mere implication that he could conceive of such a thing.
"Will...said that?" Picard breathed.
She wouldn't meet his eyes. "Will said that," she verified. Her voice was rock steady, but her hands shook slightly as they tended to the prone Klingon. She sealed the last of the jagged flesh and checked his pupil response.
"And what else did he say?" Picard murmured.
"That you ordered him to serve as host for Odan. That I performed the implantation as some sort of cruel form of vengeance. That Odan died."
"That together," Worf growled, "we murdered Kurn."
Crusher finished with the security chief and turned into Picard's gaze. Though her eyes were studiously blank, the depth of pain in her tight expression was unfathomable. "The things he said were not things Will Riker would have said. Not the Will Riker I know."
"Nor I," Worf agreed.
Picard's mind whirled in the confines of his skull. It reeled and staggered, pitched and lurched, searching for answers but always getting snagged on that one thought: the thought of Will Riker accusing him of murder...especially the murder of Jack Crusher. And for the reason of Beverly.
"An intruder, then," he surmised in desperation. "An alien, perhaps."
"He's Human," Crusher corrected flatly. "And he's hurt. He may be bleeding to death even as we speak."
Worf swung heavy legs over the edge of the biobed, pendulumming himself to a sitting position. "I will initiate a level one search," he grumbled groggily.
"You will lie back down, Lieutenant, until I tell you you can get up," Crusher snapped. She turned her eyes on Picard. "I think he is Will," she said quietly. "At least, in some way. His DNA structure is identical. I've run comparative analyses of a dozen specific ident strands all the way down to the sub-atomic level. If he wasn't Will Riker, he couldn't match even one, let alone all twelve."
"Perhaps a clone, then..."
Crusher shook her head. "Even a clone would show signs of replicative degeneration. His genetic codes would be slightly skewed. They aren't. They're perfect--exact matches to the genetic material we have on file from before the shuttle accident. And besides, if he were a clone, why the scar? Why the deltanatia? Why the traces of jellinium?"
Picard had no answers for any of her questions.
"I think he believed what he said," she announced after a long moment. "I think the things he spoke of really happened to him."
Picard studied the doctor. The thought of her believing him capable...he forced it out of his head. "An alternate reality?" he surmised after a long moment of contemplation.
"It would explain the jellinium. The scar. His...attitude."
"A reality where I would murder a friend for the reason of his wife?" Picard tried not to appear as horrified as he felt.
"A reality where I would perform Odan's implantation without anesthesia as some form of punishment," Crusher countered. "Where I would seduce a diplomat and lead him to his death merely to prove that I was capable of it."
"Where I would murder my own brother." Worf had resumed his prone position with relatively little complaint. He looked exceptionally pale for a Klingon, almost ghastly. His dark eyes regarded both his doctor and his captain with only a partial focus. "It is not a reality I would believe," he stated grimly.
"But is it a reality Commander Riker would believe?" Picard asked quietly. "And if it is, is ourCommander Riker trapped there where the ones he trusts most are those who would see him dead?"
Deanna Troi entered her quarters, slipping her shoes off as she cleared the threshold. "Computer," she requested. "Lights up." It complied, replacing the darkness with illumination.
"Picard to Counselor Troi."
Troi touched her commbadge. "Troi here," she acknowledged.
"Deanna, is Will with you?"
The captain's voice was careful. It spawned an instant frown to Troi's pale features, filling her with a sense of dread. She glanced around her quarters, but everything was as she'd left it.
"No," she answered after a moment. "Why?"
"I want you to remain in your quarters, Counselor," Picard ordered. "We believe he'll come to you, and when he does, it's important that you keep him there.
"What's going on, sir?" Troi asked again.
"Will escaped from Sickbay a short time ago," Crusher answered over the com link.
Troi's eyes narrowed. "I wasn't aware he was being detained," she observed quietly.
"I don't have time to go into details, Counselor," Picard told her. He sounded impatient. Almost angry. "Suffice it to say that he is dangerous--dangerous to himself and to every other member of this crew. He has already put Worf in Sickbay, and now he's armed."
Troi digested the claim silently. "What do you want me to do?" she asked finally.
"Stay in your quarters. We've established a security net around you. We'll let him through, but not back out."
"Bait for the trap," Troi muttered.
"He's bleeding internally again, Deanna," Crusher answered. "He could die unless we get him back to Sickbay."
"Then I haven't much choice, have I?" Troi crossed the room and stared out the viewing portal above her bed. "I'll remain in my quarters. Troi out."
Silence fell back around her like a blanket. She shivered, watching the cold, dark space that lay beyond the portal. Amid it's endless field, lay a single, silver-encased planet.
She felt him behind her before he spoke: "Hello, Imzadi."
The quiet chill to his tone gripped her spine. It filled her with an odd fear she could only partially understand. She turned to him with a smile she had to force.
He looked horrible. His face was ghastly pale; his eyes, ringed with deep, ugly circles. The way he watched her was bone-chilling.
Yet she maintained her smile in spite of it. "Imzadi." Stepping forward, she placed her hands against his chest.
He stared down at her, blue eyes flint hard and unrecognizable. "I'm disappointed in you, Deanna," he said quietly. He reached out with one hand and peeled her commbadge from her uniform. "Very disappointed."
"You heard then," she surmised.
His lips pulled to a mirthless smile. "I heard." He tossed the commbadge into the incinerator near her bed.
"Let me explain."
"You don't need to explain," he countered. His hand ran along her face. "I trust you. I always have."
The iron tension eased from Troi's spine. She rested her face gratefully to his chest, listening to the pulse of his heart, the draw of his breathing. For several minutes, he did nothing other than stroke her hair.
"It's my weakness," he said out of nowhere. "Trusting you. My Achilles' heel."
She looked up at him, a question in her dark eyes.
He smiled. A sincere tenderness stole into the hard reflection of his gaze. He kissed her. His lips rested gently against hers, the warmth of them tender, but without passion.
"It is not something I could ever teach myself not to do," he went on. His fingers traced the line of her jaw, the graceful curve of her throat. "Sometime...somewhere...I would trust you again." His palm settled against her collarbone. His thumb nestled itself under her chin as the other fingers spread against the flesh of her throat. "No matter how many times you teach me not to, I would never learn." His fingers tightened, forcing her head back a little. "No matter how many times you betrayed me, I would still trust you." His lips brushed hers again. "It is beyond my control."
"You don't have to do this, Will." She heard her own voice from a world away. It formed the words calmly, and she marveled that it was so effective at masking the terror that bled into her with every passing moment. "I would never betray you."
His grip tightened slowly, inexorably. There was almost a tenderness in the way it crushed her flesh.
"Goodbye, Imzadi," he whispered.
Riker woke slowly, groggily. He was in his quarters...or no...he was in someone else'squarters. The viewing portal was above the bed, rather than to the left of it.
And he wasn't alone.
Deanna shifted against his side. Her arm snaked across his chest and draped itself there. She kissed him on the shoulder, and then on the jaw, and finally on the lips.
It came to him joltingly that she wasn't wearing any clothes.
His first instinct was to jump out of bed. He curbed it as much to avoid tripping over the long, shapely leg entwined with his as he did to avoid offending her.
"You were expecting someone else perhaps?" she teased gently.
Riker gazed at her for a long moment in complete and utter befuddlement. He couldn't think of a thing to say. Nothing, at least, that sounded even remotely like something a gentleman should say to the nude woman sharing his bed.
So he kept his mouth shut and tried to wriggle free from the entanglement of her casual embrace. It wasn't as easy as it looked. He managed to twist in a way that set his ribs on fire and to smack his head soundly on the headboard before giving up the idea and turning instead to glare at her.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing, Deanna?" he demanded, reaching up to rub at his head. "What's gotten into you? Why are you..." he gestured at her but wasn't quite able to expel the word naked from his lips. "I mean...I thought we decided this wasn't..." He gestured again.
Troi smiled. "It's all right, Imzadi," she soothed. Her hands reached again for his chest, and she sidled up beside him. "We're in my quarters. It's safe here. Your personal guard is outside." Her tongue flicked the hollow of his throat. Her teeth brushed his skin. She bit him gently, but not too gently.
It was then that he realized he wasn't wearing any clothes either.
"Deanna." He grabbed her upper arms and peeled her away from him. "What's going on? Why are you...? Why am I...? Did we...?"
She ran her fingers across his face, pressing them into his beard and stroking his lips. "Shhhhh," she soothed. "It's all over now. You're safe here. Safe with me."
"Safe," Riker repeated. "Safe from what?"
Troi wriggled free of his grip. She melted again to him like cheese on a hot grill. "From everything," she murmured throatily. "From everyone."
Riker found himself responding to the heat of her body. To the subtle weight of it, to the texture of her porcelain flesh, to the strategic pressure of her intrusive thigh. She chewed on his lip, his beard, his chin. He flinched slightly as her hands sought out other points of interest with the same aggression as her teeth and tongue.
"And who's going to keep me safe from you, Counselor?"
Troi laughed. Her amusement was a cascade of crystal in the dark room. "Safe, Imzadi? Wasn't it you who once told me that he preferred an element of risk to his conquests? That docile was for ensigns and Vulcans?"
"I never said that," Riker argued.
"You did," Troi corrected. "On Betazed. When I introduced you to my father's Italian stiletto."
"When you what?"
She kissed him instead of answering, breathing liquid fire into his veins. He felt her weight shift. It lifted from his side and eased slowly into him. Though she was careful of the newly-fused ribs, the pressure still spawned pain.
He told her as much.
Troi watched his eyes, her fingers tracing the structure of his torso, but she made no attempt to alleviate his discomfort. Instead, she settled deeper into him. Her limbs entwined themselves with his.
"Can you feel me, Imzadi?" she whispered. "Am I pain?"
Oddly enough, she wasn't. She no longer seemed anything more than a slight tension when he breathed. He laid a hesitant hand on her waist, let it slide to the small of her back. She was familiar against his palm. The graceful arch of her spine reminded itself to him.
"Montoya says you will heal," she announced, still watching his eyes. "He says you damaged nothing he could not fix."
Riker remembered the Peruvian doctor, and the way he watched Deanna. A frown of nearly forgotten anxiety reclaimed his expression.
"I don't like the way he looked at you." His fingertips tightened slightly, possessively into her skin. "It wasn't like him."
"It was exactly like him," she corrected. She kissed his chin biting at the beard playfully. "But unlike you to notice," she teased. "Are you jealous, Imzadi?"
He stared at her for a long time. The way she looked at him, the spark in her eyes: it was wrong. As wrong as the uniforms, and the armed security guards, and the look of open lust on Santiago Montoya's dark features. He didn't know how to ask her what had changed.
"Should I be?" he countered finally.
Troi smiled. She kissed him hungrily, and though he tried not to, he kissed her back.
"Imzadi," she breathed into his mouth. "I was so frightened I had lost you."
He held her tighter, feeling the warmth of her. Tasting her mouth, breathing the exotic scent of her skin, he forgot for a moment that this was something they had mutually decided against.
"Imzadi," he whispered back.
He remembered the feel of the shuttle coming apart around him. He remembered the deep, tearing sense of regret that he would never see her laughing eyes again.
And he remembered what it felt like to have Deanna Troi's body beneath him.
Troi waited, each moment an eternity, for him to decide. There was nothing in his eyes for her to address, nothing that she recognized in the way he looked at her.
It was not Will Riker behind the blue ice of his stark gaze.
His fingers pressed deeper into her throat, hampering the flow of oxygen to her system. She felt the pulse of his heart through his fingertips. Though her instinct was to fight, to kick and scream and struggle and perhaps -- just perhaps -- break his hold long enough for Worf and the others to come to her rescue, she didn't. Instead, she waited, her implicit trust in Will Riker a buttress against the cruel distance in his eyes.
But he was not Will Riker. At least, not in the way she knew him.
"You betrayed me," he said finally.
The psychologist in her scrambled for an appropriate response, but it was the empath who answered: "If you believe that," she told him, working to force the words past his grip, "then finish it."
His fingers loosened almost imperceptibly. "How can I believe otherwise?" he demanded. The ice in his expression flickered with something she recognized.
"Because you trust me, Imzadi," she informed him. "You always have."
For the longest time, he studied her. His hand relaxed by increments. Though it loosened to the point where she could breathe almost normally again, it never completely left her throat.
"And for that I die," he said finally. His voice was weary. Pain had worn the edges smooth.
"You don't have to die, Will. Let me help you."
He stroked the darkening flesh along her neck. "At least, tell me why." His eyes rose back to her's. They were no longer far away. The question in them was real, immediate, burning. His vulnerability was palpable. "Tell me the reason I am to die."
"What happened on the shuttle?" she countered. "That's where it began, Will. Where everything changed."
"Yes," he agreed. "Everything changed."
"You are no longer who you were."
He laughed quietly, darkly. His eyes hardened again to stone. His mouth sank to hers, and he kissed her. Only the slight tremor in the hand still resting on her throat betrayed what might otherwise have been a convincing charade.
"I am who I have always been," he stated against her lips. "It is everything else that has changed." His hand trailed down her throat. The fingers lingered on the swell of her breast before moving on to a perch at the narrowing of her waist. "You have changed, Imzadi." He pressed his weight into her. It trapped her against the bulkhead as his hand continued its exploration of her body. "The ship has changed." He found the hem of her skirt and slipped the hand beneath it. His fingers worked up the outside of her thigh. "Even your uniform. It no longer invites me." They trailed over her hip and circled to the small of her back. He held her, flesh against flesh, as his knee forced itself between her thighs.
"Will," she whispered. "Don't do this to me."
"Do what, Imzadi?" He kissed her again.
She pulled her mouth away. "You're hurting me, Will."
Troi put a palm on his chest and tried to push him away. He caught her wrist and twisted it behind her. Though there was nothing painful about the deft maneuver, the implied threat was obvious.
"There was a time, Imzadi," he murmured, "When you lived for this." The intimate pressure of his leg intensified. She tried to squirm away, but he wouldn't allow it. His fingers tightened into the rise of her hips. He held her in place, watching her eyes.
"Another time," she breathed. "Your time, not mine."
The shadows in his expression grew starker. Pain flickered at the corners of his eyes, the corners of his mouth. The strained whisper of his breathing reverberated obscenely against the silence as he eased more of his weight into her. His fingers trembled on her flesh. A sheen of sweat lay across his features as he moved his leg against her.
She sensed a desperation in his caress. The seductive warmth of his body seemed suddenly feverish. A tremor of weakness skated his spine. He clung to her as much out of need as out of desire.
She could have escaped, if she'd tried.
"Don't, Will," she murmured instead. "Please don't."
Riker lowered his face to the juncture of her neck and body. He smelled the scent of her, missing the exotic bite of the perfume he'd bought her on their last trip to Risa. He leaned into her, because to do otherwise would have let him slide to the floor.
"What is happening?" he pleaded against her flesh. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"Let me help you, Imzadi," Troi whispered back. She pulled at the grip he maintained on her wrist, and he released her. Her hands found his neck. They fluttered against his skull like small birds.
"Help me understand," he whispered.
Placing a hand to either side of his face, she lifted his head so she could see his eyes as she spoke. "You are not the Will Riker I know," she told him gently. Her fingers wet themselves in the perspiration that gathered in the line of his beard. She stroked it away.
"And you," he acknowledged, holding her tighter against him, "are not the imzadi I know."
He awoke in Sickbay. Sick. In pain.
But it was less than before. The fever that crawled under his skin had faded. The weakness was exhaustion, rather than the foreshadowing of death.
Troi hands lay passive on his flesh. Cool, comforting. She began to stroke his face as soon as his awareness shifted to include her presence.
He opened his eyes. The captain was there, as was Crusher. He watched them in silence, noting the security that now flanked the door. It wasn't a surprise to find that the two grim-faced men wearing oddly cut uniforms stripped of both insignia and ceremonial weaponry were not his personal guard. It was, however, a surprise to see that neither were they Picard's. Or Crusher's. Or even Troi's.
"How do you feel?" Troi asked quietly. The concern in her voice seemed genuine. It tremored convincingly in the small, reassuring smile that softened her expression. He felt no shame at having fallen to her wiles yet again. It was a trap well-baited, one any man might fall into even with the gleaming, razor-edged teeth bared in plain view.
But he was determined not to fall again.
Riker pulled away. Because gravity bands had been strapped around his arms and legs, he could manage little more than the slight distance it took to separate her touch from his flesh, but it was enough.
Her fingertips froze. They retracted slowly, curling back to the palms of her hands like a cat retracting it's claws.
"Betrayed," Riker answered the hurt in her eyes coldly. His gaze swung to Picard. "Proven the fool. You were right, Captain. I should never have trusted her."
"You needed immediate medical attention, Will," Crusher countered. "Another hour and you would have bled to death."
"Too easy a fate, Beverly?" Riker's eyes raked her with disdain. "Prefer something more...colorful?"
"I'll be in my office," Crusher announced. She turned and strode away.
Picard watched the exchange without comment. He waited to speak until he had Riker's full attention. "We believe," he began slowly, "that there has been an occurrence of some significance. That the explosion of the shuttle, in combination with the ionic charges inherent to the Chromin outer atmosphere, created a rift between two parallel but altogether separate universes. A bridging, if you will. And that you--Commander William T. Riker--and my first officer--Commander William T. Riker--have been transposed."
For a moment, Riker did not know what to think. Derision and fury fought for dominance in his thoughts. Did Picard think him such a fool? Did he honestly believe that, even beaten, Riker would play these little games for his amusement? Or was there more to it? Some point to this new line of degradation? Riker bottled his instinctive rage and waited for Picard to tip his hand.
"The existence of this alternate reality has been documented in the past," Picard went on. "The original Enterprise breached the wall between our worlds in the late twenty-third century. Captain James T. Kirk, along with several members of his crew, found themselves in similar circumstances. They were able to return to our world with negligible damage to either side of the rift."
Picard was finished. He was waiting for a response. Riker shuffled the new information in his skull, trying desperately to nick the surface of the charade and find the older man's hidden agenda. Picard was a devious opponent. He had chosen his words with reason. Was he seeking information, or merely toying with Riker as a cat with a mouse before the kill?
"James T. Kirk was a traitor," Riker answered cautiously. "He died, as rightfully he should have, at the hands of his first officer."
"Spock," Picard supplied.
"The Founder of the New Order," Riker finished for him. His eyes narrowed. "Is that what this is about, Picard? Have you angered the Council? Do you think to share Kirk's fate?"
"We need your cooperation if we are to return you to your world," Picard informed him. "If we are to retrieve my first officer to his."
Riker tried to sit up and failed. "I've received no orders," he insisted intently. "Your sources are in error. There is no need to go on with this."
"Number One..." Picard stepped closer. "Will..."
Riker's hands fisted. He understood the use of his given name. It was ridicule. Picard was mocking him with the charade of camaraderie where there was none. He wanted no answers. He would dangle bait for Riker to snap at, only to draw it away at the last moment. Then he would relish the bitter defeat of his opponent, bask in the glow of his victim's helpless frustration.
He would not play Picard's games. Not even to prolong his own life.
"You've won, Picard," he spat bitterly. "You turned the Imzadi as you promised you would. It's over." His eyes brimmed with hatred. "End it."
"If you could only understand..." Picard started.
"I understand perfectly, sir," Riker interrupted. "And I will not play your games."
He turned his face away. For a long while, there was silence. Then, without another word, his boots ringing hollowly in the nearly-empty bay, Picard left. Riker stared at the wall until the echo of the captain's footsteps faded to nothing.
"It is not a game, Will," Troi said quietly.
Riker turned his eyes back to her. "It's all a game," he corrected with a quiet, cold venom tone that chilled her blood. "And though you don't realize it yet, Imzadi, you have lost as well."
"I'm not sure it will work, Captain," LaForge said. "But it's the only game in town."
Picard studied the intricate schematic on the display board. It was far too involved for him to completely understand, but the portions of it that did make sense to him seemed solid in their construction, and he trusted Geordi LaForge and Data enough to take the rest on faith.
"Only game in town?" Data asked curiously.
"Figure of speech, Data," LaForge offered distractedly. "Means it's the best guess we've got." LaForge was watching the captain. He tried to anticipate the other man's concerns and address them honestly. Riker's life was at stake here. He didn't want to misrepresent their chances of success. "All we'll get is one shot at her, Captain. If it doesn't fly...." He let the rest of the statement dangle.
Picard continued to study the board. "Have you seen Commander Riker?" he asked suddenly.
LaForge shook his head. "No, sir. But I've heard...what he did to Worf...what he almost did to Counselor Troi."
Picard's gaze rose to regard the chief engineer. "Make sure it flies, Mister LaForge," he ordered calmly. "Make damn sure it flies."
"An interesting hypothesis, Commander," Data allowed after Riker had finished speaking. "It would explain certain deviations in your behavioral patterns."
"The question is, Data," Riker countered, "how do we reverse it? How do I get back to my own ship, and how do we get your Riker back here?"
"There are several possible courses of action," Data told him. "Each of them, however, depends upon both you and 'my Riker,' as you call him, remaining alive in their respective universes. If either of you should perish, the balance required for a transaction of like matter between universes would be irreparably damaged."
Riker nodded. "That shouldn't be too difficult," he agreed. "Your Riker isn't in any danger in my world, and I intend to stick to Deanna like glue."
"Do not underestimate Counselor Troi, Commander," Data warned. "She is not immune to the call of power."
Riker frowned. He rubbed at his beard, studying Data from beneath the ledge of his brow. "I trust her," he said finally.
"An unwise choice that has led to your downfall on more than one occasion," Data countered. "It was, after all, she who poisoned you on the Kre'ktani mission."
"Poisoned me?" Riker echoed.
"Jellinium. And was it not she who recommended that you speak to me concerning this matter?"
Riker was still trying to absorb the idea of Deanna poisoning him when warning klaxons went off in his skull. His eyes jerked up, meeting Data's squarely. The android's straight features twisted into a grin.
"Yes," Data affirmed. "You trust far too easily, Commander. It is one of the criteria upon which I judged the sincerity of your preposterous hypothesis. As implausible as the proposed scenario appears, I am convinced of its authenticity based upon the transpiration of several events. One: My Commander Riker would never have come to me without his personal guard." The android's eyes glittered. "Two: My Commander Riker would never have taken a seat that exposed back to the door and therefore possible attack. And three: My Commander Riker would never have," he gestured to the half-empty glass near Riker's left hand, "accepted a drink from me without a taster on hand to verify it's banality."
Riker resisted the urge to look at the glass. He didn't break the android's expectant gaze; but instead, fixed himself deeper into it. "I trust you as well, Data," he said quietly.
Data laughed. It was a chilling sound. "Another unwise choice," he observed with glittering eyes, "that may well be your downfall, Commander Riker."
Riker slid into his quarters, pressing his back to the bulkhead on one side of the door. Comforting darkness that should have eased the thundering headache behind his eyes seemed threatening now. His mind assimilated shadows into all manners of assassins, lurking in every corner, behind every stick of furniture.
"He believed you."
Troi's voice startled him, and his hands clenched instinctively to fists. She stepped from the abysmal blackness into the small halo of dim cast by the intrusion of light from the outside corridor. She held something in her hand, extended toward him; but in the darkness, he couldn't tell what it was.
"Computer," Riker snapped. "Lights up."
The night mode shifted obediently to day. Deanna smiled. The sparkling blue drink in her hand caught stray strands of light and transformed them to prisms that rainbowed the walls and floor.
"I was certain he would." She slid closer. The translucent robe she wore like no other woman could wear it shifted around her with the gentle sound of silk on flesh.
Riker took the drink she offered but didn't taste of it. Instead, he watched her eyes. "Were you ?"
The tone of his question arched her eyebrows with surprise. She drew away from the caress she was about to offer.
He lifted the drink to his lips, eyes never leaving hers. "So," he said conversationally. "Tell me, Deanna." He placed his lips on the rim of the crystal goblet. "What am I drinking? Jellinium?"
She stiffened as if he'd struck her. When he tilted the glass as if to sip of it; she snatched it from his hands and, never once breaking his gaze, drained the brilliant contents in one long, sustained draw.
"I can arrange for a taster, if you wish," she told him tightly. "Someone to run his tongue along my body, to taste each place you wish to kiss."
"Why did you send me to Data?" Riker demanded.
"Because he is the only one capable of helping you, who will," she answered directly. Then her expression took on a shading of doubt. It started at her eyes, narrowing them slightly. "Why? What did he say of me? Is he the reason you doubt me now? Is he the reason you bring up the jellinium?"
"Then you don't deny you poisoned me."
"Of course I poisoned you," she snapped. "You deserved far worse. Your betrayal was unpardonable. Had I allowed you to die, I would have been well within my rights." She lifted her chin in regal defiance. "Perhaps, as my mother has told me on so many occasions, I was a fool to give you a second chance."
"Since when have you listened to your mother?"
"Since you betrayed me to Ro." Troi's eyes were brimstone and lava. He'd never seen her so angry.
"Ro? What's Ensign Ro got to do with this?"
Troi slapped him, hard. Her hand left an imprint on his face. "My mother was right," she hissed. Her delicate features were a mask of fury. "I should have let you die like Ro died: screaming in agony." She lifted her hand to strike him again, but he caught her by the wrist and stopped the blow well short of its mark.
"You killed Ensign Ro?" he whispered. His stomach flopped. He recognized nothing about the murderous woman straining against his hand.
"Ensign?!" She jerked free of his grip. "Commander Ro. And yes: I killed her. You knew that I would before you bedded her."
"You murdered Ro because I slept with her?!?"
"You know full well the ramifications of being taken as Imzadi to the Keeper of the Sacred Rings of Betazed. Just as my father died for the transgression of Rzesh, you, too, should have died. Were I half the woman my mother is, there would have been no mercy. You would have screamed out your blood upon my feet, begging for your vile, worthless life."
"If you were half the woman your mother is, I would have run so far the other direction we would have found the Borg ten years earlier than we did."
"How dare you insult my mother," Troi raged.
"How dare you murder Ro!" Riker shot back. "How dare you justify it by calling me Imzadi!"
"You took the oath--" Troi started.
"I fell in love with you," Riker interrupted. "We had some time together. We shared something special. And now, you use that to justify murder?" He spun away. "Who are you? I don't know you at all."
"I am the Imzadi," Troi informed him in a cold, deadly tone. "It means the same thing now as it meant on Betazed."
"Beloved?" The word burst from Riker's lips like an oath.
"Beloved?!?" She laughed, a hard ridiculing sound. "Where would you come up with..." Her eyes widened. She stared at him in sudden realization. "Beloved," she finished in nearly a whisper. As he watched, the razor edges of her expression softened. She became once again the woman he knew and respected and in his own way, loved. She reached out to touch him, but her hand stopped short when he flinched.
"In your world, it means beloved," she said finally. "In mine, it means something else."
"What?" Riker demanded.
"It is a bond. A life-long bond. A trust, not to be broken. Ever."
Riker glared at her. The flush of rage began to leave his skin. Despite the fact that, a moment ago, she would gladly have killed him, Troi seemed oddly vulnerable now. The pain in her eyes was real. He felt a sharp pang of guilt for betraying her, even though he hadn't. "And I...he...broke it."
Troi closed her eyes. Her lips trembled. Her delicate fingers clenched to fists. "It's in the past," she told him finally. "Something neither of us speak of. He betrayed me. I forgave him. It's over now."
"Doesn't sound like you forgave him," Riker countered.
"The trust remains," she insisted. "Completely. I might kill him, but I would never betray him." Her eyes opened and she pressed her hand through the invisible barrier between them to rest it gently on his chest. "I would never betray you."
"Data seems to think differently."
"Do you trust him above me, Imzadi?" she whispered. "The tin man with no heart?" She moved like a breeze in the night, slipping into him, molding herself against him. Her lips tasted his uniform where it lay against his chest.
A knife of distrust snaked Riker's spine even as her intently specific caresses twisted reactions from him he didn't intend to give. Deanna would never manipulate him like this. She wouldn't steal his anger, she wouldn't ease his doubts by tonguing what he felt for her and stroking it to desire.
He wasn't sure he could trust anyone who would.
Riker caught Troi's hands as they began to stray along the line of his torso. He held her by the wrists, pulling her touch off him to protect the vulnerabilities her fingers seemed to instinctively know.
"I'm not sure," he told her quietly, "that I trust either one of you any more."
"He died screaming, you know," Riker told Crusher. "Begging for his life like a frightened boy."
Troi had left him, as he knew she eventually would. They were alone in Sickbay. He and Crusher. She, with her instruments of healing and death, and he with his restraints. It was now only a matter of time.
And time was not to his advantage.
Crusher glanced up from her computations. She centered the restrained first officer in her gaze for a long moment before looking away. "It's been almost twelve hours since you came aboard," she announced. "And only God knows how long before that since your last dose of deltanatia. Some of the more uncomfortable symptoms of jellinium poisoning must be manifesting themselves by now. I'm going to give you any thing to help with the pain."
"I am in no pain," he lied.
Crusher picked up a hypospray and adjusted the settings. "Without more specifics about the amount of jellinium consumed, the time elapsed since contamination, and the manner of ingestion, I can't refine the dosage to anything closer than a rough guess, but at least this will settle your cardiac rhythm and slow down the cartilage crystallization." She rose and crossed the bay to Riker's side, pressing the hypospray to his neck and injecting the contents in one deft move.
Riker swore. His body went rigid, fingers tightening to white on the thin mattress beneath him. His gaze cut her with accusation.
"It's just deltanatia, Will," she informed him quietly. "Relax. You'll feel better in a minute."
He glared at her, waiting for whatever toxin she'd chosen to begin it's work. Her blue eyes lowered slowly from the monitor. She met his gaze calmly.
The pain of breathing began to ease. The slight deadening effect of deltanatia crept into the familiar agony of joint cartilage swelling, loosing its elasticity. Riker blinked in surprise.
Crusher nodded her approval. "Good. You're feeling it now. That should hold you until you're back to your own doctor, but if the deterioration sets in again, we'll see about another treatment."
"Why?" he demanded coarsely.
"Why the deltanatia? Have you come up with something worse than jellinium poisoning? Some new form of interrogation inducer that needs refining? Another symbiont, perhaps?"
"You'll probably want to sleep. Go ahead. I'll be in my office if you need something."
She turned and walked away. He waited until she was leaving the room to call her.
Crusher slowed, turned.
"How much longer will you wait?" he demanded "How much fun can this be for you?"
Crusher shook her head and sighed. She started to turn away again, but at the last moment, didn't. "I know you don't believe us, Will," she told him tiredly. "But we aren't who you think we are. I'm not your enemy. Jean-Luc isn't your enemy."
For a moment, his eyes were dark with something she couldn't identify. For a moment, she saw a resemblance between him and the Will Riker she knew. But then it faded. His eyes turned to stone.
"Screaming." Riker found her gaze and held it. "Not like the time LaForge put him in the agonizer for his dalliances with Salia. That was nothing by comparison."
"Salia?" Crusher repeated hesitantly. "You mean Wesley's Salia?"
"Shrieking," Riker went on. "It chills me even now to remember it. He must have been in such pain. But then, you know what a Klingon disrupter can do to Human flesh. And he moved at the last moment. It wasn't as clean a shot as I would have liked."
The way Riker said it froze Beverly Crusher's blood in her veins. She knew she shouldn't listen, knew she should walk into her office and close the door behind her, but she couldn't tear herself away. The seductively evil way he wove his words held her transfixed.
A fly in the spider's web.
"Will?" She barely breathed his name, afraid he would answer. Afraid he wouldn't.
"It only lasted a few minutes of course. A blessing, really. He didn't deserve to die so badly to pay for your error in judgement."
"What are you saying, Will?"
"I'm saying you should never have listened to Jean-Luc, Beverly. You should never have allowed him to talk you into it. Wes wasn't ready. He was little more than a child."
"You killed him," Crusher murmured in horror.
"You left me no choice," Riker snarled. "What did he tell you? That I would be vulnerable to the boy because I would assume you would never put him in such jeopardy?" Riker shook his head and laughed bitterly. "He was right, as always. It almost worked. I didn't expect it. I thought he meant more to you than that."
"Wesley?" Crusher repeated hollowly. "You killed Wesley?"
"But in the final analysis, the attempt went down as you should have known it would. He made a mistake. He remembered enough of our fishing trips to Curtis Creek, of our whoring trips to Risa, to hesitate in that last instant."
"No," Beverly whispered. "It didn't happen that way."
"You've known me for years, Beverly. If I were so easily duped, would I have risen to the rank of first officer on the Empire's flagship? I'd be dead a hundred times over, the simpering victim of child assassins. Picard knew as much. He depended on it."
"Will. Listen to me--"
But Riker wasn't listening. He couldn't stop now. What had begun as taunting had transformed itself into an explanation. Things he'd wanted to--needed to--say to her for years came flooding out.
"He wanted nothing more than to clear a path to you, Beverly. Wes was a barrier in that campaign. He reminded you of Jack. He reminded Picard of Jack. And for that, he had to die. And if his death allied you against me in the process, so much the better."
"Dammit, Beverly," Riker hissed. "You let him do this to you. To us. We were friends once. Do you remember that at all?"
"I'm still your friend, Will Riker."
That managed to interrupt his tirade. He stared at her in absolute stun, the words already gestating in his mouth aborted like they had never been.
"Here," Crusher told him firmly, "in this world, we are friends."
She refused to be cowed by the rage that blossomed across his features at her claim. "Wesley isn't dead here," she pressed on. "He's alive. He's studying at Starfleet Academy, accepted at least in part because of your recommendation. You are his mentor here, Will. Not his murderer."
Riker grunted like he'd been hit. His eyes widened, and then narrowed.
"What possible reason could you have for telling such lies?" he whispered finally. "Surely you cannot believe I will ever play Picard's game? Surely you must know I would rather die."
"It isn't a game, Will. It's the truth. You have to believe me. I'm telling you the truth. Wes is alive."
"Prove your lies, Doctor," he snarled. "Bring your whelp to me."
Beverly blinked, stunned by the malicious vehemence in his tone and choice of words. "I can't...I mean, he's at the academy. He's not on board. He's studying at Starfleet--"
"How convenient for you." Riker closed his eyes and turned his face away.
"I can call him," Crusher suggested. "I'll send a priority one--"
"You must think me quite the fool," Riker murmured. "Even Barclay could have programmed the computer with a holographic interactive interface before LaForge secured approval to jettison him with the space refuse."
"I killed him, Beverly." Riker didn't open his eyes. He lay perfectly still on the biobed, looking for all the world as if he were asleep. "I did not let him lie on the deck and scream. I didn't allow him to be eaten alive by the disrupter. He was in terrible pain, but he didn't scream. He didn't beg. He held his agony well and prepared himself to die like the man he would never become. I used my phaser. He felt nothing at all."
"No," Riker interrupted harshly. "I don't care whether or not you believe me. I told you so you would know."
"Wesley is alive, Will."
"Play your games if you must," Riker returned wearily. "But remember in the darkness when Picard holds you, that it is he who killed your son."
"Wes is alive."
"It was he," Riker insisted. "Not I."
"It is mutiny," Worf stated darkly. We'll all die if Picard discovers our intent."
"A pillar of Klingon courage," Data mocked.
Worf turned dangerous eyes on the grinning android. "I do not fear death," he warned in a low growl. "But neither do I court it." His eyes flicked to Riker. "Not for the advancement of others."
"You think he is up to something." Data's grin stretched. "You think he has concocted this entire story to eliminate the captain." Data threw back his head and laughed.
A shiver spiked down Riker's back as the android rose and circled behind him. Two gold-toned hands descended on his shoulders and tightened painfully into the muscles there.
"Worf," Data called in a voice heavy with contempt. "Look at him. I could snap his neck like a twig." Metallic fingers tightened slightly with the cavalier threat. "Yet he allows me to touch him in this manner with hardly a thought to the consequences." Data moved on.
"You brought your guard," the android continued. He smiled at the two security-garbed Klingons who tensed visibly when his slow circle of the briefing room passed him too close to their master. "The counselor brought hers..." he waved at the two female Kaldins who flanked Troi, "...but he..." Data flicked his hand Riker's direction, "...left the boys at home."
"Where's your guard?" Riker asked quietly.
Data laughed again. It was a disconcerting habit the android had in this reality. It reminded Riker far too much of Lore.
"I do not need a guard, Commander," Data answered as he resumed his seat. Cold eyes turned back to Worf. "Surely even you can see this is not the Riker we know."
Worf swung his eyes from Data to Riker. He studied the first officer with dark intensity. "The Riker I know is a strategist," he said finally. "And even you..." Worf's gaze swung back to Data "...can cooperate when it suits you."
"This is not a trick, Worf," Troi spoke up from her and of the table.
Worf's laugh was a bark of derision. "Your word means less than the tin man's," he sneered.
Riker folded his hands together on the table and leaned into them. He waited until Worf turned back to him. "In my world," Riker said slowly, "You and I are friends."
"In mine as well," Worf growled.
"Have I ever lied to you?"
Worf's eyes narrowed. "You have." He glared at Riker for almost a minute in silence. "But not in recent years," he allowed grudgingly.
"If I were planning an assassination and I needed your help, could I trust you to help?"
"Then why a ruse? Why would I lie to you? Why would I make this up?"
Worf's eyes skated back and forth across Riker's expression, trying to decide. "I do not know," he answered after a gravid silence. "The reasons for your strategies often elude me."
"I need your help, Worf," Riker responded calmly. "To return to my own world."
Worf sighed and straightened slowly. "If you are deceiving me, I will kill you, Commander," he announced grimly.
Riker smiled and straightened as well. "I would expect you to, Worf," he responded.
The Klingon nodded briskly. He rose from his chair as did the others. "Then we understand each other."
"We always have." Riker extended his hand.
For a moment, Worf considered it. His eyes rose slowly to Riker's, and in their depths was a flicker of uncertainty. "Yes," he agreed finally, taking the hand outstretched in a Human gesture of friendship his commander had never before offered. "We always have."
"Who are you?" Riker demanded. "Another of Picard's assassins?" He glared at the ebony-skinned woman and waited for her response.
"Fascinating," Guinan responded. Her dark eyes flicked to Crusher. "And you say he claims to have killed Wesley?"
"Among other things," Crusher agreed.
Guinan studied Riker for almost ten minutes before speaking again. When she did speak, it was once again to Beverly Crusher: "Might I make a suggestion?"
Riker stumbled away from the Bajoran ensign, his face a mask of disbelief. He fell against the far wall of the conference room and stayed there. Of the four Starfleet officers, two security men and one bartender scattered about the room, only the latter seemed unaffected by the vehemence of the Riker's reaction.
Guinan smiled her enigmatic smile.
"Thank you, Ensign," Picard murmured. "That will be all." Ro Laren nodded brusquely and started for the door.
Riker lurched upright. "No..."
The Bajoran helmsman paused. She glanced back to Picard as Riker took a single step toward her. Picard gave his permission to remain with nothing more than a slight inclination of his head.
"Ro..." Riker whispered. "Laren."
Ro jolted beneath the familiarity of his voice on her given name. He said it as a Bajoran would have said it: with the accent placed well and the vowels twisted in a way that Humans invariably ignored. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion as she watched the first officer move closer.
His hand reached hesitantly into the emptiness between them. His fingers trembled as they brushed the slick black line of her hair.
"It's a trick." Riker's eyes swung to Picard, then Crusher, and finally Troi. The accusation in them was as much question as it was demand. "I watched her die."
"It isn't a trick, Will," Troi told him firmly.
For what seemed forever, he stared into the counselor's endless black eyes. "You killed her," he whispered finally.
Ro snorted. "May I return to my post, sir?" she asked Picard, the acid of disgust eating her tone.
Though he was close enough to touch her, Riker touched her only with his eyes. They studied her face, her eyes, the ceremonial earring that dangled from one ear. Finally, hesitantly, his fingers brushed her cheek. He reached back to run one thumb along the rim of her ear.
Ro flinched. Her eyes jumped to Picard.
"Return to your post, Ensign." Picard told her.
Riker grabbed one arm as she moved to obey. He dragged her closer when she would have pulled away. "Laren?" he murmured. His free hand spread over her face, fingers hooking into the line of her jaw as his thumb laid itself along the bridge of her nose to stroke at the gathering of flesh there that made her uniquely Bajoran.
Ro jolted. Her spine straightened. Liquid fire spawned by his practiced touch raced her veins. Not one Human in ten could release the Bajoran procreant hormone. Not one in a hundred. Her respiration accelerated. Her heartbeat fluttered. The skin of her neck and thighs flushed with sexual heat.
She jerked from his grip and stepped back. Knotting one hand to a fist, Ro swung it at the point of Riker's chin with everything she possessed.
Riker pulled just beyond the arc of the blow and caught her hand as it passed. His features split into a delighted grin. "Laren," he breathed. It was no longer a question. Lifting her wrist to his lips, he tasted the flesh webbed with a tiny filigree of pulsing, blue-green veins. Ro groaned. Her fingers stiffened to the extent of their range and then, slowly, curled inward like talons withering in the hot desert sun. "It is you," Riker murmured.
Ro twisted her wrist out of his grip. Her slender shoulder were trembling with rage; her eyes, murderous as they regarded him. "You have no right," she snarled.
Riker blinked. "No right?" he repeated. And then he noticed her collar. It had one command pip rather than three. He remembered Picard addressing her as ensign.
He started to reach for her again, but his hand stopped before it completed the motion. She was Ro Laren, but not the Ro Laren he knew. He could see that in her eyes. In the anger and the loathing and the suspicion that nested in their vibrant depths. She did not trust him. She did not even like him.
And his Ro Laren was dead.
Riker straightened slowly. "Ensign Ro." His voice cracked imperceivably. "Accept my...apologies." He stepped aside, granting her permission to leave. "You may return to your post."
Ro spun on her heel and stormed from the room.
For a long time, Riker stared after her. He watched the bulkhead that slipped into place after her departure as if it were a holodeck imaging chamber playing out a Jack London novel he had yet to see.
"She did not know me," he commented to no one in particular. When he turned, he went directly to a chair and sat.
"Do you believe us now?" Troi asked the silence finally.
Riker's eyes lifted slowly. "How can I not?" he answered quietly. "I held Ro's body in my arms. I felt her life drain through my fingers." His eyes drifted once again to the door out which Ro had departed. "And now she is alive." His gaze switched to Picard. "An ensign," he murmured. "In my world she was a commander. A fine..." his voice cracked again, "...second officer."
"Then you'll cooperate," Picard assumed.
Riker didn't answer. Instead, he turned his eyes to Crusher. He leaned into the table, staring hard at the doctor who sat across the table from him. "Beverly." His fingers grew white where they clasped one another. "Wesley is alive?"
Riker froze in his manipulations of cargo bay three's transporters internal mechanics. His hands fisted slowly as he straightened and turned to face her.
Beverly Crusher had a phaser. She was smiling, but from the color of her eyes, he knew the phaser was set on kill.
"Beverly," Riker allowed cautiously.
"I've been hearing the wildest tales. That you haven't been yourself lately. That you're planning a mutiny."
"Beverly, let me explain..."
"Oh I would like to hear that," Crusher agreed. She flicked the barrel of the phaser at the open panel on the transporter console. "Because--from here, at least--it looks like sabotage."
"It's not sabotage. I'm trying..." He winced, extrapolating how his explanation would sound to her and finding it ludicrous. Drawing a deep breath, he started over. "Something happened on the shuttle."
"It exploded," Crusher allowed calmly.
"More than that. Something about the outer mantle of San Chromius III's atmosphere ionized the transporter beam. There was a phase shift, a polarity fluctuation. It created some sort of breach in space. A brief overlap between two parallel universes. A bridge, or a corridor. When the transporter...."
"I'm not too late, am I?" a voice interrupted from the shadowed doorway of the bay. "The part about the good twin and the evil twin is my favorite part." Data stepped into the light, his golden eyes glittering.
"Lore," the android corrected. "But then you probably don't remember that, do you Commander?"
Riker tensed clear to his toes. "Remember what?" he asked carefully. His eyes split their time between the doctor and her phaser and the approaching android, starting to see a connection he didn't want to see.
"Why the Noonian Soong incident, of course. I mean, you couldn't very well have two of us around, now could you? It would have been so confusing. Lore held up his left hand. "Data... Lore..." He held up his right. "Lore...Data." He shrugged and dropped both hands. "We all look alike, we androids. It was only logical that you make a choice." The android grinned. "Poor Data."
"You're saying...I killed Data?"
Lore looked shocked. "Heaven's no, Commander. I'm saying my Riker killed Data. Or actually, had him dismantled, if you want to be specific." He shrugged and waved a hand dismissively in the air. "It's all the same to us androids. Packed in pieces like a trombone no one wants to play any more. Poor, poor brother." Lore shook his head in mock woe.
"You're lying," Riker snapped.
Lore laughed in delight. "You prove my point. If I were Data, would I lie?" He stopped his approach at Beverly Crusher's side. "If it makes you feel any better," he offered conciliatorily, "it was a difficult decision, even for my Riker."
"Beverly..." Riker took a step toward the doctor, but she motioned him off with the phaser.
"Don't appeal to me, Will. It isn't worth your effort."
"You don't understand," he tried again.
"Oh, she understands perfectly," Lore corrected. "I was very complete in my explanation."
"I know you think I killed Wesley."
"She doesn't think you killed Wesley at all," Lore corrected again. "She thinks my Riker killed Wesley."
"Data--" Crusher started.
"We call me Data to avoid confusion," Lore interrupted.
"--explained it all very well. I realize that you and the Riker I know are two separate individuals."
"Then why, Beverly?" He tried to find an answer in her eyes.
"Because I need you to get to him," Crusher reasoned calmly. "And I've waited a very long time to get to him."
"Hell hath no fury," Lore quipped.
Riker ignored the implication. "Wes and I are friends in my world," he insisted. The slightest reaction flickered in her expression. "You and I are friends."
"How touching," Lore sneered.
"I'm sorry, Will." Though she sounded anything but sincere, her eyes were another matter. Cold and brutal and not at all the Beverly Crusher he knew, there was something in them none-the-less. Something that brightened with pain at the mention of her son.
"No!" Crusher snapped. "You are her friend. You are her son's friend. My son is dead." Her spine straightened in defiance. "And I have no friends."
"It must mean something to you," Riker argued desperately.
"Yes, Will. It does. It means that through you, I can get to him. It means after all these years, I'll have my revenge."
Riker shuddered. Whatever he thought he saw, it was gone. He realized suddenly that the cold in Beverly Crusher's eyes was genuine. He realized he couldn't reach her.
"If it means anything to you, however," she continued. "I want to thank you for this opportunity. It might have been years before fate or circumstance laid Riker vulnerable to retaliation. By playing the fool, you have handed him to me on a silver platter."
"In my world, it isn't being a fool to trust your friends."
Crusher smiled. "We aren't in your world, Commander," she reminded him. "And in my world, it is only a fool who trusts his friends. And a greater fool who can't even tell who they are."
"Go ahead then," he whispered. "Get it over with."
"Don't be ridiculous, Commander," Lore admonished. "The plan is for thirteen hundred hours, sixteen minutes, and forty three seconds. That was the moment we calculated the barrier between our two worlds would be thinnest."
"What does it matter?" Riker snapped bitterly.
"It matters a great deal," Lore responded. "I'm sure my dear brother--or perhaps I should say yourLore's dear brother--will have calculated the exchange to the exact moment as ourselves. If we kill you prematurely, he might not be able to send our Riker back to us. While that eventuality would be most satisfactory to me--" Lore placed an arm around Crusher's shoulders, "--my partner prefers to reek vengeance à personne rather than by proxy." He smiled warmly. "And one must always keep one's partners happy, wouldn't you agree?"
"I do not wish to return," Riker announced firmly. He leaned into the ready room table, his hands placing themselves flat to the polished wood. "And it would be a breach of the Prime Directive for you to force me to do so."
Picard didn't move a muscle. He stared at the younger who stared back with equal intensity. For some time, neither of them spoke.
"I've read your rules, Picard," Riker said finally. "They define me as a sentient life form with the inalienable right to autonomy. I am not of your Earth, not of your Federation, and not of your Starfleet. I do not fall under your jurisdiction, and you cannot force me to embrace your ideology or adhere to your precepts of right and wrong."
Picard considered the argument. He leaned back in his chair and considered the bearded commander whose stark countenance still bore testament to the grueling ordeal of his past few days.
"The Non-Interference Directive addresses itself to the repression of alien cultures," Picard responded finally. "I cannot consider it applicable in this instance."
Riker's eyes glittered. He straightened slowly, one corner of his mouth curling into a victorious smile. "I agree," he allowed. "Requesting permission to return to duty, sir."
Picard blinked. "Return to duty?" he echoed after another interminable pause.
"As first officer of the USS Enterprise."
"You are not--"
"Aren't I?" Riker interrupted sharply. "Perhaps you should consult with Doctor Crusher, sir. Retinal scans, DNA testing, fingerprints ... they all prove that I am who I claim to be: Commander William T. Riker, first officer of the USS Enterprise."
Picard's eyes narrowed. His hands folded together, fingers lacing themselves into a posture of contemplation. He leaned into his desk and watched the younger man silently for almost a minute.
"We both know who you are, Commander," he said finally. "And where you belong."
"I belong here," Riker countered.
Picard shook his head. "You must return to your own universe," he stated unequivocally. "I must have my first officer returned to me."
"I am your first officer," Riker argued. "I am William T. Riker, first officer of the Enterprise. As much as he was, so am I."
"No. You are not." Picard stood. "You are nothing that I recognize. You are nothing that he was." He brushed past the stunned commander and crossed his ready room to stand before the aquarium predominating one corner. Ignoring the man behind him, Picard watched the majestic lionfish floating in it's isolated world of calm. He tried to emulate the detached assurance, but failed.
Riker straightened and squared his shoulders. "I can be," he countered quietly. "If you let me."
Riker covered the ground between them in three strides. The security flanking the ready room door stiffened, but Picard waved them off.
"Picard..." Riker's eyes were intent. He glared at the profile that refused to face him. "This world..." He swept the room with one arm. "You cannot imagine. Wesley is alive. Ro never..." His voice broke. He leaned closer. "Don't you see? You are my friend here. Beverly is my friend. I can't give that up. I'll do whatever has to be done, be whatever he was to you."
"You can never be what William Riker is," Picard countered. His gaze never left the graceful ballet of fins and water. His eyes were focused but unseeing.
"Let me try."
"You have already failed."
"Failed?" Riker countered bitterly. "In what way have I failed, Picard?"
"In every way, Commander. You have none of Will Riker's moral fiber. You have none of his integrity, none of his sense of honor. I would not trust you at my side, and I would most certainly never trust you at my back."
"You know nothing of me."
"I know you would usurp another man's life. I know you would assume his rank and his posting without thought to the consequences. I know that you would cower like a craven thief in the corners of your stolen existence while Will Riker struggles in vain to escape a reality not of his making. The mere fact that you could envision it at all, that you would devise justifications for your crime and then approach me as an accomplice to your vile intentions is more than I need to know of you."
"I've stolen nothing," Riker countered. "It was an accident, Picard. An accident of fate. Fate placed us in our respective roles, and sweet fate reversed those roles. It is my right, as much as it was his, to exist here. I'm not asking for anything that isn't rightfully mine."
"Rightfully yours?" Picard repeated incredulously. His stance stiffened, but still he didn't turn from the aquarium. "How can you believe that any portion of Will Riker's life is rightfully yours?"
"Because I, too, am Will Riker."
"No," Picard told the lionfish. "You are not."
"Damn you, Picard," Riker fumed. "Why should this be his life and not mine?"
Picard turned. Righteous fury burned in his eyes. "Because it is," he answered, enunciating each word as an individual entity.
Riker met the captain's fury and raised. "Not any more," he snarled. "Now it is mine." He lifted his chin in defiance. "And I intend to keep it."
"I will not allow it," Picard informed him coldly.
"You have no choice," Riker retorted.
"Expecting someone?" Lore asked with a grin.
Riker flinched. He glanced at the grinning android and tried to pretend he hadn't been monitoring the cargo bay door. The attempt was a miserable failure.
"I'm afraid Counselor Troi won't be joining us," Lore offered. "She's...tied up, for the time being."
Riker rose off the barrel against which he'd been leaning. "If you hurt her..." he started grimly.
"You'll what?" Lore mocked. "Punch me in the nose? Kick me in the shins? Tear my head off and perform Human bodily functions down my neck, perhaps?"
Riker eased back to his perch. His hands fisted with the urge to take Lore up on at least one of the three options, but he'd seen Data manifest his extraordinary strength enough times to recognize a kamazaii when he saw one.
"Your contractions are showing again, Lore," he grumbled instead.
"What're a few contractions among friends?" Lore quipped.
Riker glanced at the door. "They'll trip you up some day."
"Trip. Ah yes: to stumble, to fall, to tangle one's own feet in one another." Lore cocked his head to one side and mimicked the slightly befuddled look Data so often wore with disconcerting accuracy. "I would question the likelihood of such an occurrence, sir, as they have yet to 'trip me up' and it has been more than four years." The Data facade dropped and Lore's grin once again contaminated the android's golden features. "Thanks for worrying though, Riker. It's good to know you care."
"How much longer?" Crusher snapped.
"Thirteen minutes and forty six seconds," Lore answered immediately. Then, leaning closer to Riker, he confided to the first officer in a stage-whisper aside: "Women. They're so impatient."
"He sent you to change my mind," Riker surmised. He grinned wickedly at Troi and then turned to cross his quarters and flop noisily on the unmade bed. "You're welcome to try."
Troi stepped from the corridor into his quarters. The door hissed shut behind her. "Picard didn't send me," she told him gently, watching the calm assurance of his manner and wondering how he could appear so confident on the outside when such chaos roiled within him. "I came on my own. "
"But you did come with the intent to change my mind." He glanced casually at the chronometer by his bed. "You should have come earlier, Imzadi. I don't think even you can be convincing in less than ten minutes."
Troi crossed the room slowly. She settled to the edge of his bed, careful that no part of her body brushed against his. "You know you will never fit in here," she said quietly.
Riker placed a hand on her upper thigh. He stroked her through the silken material of an off-duty jumpsuit, watching first his hand, and then her eyes.
His hand slid deliberately between her legs. She didn't protest, but neither did she respond. Instead, she stared into his eyes, trying to reach that part of him that was hiding behind the desperately cavalier facade.
"You cannot be what he is."
"I do a fine imitation."
She reached out to place a delicate hand on his chest. The fingers rested there like raindrops, so light they didn't even press his uniform to the skin. "You know it," she whispered. "You feel it. Here."
An explosion of anger flared in Riker. He grabbed her wrist and yanked, overbalancing her, dragging her on top of him. "Let me show you who I am," he sneered, rolling so that his superior weight trapped her in his bed. "Let me show you how much we are alike."
He kissed her the way he had always kissed her, but her lips lay unresponsive beneath the demand of his attentions. Though she allowed him to intrude into her mouth, there was no motion there to greet him.
"Are we so different, Imzadi," he whispered. "He and I?" His hands roved her sides, caressed her belly, her breasts. He kissed her throat, followed the line of it with his tongue.
But still, she didn't respond. She lay lax under him, motionless beneath his weight. Though she let his hands do as they pleased, no fire lit itself in their wake: No arch of her back, no subtle stretch of her neck, no cat-like flex of graceful legs that betrayed her appreciation even when she did not wish him to see it.
"You could never be happy here," she told him with frustrating calm. "You would always be wrong. Always too brutal, too direct."
He forced her legs apart, slid between them. "I could learn."
"You could not learn. You could never learn."
The cool indifference of her flesh was more than he could stand. It repelled him like a deflector shield. Riker rolled off of her and to his feet. He stood, facing a corner.
"You could teach me," he whispered.
Troi gathered herself and rose. She remained silent as she adjusted her jumpsuit, smoothing it back in place.
"I need him back," she said finally.
"And what of my needs?" Riker countered. His voice was taunt with rage and something much more. "Do they matter to you at all?"
Troi moved up behind him. She encircled his waist with her arms. "They matter to me," she whispered into his back.
"Then how can you tell me to leave?"
Her arms tightened. "You need your own world."
"My world is here. Here, where Wesley never died. Here, where I never shattered the bond of your faith; where Laren didn't pay for my indiscretion with her life. Here, where I am the captain's friend, rather than his enemy. Here, where I can trust you."
Troi's hands flattened on his stomach. "You trusted me before you knew," she reminded him gently.
"Here, where I can afford to trust you," he revised.
"Will." She turned him in her arms until they faced each other. "Imzadi." There were tears in her eyes. "It is true that in this world, you could always trust me." She rose to her toes and brushed his lips with hers. "But could you ever love me? Could you love me the way that you love her?"
"Imzadi," he whispered. His blue eyes closed over the bittersweet knife of memory.
"Time, Commander." Lore stood.
And immediately fell. The brilliant spear of phaser fire faded only long enough to lance out again from the darkened corner and tag Crusher as it had tagged the android. The CMO crumpled without a sound.
Worf emerged slowly from the geometric pyramid of storage barrels. He holstered his phaser as he moved to Riker's side.
"How did you know?" Riker demanded.
"I understand Lore as well," the security chief answered simply.
Riker laughed. Clapping the Klingon heartily on the back, he laughed the boisterous, relieved laugh of the pardoned doomed.
"Thank God for Klingon guile," he stated fervently.
Worf glanced at him out of the corner of his eye with a look that was half surprise and half disbelief.
"It has been to our advantage on occasion," he allowed cautiously.
"That, my friend, is an understatement even for you." He grinned and strode to the transporter console, checking the chronometer and nodding his satisfaction. "Two minutes and counting," he announced. "You'd better get back to the bridge, or we're going to have some hard explaining to do when the tactical console registers the power drain and goes off like a fire alarm."
"I already taken that into consideration, sir." Worf assured the first officer. "My second-in-command is...dependable."
Riker couldn't help but glance at Lore's sprawled body. "You sure?"
"If I were not sure, he would not be my second-in-command."
Riker nodded. "I guess I have to trust your judgment on that one. You seem to be much better at reading subterfuge than I am."
"I am more familiar with the players," Worf allowed. He crossed to Riker's side and took up a position behind the transporter console. "Commander Riker would never have given Lore the means to betray him. Androids are notoriously untrustworthy."
Riker laughed. "I'll tell Data you said so."
"It is time." Worf gestured to the transporter pad.
Riker hesitated. His eyes flickered once more to the cargo bay door. "Troi?"
"The counselor will not be joining us. She was...tied up, when I left her."
Riker stiffened. His expression darkened. "Did Lore hurt her?"
"As she presents no barrier to his direct line of advancement, it would have served no purpose for Lore to injure the counselor," Worf reasoned. "She did, however, appear most uncomfortable."
Riker breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He climbed onto the transporter pad and watched Worf set the console to the coordinates they'd calculated. "Why didn't you let her loose?"
"It was logical to assume that she would have insisted upon accompanying me to your rescue," Worf answered without looking up from his task. "And I did not wish to take the risk that Lore would smell her."
"The perfume you purchased on Risa is, very...odorous."
Riker laughed. "Are you telling me that you think Counselor Troi stinks?"
Worf met the commander's eyes. His upper lip twitched just slightly. "From a Klingon point of view," he agreed. "It is nearly time, sir. I wish you luck on your journey."
"Thank you, Worf." Riker placed a hand on his chest and thrust it sharply forward and up in a Klingon salute of respect.
The last thing that registered in Will Riker's brain as the familiar haze of transport latched into his molecular pattern and began to scramble it was the slight smile on Worf's lips as the security chief responded in kind. The Klingon's gravely voice went with him through the jagged corridor in time and space: "You are welcome, sir."
He was there, then he wasn't, then he was again. Riker staggered slightly and regained his balance. He straightened slowly. His gaze swept the holding bay around him.
"Welcome aboard, sir," Worf greeted.
"Worf." Riker acknowledged the Klingon with a brisk nod. "Where's Troi?"
"She was tied up."
"And my personal guard?"
"They proved extraneous."
Riker descended from the transporter pad, glancing at first Lore and then Crusher. One corner of his mouth crooked into a grin. "Have a party without me, Mister Worf?" he queried.
"I believe the party was Commander Lore's. A surprise party, in your honor."
Riker's expression darkened. He prodded Beverly Crusher with the toe of one boot. "Judging from the guest list, it is not a party I would have enjoyed." He swung his gaze to the Klingon. "I see you've learned some things while I was away."
"Lore, Data. Data, Lore?"
"I have suspected for some time."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I did not feel it wise to accuse a superior officer of treason."
Riker laughed. "I've always liked that about you, Worf. So now that it's out in the open, what do you think? Did I disassemble the wrong one?"
"I do not believe Commander Data would have conspired against you," Worf observed diplomatically.
"You have a point, Mr. Worf. There are distinct advantages to a second officer with no ambitions of command. I think I'll see what I can do about revisiting that neck of the woods where Pinocchio lies waiting. But right now, I have other matters more pressing. Think you can take care of this mess for me?"
"Permanently?" Worf asked.
Riker glanced to the Klingon, and then down at the unconscious CMO. Her red hair lay fanned in a holo about her. Several strands had fallen across her face. They looked like lines of blood against her porcelain-pale skin. Slowly, Riker knelt at her side. With one finger, he brushed the hair from her face.
"No, Worf," he decided quietly. "Just take her to her quarters."
Worf grunted in surprise, and Riker stiffened. "You disagree?" he demanded tersely.
"It is not my place to disagree," Worf responded. "It is not me whom she attempted to assassinate."
Riker straightened slowly. "Perhaps she had reason," he murmured. "Perhaps she had good reason." He turned and strode for the door.
Riker hesitated. He turned to meet the Klingon's curious gaze.
"The other world. It was interesting?"
Riker's eyes fell again to Crusher. "We were friends there, she and I."
Worf glanced to the unconscious woman as well. "You will miss that?"
Riker's expression tightened. Then, slowly, it faded to nothing. When he once again met the security chief's penetrating gaze, it was properly composed to the ice wall befitting the first officer of the Empire's flagship.
"I will miss it," he agreed.
"You would have liked to stay." It was an observation. As such, it required no response.
Riker stared at the Klingon for a very long time before he chose to refute it. "No, Worf." he said finally. "I know where I belong, and I belong here."
"I am glad, sir."
A knowing grin flicked into Riker's features. "Get on your nerves, did he, my doppelganger?"
Worf grunted. "He was very trusting. It would have been too much work to keep him alive."
"Well I'll try to make it easy on you," Riker agreed.
"You always have, sir," Worf allowed. "You always have."
He was there, then he wasn't, then he was again. Riker staggered slightly and regained his balance. He straightened slowly, scanning the transporter room around him with anxious eyes.
Riker released the breath he wasn't aware he was holding. "Thank God," he murmured.
Picard's face broke into a grin. "I could say the same. Welcome back, Number One."
"Good to be back, Captain. It's been a long couple of days." Riker descended the platform stiffly. "Chief." He nodded to O'Brien, acknowledging the wide grin on the transporter chief's face with a quick flicker of gratitude that skated the line of his expression.
Crusher was in his path almost immediately. She ran the small tricorder cradled in her palm over him in deft strokes and nodded her approval.
"No trace of jellinium," she announced as she stepped back. "How do you feel?"
"Dizzy. Tired. Grateful." He studied the way she wouldn't meet his gaze. It was in her eyes that she knew what he'd hoped she wouldn't know. "Beverly..."
She rendered the need for him to decide what he was going to say after that moot by stepping forward and wrapping her arms around his neck. "Welcome home, Will, " she whispered against his ear, and then she pulled away.
Riker drew a deep breath and released it. A grin of relief settled into his features. His eyes found their way finally to Troi because she was the one he needed most to see but least to speak to. Her presence was already in his mind. It had been since the moment he materialized, welcoming him back with warmth and a sense of well-being that assured him this time, he was on the right ship.
Troi arched an eyebrow his direction. "Were you gone?" she countered sweetly.
Riker laughed. "I need a drink," he announced. "Anyone up for a round in Ten Forward?"
Picard shook his head. "I'm due back on the bridge."
"And I've got work in Sickbay," Crusher added.
A marginally uncomfortable tension settled into the silence. "I'm free," Troi offered gently.
"We'll accompany you to the lift." Picard decided.
As the four officers left the transporter room and walked the corridors of the Enterprise, they found themselves pressed to hold silence at bay. The natural camaraderie between them was somehow bruised. Damaged. They reached the lift without speaking.
"Number One." Picard stuck out his hand. Riker took it and was surprised by the vehemence of the older man's grip. "It's good to have you back, Will."
"Thank you, sir."
The captain took the first car to the bridge. The rest of them stepped into the car that followed. "Sickbay," Riker demanded. They began to move.
"Hope my friend didn't do anything I'll be ashamed of," he commented to the strained silence.
"You might want to apologize to Ro," Troi suggested.
"And Worf." Crusher added.
"Great." Riker glanced at Crusher from the corner of his eye. "What about you, Beverly?"
The lift door hissed open. Crusher stopped into the corridor before she turned to address the quiet inquiry. "You know," she favored Riker with a wan smile. "He didn't even really look that much like you."
The door closed between them.
Riker didn't speak until they were out of the lift and nearly to Ten Forward. "She knows, doesn't she?" he asked quietly.
"Damn." Riker shook his head. "There were so many things there, Deanna," he told her as they walked. "So many ugly things. But of all of them, that was the worst: the thought that I could have killed Wesley..."
"You didn't," Troi corrected, a crack of reprimand to her tone.
Troi reached out a hand and pulled him to a halt just outside the swinging doors to Ten Forward. "He was not you, Will. And you are not him."
"Do you think Beverly understands that?"
"She understands," Troi answered surely. "Their world is not ours. It's a reflection...a reflection in black water. What happened there happened some other place...somewhere...some other time."
"Both sides of a mirror," Riker muttered. There was pain in his eyes. "We were enemies there. Beverly, Jean-Luc, Data...only Worf seemed the same. Or at least, similar."
"And me?" Troi asked.
Riker flashed her a guarded smile. "You were...interesting," he allowed.
"As were you," Troi responded.
Riker frowned. He suddenly remembered more than Troi's reaction to him: he remembered her expectations of him. His eyes narrowed. "Anything I should know about?"
"Tell me about me," she countered.
"Not much to tell..." Riker hedged. A spark lit his expression. "Great dress. Cut down to here," he pointed to his belly button, "and up to about here." He indicated the same spot.
"Must have been distracting."
Riker grinned. "I didn't notice."
"I'll just bet you didn't."
"Well," Riker allowed. "Maybe a little."
Troi hooked her arm in his. "You can tell me about it over drinks."
"Dinner," Riker countered.
Troi smiled. "Deal."