by Carol Sandford
"I've requested that a brilliant young geo-physicist join us on this expedition. Starfleet is fortunate to have her, as she grew up on a planet whose weather and atmospheric conditions are very similar to the planet we have been sent to survey.• Picard's eyes flitted around to each member of his senior crew as they took in the details of the upcoming mission.
Commander William Riker, First Officer, grimaced as he spoke. "Captain, how could anyone survive on a planet as brutal as this one appears to be. It's 90% snow , 10 % ice, and it‘s as cold as a witchesŒ.•
”Yes, Number One, it is cold.• Picard sat forward, resting his clasped hands on the table beneath him. He smiled at Will Riker as he spoke. "Actually Commander, you spent about a month in a similar place some eight years ago.•
Riker stared at him then, his blue eyes clouded over as he thought about where he was eight years ago, and then it hit him. "Paradise!, you‘re talking about Paradise?" Will's voice boomed throughout the room. His fellow comrades turned curiously to him.
Beverly Crusher was the first to speak, "Oh I remember, isn't that where you had to fend off those mutant animals, oh, what were they called?..."
Will's handsome features contorted, "Wild Things, Beverly. They were called Wild Things, and believe me, you‘d never want to come face to face with one. I don‘t, not ever again."
Crusher smiled sympathetically and turned her attention back to the captain. Will let his attention drift, thinking back to his last encounter with the mutant monsters that had claimed his very good friend Jackson and maimed Ellie, his wife. He‘d been lucky, damned lucky.
The Wild Things had almost killed him and his young charge, Jackson‘s daughter, Stephy. Stephy Carter. Will smiled faintly as he recalled the vibrant young girl she‘d been back then. Just fifteen years old, Stephy possessed a serious maturity that made it easy to forget her youth. Jet black hair that constantly hung over her eyes, a figure that most women would kill for. And nerve, Lord, did that girl have guts.
Picard‘s voice brought Will back to the conversation at hand. He sat only half listening to the rhythmic rise and fall of voices which changed intermittently each time someone asked a question. ”The planet has a mean temperature ofŒ•
Without warning Will sat forward in his chair, and cut Data off in mid-sentence. "Captain if I may, who 'is' this geophysicist? I don't recall any female members of the team specializing in that particular field. I thought they were all genetic scientists."
Picard glanced at Data who sat close-mouthed with his eyebrows almost hidden in his hair. He had all that he could do not to laugh aloud at the surprised expression. Instead he turned towards his exec and nodded his agreement, "That is correct, Commander. However, when the last of the mutants were exterminated, this particular geophysicist left Paradise and joined Star Fleet Academy. She graduated at the top of her class in her chosen field. Her reputation is impeccable; she has predicted three major potential planetary catastrophes, which saved many thousands of lives, for which she has received several commendations. Perhaps you know her, Will? Her name is Dr. Stephanie Carter.•
”Stephy Carter? Are you serious? That‘s incredible sir.• Grinning widely, Will was overjoyed, and proud of his precious Stephy. He couldn‘t wait to see her again. How old was she now? Whatever, Stephy was a fully grown adult now and not an impressionable kid. He hoped that Stephy would be as happy to see him as he was at the thought of seeing her again.
"Energize Chief O‘Brien"
Will, Picard, Deanna and Beverly turned towards the transporter pad as their guest materialized before them. Stephanie Carter stepped down from the pad almost before the transporter effect was fully dissipated. She smiled in response the four officers waiting to greet her.
He was there! Will was there to meet her! Stephanie's heart pounded wildly as her eyes focused on Will. She had waited for what seemed like forever for this moment. Her stomach jumped into her throat that he was about to take her into his arms. Good breeding and decorum forced her to take her eyes away from him and greet the other officers and the Captain.
Stephy barely registered their names and faces. She couldn‘t focus on anything except him. Will Riker was the man who filled her dreams and desires for the last eight years ever since he had saved her life back on Paradise. In the years that followed, loneliness and an isolated existence had solidified a young girl‘s fantasies and Will Riker had become her life. Would he see her as an adult?
Will‘s jaw dropped as the stunning young woman descended from the platform. That couldn‘t be little Stephy Carter? Not this elegant and sophisticated young woman who was greeting the captain and the others like a seasoned diplomat. He flashed his trademark grin and stepped up to greet her.
Stephanie stepped smoothly aside and extended her hand to the captain as she came to a stop before the group. ”Captain Picard, it‘s such an honor to meet you in person. Even we ice nomads out on Paradise have heard of your triumphs. I‘m thrilled to be aboard your vessel.•
Captain Picard smiled warmly at her greeting, and accepted her hand. Stephy darted a glance at Will who stood at Picard‘s elbow, smiling his special smile. Picard‘s greeting barely registered as the close proximity of Will‘s body sent her mind off on a tangent of its own. She caught herself as Picard finished speaking.
”Thank you Captain. I assure you that I will do my best, and that I am well qualified for this assignment.•
Picard, nodded, ”Dr. Carter, your reputation is well documented and has preceded you. Now, may I introduce Dr. Beverly Crusher. It was she who saved your mother."
A genuine smile of warmth erupted across the delicate face as she shook Beverly‘s hand vigorously. "I‘ve waited so long to meet you Dr. Crusher and to thank you. My mother sang your praises for a long, long time. Without you, she would have surely died."
Beverly flushed slightly, "Thank you Stephanie, but I didn‘t work alone. No, actually it was our Counselor that really saved your mother. Meet Ship‘s Counselor Deanna Troi. Deanna‘s empathic sense alerted her that your mother was still alive. Everyone else thought she was dead, including me when I first saw her."
Stephy came face to face with the pretty dark haired woman that stood beside Will. The smile she tendered to the black eyed woman did not quite reach her eyes. Stephy felt the first stirrings of envy at the comfortable way that the counselor stood close to Will. She quickly squelched the emotion and extended her hand.
"Then I owe you my lifelong gratitude Counselor. The loss of my father was an experience that I will never forget. Having my mother alive, thanks to you, lessened the pain a little."
Deanna grasped Stephy‘s hand and shook it firmly. She allowed her senses to probe lightly and clearly felt the young woman‘s turmoil as she relayed her gratitude. Deanna knew that Stephy‘s thanks were genuine, but underneath, the empath felt the underlying current of something more. "I‘m very glad my abilities helped to save a life. I only wish we‘d made it in time to save your father. I understand he was a very good friend of Commander Riker‘s."
Both women turned to face him as Will and he took his long awaited turn to greet the visitor. His eyes sparkled with obvious pleasure to be renewing a connection that had been born out of a desperate fight for survival. He tugged Stephy into a bear hug and embraced her warmly.
Deanna didn‘t miss Stephanie‘s closed eyes and secret smile. She had the answer to the her earlier unease. Stephanie was jealous of her, and as they embraced, Deanna realized that the young Terran was in love with him.
When Stephanie stepped into Will‘s arms she felt as though she had come home. She‘d dreamed of this moment for what seemed to be a lifetime, and found the reality worth every painful second. Will was in her arms at last, and she was in seventh heaven.
"Oh Will... God, it is so good to see you! Do you have any idea much I‘ve missed you? How are you?•
Will grasped Stephy‘s shoulders as he stepped back to get a good look at her. Her hair was short now, so short it almost looked boyish; it suited her to perfection. He took in the sparkle in her green eyes, and pulled her back into his arms for another brief hug, his voice turned husky as he spoke, "It‘s good to see you too kiddo, you look wonderful, I can‘t believe how much you‘ve grown!"
Will was startled when she pulled out of his embrace and punched him smartly on the arm, but her outburst made him grin. "DON‘T call me kiddo Will Riker! I am twenty three years old and I swear, if you dare call me anything but my given name, this entire ship will know the meaning of your well deserved nicknameŒThŒ•
Before she could utter the one fateful word that Will had hoped she would have long forgotten, he butted in, holding his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay!...I promise. Just...please...don‘t say it...Please!"
Stephanie grinned at him before turning away to speak to the captain, leaving Will to back out of the transporter room followed by two very curious, interrogating women. Stephy and Picard stood laughing at Will‘s horrified face.
"Welcome aboard the Enterprise, Stephanie. I have the feeling that it‘s going to be interesting having you among us for a short while"
"What do we know about this planet, Mr. Data?"
"Captain, at present, current information indicates that that the planet is comprised entirely of volatile tectonic plates. This structure is similar to many M-Class planets, differing only in the frequency at which the plates become active. Most planets which are constructed similarly emit heated gasses and lava floes."
"However, in this instance, the entire planet is enveloped in snow and ice. The planet has unusual geothermal properties sir. By which the core is significantly lower in temperature than would be considered normal. It is this factor that has enabled the surface to remain covered by snow and ice for millennia regardless of the proximity of a yellow dwarf star. It is conceivable that this planet is capable of sustaining life, however the Thorians will require considerable assistance from the federation in constructing shelters and learning the technology necessary for the colonists to grow food."
Picard thanked Data for his information and turned to the young Geo-physicist. "The Enterprise has been assigned to collect and analyze data on this planet to determine whether or not it can indeed sustain life. As Data mentioned briefly, a race of people known as the Thorians are in need of a new home planet, as their own world has become almost uninhabitable due to near constant geophysical and geothermal activity. They do however, wish to stay in this particular sector."
"Since this planet is the only one that can be classed as habitable, the Thorians are willing to begin training for survival in such conditions and will accept relocation to this planet despite its hostile weather. Most importantly, whether or not the Thorians are willing, Starfleet wished us to make certain that the planet‘s geophysical status is stable before they will allow them to be relocated.•
He turned to look at Stephanie Carter, ”That‘s where you‘re expertise will be invaluable Ms. Carter. What we need is your professional knowledge and honest opinion as to whether the Thorians could indeed have any sort of future there"
Stephanie nodded, "Understood Captain. I have already begun my analysis based on the information that Star Fleet relayed to me on Earth. According to present scans, there are no life forms at all on this planet, and virtually no indigenous vegetation. However, I understand that the Thorians will get some help from the Federation, if they decide to settle on the planet. I brought along several probes designed to go into the crust to test just how volatile the plates are. We should have adequate results within 10 days."
At this point Will leaned forward and caught Stephanie‘s attention. "Are you certain that ten days is enough time Stephanie?
Stephy managed to keep her smile neutral even as her stomach flipped. Will‘s deep, resonant voice surrounded her. "Nothing‘s 100% certain Commander, but the probes are designed to relay data that clearly define us what has been happening underground within the last million years, and what happens underground is the same as what happens on the surface. Everything is molded from what pours from the soul, its what makes and shapes."
Deanna watched and listened as Stephanie spoke, noting the way her eyes never left Will's. That last statement was born from her own feelings for Will, rather than a professional explanation.
Deanna cleared her throat quietly and ended the awkwardness of the moment. "How will they feed themselves? They‘ll be unable to grow crops, or breed livestock on land that is covered by snow all year round."
Picard provided the answer to her question, not Stephanie as she‘d hoped. "Good question Counselor. Starfleet will send teams of terraforming engineers to clear the land and vast solar paneled buildings will be erected. Everything, including plants and animals will be cultivated or bred within these structures. It will be very much like living in a greenhouse. Although it is a mammoth undertaking, it will be well worth the effort. All of this is, of course, providing the planet‘s core is stable. That, ladies and gentlemen is what we are here to determine." He got to his feetŒ
”Any further questions?• When no one responded, Picard rubbed his hands together.• Very well. We will reach orbit tomorrow morning, so until then, I suggest you all get some rest. The away team will meet in transporter room three at 0900 hours. Dismissed"
As the group stepped from the observation lounge, Will felt a hand slip under his arm, even without looking, he knew it was Stephy. "Commander, can we meet for dinner, catch up on old times?"
Will caught Deanna's laughing eyes, and frowned slightly. **What was that all about?** he wondered.
Stephy tugged on his arm againŒ ”Well? Do we have a date?•
Will patted her hand, and smiled down at her. He missed the subtle intake of breath, Deanna didn‘t. ”Of course. Tell you what, I'm going to change into civvies, and I'll pick you up in say, an hour?"
Stephy grinned and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Great!, I look forward to it. See you then."
Will watched her walk from him and the grin fell away as another deep seated emotion came to the surface. Concern, that Stephanie‘s attentions were something more than just the pleasure of reuniting with an old friend. He smiled and waved when she turned and looked back over her shoulder. Then he turned to Deanna.
From the doorway, Stephanie‘s breath shuddered as the warmth of that smile spread through her. He wanted to have dinner alone with her. It was too perfect, and had been so easy. She walked across the Bridge on a cloud of sensation. How would she get through the next hour?
Stephanie was ready and waiting half an hour before Will was scheduled to collect her. Half the contents of her wardrobe lay across the surface of her bed, the result of a mad rush to choose the right outfit. In the end she decided on a simple but stunning, dress.
Long, slender and strapless, it was a figure-hugging creation, split to mid thigh and designed for impact. The rich, burnt orange color shimmered between dark brown and fiery orange with every tiny movement, and suited her to perfection. A delicate make-up and amber drop earrings that just brushed her shoulders, finished it off. **This should knock his socks off!** Stephanie told herself while she looked in the mirror, brushing nonexistent wrinkles from her torso.
Ten minutes later, she wasn‘t disappointed when the doors parted to admit Will. "Wow!, You look spectacular Stephy. But you might feel uncomfortable in Ten Forward."
Stephanie‘s smile brightened and her eyes glittered. ”Well then I guess we‘ll just have to go to a fancy restaurant. I know that the holodecks here on the Enterprise could conjure up a girl‘s fantasy. This is a special reunion after all. It‘s been years, so we should make it special.•
Will looked closely at her, and found her expression sweet and guileless. What harm could it do? One dinner on the holodeck couldn‘t possibly cause problems. He‘d have dinner with Stephy and then a nightcap with Deanna. Maybe she‘s be able to sort out the confusing signals he‘d been getting from Stephy. **She‘ll probably laugh at me.**
”Alright StephyŒhow about Dominic‘s?•
”Really? You can do that?• She nearly squealed with happiness. This is what she hoped for, and as her eyes swept over Will she was glad she had made the effort to dress formally. Will's overly long legs were clad in deep blue-black pants, and his shirt a lighter blue that matched his eyes. Stephanie's breath shuddered in her throat once more as she lost herself in that intense blue gaze.
”Well, let‘s get going. I‘m starving.• Will said laughing as he raked a hand through his hair. He felt uncomfortable all of a sudden, as though this dinner was something illicit. **I‘m reading way too much into this. I mean, this is just Stephy.**
Will cleared his throat and turned back to his companion. She looked up at him with her emerald eyes sparkling with excitement. **God, she looks likeŒlike she wants to eat me for dinner. Cut it out Riker and take the kid to dinner.** Linking her arm within his, Will grinned and led Stephy to the turbolift.
"Oooh, what‘s on deck 11, Will?"
"The holosuites, what type of food do you like, the choice is yours"
It didn't take long for Stephy to decide. "Cantonese."
Will was surprised. "Oh, then I guess Dominic‘s is out. This will be a first, where on Earth did you try Cantonese?"
"Oh, at the academy, groups of us used to go all over San Francisco trying out every type of food and especially most of the alcohol to go with it!" She grinned up at him with a smile full of mischief.
Will found he had to laugh aloud at the expression on Stephanie's face. He remembered well the academy parties where the primary goal of the night was to consume as much alcohol as possible, and bed the most women. Will couldn‘t recall spending one night alone in his entire time at Star Fleet academy.
"So Stephy, tell me what you've been up to in the last eight years."
Once settled into a secluded booth, their meals ordered Will and Stephanie sat back to enjoy the quiet confines of the replica Chinese restaurant. By the time the aromatic food started to arrive, they were chatting, like old, lost friends.
Stephanie popped a crispy prawn cracker into her mouth before resting her head in one hand to prop herself up on the table. "Well, let‘s see. After dad's funeral, Star fleet brought in special arctic wildlife forces to exterminate the rest of the wild things. There aren‘t any left now and I am not sorry. Those things killed my dad, Quinny, and in a round about way, they killed my mom"
Will gasped at the new found knowledge, "Your mom's dead Stephy? I am so sorry, I wish I had been there for you, I really do"
Will reached for her hand as a comforting gesture. Stephanie studied their entwined hands as she temporarily lost herself to the long past memory. Her eyes glistened as she caught Will's steady, sympathetic gaze. Her smile was watery when she spoke. "I know Will, really. But, it was alright; I had Quinny at the time. He was there for me when it hurt really bad."
Will frowned, Quinny?, Surely Stephanie wasn‘t talking about Quinton Stone, but then logically she must be. Who else could it have been?
Will‘s heart began to pound as an unfamiliar sensation pricked within him. He hated to ask, but had to know. "I take it you and Stone got it together then?•
Will watched as Stephanie failed to hide a small smile as an obviously private thought ran through her mind. She nodded. "Yeah, we did, we were close...for a while. But it didn‘t last, it couldn‘t. You know what he was like, a total oddball. But he was there for me and for mom, before she...before she died." Stephanie finished on a sigh, "Yeah, we were close..."
Her words trailed off again until moments later her trembling voice quietly told Will something that he already instinctively knew. "They got him you too know, the wild things, they got him. I swear to this day, it was just how he wanted it."
Will found himself mesmerized by her voice as he realized that she was totally alone in the universe. Stephanie had no one; no family, no relatives, nobody. NoŒthat wasn‘t true. Stephy would always have a familyŒ him.
Will wasn‘t quite sure when or how he got there, but moments later he found himself pulling Stephanie into his huge arms. Without speaking, he poured every ounce of compassion, warmth and love into his embrace. Stephanie took everything that he had to offer, and more.
For Stephanie, the room disappeared the instant that Will took her into his arms Everything that surrounded them, the tantalizing smells, the twangy, somber oriental music faded away. For her it was just the two of them locked in their own private world, healing the still raw, re-opened wounds, building a closeness that would see them through tough times ahead.
The couple left the holosuite soon afterwards and made their way to the observation lounge. Since neither of them felt like being with people, or even wanted other company for a while, Will offered her a tour around the Enterprise. Arm in arm, they entered the empty room and Will led her to the forward viewport. Stephanie stared in wonder at the stars as they whizzed past.
Will propped himself against the viewport's frame with his hands wedged in his pockets as he watched, and silently admired her. She‘d matured into a beautiful young womanŒand from the signals she‘d been giving off, a dangerous one. He‘d thought her lost in her memories until she spoke, but continued to stare entranced at the stars.
"After Quinny died, more than anything in the universe, I wished that we‘d have had a baby Will. I felt so lonely, so...abandoned. I would have given anything to have had someone to love and to cherish,"
"So, I left Paradise, I couldn‘t stay there any longer. I had nothing to keep me there any longer. It was time to move on. I had a goal to achieve and I needed to leave to make it happen."
Her eyes briefly locked with his, but Will seemed so deeply immersed with her other news that he missed her last comment. She let it slide. Will listened without comment, his soft heart hurt for her more and more, with every word that fell from her lips.
"I didn't head straight for Earth when I left. I traveled a little. I guess it was my state of mind. I felt lost and I went from outpost to outpost trying to find something or someone that would make me feel whole again. I kept at it until eventually I ended up on a transport ship bound for Earth. If that ship hadn‘t been going there, I don't honestly know where I would have ended up, but I guess I lucked out, and here I am, the rest is history as they say."
Will frowned openly, but tried to keep the accusation from his voice when he spoke his concerns. "You must have been very young to have been in a relationship with Stone?"
Stephanie smiled at the way Will's mind was working. "I was, I was seventeen when he died, six months after mom. I did tell you that I was mature for my age!"
Will pushed himself away from the wall as the memory of Stephy coming on to him back when he was on Paradise, filled his thoughts. He found himself standing in the middle of the room looking at her as she stood framed by the viewport. His eyes swept down her body forcing his hands to go deeper into his pockets. "Damn it Stephy!, you were only fifteen when I left. Stone was more than double your age, he should have known better. He was a Star fleet officer!"
Stephanie waited for Will to finish, then slowly made her way to stand barely inches away from him. Will found himself caught up in the spell of her as emerald eyes . If his life had depended upon it, Will could not have broken away from the magnetic force that had pulled her to him.
Stephanie made one more step forward that put her body against his. Her eyes fixed on his mouth willing it to lower to her own. Unable to resist the urge, her breathless whisper barely reached his ears before his lips touched. She closed her eyes and shut out reality, focusing only on what she felt.
"I am a woman Will, and I want you, can't you see that?"
The kiss was feather light and tender. She let the tip of her tongue enter his mouth, but before he could respond, Stephanie stepped away from him. Will‘s eyes remained closed. He groaned at the loss of her warmth against him. Stephy watched Will‘s eyes open. His hand instinctively reached out to stop her leaving.
Stephanie‘s eyes searched his, neither one had an answer to the question that went unspoken. Moments later, the deep rooted ache of a woman desperately in love with the only man who would ever satisfy her, walked out, leaving him standing alone in the middle of the observation lounge.
"Can we talk?"
Will stood on the threshold of Deanna‘s quarters, looking concerned and distracted. Deanna sighed, stood back and let Will step into her lounge. She stayed by the door and watched the big man prowl around her quarters, searching for a way to say what he had on his mind. Deanna spoke for him.
"Stephanie‘s in love with me, and how could I have been so blind to have missed it? What the hell am I going to do about it. She wants me to love herŒnot as a friend, but as a lover. How can I let her down gently, it‘s impossible to have a relationship with her, she means as much to me as if she were my own daughter."
With every word that fell from Deanna‘s mouth, Will‘s pacing became slower until he finally came to a halt before her. The frown across his handsome features told her that he had been milling those questions, and others in his own head for a while. A million and one questions raced through his mind, but he only asked her one.
"What am I going to do Deanna?"
Deanna stepped around him and slowly made her way to the couch, Will followed her and they both sat down. Deanna sat back, calm and responsive; Will was uncomfortable and agitated. The tell-tale stroke of his palms on his upper thighs highlighted his dilemma, and Deanna reached over to stop him. Will groaned, turning away from Deanna to hide his acute embarrassment, but his head snapped back as Deanna spoke.
"How do you feel about Stephanie? Are you attracted to her, Will? Have you given her any encouragement?"
Will stared at her horrified as the implications of her words slammed home. "NO!...No, never, Deanna, she‘s a child!"
Deanna‘s eyebrows rose at his outburst, and then she frowned. "Will, Stephanie is a woman, a twenty three year old, very beautiful woman. A woman who has had a lover and enough heartache to catapult her into adulthood before she left adolescence. Stephanie Carter is no child Will, and you know that. You can see and feel that, and it scares you. Admit it Will"
Will looked away and ran a hand over his beard. He cracked a sheepish grin and groaned. ”Hell, I hate it when you‘re right, Deanna. And as usual, you‘re right. How can I admit that I think she‘s attractive? It makes me soundŒsoŒsoŒ•
”Normal? Will really, you shouldn‘t feel so upset. Stephanie is a beautiful young woman. Feeling attracted to her is normal and I think you know that. Whether or not you want to act on the feeling is what‘s really bothering you.• Deanna stood and began to pace the room, her own crossed armed posture giving away her own unease.• How did it escalate this quickly?...What happened tonight Will?"
Will shrugged, clearly puzzled by the question, "Nothing, we had dinner, we talked. We went to the observation lounge to look at the stars, then she left, end of story."
Deanna grinned knowingly. Backing up to the doorjamb, she propped herself against it, crossed her arms and legs and asked again. "Try again Will, tell me what really happened."
Will scowled at her, pushed himself back into the corner of the couch, put his ankle upon his knee and started again. "I picked her up at 20:00 hours, like we agreed, and I took her to holosuite four..."
Deanna butted in. "You took her to the holosuites, why not Ten Forward?"
Will frowned and looked confused by her question. "Because Stephanie had put on an evening gown, and I felt that she was a little to overdressed for Ten Forward, so I took her to the holosuite and set up a restaurant scene." He answered her with another scowl, the sensation of digging himself into a hole growing as her silence lengthened.
”Will think about it. Why would she wear an evening gown for a dinner with an old friend? Never mind, what did the dress look like?•
Will sighed, shuffling forward again, clasping his fingers together, ”What difference does that make, I mean is there a special kind of gown or something? It was long, and a gorgeous shade of amber...It was just a dress Deanna!•
”I‘ll get to that, now what else Will?"
The puzzled look returned as he tried to picture Stephy in his headŒit wasn‘t all that difficult. That realization made his queasy. What had he missed? "Well, it was strapless, and had a split up to here."
Deanna watched Will‘s finger indicate on his upper thigh just where the split ended. Astonished, Deanna looked up at him then and smiled, just a small rueful grin, and shook her head. "How could you not know, Will. It‘s not as if you don‘t have any experience with a beautiful woman. What you just described is a dress designed to stun!"
Will smirked, "Oh yeah, it certainly did that!" He stopped as he realized what he had said, then just as quickly shook his head, "But I doubt that stunning is what she had on her mind."
Deanna shook her head despairingly, "I disagree but we‘ll leave that for now. What happened next?•
Will pursed his lips, his eyes wide as he tried to recall the evening. "Well, we ordered and made small talk, you knew about her mom and then Quinny dying, I hugged her, you know, just a comforting hug."
Deanna stepped forward, coming to a standstill before him, "Show me that hug."
”What? Deanna...what good will that do?•
That she simply glared at him was enough to get Will to his feet. He cleared his throat and pushing himself to a stand. He felt awkward suddenly and hesitated before putting his arms around Deanna the way that he had done to Stephanie. Deanna expected him to release her within moments of hugging her, but held on for several minutes, until Deanna eventually pulled away.
She walked away from him to the opposite side of the room. Will stared, stunned almost at the abruptness of her exit from his arms. He was presented with her back, as she stared out the viewport, her arms wrapped around her torso. He waited, sensing that she was gathering her thoughts. And then she turned, and the expression on her face took his breath awayŒsadness, heartfelt regret saturated her features and made the corners of her mouth turn down.
”Oh Will, how can you possibly be so naïve?• She said in a soft voice.
Will felt laughter bubbling up from his chest and almost smiled, but the look on Deanna‘s face squelched the urge. Instead he looked defensive and tried to justify his actions, "Naïve? Me? Come on Deanna, you know me better than that. It was a harmless hug . I was simply comforting her, there‘s nothing wrong with that is there?!"
Deanna sighed as she turned away from him again. "No, not ordinarily Will...but if what I suspect is true, then we may have a far more serious problem. Tell me what happened after the hug?" Deanna moved away from her position at the viewport and sat down on the couch facing Will. She leaned back, crossed her legs and assumed her -counselor- position.
Will slowly walked around the room as he relayed the next installment. "I don‘t see what good this will do Deanna.•
”Humor me okay? You came here looking for helpŒso let me help. What happened after you hugged her?•
Will exhaled an exasperated breath and frowned at her. Deanna‘s response was to arch an elegant eyebrow and raise her hands, palm upŒ ”Well?•
Will raked a hand through his hair, and missed the way that Deanna caught her breathŒat the gesture that was so typically Will. ”Stephanie wanted to see the rest of the ship, so I took her to the observation lounge. She told me a little about Quinny...Quinton Stone, you remember him?•
Deanna nodded, oh yes she remembered the man very well. Stone had the rugged good looks of a man used to getting what he wanted from anything and anyone. His black hair and blue eyes held a magnetism that even she had found difficult to resist. Yes, she remembered him. ”Yes Will I remember StoneŒnow what happened?•
”Well I expressed my concerns about Stone, and for her. She laughed and said that Stone had loved her, as a man loved a woman and that she loved him too. I tried to tell her that I thought Stone was far to old to have an intimate relationship with her, but she just laughed it off. Then she kissed me."
Will‘s last words hung in the air like their breath, suspended as the shock of Will‘s words sank in. Deanna realized that she was gaping at him as the impact of his words wore off.
He nodded. Deanna‘s eyes locked onto Will‘s even they darted away from the knowing gaze, his guilt blasted against her empathic sense and then vanished as he tried to block her. Deanna ignored her urge to pursue that guilt, but decided against that course of action, for now. Instead, she repeated herself.
Riker nodded and once again Deanna felt his guilt. This time she went after it. "Will, what made you allow her to kiss you If you suspected that she was attracted to you, why didn‘t you stop her?•
Will shrugged and blushed a little. He crossed his own arms over his chest and tried very hard to look nonchalant. ”Never mind that for nowŒwhat did you say to her?"
His eyes clouded as he thought about what had happened earlier. Deanna saw the storm brewing as he spoke. "Deanna, she was only fifteen!. He took advantage of a girl who had lost her family. He stole her innocence, he should have known better, and if he was still alive today, I would have him court-marshaled!"
Deanna let him finish his outburst, the atmosphere became highly charged with feelings and anger until Deanna spoke quietly, "What did you say to her after the kiss, Will?
”NothingŒshe walked out on me. I was so flabbergasted that I walked around for a while trying to figure out what had just happened, and then I came here. What the hell am I going to do Dee?•
Deanna stared down at the rug and tried to compose herself against the emotions he projected. Anger, acid and destructive hid something far deeper, especially considering the flashes of guilt she‘d felt earlier. Could it be?
”Why are you so upset Will? Is it possible that you have feelings for her. Could you be in love with Stephanie?"
Will laughed outright at the preposterous suggestion, but that laughter dissipated to leave a questioning ache that ate away at his heart, and his conscience. Turning away from her, he stared out of the viewport. Deanna felt Will‘s turmoil as the question bounced around in his mind, but the empath already knew his answer.
"No!, Yes!... no, I...I don‘t think so, but I can‘t deny that I felt attracted to her. Damn it she kisses likeŒlikeŒ•
”Like a woman?• Deanna said in her soft understanding voice.
”Yes damn it, like a woman! I actually responded. How could I have responded to her Dee? I mean I feel like she‘s my responsibility, I always hoped that I could replace her father in some small way. Jackson was a good friend Deanna, and he left behind a child that needed a father figure in her life, someone to look after her. But what she got was that weirdo Stone, who stepped right in and abused that child, and I should have been there to stop him"
"That wasn‘t your fault Will. You know that.•
”I failed her Deanna...I failed, and the hell of it is..."
Will broke off, leaving the painfully obvious ending to Deanna‘s own imagination, but she gasped as Will continued, his voice heavily burdened with his guilty admission.
"Right at this minute, so help me, I don‘t feel particularly fatherly towards her...but I don‘t want her that way Dee. Honestly I don‘t. What can I do? I don‘t want to hurt her. She‘s a beautiful young woman and deserves all that life can give her, but I‘m not the man to give her what she wants."
Will felt Deanna‘s hand touch his back and he turned into her arms. The two friends held on to each other for some time before Will brokenly whispered into her hair.
"Damn!, I‘m so afraid of her, Deanna. What can I do?, I don‘t want to hurt her."
Deanna looked up into Will‘s face, his eyes sparkled like two blue sapphires as her quiet answer touched his heart. "You have to find a way to make her understand without shattering her feelings. Take some time to think about it. You‘ll know what to do when the time is right. I have faith in you. But remember, whatever you decide Imzadi, I‘m behind you. I understand and I‘m here for you, I‘ll always be here for you."
Will made his way into the transporter room at precisely 08.55 hours. As he tightened up the last cuff strap, he acknowledge the rest of the waiting away team. "O.K. people, listen up. Once the shuttle has landed, I don‘t want anybody, and I mean anybody going beyond the designated boundary without my direct say so."
Will‘s eyes went to each and every member of his team making sure that heard and understood. Geordi nodded his silent agreement as he too double checked his hand equipment before stepping into the shuttle. Data was busy loading Stephanie‘s heavy equipment into the shuttle‘s cargo hold, checking off against the padd that it was all present and correct, but he turned and acknowledged with his customary and curt reply.
Will approached the final member of the team who at first glance appeared to be ignoring him, but in reality was going through checklist with such concentration that Will had to lightly touch her arm to get her to acknowledge him.
"Miss Carter, that includes you I might add. I need your assurance that you won‘t disappear without telling me. I don‘t intend losing anyone on this mission, and I won‘t have any member of this team‘s life jeopardized because someone decides to go walkabout, do I make my self clear?"
By the time Will had finished speaking, Stephanie was standing barely a foot away from him. Her height forced Will to look down onto her upturned face.
”Have no fear ‘MR‘. Riker, I have no plans on getting my ass planted in the ice like my parents. You have my solemn word that I will be a very, good girl."
Will gaped at her, too shocked to come with a scathing reproach for her bluntness. Stephy stuck her tongue out at him, and then went back to work. As he watched her turn away from him and continue on with her checklist, Will suddenly found his mind wandering back to the observation lounge the previous night. He reacted the same way to her blunt manner and stood lost for words.
Then Stephy had kissed him. The feeling of shame and discomfort roared to life again, making him wish that Deanna was going with them. It would have been far easier to keep these rogue feelings in check with the cool calm of her presence. No luck there however. Deanna was staying aboard. Will jumped when a cargo case was dropped behind him.
”Damn it watch where you throw those things!• He snarled at the tech behind him. The man‘s brows rose but he very wisely kept his mouth shut. Will started to apologize, but the man turned away and went back to his work. *Damn!. She‘d managed to make him drift off again!*
Will grabbed his pack and hefted it to his back. ”Let‘s get to it people, and rememberŒtake care of yourselves, and watch out for your teammates.• The team trooped into the tight confines of the shuttle and prepared for launch.
The shuttle landed with a soft bump and Riker‘s team sat in silence listening to the howl of the wind as it whipped around the body of their vehicle. The cozy confines of the shuttle changed dramatically as Will activated the door. As it swung away from the hatch opening, gusts of wind whipped inside the shuttle doorway.
The icy fingers of the wind slashed into eyes and found any opening in jackets or hoods. Stephanie quickly pulled the thick hood attached to her thermal coat close around her head. As Will stepped from the pilot‘s seat, he caught Stephanie tucking an errant curl into to the top of her hood. He smiled, she‘d changed so much and so little at the same time. Her tiny, almost elfin face was barely visible as the fur surrounding the hood framed her delicate features just as she‘d looked years ago. Her eyes in contrast, looked huge and anything but child like.
Stephanie felt rather than saw, Will. Her eyes locked with his and within the confines of the tiny shuttlecraft, she smiled. Will grinned. For him the smile was that of two friends. For Stephy, the smile formed an intimate friendship. She needed that before leaving the safe haven of the shuttle for the wilds of the unknown outside.
Geordi held out his hand for the young Geo-physicist as she stepped down from the shuttlecraft. "Thanks Geordi, Don‘t want to fall flat on my face before we‘ve unloaded do we?!, "
Geordi chuckled at the spunky response, "No ma‘am, The Commander would crucify me if I let one hair on your head get ruffled"
Stephanie stopped short as the tone of Geordi‘s voice filtered through. Muttering an unladylike curse, she shook Geordi‘s hand from her thickly padded arm. Planting her feet firmly on the icy ground and making sure she was evenly balanced, she turned towards the front of the craft, where Will stood checking their equipment. ”Hey CommanderŒmay I speak with you?•
Stephy shouted over the howl of the wind, which caused most of the team to look in their direction. Will eased his long body from a crouch beside the shuttle‘s entrance and straightened gratefully, his breath turning frosty as he exhaled. He made his way to where his chief engineer and Stephanie waited. The tell-tale steely glint in Stephanie‘s eye told Will all that he needed to know.
"Will, why‘d you ask Geordi to baby-sit me!?"
"Stephanie, you said yourself that you didn‘t want to get ”planted here• , as you put it. So I asked Geordi to keep an eye on you. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you. You understand that, don‘t you sweetheart?"
Stephanie melted into the intense gaze as Will made point. Her heart soared. Will cared for her and he didn‘t want to lose her. She looked for the promise in his eyes, the promise of things to come.
Stephanie‘s icy breath shuddered from her openly surprised lips, and she knew that her eyes sparkled with tears of joy as she looked into Will‘s handsome face. Will cared. He cared enough to entrust her into another‘s hand when he couldn‘t do it himself. Her voice was husky as she answered him.
"I understand Will, thank you."
Rendered speechless, Will‘s eyes followed Stephanie as she turned away. The last thing he expected was for her to thank him. Bow her stack, rant and rave, stomp her feet, and call him everything under the sun, maybe. But thank himŒno way. She was up to something, and a shiver of discomfort came on the heels of the realization that something he said had been the cause of the change. He thought back on his words.
*For the odd time that I can‘t personally look after you...*
*I asked Geordi to keep an eye...*
*I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you...*
*You understand that, don‘t you sweetheart...*
Will‘s breath caught, *Oh shit! Sweetheart!, did I really just call her sweetheart?*, Once more he found himself in that same position again, watching her retreating back. *You have to be more careful Riker. Stephy isn‘t just anyone. You don‘t want to see her hurt*.
Several hours had passed by the time all the equipment was unloaded. The team worked steadily, placing the probes in the positions mapped out on board the Enterprise. As the last probe was set, Geordi gave the all clear for Will to give the order for the ship‘s laser to bore a hole deep into the planet‘s surface.
The order was given and seconds later a white-blue beam slashed through the whirling snow to bore onto the icy surface. Will watched for a few moments then gathered his equipment. He looked up to see the team heading back towards the shuttle. He grinned at the amusing spectacle. They looked like over stuffed silver penguins, waddling off into the distance.
Will felt really good at that moment, why he had no clue, despite the cold slowly eating away at him,. The way the tiny ice crystals clung to his beard and moustache, and he must look like Santa Claus. He found himself chuckling. Will stared to move towards the shuttle himself, and along the way, took a good look around.
The sky, loomed low with it‘s blanket of airborne snow. It was as though he could almost reach up and touch it. It was fascinating. He didn‘t realize he had slowed to a stop until he heard Stephanie‘s quiet voice. "Beautiful isn‘t it Will?"
Will looked down into her upturned face as she looked around at the raging whiteness. Will studied her. Stephanie‘s cheeks, now rosy with the chilly air, almost glowed. Will‘s eyes fell to her lips, which silently shivered with the cold. Her icy breath mingled with his, creating their own personal aura. As Will spoke, his eyes captured hers, and the tranquil moment become theirs, solely theirs. "YeahŒ."
The pregnant pause lingered on until Will broke the spell and turned away. This time it was Stephanie who stood breathless as she watched Will move away from her, and disappear into the back of the shuttle. By the time Will eased himself into the comfort of the shuttle‘s warm interior, his was angry with himself. His hand shook with it as he reached for the helm controls.
Data caught the tremor and frowned at him. "Commander, are you alright?"
Will cringed as he felt the shuttle‘s other occupants turn to look at him, including Stephanie, as she entered the door. Clearing his throat self-consciously, he rapidly looked to each of his comrades, "Humph, I‘m fine Data, just want to get off this planet...Are we ready people?"
It was Geordi who responded, but Will was sure he heard a slight smirk in his voice. "Yes sir! We‘re all ready and waiting!."
Will hand paused on the helm as the implications of his words sunk in. Turning quickly, Will turned his eyes to Geordi again, doing a double take when he came face to face with his huge pearly white grin.
Unwillingly his sight moved on to Stephanie. Perturbed, he was taken even further aback when her face held her own secretive little smile. ”Enough of thatŒI meant are you all ready to get the hell off of this ball of ice!• He feigned anger and turned back to face the panel before him as he attempted to collect his wits.
Powering up the engines, Will eased the shuttle through the dense cloud. Flying blind, Will depended on the shuttle‘s navigation system to guide them safely through. The air was fraught with tension and silence as the seemingly never ending journey dragged on.
Stephanie jumped when Data‘s voice broke the quiet. "We must find a way to exit from this cloud Commander, the shuttle‘s engine‘s are beginning to lose power. The lack of oxygen in the upper atmosphere is overloading the intake conduits. The cloud formation has altered in its composition. It is no longer purely water vapor as it was when we descended. At present the clouds appear to contain helium, nitrogen and delenium in concentrated amounts. Its mass is therefore more dense. I suggest further analysis on board the Enterprise as a number one priority sir."
Will broke his intense gaze from the viewscreen briefly to acknowledge Data‘s statement. "Agreed Data, once we‘re back we‘ll launch a probe. How could we have missed this phenomenon?•
Geordi moved forward to peer through the viewscreen, Will could see his deep frown behind the visor as he spoke. "No clue, Commander. I ran the sensor scans myself and to all when we first got here, this cloud was just what it should have been, pure water. Any probe we may have sent would have given us the same information. This has happened since we landed. How much longer until we break through?"
"Breaking though in 5 seconds, 4, 3, 2,1, we are clear of the clouds"
”Good, I want to get back and find out what the hell is going on.•
"Initial thoughts Miss Carter"
As the senior crew and Stephanie made themselves comfortable around the conference table, Picard addressed her in a brusque manner.
"Well sir, my initial tests have come back very positive. The preliminary readings show that the planets crust has not shifted dramatically for at least 500 years. But I can‘t be any more definite than that until the equipment is checked in three days time. One thing though, I‘m a little concerned about the planet‘s atmosphere, it appears to very volatile and tomorrow I would like to send a probe in to see just what we are dealing with."
Picard nodded his agreement, turning to his Number One, he was surprised to see him staring into his lap. "Commander Riker, first thing tomorrow...Commander Riker, are you listening?"
Lost in his thoughts, Will‘s startled eyes flew up from his lap which were hiding his nervous, laced, traitorous fingers. Flushing slightly at having been caught out, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Yes sir, its been a long day. My apologies. My team is whipped, I...I guess I‘m more tired than I thought, sorry"
Deanna watched Will steadily as he flitted through every emotion. From embarrassment, to guilt, from guilt to terror, and surprisingly shyness. For as long as Deanna had know Will she had never known him to be shy, except maybe one brief moment when they had first met and he‘d had to disrobe for Chandra‘s wedding.
Deanna‘s gaze flickered to Stephanie Carter. She didn‘t have to delve into the younger woman‘s mind to know what was happening within her pretty head, it was written all over her face. Her slim body visibly radiated her need for the man sitting opposite her. Did he even realize? Something had happened on the planet and Will Riker was scared stupid. Deanna‘s attention was recaptured by the captain.
"...we will launch the probe first thing tomorrow, until then, I suggest you all get some rest. Dismissed."
As they all got to their feet, Deanna wasn‘t surprised when Will requested ‘a moment of her time‘. She knew she was about to find out what transpired on the surface.
"Of course Commander, my office, ten minutes?"
Nodding his agreement, Will exited the ready room before anyone else had a chance to waylay him.
"I‘ve got to straighten her out Deanna, for my own sanity. I have got to make her see that these feelings are just infatuation or I‘ll go crazy."
Seated behind her desk, Deanna watched Will prowl around her office like a caged animal. It had been a long time since she had seen him this agitated. In an effort to ease Will‘s unease, Deanna struck a casual pose. Holding her head within her palms as her elbows rested on the desk top, her thoughtful gaze followed Will‘s rigid posture. Eventually she spoke quietly, asking him the obvious. "So what‘s stopping you Will?"
With a huge downhearted sigh, he perched on the corner of the desk as he thought about his answer surprising not only Deanna but himself when he voiced it aloud. "Me." His eyes found hers praying that she understood his predicament, she didn‘t.
"Why, for heavens sake! If you don‘t want to pursue this with her, you have to be honest, but if you doŒ• Riker looked away. At his reaction, Deanna knew that she had hit the nail on head. That was what Will was afraid to say aloud. He was attracted to Stephy, even though he wouldn‘t act on those feelings.
Standing, Deanna made her way around the desk to stand in front of Will. Simply silently staring at each other for several long moments, Deanna reached out to caress his cheek with the back of her finger, her voice tender and teasing as she barely whispered to him. "Go to her Will...be honest with her and with yourself. It‘s difficult, I know, but you know that you have to do this. You have to decide what you want first though.•
Will captured the finger that had trailed a path to his lips. Taking her hand within his, he lightly kissed her palm, his eyes never leaving hers as he gratefully whispered his gratitude. "Thank you Imzadi."
Deanna‘s eyes glistened as she stepped away from him and pulled him to his feet, her smile teasing as she began to push him towards the door. "Go, and tomorrow I expect to see you grinning from ear to ear when you come to tell me of your brilliance in handling this situation."
Will chuckled as he felt the huge weight lift from his shoulders. With a renewed bounce in his step, he wondered why God had decided to bless him with the most wonderful, most understanding, most gorgeous best friend a man could ever have. His heart swelled with pride and gratitude for the woman he had just left. *God, I love her to bits*
He wasn‘t surprised and chuckled when he heard her answer back. *And I love you too, Imzadi*
"I knew you would come."
"I couldn‘t stay away any longer, I needed you"
"And I needed you Will, more than you‘ll ever know"
The slow seductive music drifted around the barely moving couple as they danced in the center of her living quarters. Will held Stephanie close, so close that they could feel each others hearts beating, her hands gently trailed the length of his body, savoring every hard muscle that moved below her sensitive fingers.
Will‘s hands were tracing their own way along the curvy lines of her body, gently cupping her small derriere and hugging her tight against his own growing desire.
Throwing back his head, he closed his eyes and groaned to the charged air that enclosed them, locking the twosome in it‘s own private aura. Will began to feel light headed as his ache began to reach fever pitch, his breath involuntarily became faster, shallower.
His mouth finally found hers and his tongue entered her mouth, giving her too little time to take a breath. But at the same time, Stephy‘s fingers found their way to his head, and released a whimper as the intimate action licked at the very heart of her femininity. She drowned in the sweet moistness as her tongue wrapped itself around his and began the erotic dance. The dance of lovers. The dance of the mind. The torment of the soul.
Intertwining, slipping in and out, twisting, aching to get in deeper and deeper. Mindless with hunger and need, Stephanie broke away breathless. Will fixed his mouth onto her throat, unable to break the contact and unable to stop his body gyrating against her burning heat until he heard her gasped and desperate demand.
"Help me Will, I‘m going to explode"
Scooping her up into his arms, Will carried Stephanie into the bedroom and gently lay her down upon the black, silky coverlet. Stretching himself alongside her, Will searched her face to give her one last chance to stop what was about to happen. Her wanton eyes shone bright like two emeralds, silently begging him to lead. Tiny beads of perspiration sat upon her forehead, her lips, swollen with his brutal kisses, parted expectantly as she waited.
Will felt her tremble as her desire seeped from every fiber. Will stroked her cheek causing Stephanie to capture his fingers and turn his palm over. She kissed it gently, her eyes never leaving his. Will moaned and his eyes flickered shut as he felt her tongue make a wet trail along it, sending a pulsating shock wave straight to his loins.
Taking barely a minute to divest each other of clothes, it only took seconds for Will to settle his long form on top of her tiny frame. Propping himself on his elbows, Will tenderly played with the damp tendrils that framed her face, gently kissing her as he allowed her to get used to his weight. The kisses deepened until they were both lost within each other.
Capturing her floundering hands above her head with one hand, he used the other to pull up her satiny thigh. Will entered her with a slow thrust and heard her groan into his mouth. He plunged his tongue in further, reducing her rising fever to a liquid heat that washed over them both as they tumbled along with the breathless roller coaster ride.
Feeling the tender resistance, she felt Will pause, but she wrapped her ankles around his buttocks and thrust upwards, hissing at the sensation when the last barrier was broken. God, she was so hot, so tight, around him. It had been a long time.
Stone‘s face popped into his head and he unconsciously began to move, harder and faster, trying to dispel the foul thoughts that invaded his mind. Will finally gained his release Stephanie couldn‘t help but cry.
Will didn‘t want to wake from the deep sleep, but the images still playing in his mind were so vivid...so real, he wanted it to go on and on. He lay with his eyes firmly closed, a sheen of perspiration coated his skin as heat burned deep down inside. Hunger gnawed at his lower body, making him clench his teeth to keep from groaning. He fought a silent battle to control the primal urges tearing through him.
He heard her cry his name, the sound whipped across his naked torso leaving a trail of goosebumps that stung as though an electric current flowed over his skin.
Will‘s lungs ached, his throat burned, he wanted to plunge into the soft female form that writhed against him. But she was elusive; there, but notŒ She invaded every pore and fiber of his body and soul. He caught her finally, and thrust home.
Hot, wet ecstasy overtook him and he gripped her hips to bring her tight against him. She lunged against him over and over, screaming for release. He thrust harder and faster, striving to give her what they both craved.
Will rolled her beneath him and plunged deeper. Soon, harsh groans and the sound of flesh colliding in an ever increasing rhythm filled the airŒthe peak hit drawing her arching from the bed, her nails digging deep furrows down his back as she screamed his name. He threw his own head back andŒ
Will flew upright in his bed, panting in ragged gulps. Sweat ran in rivulets over his gace and chest, the air in the cabin felt cool on his heated skin. He shivered and looked for the blanket. The tangled coverlet lay where it fell in a puddle on the floor, long discarded as his body writhed in a intimate struggle with her senuous mirage as she invaded his dreams.
Will looked around, half expecting to find her there laying beside him with a twinkle in her eye and a satisfied smile on her lips. His own were dry and his tongue snaked out in a feeble attempt to moisten them.
"Computer half lights."
The room became illuminated with a soft glow and Will slipped off the bed. He was surprised to find that his legs were weak and rubbery, barely able to carry his weight over to the food dispenser. Will took a deep breath, and shook his head to clear it. How could he have been reduced to a trembling shamble from a mere dream.
"Water, ice cold."
Will swallowed the entire glassful, not stopping until the last drop had been drained. He studied the glass as he placed it back onto the replicator and replayed his dream. Anger and then disgust filled him, when his body reacted once more.
"Christ, I have got to deal with this!" he said and turned back to his bedroom. He glanced at the chronometer beside his bed, was surprised to find it only 1.00am. He sighed knowing that he was not going to be able to sleep for some time. He found himself wondering if the little minx a couple of decks down knew just what she was doing to him. Will growled,
”I‘ll bet she‘s sleeping like a god damn baby....Computer, location of Stephanie Carter?"
"Stephanie Carter is currently in the observation lounge."
Will released the painful breath in one long, drawn out whoosh. This was his opportunity to straighten out this mess and put him out of a painful situation, one which had taken him by surprise.
Silence washed over Will as the doors hissed closed behind him. The room was bathed in half light allowing the stars that blinked in the inky blackness outside the viewport, to put on their own magical show.
Stephanie Carter lay spread along three of the joined seats, her knees pulled up. Her chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, and she appeared to be sleeping. The image rocked Will to his core as he made his way over towards her. He would to just walk over to her, say what he had to say, and leave.
Will‘s arm stretched down towards Stephy‘s shoulder until in the dimness, Will found her eyes watching him intently. His heart thumped so hard that he was certain that she could hear it. He did nothing more than let his hand fall back to his side.
Her voice, barely a whisper slammed through Will‘s senses and his eyes fell shut as he struggled against the intimate sensation that washed over him.
Stephy watched Will‘s face as he tried hard to cover his reaction to her voice. Somehow she knew that he battled against the feelings that he had for her. It hurt her to know that he even wanted to fight the attraction.
Couldn‘t he see that underneath the bravado, behind the tough scientist, was a fully grown woman. He must be able to see that the skinny 15 year old was gone, replaced by someone who was desperately in love him and ready to give her heart, soul, and aching body to him. Will‘s expression wasn‘t difficult to read, he didn‘t want herŒor rather, he didn‘t want to want her.
He had come to tell her something that she really did not want to hear. She pushed up onto her elbows, gasping as Will stepped back, startled. What did he think she was going to do?! Stephy watched the tell-tale flush touch his cheeks, as he looked away to hide his own embarrassment. ”Steph, we need to talk. What you want from meŒit just wouldn‘t be right.•
He met her eyes, the apology written within the cobalt gaze. Stephy smiled gently at him. "It‘s okay Will, I understand."
Will blinked several times as he digested her words, "You do?"
Stephy tapped the seat beside her, chuckling quietly, "Sit down Will...I promise I won‘t bite."
Will lowered his long frame onto the chair. Shifting his body slightly, but before he could say a word, Stephanie‘s next question threw him and he groaned aloud.”Deanna...she‘s your emotional grasp, isn‘t she?•
Stephanie watched Will‘s fingers briefly dig into the chair‘s soft cushioning She felt rather than heard his low warning rumble, ”Don‘t do this Stephy.•
Quickly pushing herself into a seated position, Stephy placed herself directly into Will‘s half hooded gaze. Unperturbed, she ploughed on. ”You said that you weren‘t together because the timing wasn‘t right...Does that mean that is no chance for us?. I need to know Will, I think I have a right to know, don‘t you?•
Will nervously broke the steady gaze by moving his eyes towards the view port. Sighing loudly, Will tried to describe the relationship with his precious counselor. ”Deanna and I go a long way back. We met on her home planet and we fell in love.•
Shrouded by the dimness of the room, Will privately smiled at the memory, Stephanie heard the smile in his voice. She felt the jealous twinge but pushed it away as she waited for him to continue.
”On Betazed, for some couples there is a deeper emotion besides love. Normally only Betazoids have this gift, but occasionally other lucky couples are priveledged to share the union, or bond.•
Stephanie‘s heart began to feel heavy as the reality of what Will and Deanna shared begun to show through his words.
Will nodded, turning his head slightly to look into her face. Although barely visible in the darkness, Will could feel her eyes boring into his, searching for anything that would show he was deceiving her. She found nothing.
”It‘s called Imzadi. Deanna and I are Imzadi. Nothing, not even death, can ever come between us.•
”You love her?•
”Yes, I love her.•
”You love her more than me?•
Will hesitated at Stephanie‘s outspoken statement. Did he love Stephanie? Yes, he thought then that maybe he did, just a little, but nothing...nothing could surpass the love that he had Deanna.
”It‘s more than love for us, it‘s life. She looks after my soul, and I hers. I live because of her, she keeps me alive. If either one of us should die, the other would probably soon follow, the tie is very strong, I could not live without her.•
”Why aren‘t you together?•
”Because at this moment in time its not what we want.•
”Does that mean that your just playing with me Will?•
”No Stephanie, what I feel for you is just not the same way that I feel for her.•
”We have no future, do we?•
Poignant seconds passed before Will finally answered her. ”No...no, we don‘t.•
His confession hung in the air. Surprised and silenced at Will‘s honesty, she had absolutely nothing to say to him. Somehow, deep in her heart she knew that their relationship was never likely to have been permanent, but even more surprisingly, now that she understood, she did not mind.
”It isn‘t that I don‘t find you attractive.• Will began, and then he looked at her more closely. Her eyes shone with adoration, for him, and his throat tightened with a vice like grip. He couldn‘t sit near her any longer. He didn‘t know who was surprised more, when he got up from the seat to place himself well out of arms reach.
"I‘m sorry Stephanie, I can‘t be what you want me to be, I can‘t become intimate with you, not now, not ever. It‘s not you. You are one of the most beautiful women I have ever met, but I see you as someone to protect...a treasured friend. Maybe if circumstances, our past history were different, I would have been honored to be everything you wanted me to be...and more, but I can‘t...I‘m sorry."
Will had every intention of leaving as soon as he had said his piece, he even turned to do so, but then he looked at her. The half smile upon her elfin face confused the hell out of him.
Stephanie shrugged. Will watched the movement before searching her eyes again. He was surprised at what he saw, at what she said.
"I said it was okay Will, I understand your reasons for not...loving me. I can see and feel your inner turmoil, I feel you fighting so hard not to give in to what your body wants. I won‘t deny that I want you Will, I have wanted you since Paradise, but I won‘t be content with only half of what you could possible give me."
Will was rooted to the spot as Stephy slid her feet to the floor eased herself from the couch with a natural sensuality. She moved to stand within a few inches of him. Will could smell her own intimate scent. He could see the desire in her eyes. Will wished with all his heart that he could kiss her, just once, but it wasn‘t until Stephy spoke that Will realised he had spoken the thought out loud.
"Then kiss me Will...please, just once." Before her plea was complete, their lips had collided and with that collision burst a mutual whimper as their bodies gave in to the desperation that clawed its way up from their souls, step by painful step. And then, at long last, desperation found what it was looking for as their tongues met and locked in a timeless dance.
The kiss would do little to quench the desire that flared between them. Instinct and the thrust of her tongue mimicked the act their bodies craved. In and out, in and out, suckling and caressing Stephy ground her lips and then her hips against Will.
Moans and whimpers filled the air, their hands burned a fever as they traced frantically from head to hip. Will tried to stand rigid as she moved against his arousal, intent upon denying the act that would satisy their bodies needs, but he couldn‘t deny his fevered loins any more than he could deny himself.
The kiss went on and on until they wrenched away from each other, gasping for the breath that had been shared for what felt like eons. Heartbeats pounded in unison as they clung to one another. Desires still roared out of control, neither could pull away from each others lower limbs that still gently gyrated in time with the waves of ecstasy that drenched them from head to foot.
The silence hung between them but the raging emotions soared around the room, buffeting the still embracing couple with a passion that begged to be quenched. It took every ounce of Will‘s remaining resolve to sever himself from Stephanie‘s arms and the magnetic force that locked their bodies.
Will felt something deep within him shrivel and die. He was shocked when a pain shot through his heart as he took one unsteady step away from her. Will never imagined it would be this hard.
Will‘s throat tightened on the things that he wanted to say to her, but in his heart he knew that silence was the best thing. He didn‘t trust himself to say the words that he needed to say.
With one final, apologetic look, Will stepped out of Stephanie‘s arms and left the observation lounge. Once out of sight, he steadied himself against the cool wall once the doors had closed on one of the most painful things he had ever had to do.
He made his way back to his own quarters, and tried to shake the image of Stephanie from his thoughts. But the more he tried, the more he fought to hold on to them. He did not ever want to forget what had just happened, it was a memory that he wanted to cherish for the rest of his life, she deserved that.
Will now knew that Stephanie had ‘saved herself‘ for him. He was surprised that he hadn‘t realised it earlier, but it made his decision to not pursue her all the more easier. Stephanie Carter deserved better. One day, he knew that she would find someone, someone who could love her in the way that she had wanted from him.
Will was just sorry that it could not have been him.
"Curious sir, the shuttle‘s findings show no abnormalities"
Data‘s curious tone filtered around the table as it‘s other occupants studied the viewscreen before them. Picard pursed his lips, his mind looking for other alternatives.
"Any thoughts on this Counselor?"
Deanna shook her head, "No sir, nothing, to all intent and purpose, this is a harmless cloud, like any other cloud, I sense nothing untoward?"
Picard sighed, before turning back to face his senior crew. He looked at each and every one before settling his gaze on the geo-physicist. Before Picard had even voiced his thoughts, Stephanie held up her hand, shaking her head as she did so.
"I know sir, I know the probe has turned up no abnormalities, it‘s just a gut feeling."
Picard smiled, "I understand Doctor. We have had several instances on our travels that have been averted because of ‘gut feelings‘, enough to know not to ignore these particular sensations. However, we still have work to do, so I‘m allowing further tests to go ahead on the planets surface. The clouds will be monitored constantly for any change, whether it be a small change or not. I do not take chances with my crew Miss Carter, and particularly with my guests."
The smile that Stephanie threw to everyone around the table was warm and genuine. Her eyes settled briefly on Will, and her heart glowed with a happiness that showed in her clear, green eyes.
Will returned the grin, relieved that things were okay between them. He seemed to have done the impossible, he had managed to return things to a more professional level. What had happened the night before was now delegated to treasured memories, to be called upon whenever it was deemed necessary. Whenever he missed her. Whenever he wanted to remember what could have been.
Stephanie had learned a long hard lesson last night. Although William Riker was undoubtably the man of her dreams, her fantasies, he was also the nicest man she had ever met. A man with decency. A man that cared enough about her to do the only thing that he could have done under the circumstances.
Will Riker was a gentleman, and she would always love him for that alone.
Two days later, the shuttle touched down on the planet‘s surface. Four occupants exited its hull as they returned at last to gather the results of their earlier visit. Collecting data from the deeply instilled probes, held everyone‘s concentration until it started to snow.
Almost in unison, they looked to the skies as the first snow flakes touched the exposed flesh upon their faces. Within minutes, the snowfall increased and fell steadily, blanketing the skyline. The horizon disappeared. Stephanie‘s voice broke through the howling wintery array.
"Oh Will, isn‘t it something else? Look at that view, it reminds so much of home...when it was good"
Will reached out and placed a hand upon her shoulder, in response, Stephanie patted it,welcoming the personal gesture, grateful for the thoughtfulness that came with it. "Come on, let‘s finish up and get out of here, I don‘t want to get bogged down by the storm."
Minutes later, the foursome collected the remaining data and equipment and headed for their ship. The first rumble brought Riker to a halt. As he searched the heavens for its source, his voice boomed above the wind that whistled around them, ”Let‘s get the hell out of here! Run!•
The urgency in his voice hastened the crew‘s flight to the safe interior of the shuttle. Their journey became a battle all on its own despite being barely ten feet away.
The group picked up speed as they got closer to the landing site and once there began loading equipment into the shuttlecraft. By the time they finished the clouds were barely twenty feet from the ground. A dense ominous gray veil spewed out snowflakes so large that they looked like a giant hand touching you, pushing you down as the bitter stars swirled and fought their way to the ground.
As the last of the team stumbled inside, Will punched the closing mechanism. Letting out a painful gush of air, his relief lighting up his eyes as they settled on the wide eyed young woman that huddled against the plush upholstery.
Sending a shower of snow crystals around the shuttle‘s interior, creating a miniature storm of its own, Will hurried to the helm where Data was already in the process of firing up the engines, he threw himself into the seat and prepared for lift off. His deft fingers flew over the controls whilst he relayed a message to Enterprise.
"Riker to Enterprise, preparing to lift off, severe storm, could be a bumpy ride, prepare to beam us aboard if situation worsens. Riker out"
"Acknowledged away team, we will monitor your approa..."
The transmission was cut off as an ear-piercing noise ripped through their senses, rocking the tiny craft to and fro like a rag doll.
"Riker to Enterprise... Enterprise respond...Get us out of here Mr. Data, NOW!!"
Data‘s curt nod was his only acknowledgement as he concentrated on the daunting task before him. Moments later, the engine‘s powerful thrusters launched them off the snow packed ground into the mercy of the cloud that now kissed the floor, making the shuttle‘s ascent blind. The shuttle‘s navigational sensors locked on to the Enterprise‘s signal and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as it steadily began to climb through the solid, fog like soup.
Minutes later, two thirds of the way through, another rumble rocked the craft, followed seconds later by a bolt of multi-forked lightning that flashed and sparked throughout the shuttle‘s interior. The energy stream shorted out every light, and circuit on board and plummeted the small ship into a downward spiral, straight towards the icy planet.
Barely heard above the roar of the shuttle‘s groaning metal hull as it fell, Will screamed to his companions.
"ALL HANDS, BRACE FOR IMPACT!"
The Enterprise crew members crouched down as low as they could and hung on for dear life, their silent prayers unheard in the howling din from outside.
Stephanie, huddled down between the seats, was terrified. Not of crashing, but of being so far from Will. She eased her way out of the tiny space and moved forward intent on being with him. She needed him.
Will was shocked into silence he saw Stephy stand and stumble towards him, his name spilling from her lips as she reached out for him. But there wasn‘t enough time for her to reach him.
Frozen to the spot, Will could do nothing as the shuttle slammed nose first into the solid ground sending Stephanie sailing over his head into the viewscreen, her tortured scream cut short as she made her own shattering impact.
Will screeched her name as he heard the sickening crunch of her body smash against the unbreakable glass, and then silence.
Silence followed his tortured cry. No one moved at first, and then groaning began to emerge from the silence as the crew unstrapped harnesses and moved about the cabin. Hidden injuries made themselves known to the members of the team. Will ripped his own harness off and grunted as he tried to stand. His chest hurt like hell. That and a hell of a headache seemed to be the worst of his injuries. He punched a bulkhead compartment and grabbed the medkit as it fell.
”Everyone else okay?• He shouted.
A ragged chorus of ”Yes sirs•, gave him the freedom to move forward to where Stephy lay. The shuttle groaned in protest as Will stumbled towards the broken body, stepping over the mangled contents of the shuttle‘s interior that followed her to oblivion.
Will hesitated before reaching out to check her pulse, then heard a gut-wrenching groan. Incredulous that she could still be alive, he called out over his shoulder. "Data!, get over here, help me, for God‘s sake, help me, she‘s alive!"
His fear gone, Will reached down and pushed two fingers against her neck and searched for her weak pulse. He looked over her features and her body for the worst of the damage. Data knelt in the debris opposite Will and ran a tricorder along Stephy‘s body before forcing his yellow eyes to meet Will‘s.
The sorrowful look and the slight head shake propelled Will into action. A steady stream of blood poured from a wound on her temple and Will ripped at his tunic, tearing off a large strip, forcing it into a ball he held it against the gaping gash.
”Hey Steph, come on honeyŒopen your eyes for me.•
He held his breath as he searched her face for a movement. Seconds later, her eyelids flickered open, then closed again, but her hand moving told Will that she was conscious, but only just.
"Hang on sweetheart, we‘ll get you out of here, I promise, I‘m not leaving you here, you have my word."
Will watched her lips move as she tried to whisper something, he leant down, placing his ear close to her red tainted lips, the tell tale gurgle in her throat revealing the seriousness of her inner damage.
A huge gulping surge of misery dragged itself up from the deepest corner of his being, aching to erupt into a wail that would cleanse his heart of the pain of her death. But the First Officer of the Enterprise slammed his fist into a bulkhead, and never made a sound.
An hour later, the rescue shuttle landed finding its pilot still cradling in his arms, the still, broken form of Stephanie Carter.
The solitary figure stood over the polished ebony casket with his eyes tightly closed as he fought the grief that gnawed at him. Will took an unsteady step forward, bringing him within arms reach of the glossy exterior. He felt his pulse quicken as he struggled to hold back the onslaught of tears that threatened to fall from the ever present pool that had stayed with him since he had felt Stephanie's last, final heartbeat. Unable to stop himself, Will reached out and placed his trembling hand on the cool surface. He wanted to say so much to her, but the words got stuck in his throat every time he tried. Swallowing, he cursed his inability to perform something that he knew he had to do.
That was, until he heard a familiar whisper ripple through his mind, *Tell her Will, let it all go.* Will released the breath that had been almost strangling him, feeling the heavy weight that seemed to be pulling him deeper and deeper into the black abyss of despair, lift. He felt her there, helping every step of the way.
Deanna was the only person who understood, the only person who knew him better than himself. Will treasured the tiny Betazoid who he knew would be waiting on the other side of the cargo bay doors, waiting with her arms wide open, along with her heart and soul.
Moments later, Will found himself walking around the solitary capsule, faint smile touched his features as his sparkling eyes took on a faraway look as he remembered the vibrant young life that he had the privilege of knowing, not only her, but her heart too. Chuckling to himself, he trailed his hand along the caskets length, his voice low when he finally opened his own heart to her ever present spirit.
"In the short time I knew you...I mean, 'really' knew you, not as the spunky kid with a mind of her own, but as the beautiful woman that blew me away the moment she stepped down from the transporter pad. You managed to turn my whole world upside down and inside out and I enjoyed every mind-blowing, tantalizing, thought-provoking, precious moment of it."
Will's voice trailed off as he fought to control the rising pain in his chest. He had so much to say to her, wanted to say so much to her, but he could feel his throat getting tighter and tighter again. Coming to a standstill at the head of the casket, Will closed his eyes and his mind as he attempted to reign in his emotions once more, but then suddenly, out of the blue, it burst out of him in a long tormented wail.
"I can't do this Deanna...help me!"
Before he had finished, she was by his side, holding him close. Deanna soaked up his grief, sharing the heavy burden between them. Will felt her soothing voice wash over him, inside and out.
"I‘m right here Will. Its alright, I'm here, I'm right here."
"Oh Deanna, I don't know why it hurts so much. "
Deanna pulled away enough to look into his face, her own eyes shimmered with tears along with his own, she reached up to stroke his cheek with the back of her fingers.
"Because you loved her Will, but you never had the chance to tell her, until now. But she knew in her heart that you loved her."
Unable to pull his gaze away, Will stared at the coffin over her head, barely whispering to the tiny woman that he clung to.
"Do you really think so Dee?"
Deanna stepped away from Will, but he gripped her hand to stop her from going out of arm's reach. Deanna shook her head as she spoke,
"You need to tell her Will and you need to say goodbye...on your own, I'll be waiting over there OK?"
Understanding Deanna's compulsion to finalise what had happened between Stephy and himself, Will nodded and reluctantly let her hand go. Deanna made her way towards the door but did not leave the bay, she knew that he needed her close by, but Deanna wanted Will to say what he needed to, in private.
Their eyes met across the distance. Deanna's relayed her love, understanding and encouragement, Will's sparkled with adoration, sadness, and resignation.
Sighing, Will turned back for the very last time to face the casket. Swallowing painfully he, at last said what his heart desired.
"This is it kiddo, this is goodbye, but I promise you Stephy, I will never, ever forget you, you have my word. I have a special place in mind for your resting place, and I'm sure you will love it...I kept my promise, I'm taking you home, to Earth, back to California, where the sun always shines...I am going to miss you, so very much Stephanie Carter, I‘m glad you came to visit me."
Will kissed the tips of his fingers and pressed them to the casket mouthing his final words, "I loved you Stephy, I know it wasn‘t quite in the the way you wanted it to be, but you touched a part of me that will always be yours, forever... Goodbye until we meet again..."
Will spun on his heels and quickly walked away. Deanna watched his approach and sliding her arm around his waist they both stepped through the giant steel doors, closing another chapter of their lives, leaving the Starship Enterprise to take them on another journey.