The Unbroken Bond

by Schmianna@aol.com

 

Chapter One "Life Happens"

 

     Will materialized in sickbay, feeling vaguely comforted by the familiar surroundings before he allowed himself to pass out.  He woke several moments later as the two young ensigns were trying to manhandle him onto the biobed.  "Let go of me, I'm fine," he said in a voice that came out weak and wobbly; not at all like he'd intended. 

     "Ahem," he heard, as the velvety smooth voice of Beverly Crusher, ships chief medical officer, announced her arrival.  The two ensigns renewed their efforts vainly.  "Will," she said, exasperation lacing the concern in her voice, "Get on the bed and let me do my job."

     Will was trying desperately to get the two Bevs to focus into one.  "Beverly," he said with faint annoyance when her double wouldn't cooperate, "I'm fine.  At least I... I'll be fine if you'll just give me a sec.."  As the room began to spin again, he tried to tell her that he was having second thoughts about his condition, but his much abused body overrode this final attempt to force it to do his will.  He fell straight back wards, never feeling the ensigns, who had been  ready for such an event, as they grabbed him, saving him from further injury.  Bev suppressed a sigh as she went into high gear, ordering them to hoist the large man onto the biobed and strip off  his tattered uniform.

       "Captain Picard," Bev said after tapping her comm badge.

        "Picard here," he answered.

        "Will's back.  But I need to detain him here until I put him back together."

        Picard's cultured voice held a sharp note of concern.  "How severe are his injuries?"                       

        Bev began diagnostics as she replied. "Don't know yet sir, he doesn't seem to have serious injuries outwardly..  Just minor cuts and bruises.. and I suspect a concussion.   I'm running his internal diagnostics now."

        Picard's relief was subtle, but obvious to her.  "I'll be down to see him as soon as duty permits..."

       "Aye sir," she said, relieved to be concentrating on the job at hand.

       Picard finally made it to sickbay a little over an hour later only to find his first officer sleeping soundly.  "He's fine."  Beverly reassured him.  "Nothing we couldn't fix...this time.  He was exhausted, however.  He fell asleep during treatment and I thought it best to let him rest.."   She didn't mention that he was a much better patient when he wasn't awake and wrangling to get out of sickbay as quickly as possible.

    

       He was completely and utterly alone.  The ship's corridors were dark and cold, and they echoed with the pounding of his footsteps as he ran, searching for someone; anyone...they'd all vanished...and he would be alone now, forever, in the unending darkness and cold of space...

    "Will!"  Beverly shook him again and he sat up with a gasp, his heart pounding in his ears.  "It's OK, you were just having a nightmare..."

      He shivered involuntarily and Beverly took the blanket from the other biobed and wrapped it around his shoulders.  "It's all right, Will.  You've been through alot today, and your subconscious must still be in that fight-or-flight mode."

       Riker closed his eyes again and took a deep breath, trying to calm the residual panic he was feeling.  "Sorry, Bev."  He managed, drawing on his reserves to produce an apologetic smile and a bad joke involving nightmares and first year cadets.  He saw the concern in her eyes give way to amusement and relief.

      She gave him the usual lecture about the limitations of medical science and the probability that he'd one day show up with something she couldn't fix.  He listened politely, as he always did, and managed to look repentant as she handed him a fresh uniform.  "You can go.  But take it easy.  Get some sleep - and nothing strenuous until I clear you tomorrow..."

       He headed for his quarters, but changed his mind.  The echoes of the dream still clung to him and he didn't want to face the quiet solitude of his rooms.  He headed for 10-forward instead, and the prospect of a little social interaction.  It was late into the ship's night and the lounge was nearly deserted.  He took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink.  After a few sips he began to feel a little more like himself and he turned and scanned the room, looking for someone to talk to.

        His heart lurched when he saw them, at a table in the back of the room.  They were leaning together in the way that lovers do when they're discussing something important.  Worf reached out and brushed her hair out of her eyes.  Will saw her smile as she caught the Klingon's hand and her lips formed the words that he could read, even from a distance.  He'd seen her say them before.  Only this time she was saying them to Worf, and under the table she was stroking Worf's leg with her stocking foot...

     Will squeezed his eyes shut. He slowly willed the vise clamped round his heart to loosen it's grip. Worf was one of Will's closest friends; but it had become increasingly difficult to separate his friendship for the Klingon from his longing for Deanna.  He'd even begun to avoid Deanna; not wanting her to question him about the inner turmoil that was so often his companion.  She hadn't been too difficult to avoid, as she rarely sought him out for companionship as she had in the past.  Will had soon stopped asking the computer to locate the counselor, for as often as not, she was in Worf's quarters.

     Seeing Deanna and Worf together had always been difficult; but he'd never dreamed that Deanna would develop such a serious relationship with someone who's values were so different from her own.  Watching them now, it was obvious that the Klingon and the counselor had made an emotional commitment to one another, and Will could hardly face either of them. What had at first seemed to be so improbable, now appeared to be a bonafide certainty. 

     The whole issue had become a nightmare for the first officer, and he knew it was starting to effect his performance.  This last away mission had been a warning to him.  He'd purposefully left them off the team, his increasing inability to separate his emotions from his job coloring his decision.  It had been a big mistake, and he was fortunate that he was the only crew member to suffer for his idiocy.  He knew he couldn't continue like this.  He'd been fooling himself long enough.  Not only was life on the Enterprise unbearable, but Will's strong sense of duty had been compromised.  He could no longer look his Captain in the eye and know that he'd given his best.  He intended to give his transfer request to Picard in the morning. 

   Will slowly  turned around.  Unable to restrain himself, as if he were a moth drawn to the flame, he watched, numbly at first, as Deanna gave Worf what had once only belonged to him.  The numbness lasted only moments however; and the anger, pain and humiliation that welled up within him left him breathless with emotion.  He jumped to his feet in an effort to escape the scene being played out on the other side of the room, leaving behind him a wake of curious onlookers.  The ebony skinned bartender, tight lipped, shook her head as she stared after him. 

       In the morning the captain was surprised when Will stepped onto the bridge.  Beverly had reported that he was fine, but Riker looked like hell.  His eyes were tired and his jaw tense as he faced his commanding officer.  "Sir, Request permission to speak with you..." 

    Picard gestured towards his ready room door and followed his first officer into the office.  He crossed to the replicator and got himself a cup of tea, replicating a mug of black coffee for Riker without even asking.  He sat on the couch instead of behind his desk, and signaled for the commander to have a seat.   Picard was not looking forward to this conversation, but he had decided that he was not going to let Will turn down yet another opportunity for his own command.  Will was more than capable and with the threat of the Borg looming his talents were desperately needed by Star Fleet. 

     "Sir-"  Will began, determined to get his request for transfer out before he could be diverted by other matters.  Picard held up a silencing hand and Riker lapsed into an unwilling silence, poorly suppressing an impatient sigh.

      "In a moment, number one.  First, there is something we need to discuss.  You've been offered another command.  The prototype  USS Soyuz.  She was commissioned three months ago.  Her former captain rather abruptly resigned his commission yesterday, for personal reasons."  Picard was unable to read the look on Riker's face.  There were some distinct disadvantages to having a poker-playing officer.

       "She's an impressive ship, Will.  A crew complement of 450.  State of the art Warp technology.  A more formidable military capability than any other ship in the fleet.  She's been specifically designed in response to the Borg threat.  It would be a tremendous opportunity for any captain - "

       Will felt an enormous sense of relief.  Here was a solution to what was plaguing him.  A new start - a new command.  A chance to get his life and his career back on track.  An opportunity to do something that would help him forget Deanna.  He opened his mouth to speak and Picard held up the silencing hand again.

        "I want you to consider this carefully, Will.  Frankly, you would be a fool to pass up this opportunity..."

         Will placed his mug carefully on the low table and then looked up at Picard with a look of quiet certainty.  "I know.  I intend to accept..."

         Picard was caught by surprise.  He'd been rehearsing his arguments ever since he'd received the message from the admiralty an hour ago.  He hadn't expected Will to agree so quickly.  It took him a moment to reorient himself, and then he nodded briskly. "Excellent.  Then you will have a busy few hours in front of you.  We will rendezvous with the Endeavor in eight hours, and they will transport you to Starbase 11 where you will meet the Soyuz.  Not long to say goodbye, I'm afraid..."

       Will nodded.  It was best that way.  There was an awkward moment, then Picard stood, briskly tugging on his tunic.  "I shall leave you to contact Admiral Ritter.  If it's acceptable to you, I will call a staff meeting an hour from now to inform the rest of the crew..."

       Will stood as well.  "That would be fine, thank you, sir." 

        Picard let a smile tug on the corners of his mouth.  "Jean Luc will do now, Captain Riker."  Nodding to his soon-to-be-former number one,  the captain beat a hasty retreat before things got embarrassingly sentimental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                         Chapter Two "Command"                         

 

       Will slumped over like a lump of clay in his seat in the shuttle's passenger area.  His long legs were sprawled out, and at odds with each other.  He ran his fingers through his military hair style for the tenth time, massaging his temples as he battled a tension headache that had developed during his going away party.  Gently rubbing the lines of pain that creased the center of his brow, Will sighed deeply.  He had certainly put on a good show tonight.  Smiling the famous Riker smile, cracking one joke after another, and saying all the right things to all the right people.  But his good humor had all been an act, his excitement a sham. He was sick in spirit, and miserable about leaving, but he knew it had to be done.   He knew that Captain Picard had suspected that things weren't as they seemed, but thankfully he had kept his silence.  Will, not trusting his ability to retain his composure, had gone to extreme lengths to avoid being alone with Deanna at any time, saying his good byes to both her and Worf in Ten-Forward.  He just couldn't bring himself to face her alone.  He knew that his carefully constructed facade would crumble if he had to look into those eyes again.  Instead, he'd steeled himself and had purposefully gone to their table. Shaking Worf's hand solemnly, he had given Deanna a gentle kiss on the cheek while carefully avoiding her gaze.  Forcing a smile, he bowed to their table as he picked up his trombone and played with the band for three or four tunes.  Unable to carry on the facade any longer, he then stepped down to let the other ships talent carry the rest of the evening.  All a part of the act.  The night seemed interminably long and was far from over, though the party was finished.  Will had been relieved when the hour for their departure finally arrived.  He'd said his good-byes and decided to slip out unobtrusively while everyone was crowded around Laforge.  He picked up his trombone and turned to leave; but was restrained by a hand on his arm.  He found himself looking down at the dark, smooth skinned face of  ten-forward's hostess.  She didn't speak, but her eyes held him there nonetheless.   She was searching his face for something, he knew not what. Guinan transferred her grip to his hand.  Her coolness in his warmth, still holding him captive with her obsidian gaze.  Will waited.  It was impossible for him to read her as he might have Deanna, or even to decipher what Guinan wanted from him.  She finally spoke with a voice smooth like velvet.  "It won't hurt forever Riker," was all she finally said, dropping his hand after squeezing it tightly.  "Take care of yourself... I'm really going to miss you."  And with that she reached up on tiptoe and gave him a kiss.

     Will shook his head, his eyes filling up at the still fresh memory.  Laying back in his seat, he squeezed his eyes shut again.  As he blocked out the sights and sounds around him, only the twitching of his folded hands betrayed the depth of his nervous exhaustion. He knew deep in his gut that for all her ancient wisdom, Guinan was wrong this time.

 

                                                                           ********

 

      Deanna lay back against Worf's broad chest wondering what her life was going to be like without Will's presence near her to rely on.  It had been 8 years since she'd been without at least an empathic sense of Will Riker in her life.  His solid strength and warmth had always been a presence in the background of her life here on the Enterprise.  Solid and reassuring.  Comfortable.  Loving.  Feeling restless, she got up from the bed and pulled on her uniform with quick, jerky movements..  "Worf," she said, "I need to be alone tonight."  He grunted his assent, feeling somewhat awkward himself over this evenings events.  His commander and best friend had left the Enterprise.  He was both relieved and upset.  Worf wasn't such a fool as to not realize the real reason for his commanders leaving.   He lay on his back, listening silently to the sounds of Deanna's departure.

 

      Geordi shifted restlessly in his chair.  Even though he had it in full recline position he still squirmed about, trying to no avail to get comfortable.  Not that he expected to get much sleep anyway.  His mind was too active for that.  Everything had happened so quickly.  One moment he'd been sitting at his desk reviewing power consumption data, and the next moment Will Riker had appeared at his office door with a simple question which changed the course of his career.  "Geordi?  What do you know about the systems of the prototype Soyuz?"

    The engineer supposed he'd been rather obvious in his enthusiasm.    The Borg threat had really lit a fire under the design engineers at Utopia Planetia.  The Soyuz was the result of a burst of creativity and innovation that had brought astonishing new developments.  Will let Geordi rattle on for a few minutes about the new multi-phasic phaser array and the low gain Warp drive...and had laughed when Geordi had finished with an emphatic "What I wouldn't give to get my hands on that ship..."

    That was exactly the opening that Will Riker had been waiting for.  Admiral Ritter had been thrilled with Riker's decision to accept command,  and casually mentioned that they had a Chief Engineer position to fill as well.  With Captain Picard's reluctant blessing Riker had headed straight for engineering.  He shut Geordi's door and slid into the chair beside the Engineer's desk, and within ten minutes the Soyuz had a new officer.  

    Geordi wondered belatedly if he'd made the right decision.  He had been feeling stagnated lately, and this new assignment offered him a type of excitement and challenge he hadn't experienced since he accepted his position on the Enterprise.  He knew he'd have no problem serving under Riker, whom he  both respected and admired.  Still, it was difficult leaving the Enterprise and his friends behind on the spur of the moment.  There had been so little time for leave-taking, and he was especially sorry that he hadn't had time to spend with Data before he left.

     He shifted again restlessly and opened his eyes, glancing across the aisle at Will Riker, fully expecting to find him sound asleep.  To his surprise the new captain was awake as well, staring at the ceiling with a melancholy expression.  The fourth pip gleamed on his collar in the low light of the shuttle and Geordi wondered if his apprehension was related to assuming his own command; surely enough to keep anyone awake at 3 o'clock in the morning.  Geordi saw Riker swallow hard and shut his eyes tightly for a moment, almost as if fighting off tears.  Geordi quickly looked away.  He knew that what he was seeing wasn't apprehension, but a very private grief.  Geordi sighed to himself and shut his eyes again, his own worries forgotten as he wondered, not for the first time, what had ever compelled Deanna to push Will away in favor of Worf.

                                                                            *********

 

    Deanna paused outside the door on level eight.  Reaching up, she ran her finger over the name-plate that remained there. Commander William T. Riker, it still proclaimed.  She tried the door and it slid open, but as soon as she entered she wished that she hadn't. There was nothing left of him here.  All of the warmth of Will's personality was missing. His possessions were gone and the quarters looked stark, bare and  unwelcoming. Deanna sat down anyway, trying to find the privacy and solitude she needed in order to think and analyze what she was feeling. 

     Deanna thought about Will, and about all of the years that they had shared together.  She knew that she would never have that kind of intimacy with another being again...and yet somehow, they'd never been able to trust each other enough to break down those final barriers that had grown between them.  She sat in his deserted quarters for most of the night, crying tears of regret that she refused to let anyone else witness . 

    Morning had almost come to the Enterprise when she finally arose. Feeling cleansed and empty at the same time, Deanna scanned the room.  She had made her good-byes.  Sadly, she stepped out into the corridor and the door to his former quarters slid shut behind her, irrevocably ending this chapter of her life. 

    Deanna showered and changed before meeting Worf for breakfast.  She attended a staff meeting and met with patients and took a tai chi class.  She kept herself very busy that day and almost every day afterwards.  Time went on, she told herself that she was fine without him, and after a while she even managed to convince herself that the hollow feeling in her soul was normal.   

 

 

 

                                         Chapter 3  "Misunderstanding"

 

 

    Geordi observed the tired smudges under Riker's eyes.  Guessing that he'd slept very little the night before, he hesitated now to wake him.  But they were coming up on the Soyuz, and there was no help for it.  He reached over and nudged his new Captain awake..  "Hey-- Captain," he said, reining in his own excitement   "We're here.  Lets go show 'em how the big boys do it." 

     Will cracked open his eyes and stared at the ceiling of the transport for a moment as the haze of sleep lifted itself from his mind.  He pushed himself into a more upright position before he answered, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth with distaste.  "I'd better go clean up a little." He said, observing Geordi's enthusiasm and giving him a brief smile.  "Excited?"

       The engineer smiled sheepishly... "I've been ready for two hours commander...  I mean Captain," he admitted wryly.

     Will chuckled at the engineer's slip.  He was both happy and relieved that he'd convinced his friend to follow him.  Without further adieu, he left his seat to make himself as presentable as possible with the limited resources, returning just in time to see the Soyuz looming into view.  She was absolutely beautiful.  Her lines were long and sleek and gave the impression of great speed, even when she was hanging stationery at space dock.  

    "Wow."  Geordi breathed almost reverentially,  glancing at his captain to gauge his reaction.

     Will Riker studied his ship.  In one of his less guarded moments Jean Luc Picard had once described his first view of the Enterprise.  Will grinned.  He understood now.  "Well said, Mr. Laforge."

     The shuttlebus pilot turned to look at his last two passengers.  "Final stop--the Soyuz," he announced. 

     Captain Riker unconsciously tugged on his tunic, straightening it in a gesture reminiscent of another starship captain.  Geordi found it both amusing and comforting.  "Ready?" Will inquired.

  .  "Aye Captain!" Geordi replied... eager to see their new home.

                                                             *******************

 

     Ships First Officer, Commander Richard Thompson waited with mild trepidation inside the shuttlebay as the shuttlebus finished it's docking procedure.  His palms were sweating, and he felt extremely nervous about meeting his new Captain.  Losing their first Captain so suddenly had thrown him off his stride.  He didn't really like surprises, and Starfleet's choice had definitely surprised Thompson.  Conventional wisdom had said that Riker would never settle to Captain any ship but the Enterprise.  Most people assumed that he was just biding his time, until Picard finally accepted the inevitable shove upstairs.  Riker's dedication to Picard, and the Enterprise was accepted as fact, and as a team, the two men had become legend.  Thompson wondered idly what had happened.  Rumors and wild stories about Commander William T. Riker had always been abundant. He'd heard the first of them while still in Starfleet Academy.  But he never had been one to put much stock in rumors.   Straightening his tunic nervously, he wondered how much of what he'd heard was fact, and how much fiction. 

      Security chief Rafael Dimonelli stood in stoic silence beside the First Officer, but Cecily Braxton, the Chief Medical Officer, had been detained in sickbay.  There had been an outbreak of an unusual flu that had spread through the ships children and was taking it's toll on the adults as well.  Thompson frowned.  Braxton had her hands full, treating the sick ones, and inoculating the well ones.  There were four hundred and fifty souls on the Soyuz.  Fifty married couples, with a total of thirty children.  Captain Riker was single, or so he had heard.  More grist for the mill, he thought with annoyance. 

     The shuttle's doors whisked open and he straightened to attention.  The man who stepped out had to bend his head to keep from hitting it on the doorway... His dark hair was neatly combed, and he had a well manicured beard. *Very ship shape,* Thompson observed critically to himself.  The Captain cleared the doorway and looked up, obviously curious about his new surroundings.  Riker's gaze came full circle and locked on to his, startling the younger man with it's blue intensity.  "Captain," was all Thompson was able to stutter out. 

        "Commander Thompson and Lieutenant Dimonelli I presume?" the Captain replied warmly, extending his hand outward.  Thompson was rigid for several seconds, not expecting a handshake, and trying to reconcile formal protocol with Riker's friendly overture.  Recovering, he extended his own hand in welcome.  Riker shook it, and Dimonelli's, before stepping aside.  "This is Lieutenant-Commander Geordi LaForge, the best damn engineer in Star Fleet."  Riker introduced Geordi with a big grin.

      Thompson stared at Dimonelli's wide smile in annoyance.  Riker's charisma had obviously disarmed the security chief from the moment he had stepped off the shuttle.   Thompson rigidly shook hands with the new engineer and then ushered them to their quarters, unsettled by the informal turn the welcome had taken.  Still, he was a fair man and he silently reserved judgment on the Soyuz's new Captain.

   

     Cecily Braxton was brimming with curiosity about Captain William Riker.  Thompson had been prudishly tight lipped about his first encounter.  But rumors were already flying around the small community that was the Soyuz.  "He's gorgeous," one of her nurses had confided, having glimpsed him in the corridor outside his quarters. 

     "Tall, handsome, and unattached," the ensign from ops had declared triumphantly.

     "Seems nice," was all Dimonelli would tell her with a grin on his charming Italian face.                                                                                                                                                       .     She wearily brushed her copper colored hair from her eyes.  She'd just finished inoculating the last of the uninfected children against what she called the "Injard flu," named after the infamous crew member who had brought it on board.  She was going to have to go over the transporters viral and bacterial filtration systems with a fine tooth comb.  This flu shouldn't have possibly been able to get past the ships "state of the art system."  Cecily leaned back against the cool wall and closed her eyes.  "Long day?" a deep, unfamiliar voice questioned, breaking into her scattered thoughts.  Startled, her eyes flew open to reveal tall dark, and handsome.... and he was standing just three feet in front of her!

    Her defenses automatically clicked into place.  "I wasn't informed you would be inspecting sickbay today, Captain."  She cursed herself for the brittle edge of her words, but she hadn't liked being caught unaware, and she had hoped to present a better image at her first meeting with her new commanding officer, handsome or not!  Her best defense however, always seemed to come out as a strong offense.

     Will Riker hadn't waited for a tour of the ship.  His quarters had been spacious, but depressingly empty, and his things were sitting in a huge ungainly pile in the middle of his floor; precisely where the transporter had left them an hour ago. His natural curiosity had prompted him to take an impromptu tour of the ship.  He wanted to know how their past Captain had been running things, and could think of no better way to find out.  He hadn't been to the bridge yet... He was saving that treat for last.  Engineering had been his first stop.   Geordi was already there ahead of him.  He was endlessly questioning the junior engineers, sticking his head behind power grids and underneath control panels.  He hardly gave Riker a glance, but his calm and easy-going manner had obviously already put his new crew at ease.  Next had been the family quarters.  Riker strolled the corridors, stopping often to chat.  Visiting the lounge areas, he talked with crew members and family alike, giving them a double dose of charm, and infecting them with his easy grin.  It was different here, then on the Enterprise.  This ships compliment was less than half that of the fleet's flagship, and consequently, there was much more of a feeling of community here.  Will took the turbolift to the fourth out of five levels; his next stop, sickbay.  It was a place he studiously had avoided during his term of duty on the Enterprise.  Stepping in and moving quickly towards the back of the room, he'd silently watched as the ship's doctor gave orders to concerned parents; and then comfort, sympathy, and a hypospray to each child.  She wasn't classically beautiful, but her warmth and energy made her very attractive.  Riker was not even remotely interested in any woman right now, his heart still residing on another ship that was moving farther away by the second.  He turned his attention back to the young woman before him.  She was the daughter of a Starfleet doctor, and had graduated from the academy five years before with honors.  Her move through the ranks had been almost as swift as his own, and her name was Cecily Braxton.  She was also, apparently, touchy.  He had somehow already said the wrong thing to her in an attempt to be friendly.  But he was suddenly too tired himself to care.  He informed her it was not an inspection, and  that the executive officers were to meet after supper in the command center, and then abruptly left.  His sudden departure left her standing with her mouth open, as she stuttered ineffectively, trying to get the words out to repair the damage she'd inadvertently caused.   

  Dr. Cecily Braxton flopped in her office chair and let out a sigh.  She'd been on her feet for 16 hours.  It felt good to sit down.  Glancing at her computer screen she noted a red-flagged file and said wearily, "Computer. Display red file."

      She straightened as Captain Riker's medical records appeared on the screen along with a "please read" notation.  Cecily touched the screen and the image of Dr. Beverly Crusher of the USS Enterprise appeared.  Dr. Braxton leaned forward, curious about what the well-respected doctor had to say.  "Congratulations, Dr. Braxton.  You've just inherited one of the worst patients in Star Fleet."  Cecily wasn't sure how to read Dr. Crusher's smile.  "Captain Riker tends to take a lot of physical risks, both at work and at play.  The problem is that he also seems to think he's indestructible.  He won't come to you for medical attention unless he's half dead.  So, if he calls and asks for something for a headache you can be pretty sure he's got a serious concussion.    And if he tells you he has a scratch he'd like you to look at, you may as well just prepare the surgical team.  You'll really need to stay on top of this man and be firm about your treatment recommendations.  I've found that threatening him with a forced medical leave usually works fairly well."

       Cecily sighed inwardly.  Just what she needed.  Another Captain who was going to be difficult.   Crusher looked down at the padd on her desk.  "In fact, it looks like you're going to get a quick start with the Captain.  He was injured on an away mission a few days ago.  You'll see it on his chart, and you'll need to do a follow-up on the broken rib."  Crusher looked back up and smiled again.  "Good luck.  Just remember - be firm - and don't ever take his word when it comes to his physical condition...or poker."  Crusher paused, and almost as an afterthought added "Oh- and I've forwarded you Lt. Comm. Laforge's records as well.  Geordi is a sweetheart, and very knowledgeable about his medical condition.   You'll have no problems with him...Crusher out."

     Cecily Braxton leaned back in her chair and massaged her temples against the headache that was threatening to develop.  Why did she get the rotten captains?  She could never remember her father having such a difficult time with his CO's.  And although she hadn't had much contact with the captains on her two previous ships, the chief medical officers there had never complained.  Well, no matter what his idiosyncrasies, Riker couldn't possibly be as bad as Vinson.

    Her face flamed as she recalled the wrestling match in the Captain's quarters.  They'd only been working together for a few weeks when he'd called her late one evening and asked if she could stop by.  He wasn't feeling well.  She had a few qualms about seeing him in his quarters. but one didn't tell the captain to report to sickbay.  He'd been laying on the bed, shirtless and shoeless and complaining about a stress headache.  She'd checked him over with the tricorder and given him a hypospray, but he'd insisted that the only way he ever got rid of this type of headache was with a neck and shoulder massage.  All her instincts told her something was amiss, but she wasn't sure how to refuse the captain.  After all, massage therapy was part of her training and could be a valuable treatment tool.  She'd started on his neck, puzzled that she wasn't finding the hard, tense muscles associated with stress.  She made the observation out loud, and he'd flipped over abruptly and grabbed her, pulling her down and making a lewd comment about where she could find something hard and tense.  She'd struggled as he kissed her, and he growled that she knew she wanted him...It had taken a knee in his groin to convince him otherwise, and she'd beat a hasty retreat. 

      Cecily didn't tell anyone for several days, too mortified by what she viewed as a lapse in her professionalism.  In the end she'd confided in the Ship's Counselor, Philip Chao, when Captain Vinson had made it clear he was going to make her life miserable.  Phil was warm and understanding, and told her not to worry about it.  Apparently their captain had a history. Two days later Vinson abruptly announced he was leaving the Soyuz due to personal reasons. 

    Cecily hadn't worked up the nerve to ask Phil what had happened, but she was fairly certain the counselor had something to do with it.  At any rate, no one on the Soyuz was going to mourn Captain Vinson's departure.  He was a intolerant, tyrannical bore, not to mention a real pig.  Cecily smiled, feeling a little encouraged.  Riker had to be better than that.

  Back in his unfamiliar quarters, Will Riker stepped from the shower and toweled off.  He ate a sandwich as he pulled on a fresh uniform, admiring the four pips in the mirror for a moment.  An hour's nap had left him feeling refreshed and anxious to see the bridge and meet the rest of his officers.  He crossed to the computer and noticed that he had several dozen messages waiting.  He checked the first few and found them to be congratulations from a variety of old friends and starfleet brass.  They would be fun to read, but later.  "Computer.  Are there any high priority messages?"

     A single message appeared on the screen with a high priority prefix.  Riker scanned it.  A status report from the First Officer, Thompson.  Written in classic bureaucratic doublespeak it basically said that everything was fine and they were trying to figure out how the flu had gotten through the transporter filters.  Of course, it took two screens to say that.  Will sighed.  A man like Thomson would definitely not have been his first choice for number one.  Still, he had a fine record and maybe once he learned to relax a little they'd be OK.  After all, his command style hadn't seemed to match Picard's at first either, and they'd ended up complementing each other very well..

    Will stepped into the hallway and headed for the lift, when he heard someone calling him.  He turned to see a man with white hair, a drooping walrus mustache , and blue eyes set in a deeply creased face.  "Captain Riker!  Welcome aboard sir.  Counselor Phil Chao..."

     Riker took his extended hand and shook it warmly.  He liked the man immediately.  There was something about him that set you at ease, and Riker liked the way time had etched laugh lines into the older man's face.  Phillip Chao had served long and with distinction on a number of starships.  His career stretched back to before Will had even been born.  In addition, he was recognized as one of the Federation's premier authorities on combat related stress.  It was that interest, as well as a desire to get back in the thick of things, that had prompted him to volunteer for duty on the Soyuz.  Will was glad to have him as part of his staff and said so.

    Chao smiled and accepted the compliment easily.  He'd been studying Riker's psychological profile and he had a good feeling about the young man.  He was just what this crew needed after the Vinson fiasco.  Chao still wasn't sure what they'd been thinking when they'd put that old targ in command.

     They stepped onto the lift together and Chao turned to him.  "We have a mutual friend, Captain."

     That was certainly not uncommon in Starfleet circles and Will wondered pleasantly who Chao was referring to.  Picard perhaps?  "Deanna Troi served part of her internship under me.  Lovely woman." 

     Most people wouldn't have noticed anything unusual about Will Riker's reply.  He smiled pleasantly enough and agreed with Chao's assessment of the Enterprise's ship's counselor.  But Chao had fifty years experience reading people's faces and he saw the almost imperceptible tightening of Riker's jaw and the subtle narrowing of his eyes.  Interesting.  There was something there and Chao had a feeling that eventually he'd hear about it.   

        Will thought the staff meeting went extremely well.  He had a very good feeling about Dimonelli and Chao, and the Atolan Operations officer Ana Fen.  He got the impression that they felt the same way about him.  Unfortunately,  Commander. Richard Thompson seemed no more relaxed than he had before.   When Will had mentioned that he did not see the need for periodic written status reports when they could communicate the same information verbally, there was a note of disapproval in his "Yes, Captain."  Will wondered if the man actually enjoyed writing that stuff.

    Will wasn't sure about Cecily Braxton either.  He'd seen how warmly she dealt with her patients, and so it surprised him that she seemed cold and standoffish with him.  When she requested to speak with him after the meeting he was expecting the worst.     Will exchanged a few parting words with the security officer, Dimonelli, and then turned to face the Doctor in the now deserted conference room.  "There was something...?"  He asked, trying to be as pleasant as possible.

     "Yes, Captain.  I would like you to report to sickbay.  Dr. Crusher indicated that you  recently sustained a broken rib.  I need to confirm that it has healed properly.  You also need a flu immunization, and a boarding physical..."  She spoke firmly, hoping that her professional attitude would discourage the protest that was coming.

    Will hated sickbay with a passion, and detested being poked and prodded when he knew he was perfectly fine.  Still, this might be an opportunity to break the ice with his CMO.  He smiled disarmingly.  "Fine.  I have a few minutes right now, if you'd like to get this over with, Doctor."

    He thought she looked puzzled for a moment before nodding.  "That would be fine sir."

    He was gorgeous, there was no doubt about that.  It was all Cecily could do to keep from laughing at the way the physician's assistant and the nurse on duty suddenly became so attentive.  She'd never had so much help administering a flu shot before in her life. 

   For his part, the new Captain was cooperative and pleasant.  He certainly seemed a far cry from Vinson.  Still, there were the rumors and gossip that she'd heard floating around for the last few days, and he exhibited just a tad too much self-confidence for her liking.  There was such a thing as being too perfect, she thought.  Handsome, debonair, self-assured....and probably with a monumental ego to match.  She refused to be charmed by him and his high-wattage smile, unlike the rest of the female crew of the Soyuz.

       Dr. Braxton had just finished examining the healing rib with the medical tricorder when Comdr. Thompson's reedy voice broke in on them.  "Captain Riker!  Priority One message for you from Star Fleet Command!" 

      The Doctor was amazed at the sudden shift in Riker's demeanor as he stood up and reached for his shirt.  "This will have to wait..."  he said tersely to her, then raised his voice for Thompson's benefit.  "On my way, Commander...".

     Geordi and the other executive officers had been called to the command center, and were waiting for the captain to come in.  Wondering what the priority one message contained had made for lively discussion.  They didn't have to wait long for Riker.  He entered and began without preamble, his face grim.  "Starfleet is sending us to the Glason sector at top warp.  There have been two attacks on the Astons space station in as many days... And their commander is certain that it won't be the last.  They're carrying on high level research concerning the matter-antimatter fields we currently use, and have apparently made some type of a breakthrough.  This is information that absolutely cannot fall into the wrong hands."  Riker emphasized his words by leaning over the table and looking at each officer as he spoke.  "This is a potential combat situation, and Starfleet wants to see how the new ship functions." 

     He made eye contact with each his each of his officers.  "I'm going to need the help of each one of you.  At this point, you all know your stations, and our ship's capabilities far better than I do," he said, emphasizing "our", "  They looked at each other with covert expressions of surprise; all except Counselor Chao, who just leaned back and smiled.  Overall, this was a young crew.  All had shown high aptitude in their combat training, and all had carried themselves well in previous battle situations.  What they didn't have was experience under more than a couple of Commanding officers.  Captain Vinson's method of operation had been to be notoriously closed mouthed about Starfleet orders in an effort to control his crew.  Orders were given, and opinions never asked.  They had assumed they would get more of the same from their new Captain. 

    Will continued "We'll be in the Glason sector in 6 hours at top speed, and I'll need to use that time to learn as much as I can."  He focused sharply on his first officer, causing the young man to stiffen, "Commander Thompson, I want you to prepare an away team, in the event that one is needed.  Be sure to include medical personal and Mr. LaForge... Both their talents may be needed."  He switched his attention to Cecily next.  "Doctor Braxton, ready sick bay for extensive casualties.  We don't know what the station's capabilities are, and they may need our help."  Cecily nodded, more comfortable with this focused, businesslike Captain than the casual, charming man she'd met before.   Riker continued, giving them all a tired smile.  "I know that none of you would be on this ship if Starfleet hadn't considered you to be that best at what you do.  So unless someone shows me different, I'm going to assume you ARE the best.  I want you to know I am  honored  to have been given this chance to be your captain.  And I'm looking forward to a long and enriching experience here."  Cecily felt herself glow unexpectedly with his confidence, and than damned herself for being so easily swayed.  Before she could reorganize her thoughts, Riker was all business again.. "All right, six hours 'til show time.  Let's be ready.  Dismissed."

 

     Cecily was tired.  She'd hardly had any rest since two days before when the flu epidemic had hit, and now this.  Sickbay was ready to accept casualties, and she was on her way to her quarters to get some badly needed sleep.  She stood at the turbolift door, leaning back against the corridor wall as she waited.  Voices drifted down the opposite corridor towards her... she recognized that of the Captain and LaForge. 

    "Anything else to report?"  Riker asked.

     She heard Geordi reply, "...well...I did find out something interesting about your predecessor..."  The turbolift door opened and then shut again when she didn't step in.  She strained to hear what they were saying.  The voices had become stationary, as if they had stopped in the corridor to visit.   "Old Vinson was a real jerk, by all accounts.  Apparently he liked to throw his weight around.  He's been accused of sexual harassment by a couple different women..."

           Only Riker's words reached the doctor.  She couldn't see his disapproving frown or read his sarcastic expression. What she heard next made her face burn with humiliation and anger.   "Damn!  There's a hell of a solution to the loneliness of command... just get some innocent junior officer alone...It's completely safe for me.  Either I get laid, or her career gets ruined...No one would believe her word over mine, and she'd know that..."  Riker shook his head in disgust.  "You know what they say.  Rank hath it's privileges...and the Captain always gets what he wants, eh?"

          "Well, you better be careful who you pick on."  Geordi continued, "Because Phil Chao told me that..."   Two giggling teenagers stepped from the lift and headed down the hall, making it impossible for Cecily to hear Laforge's next words as he continued  "...Vinson picked on the wrong women in his command before Soyuz.  They lodged a formal complaint, but apparently someone at Star Fleet Command thought he had some redeeming qualities.  He just got his hand slapped and a transfer to the Soyuz."

          "Great!"  Riker commented.  "I was so proud of getting this command and it turns out my predecessor got it as punishment!"

           The two young girls moved out of range just in time for Cecily  to hear the deep male laughter floating down the hall.  "But I intend to stay on her alot longer than old Vinson did..."  Riker added firmly.  Dr. Cecily Braxton had no idea he was referring to the Soyuz.

         The turbolift's door opened again, and she stumbled in, praying for it to shut before they got there.  Her prayers were answered.  "Deck three," she said between clenched teeth.  She arrived quickly at her destination and practically ran to her quarters.  The door shut with a swish, and she let out a frustrated roar of anger and humiliation.  The doctor picked up the nearest object to her clenched fist and threw it with a satisfying crash against the wall.  Then she sunk into a chair while tears of helpless anger ran down her face.  

 

     Four hours later, Will Riker sat in the center chair on the Soyuz' s bridge, staring at the viewscreen as if hoping he could catch a glimpse of the Astons Space Research Facility, still an hour's travel away.  He glanced over his shoulder.  "Mr. Dimonelli?  Any response to our hails?" 

    The security officer shook his head in frustration.  "No sir.  There appears to be some sort of signal interference, and Star Fleet Command reports no further communication."

   "Damn."  Riker said softly to himself .  He hated going into a situation with no information.  The operations officer spoke up in her gravelly voice.  "Long Range Sensors indicate no unusual activity in the system , sir...The space station appears intact..."

    Thompson had been working furiously at the communications console for the last ten minutes and he finally looked up triumphantly.  "Sir, I was able to override the signal interference.  I have the base commander on audio."   Riker shot his first officer a look of approval.  Maybe the man would prove his worth after all.

     The conversation with the base commander was puzzling.  According to him there had been no attacks.  They were experiencing a disruption of communications, but otherwise everything was perfectly normal.  He had no idea who had reported an emergency to Star Fleet.  Will rubbed a hand over his beard, deep in thought.   It had seemed logical that there might be an attack on a research facility making breakthroughs in warp theory...there were a  lot of groups out there who would pay dearly for any new Federation technology.  A sudden thought occurred to him.  Of course.  It was a carefully set trap to lure the Soyuz, with all it's new bells and whistles and flaunted technological advances.  He gave the order to go to red alert and raise shields only moments before two Romulan warbirds decloaked, racing towards them with a menacing beauty and power.

    Phil Chao sat back in his seat and watched the reactions of those around him.  They were a young crew, and some of them had never even seen a Romulan warship before.  They had an untested ship and a captain they barely knew.  A difficult situation at best.

     Thomson left the communications console and rushed to his seat. "What are we going to do, sir?"  He demanded of Riker.

    Riker paused a split second and then smiled grimly.  "We're going to find out what this baby can do..."  He stood up and began issuing a flurry of orders.  The opening salvo of the Romulans glanced ineffectually off their shields as the Soyuz plunged abruptly into a screaming dive and loop that no other Federation vessel could have executed.  It took the Romulans by surprise and they lost valuable seconds compensating as The Soyuz swept in for a strafing run on the first ship.  The Romulan's shields flared brightly as the new phaser array compensated for their shield harmonics and struck a crippling blow.  Photon torpedoes from the second ship pounded into the Soyuz, and the aft shield unexpectedly collapsed.  Thomson barked orders to engineering and damage control as Riker directed a virtuoso performance of twists and turns and precisely placed bursts of force.  It seemed to last for hours, but it was actually just a matter of minutes before the first attacking vessel  disintegrated in a blossom of burning plasma and sheared metal.  The second ship withdrew abruptly, cutting their losses and fleeing into the darkness.  A cheer went up on the bridge. 

   Will Riker allowed himself a silent prayer of thanksgiving before turning to the assessment of the damage.  To his relief, the Soyuz had escaped relatively unscathed.  There was some damage to the aft portions of decks 3 and 4,  several injuries, but no fatalities.  The Research Station had not faired quite as well.  A stationery target, they'd taken several direct hits from the Romulan photon torpedoes.   Thompson was hastily pulling together several away teams to render assistance.  Will observed him for a moment.  In the heat of battle the nervous, inflexible officer was a changed man.  Thompson looked up at him, caught his glance and gave Riker an uncharacteristic grin.  "We kicked their asses, sir." 

       The captain grinned back at him.  "We did that, Number One."   He had Thompson on his side now, he knew.  The command crew of the USS Soyuz was coming together quite nicely.  All that remained was to figure out his perplexing CMO.  

 

 

 

                                                        Chapter 4 "Romulans"

 

     Riker made it a point to be there in the transporter room to see the away teams off.  He arrived just as his commander was stepping onto the platform.  "Thompson," he said, "I don't want you taking any unnecessary risks."

     The younger man nodded impatiently.  "Sir, this is a mission to give aid, not reconnaissance."  

     Riker moved closer to better make his point.  "Thompson, we're dealing with the Romulans.  A race known for cunning and cold blooded disregard for life.  Especially human life."  He placed the safety of the team in Thompsons hands with an iron look.  "I expect you to be  responsible for the safety of your teams, and I want you to be careful.  The only thing you can take for granted on ANY away mission, is to expect the unexpected.  Dismissed."  

      Thompson nodded stiffly, feeling like he had been unfairly reprimanded.  "Energize," the young first officer said.  Riker watched his crew de-materialize, and realized, for the first time, the frustration Picard must have felt every time HE had left to go into a potentially dangerous situation.  Riker saw that Dr. Braxton had arrived during his words of caution to Thompson.  She had come to talk to her medic who was leaving on the second team.  He gave her a smile in prelude to conversation, but the glare she returned him  was so hot it startled him into silence.  Instead, he turned and left, shaking his head in perplexity; wondering again what her problem with him could possibly be.  Will knew he needed to straighten it out whatever it was, but it was secondary until this situation on the station was stabilized.  He returned to the bridge to coordinate the repairs to the ship.

 

                                               ***************************

     Cecily watched Captain's receding back as he left the transporter room.  Just having him so near had brought all of her conflicting emotions boiling dangerously close to the surface.  She realized that she needed to talk with Phil about this before her ability to perform her duty was compromised, except that now she was unsure whether she could trust him or not.  Captain Riker's personality seemed like such a contradiction.  His command style was sure and strong, and she was very comfortable with that; and after his brilliant maneuvers with their untried ship  he definitely had the bridge crew sewn up in his back pocket.  But when not in command mode he seemed so warm and friendly that even stuffy old Thompson had loosened up!   Braxton fretted over what seemed like an untenable situation.   "How could someone so good be so... so without conscience," she asked herself for the tenth time.  The redhead didn't have any more answers for herself now then when she asked herself the question the first time.  Exhausted, she went to her quarters to take a short nap.  The double shift she'd  pulled was now extracting it's price.  She was worn out. 

      Three hours after he had seen the away team off, Will leaned back exhausted against the padded wall of the hologym.  Sweat soaked his workout togs and burned as it ran into his eyes.  The Klingon exercise routine he'd put into the gym's system had proved to be far more challenging, both physically and emotionally, then he'd expected.  His mind had been unexpectedly filled with rage from the first swing of the Bat'laff, imagining his opponent to be a certain Klingon commander on the Enterprise.  Consequently his reactions were a little off, and he'd severely  wrenched his neck in an effort to avoid being skewered by the huge Klingon.  Cursing his own stupidity, he tapped his comm badge.

       "Doctor Braxton," Riker's voice pierced the  cobwebs of sleep that fogged her brain.

       "Yes sir?" she replied, trying to keep the sleepiness out of her voice.

       "Can I see you in hologym four?" he asked.

        "Of course sir, on my way."  Cecily walked quickly to the bathroom and scrubbed her face, running a brush through her thick tresses. 

      Will slid dejectedly to the floor with his back to the wall, finally giving in to self-pity.  He carefully rationed these moments of introspection, aware that if he let himself think about her too much he would lose himself in a black pit of depression.  He'd hoped that leaving the Enterprise would make leaving her easier, but it only seemed to make his loneliness more unbearable.  At least on the Enterprise he could have her in his life in a small way.  "Deanna-" he murmured to himself.  Even the sound of her name hurt.

        Cecily paused outside the gym door, arming herself with her most professional demeanor.  The privacy lock was not on, but she touched the comm pad anyway.  "Captain Riker?"

        Will straightened up.   He'd almost forgotten that he'd called Dr. Braxton.  Not that his neck was so bad...but he thought he could use the opportunity to iron out whatever was going on with his CMO.  "Come in."  He said hoarsely.

        She stepped cautiously in the door.  There was no program running, and it took her a second to notice Riker, sitting against the wall.  He was wearing nothing but a loose-fitting pair of white karate-style pants, and his skin glistened with sweat.  Cecily had a sickening flashback to the scene with Vinson and Riker's words "I intend stay on her longer than Vinson did..."  "Yes sir?"  She asked stiffly.

        He studied her a moment, realizing what time it was.  "I'm sorry.  I woke you, didn't I?  I apologize."

        She refused to be swayed by his attempt at a show of human concern.  "You needed something, sir?"

        He nodded, and felt the twinge in his neck.  "Yes.  I pulled a muscle...but the real reason I wanted to see you is because I'm concerned that somehow we got off on the wrong foot..."  He gestured for her to sit down , but she remained steadfastly standing.

"We're going to be working very closely with each other doctor..." He went on, ignoring her fierce expression. "And I would prefer to have  a comfortable personal, as well as professional, relationship with you."

      Cecily swallowed her outrage with difficulty.  He was so damned smooth!  If she hadn't overheard his boast to Geordi she might actually have believed him.  Her voice, when she spoke, was frigid.  "Captain, I assure you that I will perform my professional duties to the utmost of my ability, but I have no desire to have any sort of personal relationship with you."

      He was tired.  He was stressed.  And he was thoroughly confused by this woman.  Absently he rubbed at his neck.

          "You said you had a pulled muscle?"  She asked crisply, hoping to get this over and done with.

           "Yes."  He looked up at her, "I hurt my neck. I think I need a hypospray--or a massage.  I was wondering if you could take a look at it for me."

            Her eyes narrowed as she glared at him with open disgust.  He was making fun of her,  taking up where Vinson had left off.  "You bastard!"  She snarled and wheeled, leaving him looking after her in confusion as the doors to the holodeck closed with finality behind her.

         "Just great..." He said aloud, dropping his head wearily back into his hands and wondering what he'd done to deserve this.  A few minutes later he roused himself.  He showered and pulled on a fresh uniform, his depression slowly dissipating to be replaced with pure irritation.  He could understand a little standoffishness but Braxton was being completely unreasonable, and as his aching neck reminded him, it was interfering with the performance of her duty. Will arrived on the bridge and spent a few minutes confirming that all was well with the away team and familiarizing himself a few of the second-shift bridge crew that he'd not yet met.  Satisfied that all was well for the moment, he went into his ready room and tapped his comm badge.  "Dr. Braxton, to the bridge."  He demanded.

          It seemed like she took a long time to get there, and coupled with the shooting pains in his neck, it only made him angrier.  He let her buzz the door twice before he called her in.  She stood rigidly inside the door, looking at his back as he stared out the viewport at the starbase below them.  "Sit."  He ordered.

         "I prefer to stand."  She replied, hating the slight tremor in her voice, and hoping he didn't notice.

          He turned and said icily,  "I said sit, Lt. Commander!"

          She sat down in the chair closest to the door, her hazel eyes blazing defiantly.

          He sat behind his desk and  locked her with his own icy blue eyes.  "I want to know what the hell is going on."  He said quietly.  "Your conduct has been..." he searched for a word and finally settled on "unacceptable".   It didn't quite convey his feelings, but it sounded a hell of a lot more professional than what he was thinking. "I've found nothing in your previous record to indicate that you are an uncooperative or insubordinate officer, so I can only conclude that you have some sort of personal problem with me.  I want to hear what it is.  Now."

         Cecily shook her head in disbelief and disgust.  "I think we both know what the problem is."  She answered, raising her voice a little more than she intended to.

          Will Riker rarely lost his temper, but he felt it slipping away from him now.  "Just what the hell are you talking about, doctor?"

          Cecily stood up, straightening to her full 5'4" height.  "I'm talking about your immature, egotistical, abusive-degrading--attitude."  She was aware that she was now practically shouting, and not being terribly eloquent, but she was so angry she was beyond caring.

            Will stood up too, confusion warring with outrage.  "What attitude doctor?  What have I ever done to you?"  He demanded.  "I don't even know you!"

            "Is that why you left the Enterprise for the Soyuz?"  She demanded hotly.  "Some poor woman had finally had enough and was making it uncomfortable for you?"

          Will was dumbfounded and his face showed it.  How did she know about Deanna?  And what could it possibly have to do with her?  "I don't think my personal life is any business of yours..."  He said thickly.

            Cecily took his pole-axed expression as confirmation.  What the hell was wrong with Starfleet Command?  Was the Soyuz earmarked for some reason, as the ship for officers fleeing sexual harassment charges?  She leaned across his desk to emphasize her words.  "Believe me Captain, I want nothing to do with your so-called personal life,"  she snarled. 

         Will Riker was treading the very fine line between anger and rage.  He knew that if he said anything more to this infuriating woman that he would regret it later.  He took a deep breath and drilled her with his glare.  "I have business to attend to doctor; however we will continue this conversation later.  In the meantime, I suggest that if you can't handle me or my command style, that you seriously consider applying for an immediate transfer off this ship.  "Dismissed," he snapped, but left before Cecily could even get turned around.

 

     Riker left the command center, his shoulders stiff with barely restrained anger and his face flushed with the heat of emotions held in check.  "Damn her," he thought, forcing himself to breathe slowly in through his nose.  He watched the bridge crew quickly avert their eyes as he searched the room with his gaze.  He reddened even more, absolutely certain that they'd gotten an earful; even if they hadn't heard the precise conversation.  "Atten...," he began before being interrupted by Ensign Gen's earnest voice from the con. 

     "Sir, we're getting an emergency transmission from the station, coded!"  Riker snapped to attention.

      "Unscramble, Ensign and let's hear it."  The young woman nodded, all else forgotten.  Riker heard the swish of the command center door, and felt Cecily's presence as she moved up behind him.

        "Sir," said Gen, "this band is weak, but we should be able to hear well enough."

         Riker nodded, listening carefully.  "Thompson to Riker, we are under attack..... ambushed..... injuries...."  The transmission was weak and breaking apart.  "Use shuttle... bay open...  Need your help to......"  The transmission ended abruptly.  Riker tapped his comm badge and called the transporter chief.  "Chief Griggs, can you get a lock on the away teams?" 

       Griggs replied after several moments, "Negative sir, There's a shield of some sort emitting from inside the station, and it's disrupting the  flow of the transporter beams.  It would be difficult to hold their patterns intact.... if not impossible." 

        Riker made up his mind quickly and snapped out orders.  "Lieutenant-Commander Gresheir, you have the bridge."  He tapped his comm badge, "Engineering, We've got a 'situation' - we need this ship ready for any type of maneuvers - pronto.  Dimonelli, assemble another team and meet me at shuttle bay two."  He looked at Gresheir,  "be ready to take evasive action if necessary.  Doctor, grab your med-kit and meet me in shuttle bay two; and be ready for casualties," he said, looking pointedly at Baxter.  She met his eyes steadily and nodded, shoving their differences to the side. . "Right.  Lets go then."  He strode confidently from the bridge.

                                               *****************

 

      It was the late shift, and things were quiet on the Enterprise bridge.  Deanna had requested that her shift be changed temporarily.  She had wanted to escape the awkwardness she felt about being on the bridge during the day shift that she and Will had shared together for so long.  Deanna closed her eyes, trying again for the hundredth time to sense him.  But all she felt was the vast emptiness of space which was a perfect foil for the desperate emptiness in her heart.   She had been so shocked at Will's decision to leave and the unexpected suddenness of his departure, that she hadn't been able to say anything to him privately before he left.  She had always known that he was hurt by her involvement with Worf, but she had carefully avoided looking too deeply, not wanting to feel responsible for his pain while she enjoyed the novelty of her new relationship.  But when Will had left, the grief of his absence had taken her by surprise, and cut through her with a vengeance.  It was like the pain of a missing limb... A phantom pain.   She couldn't share it with Worf.  She couldn't share it with anyone.  Will's presence, her sense of him was gone, erased as if it had never been.  It was like he'd been cut from her soul by phantom surgery.   But now that the numbness had worn off, it hurt.  It hurt like hell. 

                                                  ****************

   They stepped out of the shuttle into the station's shuttlebay, Cecily following closely behind the Captain's reassuringly broad back, her eyes scanning nervously for Romulans.  This was her first personal combat outside of the holo, but her medical experience had made her sharply aware of the very real dangers of Romulan disrupters, not to mention all the other *personal* hand to hand weapons they liked to carry.  Unluckily enough for them, their opponents needed little aside from their immense physical strength when dealing with such a relatively light weight species as humans.   Their bone density and muscle mass nearly doubled that of their human adversaries. Riker's forward progress stopped and he froze in front of her. Cecily was following so closely that she bumped into his back.  Mumbling an apology he didn't acknowledge, she kept her eyes glued to him.  He seemed intent on something at the far end of the shuttlebay.  "Cover me," he whispered, dashing for a large shipment of crates.  There was no shooting directed at him, and then no further sound at all.  She waited anxiously, wondering if Riker had already been captured.  Suddenly he stuck his head out and motioned them forward.  She felt Dimonelli give her back a reassuring pat, and she made a mad dash for Riker's position.  She skidded into the crevice he was in, gulping air as she settled down next to him.  Her nervous energy was making her pulse race.  He glanced at her with a worried smile, "Next time doctor, keep your head down, and your arms closer to your body.  Change your course while you run too.  It gives them a smaller target."  She nodded vigorously, inching closer, feeling vaguely comforted by the warmth of his large bulk.  He seemed not to notice.  Their differences were buried and forgotten during their shared danger.   "Dimonelli," he said when he and the others had arrived at their position, "We're going to split apart from here.   Take your team and search the other shuttle bays... They've got to have shuttle craft here somewhere.   Disable them when you find them... Than search the outer hull of the station.  And be careful," he cautioned needlessly.  "Braxton, " he said, "we'll work our way to the center and look for Thompson and LaForge's teams as we go...  Than we'll travel backwards from there... Taking out as many Romulans as we can on our way out."  He looked at Dimonelli and gave him a reassuring look, "keep in contact with the ship Rafael, and don't try to be a hero!  Remember this station has twenty-six civilians."                               

      The handsome Italian's grin showed whitely against his dark face, "Aye sir.  Will do."  The security chief silently motioned to his team, and they slipped through the shuttlebay doors, and on into the station.   

                                                          *********

 

     LaForge clutched his arm tightly, trying to avoid moving what he knew must be a broken wrist.  He'd been caught off guard by a small patrol while trying to reach the engineering section, and hadn't even gotten off one shot.  The Romulan who had grabbed his wrist had given a seemingly effortless twist, and Geordi had been driven to his knees by the sickening pain of the bone giving way.  They'd taken him to an officer in the stations sickbay, where they had apparently set up one of their command centers.  He watched the Romulan through slitted eyes as he dismantled the console.  Wondering what he was up to, he edged a little closer.  The door opened suddenly and another officer strode in.  He was holding a terrified little girl under his arm.  Geordi started to move but immediately froze as the first Romulan trained his disrupter on him.  Geordi's stomach lurched.  He seen  what a close range disrupter could do to human flesh, and he wasn't anxious to learn from personal experience if it was as painful as it had looked.  The two officers seemed to be continuing an ongoing argument .  "I say we take the research and leave now," the smaller one said.

      "No!" the other snarled.  "Command would not look kindly on us if we passed up this opportunity to take valuable hostages with us.  Riker and his new prototype is too good of an opportunity to pass by!"

    The first one stiffened, but then finally nodded his resignation.  "All right, but we will get a chance to question him before we turn him over.  Yes?" 

   Geordi cringed inwardly at the bigger Romulans expression, something between anger and lust.  "Of course... it's a long way to Romulus-is it not?"  The smiles they exchanged were pure malevolence.  Geordi sent up a quick prayer for Riker's safety as well as his own.  He clutched the heavy metal ornament in the palm of his hand.  Waiting for his opportunity to use it.

    Riker and Cecily lay squeezed against the bulkhead, both panting heavily. Sweat soaked their uniforms through, and they squirmed vainly to try and give each other more room.  They were sandwiched in between two lockers, in a tiny space that was really only half big enough for one of them.  Riker grinned widely at her, adrenaline still surging through his system.  She didn't return his grin, but was grateful for his company all the same.  They'd been following the signal from LaForge's comm badge, but had been surprised by a group of Romulan soldiers just outside the transporter room.   Proceeding to lead them in a running fire fight through the corridors of the station; Riker had showed Cecily how to double back, teaching her guerrilla tactics as they went along.  Cecily's training automatically took over as she targeted the Romulans, killing them  like she'd been doing it for years instead of hours.  She and the Captain had just dispatched the last two.  She exhaled the breath she'd been holding, her enmity buried deeply in the heat of the moment.  "All right, Doc," Riker said, reading his tricorder.  "This shows that Geordi's only about ten meters from here."  She read the concern for his friend in his face but said nothing.  Cecily liked Geordi from the little she knew of him.  She agreed with Dr. Crushers assessment of the sturdy engineer.  He was a sweetheart.  They moved silently down the corridor, phasers drawn and all senses alert.  Riker stopped suddenly in front of the stations sick bay door.  Cecily's stomach roiled, tying itself in knots.

     The door slid silently open without warning, catching them both by surprise.  The large Romulan stared at Riker, apparently just as surprised at seeing the human before him. Will, knowing he couldn't win against any Romulan in a close proximity situation, couldn't allow the surprise to wear off.  He clasped his hands together and swung them up under the Romulan's chin, knocking him backwards a few steps.  Lowering his head, he crashed into the humanoids hard abdomen with his shoulder, hearing the Romulans breath leave him in a satisfying whoosh.  They both tumbled further into the room and Riker quickly jumped up out of grappling distance, seeing the flash of a knife as he leaped sideways.  His quick reflexes had saved him from being gutted by the nasty serrated instrument, but they weren't quite fast enough to allow him a clean escape.  His breath hissed as his vision blurred momentarily as the knife sliced hotly across his flesh as though through butter.  The long shallow wound flowed from his sternum,  and curved down along his ribs.  Painful and bloody, but not serious he thought.  He fleetingly  hoped that there was nothing poisonous tainting the blade.  His vision cleared just as the Romulan's fist connected with his side.  He felt ribs give way, and spun, kicking out from his good side at the Romulans head..  He felt the shock travel up his leg as his foot connected with a satisfying crunch.  That's when he saw the other Romulan.  He was holding his disrupter to a little girl's head.  She couldn't have been more than four, but Riker knew with sickening certainty that the Romulan would regard her as an expendable pawn.  He froze momentarily until he heard Geordi's yell, "Heads up Captain."  Riker ducked, gasping at the fiery pain in his side.  The Romulan cried out and then dropped his disrupter, sliding bonelessly into a heap; blood ran down the side of his face as he lay moaning with pain.

    Riker took a quick look at the other one who was still scrambling to his feet.  Will took two running steps and grabbed the terrified child.  Picking her up, he hugged her and whispered a few words of comfort in her ear before handing her over to the doctor.  "Here," he rasped, his sides still heaving.  "Take her with you and get LaForge to sickbay."  Geordi began to protest, but Riker overrode him.   "I'm going to try and locate Thompson and then rendezvous with Dimonelli.  I want you out of here.  Go back the way we came.  It should be clear." 

 

      Riker felled the rising Romulan with his phaser and Cecily hesitated a moment more.  As crazy as it sounded she felt safer staying with Riker and had no desire to leave him here to face the Romulans alone.  Geordi grabbed her arm and they were off, sprinting down the corridor the way she and Riker had just come.  Cecily's back crawled with sick anticipation.  At any moment she expected to be felled by disrupter fire; but they made it back to the shuttle without further incident. 

      Geordi went forward and slipped into the shuttle's seat to pilot them home  while Cecily knelt, trying to catch her breath as she comforted the little girl she held.  She attempted to pry the sobbing child's arms from around her neck. Cecily had no idea what the child's injuries were, but she'd seen the blood on her tunic as Riker had hastily handed her over.   Cecily grabbed her tricorder, running it quickly over the blood-splattered child.  Puzzled, she turned to Geordi.  "She's not injured!"  She exclaimed, smoothing the girl's blue-hued hair back from her little heart-shaped face.

    "Where did all the blood come from?"  Geordi asked, glancing over his shoulder as the shuttle cleared the bay doors.  She knew it was certainly not from the Romulan.  Like Vulcans, their blood was a deep green color.

     "I don't know.  Was the Captain hurt?"  Cecily asked urgently and Geordi turned quickly, his expression mirroring her own sick horror.  It had all happened so fast that she hadn't had time to notice if the Captain was injured or not.  Cecily quickly checked her tricorder readings against the medical data she had on file.  She looked up at Geordi grimly.  "It's his."

       "We've got to go back for him!" Laforge said, worry clawing at his gut.  Cicily shook her head, cradling the crying child against her.  "We can't take this child back in there Geordi.  You're injured.  What could you accomplish besides getting captured again-or killed? Captain Riker ordered us to leave."  Cicily tried to reason with LaForge, despite the fact that her own heart told her it was wrong to leave their injured Captain.

       Geordi swore.  "Damn it, we shouldn't have left him,"  he said, echoing her own thoughts.  Cicily felt his agony as he tried to weigh orders and the dangers of returning against the life of his friend and captain...He opened his mouth to speak and was interrupted by a voice from his communicator.  It was Riker. 

        "Soyuz away teams, the station is secure. Good job everyone.  Transport any casualties directly to sickbay.  Watch your backs for a couple minutes more until ship's sensors confirm there are no additional Romulan hiding in any nooks and crannies...Commander Thompson will brief you on further orders...Riker out..."

         Cicily watched the smile that bloomed on Geordi's face.  It was like the sun coming out after a storm.  She could feel her own silly grin of relief plastered over her own face.  The chief engineer shook his head and laughed.  "I should have known.  Captain Riker's got nine lives.  He always manages, somehow..."  Geordi turned back to the console, and Cicily concentrated for the moment on the child, who still clung to her but whose hysterics had subsided into subdued sniffles.

                                                       ***********

 

     Will impatiently submitted to the Starbase medic who slapped a dermaplast over his injury.  He murmured a quick "thanks" to the man and barely paid attention as the medic reminded him that it was just a temporary measure to stop the bleeding, and he would need medical attention sooner rather then later.  The Captain's attention was on Thompson and Dimonelli, both of them looking terribly uncomfortable.

   Thompson wiped his sweaty palms on his uniform and said nervously,   "Sir - I take full responsibility.  My away teams were not sufficiently prepared..."

    Dimonelli interrupted him, "Actually, sir, that's my fault.  It's the security officer's job to ensure that away teams are transporting to a secure environment.  I provided Commander Thompson with inaccurate information..."

     Thompson broke in "Sir - I failed to..."

     Riker held up a hand and silenced them both.  He thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully.  "Gentleman, not so long ago, someone with whom I am very intimately acquainted accomplished the dubious feat of crash-landing the saucer section of Starfleet's prized flagship."  That got their attention.

     "Afterwards, I blamed myself for everything that had happened.  I thought I'd monopolized every claim to fault that I could conceive of, until Captain Picard suggested that I add arrogance to my list.  He told me that the ultimate arrogance was to believe that one could ever possibly control all the variables in a situation.  We can only control them to the best of our abilities...and sometimes, well, they control us.  I'm confident that you both did your best in this situation.  Things got out of hand anyway.  Maybe we can all learn some lessons for next time...but I have to tell you, one of the things I learned is that I've got some fine officers who work well under pressure.  Just

don't go getting arrogant on me."  Will Riker touched the comm badge on his tattered uniform.  "One to beam up." He left behind two surprised and grateful officers.

      Will stayed on the bridge for a little over an hour, until Thompson had returned with most of the Soyuz personnel.  Then, finally deferring to his first officer who kept making nervous noises about his injuries, he turned over the comm and stepped into the lift.  He almost swore to himself over Thompson's annoying over-protectiveness, but had to stop and grin, hearing in his mind the voice of  Jean Luc Picard accusing him of being a "mother-hen".   Apparently, it was pay back time, he thought wryly. 

      The topical anesthetic in the bandage that the medic had applied faded long ago and the raw edges of  his wound burned.  He knew he should go to sickbay, but the comfort of his quarters sounded considerably more attractive than the company of the brittle Dr. Braxton. 

      Two minutes later he collapsed face down on his bed and was almost instantly asleep.

                                                

                                         *********

    Geordi looked back over his shoulder at Braxton.  "We'll be home in about five minutes." 

    She nodded, rocking the child gently in her arms to calm her.  She worked up the courage to ask the engineer the questions that had been burning in her mind since her experience with the Captain on the station.  "Geordi?  You really like Captain Riker, don't you?"

     "You bet I do," he agreed.  "He's one of the two best officers I've ever known...and he's a good man.  Off duty he's generally pretty easy-going, and he has a great sense of humor.  But one of the things I appreciate about him the most is that he really cares about people."

       Cecily Braxton was quiet for a moment, trying to reconcile Geordi's words with the Riker she thought she knew.  Something occurred to her.  "Geordi- what's the REAL reason he left the Enterprise - I mean, the general consensus seemed to be that he was pretty much going to stay there until Picard turned over command to him..."

       LaForge sighed.  "Personally, I think it was Deanna."

       Cecily was surprised to find herself a little disappointed.  After Riker's heroic performance down on the Starbase she'd almost been hoping her suspicions about him would prove ungrounded.  "A crew member?"

       The Chief Engineer nodded.  "Yeah.  The ship's counselor.  They had a relationship that went back years.  Back to when the Captain was just a lieutenant.  They kept things platonic while they were both on the Enterprise, but they were really very close.  I guess that they had other casual relationships, but it was just sort of always understood that they'd end up together   And then Deanna and our Security Officer started a relationship.  It was getting pretty serious," Geordi paused to shake his head, "and I just don't think Commander--I mean Captain Riker could stand to stay and watch it happen..."

        "You think he was in love with her?" Cecily asked weakly.

        Geordi didn't hesitate.  "Doc, I know he was.  And I think he felt he was doing the honorable thing by bowing out and allowing her be happy with Worf.  But I guarantee you--it's breaking his heart."

         Dr. Braxton, who prided herself on being a good judge of character, buried her face in the hair of the child she was holding.  How could she have jumped to conclusions and allowed herself to make such wrong judgments about Riker?  "Geordi?" she added timidly, "He's never been accused of sexual harassment that you know of, has he?"

        Laforge gave her an amused look.  "Will Riker?  No way.  I heard your last captain pulled some of that garbage at his previous command.  But I never heard anyone accuse Captain Riker of anything like that, and I wouldn't believe them if I did.  He can be a really demanding CO, but he makes a point of treating people with respect."  Geordi shook his head.  "But he has always had the damnedest luck with the ladies."  Geordi Laforge turned his attention back to piloting the shuttle as they neared the Soyuz, carefully following the traffic controllers instructions.  Cicily closed her eyes and groaned softly to herself  "I am such an idiot!"  The child in her lap looked up at her with large, curious eyes.   

 

       For the first three hours after Cicily set foot back on the Soyuz she didn't have time to think, eat or do anything other then take care of the steady stream of away team members and civilians from the Starbase; whose  injuries ranged from disrupter burns to bumps and bruises.  It was only when she finally had a chance to sit back and take stock that she realized she still hadn't seen the Captain.  "Computer.  Locate Captain William Riker,"  she requested.  The computer indicated that the Captain was in his quarters.  She shook her head at his obstenance and gathered up her med kit and her courage, informing the nurse she would return shortly.

 

 

 

                                              Chapter 5 "New Beginning"

 

     Cecily arrived at the Captains quarters and nervously touched the door chime.  Waiting for about a minute, she tried it again with the same results, nothing.   "Maybe our paths crossed," she thought hopefully.  "Computer, locate Captain Riker."

     The androgynous voice answered, "Captain Riker is in his quarters."                             

     Growing somewhat alarmed, she tried his door again.  No one opened it and no voice answered her query.  "That's it--I'm going in," she decided, her imagination picturing him passed out in a pool of blood.  "Computer, medical override, Baxter, Cecily, Omega two seven five."  The door slid open with no further protest.  The first thing she noticed when she walked in was a huge pile of crates, boxes and books laying in the center of what should have been his living room.  Stepping around it, she went to the bedroom.  There he was curled up on the bed, his arm curved protectively over his right side. What had once been his uniform tunic was now a wasted piece of fabric that hung in shreds off  his shoulders. Cecily swiftly moved to his side and silently ran the medical tricorder over his body; scanning rapidly to see the extent of his  injuries.  Moderate blood loss, three cracked ribs, and a rather nasty laceration which seemed to already be infected.   The doctor stood rooted to the spot, flooded by waves of mortification for having treated him so badly.  She remembered vividly now his expression of hurt anger and confusion during their last altercation.  Her

guilt robbed her of the ability to be annoyed with him for not seeking medical attention.  

      Watching him as he slept, she hated to wake him, but he really needed to be treated in sickbay.  "Captain," she said softly, her hand reaching out to touch his arm. 

      He stirred, the movement causing him to wince with pain.  "Deanna," he sighed softly and covered her hand with his own. 

       Cecily bit her lip, hating herself.  "Captain, it's me, Doctor Braxton."

       Riker's eyes fluttered and cracked open the merest slit.  "Braxton," he said, a mask of indifference sliding over the handsome features that had seemed so vulnerable moments before.  "Braxton," he said again, resignedly. 

     Will had expected to see Deanna, after all, he'd been talking to her just moments

before.   When he realized it had just been another dream, his face  mirrored his

disappointment.  Riker turned his aching head slowly, scanning the room from side to side, remembering now that he had come to his quarters instead of sickbay.  He sighed deeply, unable to restrain the expression of his dismay.  He forced a tired smile, trying to put a good face on things.   "Doctor, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?" 

     Braxton looked at him strangely.  "Captain, I was concerned when you didn't show up in sickbay for treatment of your injuries.  Thompson told me that you needed medical attention."

    "Ah yes," he said, musing aloud, "Good ole Thompson.  Really not a bad sort," he said inanely, not knowing what else to say.  His mouth felt as dry as a sand dune, and the light hurt his eyes.  He closed them again, finding that they were too heavy to keep open anyway. 

    "Captain," the persistent voice of the doctor nagged, "I really need to take you to sickbay.  Can you walk or shall I request a beam-out?"

     Riker opened protesting eyelids again, running his tongue over cracked lips.  "I'm really so tired doctor.  Can't you please do whatever it is you're going to do in here?" 

     Cecily didn't answer him directly, and decided to take a quick look before making her decision.   She cut the remains of his tunic off and carefully peeled back the dermaplast on his chest and ribs.  Riker blanched and sucked his breath in quickly as he bit back the expression of pain that had come as far as his lips.  The tricorder showed increasing respiration and heart rate.  Not surprising when she knew how much his injuries were hurting him.  She quickly pulled a narcotic based hypospray  out of her kit and administered it. Cecily was satisfied only when she saw the lines of pain on his face begin to relax somewhat.  "Better?" she asked him softly.  Riker nodded, his eyelids fluttering slowly.  His eyes were drifting into a narcotic haze, like blue pools under heavy butterfly's wings.  She stared at them for several second before tearing herself away to examine the knife wound.  It was raw and swollen, it's edges an angry red color which spread outward from the wound for several inches. A purulent discharge was already mixed in with the serous fluid oozing from his damaged tissue.   She laid her palms gently on the surrounding skin;  the degree of heat only confirmed the presence of the infection detected by her tricorder.   On the same side as the knife wound there was an area of swelling where skin had already turned several shades of purple and blue: marking the spot where the Romulan had hit him.

      "Well, you're in no imminent danger Captain," Cecily said soothingly as she watched him drifting in and out; his lips moving with hidden messages she imagined were for 'Deanna.'  Making her decision, she called sickbay.  "Ensign Dabba," she said, "I'll need some things brought to the Captain's quarters to treat his injuries." She proceeded to give him a list, and then sat in the chair she had pulled up to the edge of Riker's bed. 

     Three hours later Will Riker stirred and opened his eyes, staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling of his new quarters. 

      "Hello."

       He turned to see her walking into the room, a slight smile on her face.  Vaguely, he thought to himself how very pretty she looked when she smiled.  "Hi."  He croaked hoarsely in reply, sitting up and trying to shake the cobwebs from his head.

      She sat down in the chair beside the bed and offered him a glass of juice.  "Here,

Captain.  Drink this.  You're very dehydrated..."

      He accepted the glass and drank deeply, the cool liquid soothing his parched throat. He looked at her over the rim of the glass, wondering at her mild expression.  For once she didn't seem angry with him. 

      She saw him watching her and shifted uncomfortably.  His piercing blue eyes had an unsettling effect.  Taking refuge in professionalism she picked up her tricorder and quickly scanned him.  "You're doing fine.  Your ribs are mended, your laceration is healed and the infection is under control.    You should be able to return to duty by tomorrow morning, IF you agree to take it easy."

      He continued to look at her without comment.  Cecily took a deep breath and met his gaze.  "Captain.  I really owe you a huge apology..."

      He didn't answer and she sighed.  He wasn't going to make this as easy for her as she hoped.  "There-- there was a misunderstanding  I  heard a lot about your reputation before you arrived.  And well, I know you're aware of Captain Vinson's rep..." 

     He looked surprised.  "I am.  But what has his reputation got to do with mine?"

     "I..."  She squirmed uncomfortably.  "I overheard a conversation between you and

Geordi - in the corridor.  You were talking about Vinson-- and I misinterpreted what I

heard - I thought you approved of his..." She trailed off, unable to say it.

      Will Riker shook his head in negation.  "Whatever else Capt. Vinson was,  I think his conduct towards his crew members on the Lantana was a disgrace and he should have been court-martialed for abusing his power."

      Cecily stared out the viewport rather than looking at him.  "..I also thought that Phil Chao told you about what happened here"

      Riker leaned forward.  "You mean on the Soyuz?"  He asked.

      She stood and turned her back on him, taking another deep breath.  "I mean right here."  Quietly, she related the story of being called to the captain's quarters.  When she finished Will rubbed a hand over his face, not sure what to say.

       Now that the worst was out she found herself able to continue.  She told him what she'd overheard in the corridor.  Embarrassed, but forging on, she told him how she'd misinterpreted his friendly overtures, and explained her fears regarding when he'd called her to the deserted holodeck for his neck injury...

    Behind her, she heard Will Riker swear softly, and for a moment she thought he was angry with her.  She heard him get slowly up from the bed.  He came to stand beside her, reaching out to touch her shoulder, but stopping short, not sure if the touch would be welcome.  Finally, after what felt like an eternity to her, he spoke.  "Damn it doctor, you shouldn't have had to go through that kind of crap.  I'm sorry..."

       Cecily turned and looked up into his face, wondering how she had ever seen anything malevolent in his sympathetic blue eyes.  "I guess I need to talk to Phil about this some more..." She said apologetically.  "I promise, I'm not usually such a witch..."

       He grinned mischievously if somewhat tiredly.  "God that's a relief.  You really had me scared there for a bit."

       She had to laugh at his expression of mock relief. "Geordi was right.  You are a nice guy."   He bowed theatrically and she added wryly  "Unfortunately, Beverly Crusher was also right."  

        "Beverly?"  He frowned quickly.  "What did she tell you?"

         She bit back a smile.  "She attached a note to your medical file.  She said you were a terrible patient." 

          He was about to protest when her comm badge beeped.  "Dr. Braxton?  You asked to be informed when Mr. Stavok regained consciousness..."

          "On my way."  Cecily said briskly, gathering up her med bag. Giving Riker a severe glare she nodded towards the bed.  "You're on medical leave until I check you out in sickbay tomorrow morning.  Now get back to bed Captain."    Raising his hands in defeat he collapsed back into bed as she headed for the door.

 

 

 

 

                                           Chapter Six "The Ball"                             

 

     Several months had passed since the Romulan incident on the space station.  Riker became intimately familiar with his ship and crew as Starfleet sent them on a variety of missions that allowed them to test the full capabilities of the new ship.    They responded well to his relaxed style of command, although Will  felt a little less free to joke around as a Captain than he had as a First Officer.  Eventually though, he found the right balance of authority and camaraderie.  Poker games for the senior officers became a much anticipated weekly event. He held the games in his quarters, the same way he had on the Enterprise.  He found it an invaluable tool for getting to know the people who served under him; and it certainly helped him to relax. 

     Surprisingly, his most challenging opponent turned out to be Phil Chao.   The sage counselor claimed he was just lucky, but Riker suspected that his long career trying to decipher people's feelings and motivations had given him a real edge.   Will often took his dinner with Phil and his xenobiologist wife of thirty years, in their cozily decorated quarters.   Tessa and Phil's casual warmth and everyday common sense approach to life appealed very much to Will's own practical philosophy.  It hadn't taken him long before he began to confide them, and to Phil in particular, about his unfinished business with Deanna.

 

   Tessa finished dinner and arose, leaning over to kiss her husband on top of his head and giving Will a wink.  "I have to run, dears.  Oil Painting class tonight - and heaven knows, the way I paint I can't afford to miss a lesson."  She bustled out, bristling with brushes and paints as the two men leaned back in their chairs, savoring an after-dinner drink. 

  "I envy you."  Will said at last.  "What you have..."

   The counselor smiled.  "Then make it happen for you Will.  I was 43 before Tessa and I met...You've got all the time in the world, my boy." 

   The captain shook his head.  "No.  Deanna and I ran out of time."  He sighed heavily.  "I thought that leaving would help me forget Phil," Will said running his hand over his face, "but I haven't forgotten a damn thing.  The memories are so clear.  And the emotions are still so strong."  Riker looked away.

   Phil leaned back and eyed the Captain for a moment before speaking.  "Does it still tear your heart out every time you think about her, Will?"

   Riker looked down at his hands, his eyes unexpectedly tearing up.  "No, no-- not all the time like before," he said, his voice roughened by emotion.  "Just sometimes, usually unexpectedly.  Like sucker punch."  He looked up and grimaced.  "But most of the time, when I think of her, I just feel unbearably sad."  Will sat up straighter and threw up his hands.  "And sometimes I'm really angry. At her-at myself-at fate.  But I guess that's a step up from where I started," he said, a glimmer of his old smile showing.

     Phil returned his smile and was silent for a moment.  Giving Will a chance to think and to get anything else out that might be rattling around inside.  He'd learned long ago that counseling involved far more listening then advising.  He knew that if given the opportunity to discuss their feelings with someone who cared, people more often then not seemed to find their own answers in the process.  Sometimes, he'd found, the less said the better.  Phil long ago had decided that he was more of a tour guide than an advisor; helping people who had lost their way to find it again.  Usually all it took was a big old ear attached to a very soft heart.   He cleared his throat.  "Grief is funny Will.  It's the same for everyone, and it's different for everyone.  I'll never really be able to understand or truly feel the real depth of your grief for the loss of your Imzadi.  You're experiencing  all the classic stages Will.  Shock, denial, anger.  And finally acceptance."  Phil leaned forward and closed the space between them.  "Everyone experiences these stages during healthy, normal grieving Will.  But no one experiences them the same way, or for the same amount of time.  Or, to the same depths of despair."  The counselor looked at his friend with wise and compassionate eyes, "I've known much grief in my life Will, but that doesn't mean that I know exactly how you feel.  But I can be here for you.  Whenever you need me.  And I can promise you that eventually you'll work through this.  I'm not saying you'll ever be the same.  But the human heart is a marvelous thing.  It can find solace in the most unexpected places."

 

      Will and Phil sat in comfortable silence for two or three minutes.  Then Will leaned forward, arms resting on his knees, looking down as he asked, "Phil, what do you think about officers who serve together on the same ship?"

     Phil raised his eyebrows... "Which officers do you mean Will?  I've really grown quite attached to all of you." 

     Will gave a snort of disgust and shook his head violently.  "No no.  That's not what I meant to say... I mean, what about *relationships* between officers who are serving together?" 

      Phil frankly enjoyed baiting the younger man and couldn't resist it this time.  "You mean, as in romantic liaisons?"  He asked with straight faced diplomacy.

      Riker's face reddened and he stood up, wandering around the room as he spoke.  "Yes, romantic liaisons," he grumbled.

      Phil answered with a perfectly straight face.  "Well, speaking as a professional, I think that  if the persons involved are stable, and aren't engaging in  any criminal activity......."  He watched Will's double take with glee.  Phil knew exactly what Will was driving at... It was the same issue that the ships CMO was grappling with in his office just the day before.   "Just kidding Will.  Of course I think it's OK..    If you want my opinion, I think that ANY relationship on board has the ability to effect a crew members performance.  If you got into a fight with your best friend, it's GOING to effect your other relationships and possibly your job performance as well.  Hopefully, if you're well adjusted, you'll work out the problems, and get on with things in a normal fashion."  Rikers attention had become riveted on the counselor.  "Male- female relationships are wee bit more complicated, I agree; however I don't think that serving together on the same ship should mean that you can't ever have a relationship with one of your shipmates."  Phil gave Will a mock glare, made all the more effective by the aid of his bushy white eyebrows.  "Of course YOU will have to be more discrete, AND more careful than most officers.. Because you're Captain, and the morale of this ship rests on you."  He stopped, reading the transparent look of relief on Will's face.  "Any MORE questions Will?" 

     Riker shook his head with chagrin and grinned self consciously.  Phil smiled.  "As I said - the human heart can find solace in the most unexpected places - even on the bridge of a starship...or in sickbay."  He winked at Riker's startled glance

 

                                                            ************

 

      It was odd, that given his attraction to her, Will's relationship with Dr. Cecily Braxton was if anything, more formal than those with any other member of his command team.  He supposed that it was partially because he was conscious of doing anything that smacked of over-familiarity.  He also had no desire to make her feel threatened in any way, or to offend her sensitive nature.  Will didn't want her to be reminded of her horrible experience with Captain Vinson in any way.  He continued to address her as "Dr. Braxton" and she called him "Captain", although she had a way of saying it that made his spine tingle. 

      They worked extremely well together, and he found himself admiring her quiet and graceful manner of dealing with her patients and her fellow officers.  The contrast to the side of her he'd first seen was remarkable.  She was generally quite soft-spoken and calm, even in the face of impending disaster.  He found himself thinking, more and more, that she was remarkably beautiful but he couldn't figure out just why.  She was more slender than his usual "type" and her reddish hair was straight and cut in a practical chin-length style.  Her eyes were hazel, and her features even and unremarkable.  He could tell from the way she carried herself that she did not think she was beautiful - and yet lately he often found himself admiring her and even indulging in some very unprofessional fantasies about what it would be like to kiss her, or run his fingers through her copper-colored tresses. 

        They got to know each other cautiously.  He found she liked jazz, and when he occasionally played with a few of the other musicians on board she was always there.  He loved watching her enjoy the music - he supposed that was the dancer in her.  Several times he'd come upon her in the hologym practicing at the bar.  He'd watched her once for almost a full five minutes, until she had realized he was there- and then it had been a toss up as to which of them was more embarrassed by the incident.

         He knew she loved children, and volunteered in the school for a few hours each week, teaching them about health and often reading to the littlest of them.  He did that occasionally himself, and he remembered how she'd grinned at him one day when she'd walked in on his rendition of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and heard his enthusiastic voicing of the brave biggest billy goat.  She'd piped in as the horrible, mean troll and they'd had the kids laughing and giggling with delight.

        Uncharacteristically, he'd managed to stay relatively healthy and uninjured since the incident at the space station; a circumstance he almost regretted, because it robbed him of the opportunity to be the recipient of her gentle ministrations.  He grinned to himself.  Beverly Crusher would be astonished if she knew he actually wanted to go to sickbay these days...

                                                       **********

 

     Cecily Braxton was fully aware of  Captain William Riker's past reputation as a "ladies man" and although she found him attractive in the extreme, she seriously doubted that he'd have any interest in someone like her.  Still, unless her imagination was working overtime, it seemed as if he reserved a special look for her; and several of her friends had commented that the Captain acted differently around her.  Anyway, it was a nice fantasy to indulge in, and she indulged often.  Cecily thought he was absolutely gorgeous.  His constantly changing blue eyes were mesmerizing, and she'd even written a poem about them which she promptly ripped up before anyone could happen upon it.  She laughed at her own dreamy romanticism.  She loved his body- tall, strong and muscular, and his dazzling smile had the ability to freeze her thoughts in their tracks.

      Curious, Cecily had called up the service record of Deanna Troi.  She'd stared at the beautiful Betazoid for a few minutes, wondering what kind of woman she was that could look at a man like Will Riker and find him wanting.  If Cecily had him she'd never break his heart.  She shook her head in disgust at herself and snapped off the computer.  It was silly to waste time in those kind of thoughts, but despite herself she found them returning often.

     Cecily was charmed by his love of music and poetry; and appreciated his efforts to make the time to get to know everyone on the ship- not just a few senior officers.  It surprised her when he revealed how much he knew about the details of people's lives- how many kids Ensign Helch had, and the fact that Lieutenant Fei had lost her mother in an accident six months ago.  She watched how he let the little children in the pre-school swarm over him, and she stood with him as he shed tears when they lost two crewmen in a skirmish with the Romulans.  She adored his laugh, and smiled at the way he good-naturedly teased stodgy old Thompson into loosening up.

     Cecily had even talked to Phil Chao about it - in very general terms of course.  He listened in that very wise and understanding way he had while she reflected on the wisdom of pursuing someone she felt was totally out of her league.  Although she mentioned no names, she expected he knew who she was referring to.  There was very little that the old counselor missed.  Phil took her hands in his, and squeezed them fondly.  "Cecily, my love..."  He called every woman he knew "my love" just as he called all the men "my boy", aware that his grandfatherly attitude would put it in it's proper perspective.  "Sometimes we have to take chances in life.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  You're an enchanting young woman, and I think that any young man you cared to pursue would be at the very least, flattered.  I can't pretend to be an expert on courtship since I've been out of circulation for so long, but I feel fairly sure that the gentleman in question just needs a little encouragement.  He's a little heart-sore yet, but you do specializing in healing, don't you, my dear?"`

        Advice given, Phil Chao sat back and waited for something to happen.  Maybe indulging in such matchmaking wasn't completely professional, but years of experience had told him that sometimes it was best to be a friend instead of a counselor.  Besides, he had merely stirred the pot that was already brewing.

      In the end, a perfect opportunity presented itself and Will decided to take advantage.  The Soyuz was not just a ship of war.  She received a good share of diplomatic missions as well, in deference the expertise of her captain.  They were scheduled to attend the coronation of the new ruler of  Qualis III, and Will was invited to attend the celebration ball.  He needed an escort and prevailed, apologetically, on his CMO.

      When Will picked her up at her door, she took his breath away with her beauty.  Cecily and two of her closest friends had spent the previous evening replicating gown upon gown, until they found the perfect one.  He told her honestly that she was beautiful, and wondered if that was appropriate.  Her shy smile confirmed that it was all right.

    They danced far into the night in the romantic setting of the Qualis state house.  Will refused to allow others to cut in, and held her much closer than polite friendship required. Cecily felt like a princess in a fairy tale, borne in the arms of her handsome prince.  She was sorry when it was time to return to the Soyuz and she wondered if the evening was going to end in a kiss or a handshake.  Will walked her to her door, and there was an awkward moment.  Finally he smiled that devastating smile of his.  "Thank you for a wonderful evening, Dr. Braxton.  I really enjoyed myself."

     Cecily almost winced at his use of her title instead of her name.  Even after the last few hours he was still clinging to that formality.  Cecily looked up at him, reveling in his nearness and recalling Phil's words.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Moving a step closer to him she smiled into his eyes.  "Captain, don't you think it's kind of silly to address someone you're about to kiss by their formal title?"

      His mercurial eyes reflected his surprise, only to be quickly replaced by a twinkle of mischief.  "Then Cecily," he said deliberately, "I guess you better start calling me Will."

      A few moments later, two ensigns on their way to their posts did a double-take and decided to take another route, reluctant to disturb the oblivious couple who were kissing passionately in the corridor outside the CMO's door.  Rumors travel fast on a ship as small as the Soyuz, especially when they involve the Captain and the Chief Medical Officer.  By the next morning Phil Chao already knew his advice had been taken.

 

 

 

 

    Chapter 7 "Klingon"

     Deanna rushed in and hurriedly pulled off her uniform, pinned up her hair and jumped into the shower...   Lathering herself quickly, she allowed for a few minutes of bliss as the hot water poured over her skin.  The soap ran down her body and into the reclamation system, taking the tensions and stresses of her day along with it.  She smiled happily as she remembered her conversation with Captain Picard. 

     "Deanna," he'd said with his usual crispness, "I've received news concerning your request to Starfleet's Division of Psychology."  She'd waited for him to go on, sitting on pins and needles.  "And," he'd said, running his hand quickly over his head, "They have offered you a prestigious position on their staff as head of the department of inter-species specialists; with a FULL fellowship that will allow you to pursue your doctoral studies."  Deanna was so pleased and relieved that she had given the Captain a spontaneous hug, which he uncharacteristically returned, giving her a kiss on the cheek for good measure.  "Deanna," he said gently, "I know that this is what you've wanted, and that you've been unhappy here since Will left."  He raised his hand to silence her protestations.  "I think this is for the best.  The Enterprise is lucky to have had you both.  But Will has finally taken the opportunity to move on with his career after much prodding on the part of Starfleet Command, and now I think that it's time you do the same for yourself."  He had then taken her hand in his, giving her one of his rare moments of unguarded emotion.  "But I'm afraid that we who are left behind here on the Enterprise will deeply feel the loss of two of the best officers who have ever graced her deck; and I certainly will personally feel deeply the loss of two of my closest friends."

      Deanna smiled again and put her mind back onto what she needed to get accomplished before Worf arrived.  She turned off  the shower and quickly toweled herself dry.  Fairly skipping to the closet and hurriedly flipping through her outfits till she found the one she wanted.   Worf would be arriving in less than an hour, and she still had  to set the table, create the mood, and replicate all the food.  She took her hair down and left most of it loose, but braided thin leather tongs and bits of silver ornaments into several sections in the front.  Finally satisfied with the effect, she glanced at herself in the mirror, admiring the cut of her dress.  It had been one of Will's favorites, and now it was one of Worf's.  She pushed back the twinge she felt at the thought of Will Riker, a skill that had been coming somewhat easier as time went on.  However, the emptiness in her heart had not gone away, and the lack of her "sense" of him was still something she grieved for.  It hadn't lessened with time.  Deanna knew that Worf  had been both relieved and upset when Will left the ship.  He'd never said anything about it to her, keeping it to himself with his usual Klingon reserve, but she knew it just the same.   Her ongoing relationship with Worf had helped her to cope with Will's departure.  And although the Klingon hadn't been able to stop the dull aching in her heart, he'd been a good friend, and an interesting lover.  But of course it hadn't been nearly enough to make her fall in love with him.  And his continual desire to subdue her, both sexually and emotionally was beginning to wear thin.  Professionally, she understood that the root of his needs were primarily the influence of his cultural heritage; making him respond to her in the way that he did.  He was truly trying to please her, but he was not emotionally capable of the kind of relationship she craved.   She was beginning to detest his possessiveness, and his relentlessly aggressive style of lovemaking had failed to satisfy her long ago.

      When she had told him today of her decision to leave the Enterprise, he'd taken it with his usual stoicism, promising her, when she asked, that he would come to her quarters for dinner.  Tonight she wanted to make a special effort to give Worf everything he had ever wanted from her; because she planned on tonight being the LAST night she would ever spend with him.  She had everything in place just as the door chime to her quarters chittered at his arrival.

       Worf looked around Deanna's quarters in disbelief.  The lights were off, and scores of votive candles had been scattered about the room.  They cast their flickering shadows on walls, that instead of being graced with the normal Betazoid art forms, now hung with various Klingon artifacts.  As he stepped cautiously into the living room, his ears were greeted by the great love scene from his favorite Klingon opera, "Mach'na Ka'tooch."  It was a piece of music that moved his Klingon soul, and listening to this particular piece had never failed to stir his blood.  This time proved to be no exception. 

     "So you finally arrive," Deanna said disdainfully, her voice several octaves lower than normal as she rose from the lounging sofa she had been lying on.  She had greeted him with a challenge, as he often had wished she would.  The sight of her, and the aggressive tone in her voice inflamed him, and he stepped quickly over to the couch to reach for her arm.  "Get back," she growled, surprising the hell out of him.  "I will not let this meal go to waste because of your..... needs," she said, raking him with a scornful gaze.  Worf let out a growl of suppressed desire, allowing her to rise unassisted.  "Come," she said, allowing her shoulder to brush against his chest as she passed.  He followed her, enjoying every sultry move of her luscious body.  The meal passed in silence, as they each consumed the food before them.  He watched her hungrily with his eyes, as she tore apart the food on her plate and ate it, slowly sucking her fingers clean when she'd finished.  He stood up, offering his hand to her... she took it with a look of contempt and challenge... They walked over to the lounge and sat close enough for him to feel the heat of her body.                

        "Counselor Troi," Data's voice came over the comm in her room,

        "What?" she growled, never leaving the character she'd assumed.

         "I have a news communication I think you'll be interested in seeing."  Data said helpfully, not commenting unusual timbre of her voice.

         The Betazoid gave Worf a taunting glance that smoldered.  She was playing with him, making him wait... He would play her game... for now.  "Patch it through now Data," she said gruffly.

       They leaned back on the lounge, Deanna loosely draping herself around him,  maintaining just enough contact  to keep his desire fully aroused, but not so much as to make him lose control.  The picture that came onto the screen was one of pomp and splendor.  Obviously a celebration of epic proportions.  Something that Deanna would like to attend no doubt,  Worf decided, thinking this is what the android must have had in mind.  His mind wandered, caught up more in the passions that Deanna had aroused in him than in the taped broadcast that held her attention.  Suddenly he felt her stiffen beside him.  He looked at her and then followed her gaze back at to the screen.  It was Commander.... no, Captain Riker, dancing gracefully with a slender red headed woman.  The couple seemed totally absorbed with each other, oblivious to the camera or the other couples around them.   The film ended abruptly with a close-up of them gazing dreamily into each other's faces, looking for all the world like some earth-type fairy tale prince and princess.  Worf saw Deanna's stricken look, but rather than dampening his desires, it only served to anger him, strengthening his passions to a pitch he had not felt since Alexander's mother. 

     He gripped her arm tightly and crushed her to his muscular chest, compelling her to receive a kiss which all but bruised her sensitive lips.  She protested, fighting him, but he continued without mercy.  He roughly began nipping her all over, not bite with enough strength to draw blood as he would have with a Klingon female, but hard enough to force sharp, strangled exclamations of pain from her.

 

      "Tonight you are my woman," he growled. "No one else's but mine!"  She struggle against him, raking his neck savagely with her nails.  She drew blood and voiced a guttural growl that was almost Klingon in nature.  The hot pain of it brought him teetering to the brink of his control.  Pinning her wrists together with one massive hand, he ripped her dress, leaving it in tatters down around her hips.  She was angry now and bit his lip as he pulled his own clothes off with casual disregard for closures and fasteners.  Grabbing her by her hair behind her head, he immobilized her and forced her to face him.  "You think want him," he rasped, his lip already swelling as he tasted the blood, "but you WILL want me," he hissed, lowering his breath to a whisper as it rasped harshly in his throat, "no, you will BEG me before tonight is over." Deanna's eyes were wild as he ripped the rest of her dress from her body.  He pulled her close, his hot skin scorching hers.  He let go of her hands and instead of pushing him away she hungrily pulled him close with a passion that shook his Klingon soul.  He took her softly at first and then savagely, deliberately varying his Klingon style of lovemaking, careful to include all of the things he knew she needed for her arousal.  Intense pressures built inside of him, her unintentional cries of pleasure and pain inciting his senses to unimaginable heights.  He was losing his control, and just when he thought he could wait no longer, she called his name hoarsely, begging him to complete what she had begun.  With a cry of triumph, he claimed her, their simultaneous cries giving testimony both to the fierceness of their anger as well as to their passionate release.

 

 

 

                                              Chapter Eight "Proposal"

 

       Will Riker strode out of the Command Center and rapped on the top of a console with his knuckles.  "Hey, Geordi.  We just got a change of schedule that you're going to love."

    Laforge's muffled voice answered from beneath the damaged console that he was

repairing.  "What now?  The Borg or the Bureaucrats?"  He asked wryly, assuming that his captain was being sarcastic.  It was a running joke on the Soyuz that those were the two worst case scenarios for a mission.

     Will squatted down so that he could see the engineer's face and grinned.  "Neither. The Enterprise. We rendezvous with them for some personnel transfers and supplies before we head back out. "

     Geordi gave him a luminous grin.  "That IS good news Captain.  It'll be great to see everyone..."

Will nodded his agreement.  He was looking forward to it.  It had been eleven months

since he'd assumed command of the Soyuz and he had a lot of catching up to do with Picard and the others.   Of course, Deanna would not be there, but he knew that it was better that way.

     "We should have two days.  I told Admiral Deatrich that the crew really needed some R&R after this last month...and the Enterprise's facilities should fit the bill perfectly."

     Overhearing the conversation, Phil Chao leaned over the console and smiled down at the two men.  "What are you two conspiring about now?"  He asked good naturedly. "Did I hear someone mention a poker game?"

     Riker's grin was infectious.  "Absolutely!  The plans are already made.  But you'd

better watch out for Beverly Crusher.  She looks innocent enough but  Jean Luc says she's turning into a real shark..."

     Phil leaned a little closer and lowered his voice conspiratorially.  "Speaking of red-

headed doctors, Will...it occurs to me that this might be an excellent opportunity to make things official with a certain young woman.  I'm willing to bet that Captain Picard would be thrilled to do the honors..."  Will Riker sputtered ineffectually for a moment and Phil glanced theatrically at the old-style watch he habitually wore.  "Well, will you look at the time!  I'd better run."  He took off before the captain could get out a word in his own defense.  Geordi Laforge quickly slid himself back under the console, diplomatically hiding his own grin. 

      Will Riker stood back up, his broad smile fading.  There were times when he could have sworn that Phil Chao was empathic.  How else could the old man know that he'd been privately wrestling with that very issue for the last few weeks?  "I'll be in environmental control Geordi."  He said quietly and headed for the lift.  Geordi peaked back out from under the console to watch him go, puzzled by how subdued his captain suddenly sounded.

     Will chewed things over as he walked.  He loved her.  Of that much he was quite sure.  Their relationship had evolved slowly from that one little kiss to the point where they spent almost every free moment together. The crew had gotten used to seeing them as a couple, and they'd long since abandoned any attempt at discretion.  They were wonderfully compatible.  They cooked elaborate meals together,  and she gave him fencing lessons.  He took her fishing and mountain-climbing on the holodeck and she tried to get him interested in ballet, although she suspected that the reason he liked to watch her dance had nothing to do with her mastery of  the intricately choreographed steps.    Even the evenings spent pouring over reports and technical journals were more enjoyable when they shared the couch together.  She was the first person he greeted every morning, and the last one he spoke to at night, even though their nights were still not spent in each other's arms.  He'd been amazed when she'd first hesitantly explained her religious convictions and her belief in the sanctity of marriage. Watching her face he'd seen the fear there that he wouldn't understand.  Will smiled wryly to himself.  The truth was that he'd accepted it at the time, confident that he could eventually change her views on the subject.  But surprisingly enough, over time, her conviction had become his as well.  To be sure, there were times when he felt ready to explode with frustration, but he was also realizing how often he had substituted sex for real closeness.  It was something Deanna had tried to teach him long ago on Betazed.  He'd finally learned too late for his Imzadi...

      Changing directions, Will decided his inspection of Environmental Control could wait.  He headed instead for Phil Chao's office.  The counselor looked up from his desk in surprise as the Captain strode in the door.  He'd just left him on the bridge moments before.  "Captain?  Is there a problem?"  Chao asked mildly as Riker halted before his desk, frowning.

     "Phil.  I take it you think I should ask Cecily to marry me?"

      Chao came around his desk and perched on the corner, studying the younger man for a moment.  "I was just teasing you, Will.  What I think doesn't really matter..."  Riker glared at him and Phil continued, "...but, yes.  I was under the impression that you two were headed that direction..." 

       Will turned away, uncomfortable with the older man's scrutiny, and picked up a photo of Phil and Tessa on the desk, examining it carefully.  The counselor waited silently.  He knew there was no point in trying to push Will Riker.  He would say what he needed to say when he was ready to say it.  Finally, after carefully replacing the photo, the captain spoke.  "I love her, Phil.  I really do.  But..."  He sighed heavily.  "The problem is... imzadi..."

      Chao nodded his understanding.  He'd done a lot of research on the imzadi bond in the last few months.  It was a fascinating psychological phenomena.  On the whole, he felt that Will Riker had handled the situation remarkably well.  "You still have feelings for Deanna Troi?"  He supplied gently.

      Will shook his head.  "Yes.  No.  I don't know...Not so much feelings...I mean, I think I've accepted that it's over and we're both better off- but there's still this- this hole-

that Cecily doesn't fill..."

       Phil laid his hand on the other man's shoulder.  "Remember when we talked about this before, Will?  Broken bond syndrome.  It's a loss - and it may always be there-

but it has nothing to do with you and Cecily."  He gauged Riker's reaction carefully.  "but there is something more isn't there?"

       Will sighed again.  "I don't feel like I'm being fair to her. I love her, but it's just not the same as it was with Deanna.  I can't sense her in my mind.  I can't hear her thoughts..."

       Phil smiled sympathetically.  "Welcome to the human race Will.  I hate to tell you this, but the rest of us just muddle through without all the telepathy and empathy and the mystical bonding of our souls.  No one can tell me one kind of love is any less valid than the other.  And I'll tell you something else, my boy.  Something that you'll learn for yourself if you give it a chance...the plain old human version of love can be just as powerful and consuming..."  He picked up the picture of his wife and looked at it fondly for a moment.  "You know, I have a theory about all this...a very unscientific theory, mind you...based purely on personal observations and experience.  I think that humans can be Imzadi, too.  It just takes us a lot longer.  We have to grow into it.  Live with someone for twenty or thirty years.  Weather a few disasters together-  live through a whole lot of joy and heartbreak.  Eventually there's a bond there my boy, that's as strong as any Imzadi bond I've heard of.  You think I can't sense Tessa's thoughts- or she can't read mine when I'm up to no good?"  He chuckled.  "My very unscientific advice to you, Will, is to accept that we can have more than one love in our lifetimes-

and that love comes to us in many shapes and forms.  Grab what you've got and hang on to it before you lose it."  

          Will stared at him for a second, and then turned and stalked out the door without making any reply.  It was only a short walk from the Ship's Counselor's office to Sickbay.  Cecily looked up from the chart she was reading and smiled at him.  Even after all this time together she still felt a little thrill every time her eyes met his.  "Hi, Will!  What's up?"

       Will  stopped a few feet from her and simply smiled for a moment, enjoying the sight of her and anticipating her reaction to what he was about to say.  She cocked her head, obviously wondering what he had up his sleeve.  He wanted to find the perfect words to ask her- but all he could think of was getting past this to the part where he swept her in his arms and kissed her.  "Cecily.  I love you.  Marry me?  Please?"

    

                                                          ***********

              Beverly Crusher kicked off her shoes and relaxed into the overstuffed chair in her quarters.  She was exhausted but happy.  It had been a wonderful, exuberant party with the combined crews of the Enterprise and the Soyuz celebrating together in the beautifully decorated hangar deck.  Will had looked marvelous- happier than she'd ever seen him.  And Cecily Braxton was a delight.  Even Jean Luc Picard had admitted that the newlyweds made an enchanting couple.  Beverly's smile faded as she looked across her quarters at her desk and the computer screen.  She had one last thing to do tonight before she went to bed.  She wasn't looking forward to it, but she felt it was important that it be done.  She got herself a cup of coffee and then sat down at her desk. Donning what she hoped was a convincing smile, she recorded a brief message and pressed the send button.  Slowly finishing her coffee, she worried, and wondered how the news would be received. 

                                                        *************

 

         She stared at the screen in stunned silence.  "Deanna?  Are you OK?"  her colleague asked.  "Bad news?"

         Deanna shook her head resolutely, forcing a smile and adopting a light, airy tone. "No Katia.  Not at all.  A very good friend of mine just got married."

         The other woman nodded her understanding.  "An old lover of yours?"

          Deanna ignored the pain her colleagues comment caused her and deleted Beverly's message as she stood up.  "Excuse me."  She said politely before she hurried from the room.  The shock was wearing off.  Until this moment there had always been a ghost of a chance that Will and she would somehow meet again and resume their relationship.  But this was finally and irrevocably the end.  She felt the empty pain in her soul where he had once been.  Closing her eyes she sent a thought to him over the thousands of light years that separated them. "Congratulations my Imzadi.  Be happy."  She knew it was futile.  The bond was broken and there was no way he could hear her words.  But she felt a little pride in herself for having at least said them.  Taking a deep breath, she left the cubicle where she'd sought refuge.  It was fully time to face the world and get on with living her life.  Will had obviously done it.  Now, with the last threads of their bond broken,  so would she.

                                                    

                                                         *******

              

 

 

 

 

                                         Chapter 9 "The Wedding"          

                                                                                                    

        The joyous interlude on the Enterprise had been far too short.   Captain Picard's eyes had glittered with sentiment as he had performed the simple ceremony which joined Will and Cecily together; and they had ended the ceremony with a long and heartfelt kiss.  When they came up for air, their faces sparkled and shone with a happiness that rivaled the brilliance of the very heavens seen through the view port behind them.                                                                                                            

     Will spent about an hour visiting with Worf in a painstaking attempt to renew their relationship. They spoke of many things, but neither of the officers brought up Deanna Troi.  Geordi eventually holed himself up with Data, trying to make up for the abruptness of his departure eleven months before.  Far sooner than anyone would have liked, the evening's festivities were over.  The wedding party left to a chorus of good-byes and hugs, and not a few tears on either side.  Picard gravely shook Wills hand.  The younger man gave Picard an uncharacteristic embrace, knowing that soon the Soyuz would leave on the darkest and most dangerous of missions - backtracking on the path of the Borg collective.      

      For the ten months the crew of the Soyez went in search of any clue that might help when the day came that the Borg, with their emotionless fury, descended again upon the worlds of the Federation.   Here in this uncharted region of space, they encountered world after world that had been brutally assimilated.  Whole cities destroyed- their dead left unburied to decay in their streets.  Riker's crew had become a tight knit group, functioning well even under the extreme amounts of pressure.  Stress levels had escalated however, rising exponentially as they drew further and further away from home.   R & R was taken on board the ship since there were no space stations left which were still functioning adequately enough to accommodate them.  Only death and desolation greeted them as they stopped in each system, giving a horribly mute testimony to the inhuman hive mentality of the Borg.  Every new planet they scouted, and every destroyed civilization they encountered seemed to echo the refrain "resistance is futile".

    Still, in even in the darkest hour, the Captain of the Soyuz remained hopeful and unbowed; his encouragement giving the crew the strength they needed to carry through. 

Despite the new horrors each day brought for Will, at the end of every day there was Cecily.  She had become his shelter from the storm- and even when the very universe seemed dead, he still held on to the promise of life embodied in the child she carried for him.   

 

     Cecily waddled gracelessly across the floor; holding her heavy abdomen as if it were about to burst at any moment.  "Come here," Will said, pulling her into his lap and laughing at her as she struggled awkwardly to find a comfortable position.  He relaxed back into the couch and settled her protectively in his arms.  Leaning his head down, he put his ear to her abdomen.  "Sounds busy in there," he said, feeling the movements of his child against his cheek.  He sat up, rubbing his hand gently over her belly; nuzzling at her neck softly and then nibbling on her ear.

     "Will!  Stop it.  I feel like a cow," she protested, groaning. "My feet are so swollen I can't even fit into my shoes anymore!"

      "And what would you know about cows, Mrs. Riker?" Will asked her jokingly, "Weren't you raised on a starship?"  She hurmphed and then snuggled in a little closer to his chest, letting the strong steady beat of his heart comfort her. 

      "When are we going back Will?" she asked, her voice muffled.  Riker sighed heavily, "Soon hon, if I have any say in the matter.  I've got a communications link scheduled with Starfleet tonight at 2200 hours.  I'm going to let Admiral Chezney know that my crew can't take much more of this and stay sane."  

     Later that night, a very persuasive Captain talked a very reluctant Admiral into letting the Soyuz finally come home.

     The return journey was long, for they had penetrated deeply past the Ba'Tock galaxy, and far into the uncharted areas which lay beyond.  Finally, seventeen months after it began it's voyage, the Soyuz and it's crew was safely docked and being refitted in the repair bay of Space Station Number twenty-four.

                                    

                                                        ************

 

     Bev brooded, wondering if she should forward Deanna the vid containing the news about Will and Cecily's baby girl.  Her Betazoid friend had only responded with a cursory message to the announcement of their wedding, and Bev wasn't sure just how she was feeling these days.  She impulsively gave the send command before she could change her mind again.  Will had been on restricted communications for the whole time during his last mission, but he had called Jean Luc as soon as his ship had returned to Federation space, sending the holovid of his growing family to his former Captain.  Jean Luc, of course, had immediately called Beverly to come view it with him.  Sitting close to each other on the couch in Picard's quarters, they had both been enchanted by the new blue-eyed auburn-haired addition to the Riker's family.

     Laurel Elizabeth Riker was almost nine months old, and was absolutely adorable.  Will was holding her on his lap, one large hand holding his wiggling baby in place while she played cheerfully with his fingers and uniform, and anything else that was within her reach.  Beverly could see the lines of stress and fatigue on Riker's face, reminders of the horrors he had seen in the past seventeen months; but it was plain to her that he was thrilled to be a father and that he was very happy with his new life.  Cecily was leaning against him, watching him affectionately as he spoke.  When the vid ended  Beverly flicked off the screen, breathing a quick prayer of thanks that at least one of her friends was happy and whole.   Glancing at Picard, she found him wearing a bemused smile. "A penny for your thoughts?"  She prodded.

      He looked embarrassed, but she wasn't about to let him off the hook.  "Oh very well."  He finally conceded.  "I was thinking that I feel somewhat like a grandfather."    

   

     Deanna sat and watched for the third time the vid Bev had sent her.  The first two times, she had stood right next to the screen, trying to take in every detail, reaching out sometimes as if to touch the lines of fatigue etched on Will's face.  She saw the shadows of unspoken pain from this past mission reflected in his eyes; and she wondered and worried about what he had been through to put them there.  But this last viewing, she paid more attention to the easy way he had with his daughter as she played happily on his lap, and the protective way his arm encircled his wife, drawing her close to his side.  She felt herself flush, angry that after all this time she still felt a rush of envy strong enough to leave her shaking.  Deanna tortured herself as she watched how Cecily looked at Will as he spoke with her adoration shining nakedly in her eyes.  The vid was almost over.  She let her breath slowly out as Will said his good-byes to Jean Luc.  Deanna watched her Imzadi look over at his wife.  Holding her breath again, she pictured herself in Cecily's place as he returned his wife's look of love with one of his own.  When he leaned down to give Cecily a long sweet kiss as their baby laughed happily in the background, Deanna felt a deep longing in her spirit that she now knew would never be fulfilled.  The screen blanked off automatically after the vid finished.  "Lights off," she said, sitting silently in the dark as warm tears slid unnoticed down her cheeks. 

                                                               **********

 

     Ten more months slipped quickly by.  The Soyuz and it's crew kept busy patrolling the hot spots and the unrest experienced on so many fronts had stretched their resources to the limit.  Captain Will Riker sighed with relief.   They were finally about to get the break he'd spent weeks trying to obtain; relentlessly pursuing every Admiral who owed him a favor.   It helped that the Soyuz, it's crew, and it's Captain had been earning quite a name for themselves.  Will continued reading his new orders.  After they took a long overdue leave, Starfleet wanted them to return to headquarters on earth and train the crews of three new vessels that had been built along the lines of the Soyuz, while their own vessel was given a badly needed refit. 

     "Well, Ces," Will said, stretching the length of his frame to take over the whole couch.  "One more week.  We've got to swing by the mining colony at Coronos and then pick up the survey buoys in the Chelsa nebula.  Then it's a little R & R on the facilities at Urelco IV, and then back to headquarters." He grinned slyly.  "Is it my imagination or are you showing a lot earlier this time ?" 

      Cecily returned his grin not offended.  "That's probably because this boy I'm carrying is going to turn out to be a big hulking lunk, just like his father."

     Will jumped off of the couch acting insulted.  "You calling me a hulking lunk?" he said, and picked her up effortlessly, as if to prove her point.

     Laurel called sleepily from her bedroom... "Daddy.... daddy come." 

    Riker grinned at Cecily and dropped her unceremoniously onto the bed.  "Duty calls," he said with a smirk and disappeared into the baby's room.  He emerged with a smiling child of eighteen months.  Her hair was mussed into a myriad of russet curls, and her blue eyes shone as she looked up at her daddy.   He lay down next to Cecily on the bed and set Laurel between them. 

    The little girl crawled over to her mother and pulled up her blouse, placing her tiny ear on her mother's softly swelling stomach.  "Baby here!" she pronounced, making both her parents laugh.  She continued to play with her mother's clothes as her parents talked. 

     "Will?" Cecily asked.  "Isn't the Coronos Mining Colony where Jessica is stationed?"  Will scratched his beard meditatively.  "Yeah, I think so.  Why?"  Cecily cuddled up around Laurel, letting one hand rub suggestively up and down her husbands long leg, while the other one did delicious things to him under his shirt.

      "I sure would love to spend a couple of days with her there.  I haven't seen her since before you and I were married, and besides, I want to show you off."  Will smiled faintly, knowing perfectly well that he was being persuaded by nefarious methods.

    "Well, basically we're just dropping off a replacement filtration system for their ore processing plant and we'll only be there for an hour or two..." he said, his voice slightly husky due to her ministrations.  She traced a finger down his belly and he squirmed. "...But I suppose we could leave you there and pick you up on our way back from the Chelsa nebula at the end of the week."

     Cecily started to kiss him, but he held her away for a moment.  "On two conditions..."  He added severely. "Let me keep Laurel, because I don't really think a mining camp is the greatest place for her," he said as he began to run his fingers through her hair.  "And," he said, stretching it out, "I know that mining colonies are starved for real, live physicians, but you have to promise not to spend your whole time there working.  At this point in your pregnancy you need to get your rest."  Cecily rolled her eyes a little at his over-protectiveness, but nodded her agreement.  "Besides, I want you well-rested for our shore leave together...Cause this Captain has some plans for his Doctor. I need someone to- relax with, if you know what I mean," he said, arching his dark eyebrows suggestively.  Cecily threw a pillow at his leering face, and the three of them laughed together.

 

 

 

 

                                                  Chapter 10  "The Discovery"   

              

    Will yawned so widely his jaw popped as he reread what he'd just written.  He had to force himself to concentrate, not having slept well at all the night before.  After almost three years of sharing a bed with Cecily he found that he couldn't fall asleep easily without her tucked in next to his side.   When he'd finally drifted off with his arms around a pillow, he was awakened by Laurel who was having a restless night of her own.  He sighed deeply.  Feeling more than a little abandoned, Will grinned at his own selfishness.  He really hoped his wife was having a good time with her friend, but he was very glad she'd only be gone two more days.  The door beeped and Will said "Come.", grateful for any distraction.

    Commander Thompson stepped into the ready room, his expression uncharacteristically grim.  "Sir - we-uh- we just received a distress call from the Coronas Mining Colony."

   Riker was on his feet immediately, dread hitting his chest like a blow.  "What's wrong, Commander?"

   Thompson answered reluctantly.  "We're not sure sir.  It's a standard repeating mayday.  Dimonelli's on it, trying to raise them now."

   Will pushed past his number one, striding onto the bridge.  "Lieutenant?" He demanded harshly of the Security Officer who shook his head negatively.  "No response yet, sir..."

    "Mr. Korak.  Lay in a course for the colony.  All possible speed.  What's our ETA?"

    Korak swallowed hard.  "Three hours, eighteen minutes, sir."

    Will Riker sat down in the center seat and forced himself to take a few deep breaths.  It was probably nothing.  She was probably fine... probably busy caring for the victims of some mining mishap.  Still, as the minutes dragged slowly by he couldn't deny the fact that their unanswered hails did not bode well.  An hour or so into the vigil Phil Chao came onto the bridge and took his seat at the captain's left.  The older man gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.  Will didn't bother asking who had summoned the counselor.  He just felt grateful for his solid presence.  The bridge was as quiet as a tomb with none of the usual chatter.  The only interruption was when Will periodically inquired about their arrival time. It had to have been the longest three hours of his entire life.   He'd stopped asking Dimonelli about raising the colony when he heard the distress in the Security Officer's voice as he gave yet another negative report.  Thompson glanced nervously over at his captain;  wondering how he managed to look perfectly composed when he had to be terrified inside.  Like everyone else on the bridge, Thompson wished desperately that there was something he could do to help.

     "Captain, the colony is within long range sensors,"  Ana Fen at ops finally reported.                               Riker arose and looked over her broad shoulder.  "What have you got?"

     Fen looked up at him hopefully.  "No indications of a problem, sir.  The colony appears to be intact and there is no other activity in the system."

      Will felt himself relax just a little.  His first fear had been the Borg, but maybe it was nothing more than a communications malfunction.   Maybe Cecily would laugh and tease him for worrying so much about her.  She always claimed he was as overprotective as a mother Alaskan grizzly bear with cubs.

      The planet quickly grew from a speck until it's large circumference practically filled the main viewscreen.  As the distance closed Fen and Geordi Laforge tersely reported the increasingly detailed sensor reports.  Will waited impatiently for the one he cared most about.  His stomach lurched with sick certainty even before the chief engineer could finish choking it out.  "Captain?  Sensors aren't picking up any life signs."

     Will staggered,  feeling as if someone had punched him hard in the stomach.  He closed his eyes for a moment as the full horror of the words impacted upon him.  Phil Chao rose and gently laid a hand on the captain's shoulder.  He could feel the tremor shaking the younger man's frame.  No one dared speak.

    The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness as they dropped out of warp and glided into the Coronas system.  "Oh no..." Geordi's voice was disconsolate.  Will turned to face him.  The engineers expression was pained as he looked up from the console.  "I found the problem Captain," he said reluctantly.  "Apparently they were replacing the filtration unit.  Something malfunctioned and they vented zelithium gas into the facility."

     "Zelithium?"  Will asked dully.

      Geordi wished he could skip the explanation when he looked at Riker's stony visage.  "It's a byproduct of dilithium ore processing sir.  It's extremely lethal;  they never really had a chance. I'm sure they didn't even know what hit them..."

       Riker was shaking visibly now and he grabbed the console for support. "They're all dead..." He whispered to no one in particular.

       Thompson stepped in, trying to spare his captain.  "Mr. Laforge, can we get a landing party down there?"

        Laforge nodded.  "There shouldn't be a problem.  The gas breaks down into innocuous components fairly quickly.  It's no longer a danger to anyone." 

        Riker looked up, his voice cracking as he said, "No longer a danger Geordi?  To who?"  No one answered the bitter question.

        Thompson immediately began to issue orders for an away team and  moved towards the lift until he was frozen by Riker's voice.  It was quiet and dangerous.  "Mr. Thompson!  You have the bridge.  I'm going down there."

        Thompson, Laforge and Chao all protested at once, trying to reason with their captain.  Phil spoke quietly, "Will, it's not a good idea, you don't know what you'll find."  Thompson blocked Riker's path to the turbolift.  "Captain - you should stay here..."

        Will Riker glared at his first officer.  Enunciating every word carefully he snarled, "Mr. Thompson.  Get the hell out of my way.  I'm going to Cecily, and no one is going to stop me."

        Thompson looked to the Counselor for help but the older man nodded his head to let Riker go.  Chao looked towards Laforge.  "Stay with him, Geordi..."

                                                              ********

         Words wouldn't come to Geordi Laforge.  He had no idea what he could say to his captain to ease his pain, so he just followed him silently as they grimly searched through the small mining colony.  The scene was macabre.  People had obviously fallen where they stood the moment the gas was released.  They passed numerous bodies in the corridors, but Riker seemed to barely notice them.  Geordi was glad that the corpses showed no signs of pain or struggle.  It had to be terrible enough for Riker as it was; it was certainly horrible for LaForge. 

        They tracked Cecily's comm badge, but when they actually found it, it was atop her neatly folded uniform in the guest quarters.  Geordi swallowed hard past the lump in his throat when he saw that she'd also left a small photo of Will and Laurel laying there, obviously to remind her of her husband and child while they were apart.  They checked Jennifer Ybarres' apartment next.  The door was locked and Geordi pulled out his tricorder to open it but Will didn't have the patience to wait.  Instinct told him she was here.  The Captain pulled out his phaser and disintegrated the lock, the high pitched whine startling Laforge in the unnatural stillness.

      Laforge stepped in behind Riker.  A young woman with a long, thick dark braid lay prostrate on the floor just inside the door.  Will seemed to recognize her because he paused for the briefest of moments before taking a few more steps.  Geordi spotted her at the same time as Riker- the glint of  her auburn hair peaking from behind the table and chairs.

      Will went to her, kneeling down beside her and reaching out to touch her cheek.  She looked like she was only sleeping.  Unreasonable hope filled him, making him believe that she would open her eyes and smile sleepily up at him like she did every morning when he woke her.  But when he touched her skin with his fingers it was cold.  With infinite gentleness he gathered her into his arms and bent his head to kiss her lips.  Then, from the depths of his soul, he cried.

     Geordi stood just inside the door, tears streaming down his own cheeks as he witnessed his friend's unspeakable grief.  He wasn't sure what to do, but he knew enough not to interrupt Riker's grieving, or to try and comfort him.  After a time two security guards from the Soyuz poked their heads in the door but Geordi shooed them off.  A long while later, when the captain's wrenching sobs had turned to silence, Laforge crossed the room and bent down beside him where he sat on the floor.  "Will, let's take her back to the Soyuz."

      Riker nodded, and stood, cradling her body in his arms.  Geordi requested the beam out to take them directly to sickbay.  Once there, Phil Chao took over, gently persuading the captain to lay her on the biobed, and embracing him as the nurse gently drew a sheet over Cecily's still form.  "Where's Laurel?"  Will asked hoarsely.

     "She's at daycare with Moira..."  Phil said soothingly.

     "I want to see her.."

      Phil stroked his back .  "Not just yet, Will...She's fine...she would just be upset at seeing you like this..."

      Will pulled away from him, looking at Cecily's covered body on the biobed, feeling as if someone had ripped out his very heart.  "I just lost my wife...and my son"  he said as his grief rose up, choking his throat with tears.  "I want Laurel...now.  I need her now."

    Phil nodded.  "OK Will.  Geordi's going to go get Laurel, but you've got to pull yourself together before she gets here.  You'll need to be strong for her.  She's not old enough to understand.  All she'll know is that her mommy never came back."

      Phil watched Will force composure.  He knew Riker pretty well after three years together, and he knew that the one thing that might get the captain through the coming weeks was going to be his love for the pretty red-headed child who looked so much like her mother.

     "Let's go in the other room..."  He suggested, drawing Will away from Cecily's body.  The child certainly didn't need the trauma of seeing her that way.

     Geordi arrived with Laurel a few minutes later and she ran straight to her father, looking into his tear-stained face with concern.  "Where mommy?"  She asked, instinctively wanting the one person who could make her daddy laugh when he felt sad.                

     Gathering up his little girl in his arms he hugged her fiercely.    "Oh, sweetheart, mommy's not here.  She had to go away and can't be with us anymore.  But daddy's here pumpkin, and I'm always gonna be here..."

 

                                                         **************

     Deanna Troi sat on her patio, sipping a glass of juice and reflecting on another innocuous end to another predictably pleasant day.  Perhaps that was the problem, she thought, puzzling over her discontent.  For the past two years she had lived and worked and studied here in this exceptionally pleasant corner of the Earth.  Now here she was, only weeks from receiving her doctoral degree, and they'd offered her a professorship at the Institute.  In a way it was quite tempting.  She liked her home here, and she'd made a number of good friends.  She dated on a regular basis and was kept quite busy on both the personal and professional fronts.  It was all very nice and neat; and yet, something was still missing.  Could the problem be the fact that there was no danger or no challenge?  No great surprises or shared triumphs?  Deanna reluctantly had to admit it to herself.  She missed life on a starship and she probably was not ever going to be truly happy sitting planet-side while the adventures continued out there.  She gazed up at the deepening sky, catching sight of the first stars and wondering about her friends out among them.  As always, her thoughts turned to Will Riker.  She hadn't talked with him since the evening he'd said goodbye to her and Worf in Ten-Forward, but she'd kept careful track of his life and his career.  She hadn't been surprised when he quickly made a name for himself as one of the finest captains in the fleet.  She'd always known he had the drive and the talent.  What had surprised her, however, was the turn his personal life had taken.  A wife and a child and another on the way...and by all accounts, very very happy in his domesticity.  She sighed.  There was no point now on dwelling over might-have-beens.

         Deanna wondered later if thinking about him at that moment had made her more sensitive to him.  But whatever the reason, the sensation of his anguish was sudden and horrible.  The glass in Deanna's hand fell onto the bricks and shattered as she let out a cry of pain.  A moment later it had disappeared, but she knew without question whose feelings she had sensed.  Even after three years, the touch of his mind was still so distinctive to her that she knew it could be no other.  "Oh, my god, Imzadi,"  she breathed out loud. "What's happening to you?"  Could she be sensing his dying  moment?  Panicked and trembling, she rushed into the house, oblivious to the broken glass crunching beneath her sandals.  For the next two hours she proceeded to call everyone she knew in Star Fleet who might know anything about the fate of the captain of the Soyuz.   All she found  out was that they were due in for some shore leave and a refit.  No one had any recent news.  Her feelings of fear escalated rather than abating.  Despite all that they'd been through together she'd never sensed such powerful emotion from him...such utter hopelessness and grief and despair.  She sat unseeing in her chair- waiting for some word of him.

      At four a.m. in the darkest hour before the dawn, one of the people she'd called for information called her back.  "Deanna.  You were right about Riker.  Something's happened."

       Deanna slumped into the chair and took a deep breath.  She didn't want to know if he was dead.  Even if he was married to someone else- even if she never saw him again, at least she knew he was out there somewhere... "Tell me..."  She finally managed.

       "Well, he's OK, if you could call it that.  But his wife was just killed in an environmental accident on some mining colony in the Coronas system.  Star Fleet Command just got word an hour ago."

       Deanna felt a flood of relief,  followed immediately by guilt.  "And their child?"  She asked worriedly.

       "Well, there was no mention of a kid, so I guess the child must be OK."

        Deanna sighed with relief.  She realized that it would be hard enough for him as it was.  The pain of losing his child too would have completely devastated him.

         Within hours, the disaster was all over the news.  It was the latest in a series of accidents at dilithium processing mines, and the government was launching a full investigation.  Almost every newscast also mentioned that the wife of the Captain of the Soyuz was among the victims, and displayed a heart wrenching picture of Will in full dress uniform with Cecily and their pretty child. Deanna was heartily sickened by the way the media seemed to be using every opportunity to tug at the heartstrings, but she couldn't help but listen nonetheless.  It was from one of these newscasts that she learned that Will was returning to Earth with Cecily's body for a formal burial.

 

 

 

                                          Chapter Eleven "Angel Fire"

 

     Will sat alone in his darkened room, the antique clock he had bought for Cecily was ticking loudly in counterpoint to his sluggish heartbeat.  Numbness had woven a thick cocoon around his soul, causing his emotions to feel strangely disconnected from the situation.  "The mind knows when to rest the heart," Phil had told him kindly.

      Will ran his hand tiredly over his face and through his hair.  There was no putting this off any more so he called ops.  "Open a channel to earth and patch me through to the Braxton's ranch in Angel Fire New Mexico."  He slumped over in his chair while he waited for ops to get through to his in-laws, his stomach churning as he silently dreading this meeting.

       The starfleet logo flashed on the screen and then switched to the smiling face of Tom Braxton, Cecily's dad.  The warm welcome he'd been about to give Will died on his lips.  His angular face went suddenly ashen.  The man had been Starfleet for 35 years, and all it took was one look at his son-in-law to tell him catastrophe had struck.  "What happened Will?" he demanded harshly.  Will turned his face away from the screen, trying to pull himself together.  He thought he'd been ready to do this; he tried vainly but the words couldn't get past the painful lump in his throat.  "Will!  What is it? Cecily? Laurel?" the older man said, panic lacing his voice now.  Riker turned back to the screen, tears streaming down his face.  The former numbness had been a trick played on him by his mind.  The excruciating pain had only been in hiding.  And it was now back with a vengeance.  Barely managing to choke out what had happened at Coronas to his father-in-law, he covered his eyes to hide his anguish and lay his head back, drawing in a deep shuddering breath. 

     Braxton took more than a few minutes to collect himself.  Will could hear the sound of soft sobs coming from Cecily's mother off screen.  "Where the hell were you Will?" Braxton finally asked, his voice was sharp with unspoken accusation.  Riker felt the question like a hammer blow to his heart.  It was the same one he kept asking himself.  Apparently Tom Braxton didn't expect him to answer.  "You're bringing her back here."  It was a statement and not a question.  Will nodded, remembering his promise to honor his wife's religious beliefs.

     "Our ETA is 96 hours sir " Will said, his voice not much above a choked whisper.   Braxton nodded and quickly turned his head, his stern visage finally crumpling.  Cecily's father cut the connection abruptly without any words of comfort for his son in law.  Over an hour later Riker was sitting in exactly the same spot, in exactly the same position.

        During the course of the next two days he barely even pretended to go through the motions of running the ship.  It was actually Commander Thompson who took care of the day to day duties, acting as Captain, and making all decisions in his stead.  The crews' condolences were truly heartfelt, but they sounded flat and empty to his ears.  Being on the bridge had become surreal and nightmarish, and so he avoided it.  His empty quarters were even more painful to bear, and so he spent the hours sitting in the solitude of his ready room staring out the viewport at the blackness of space.

         "Sir, you have an incoming call from Commodore Picard," Geordi's apologetic voice broke through his mental fog.

         Will straightened in his chair and ran a hand through his hair.  He knew he looked as bad as he felt but he didn't care.  "Put him through."

        The crew on the Soyuz was now guarding Riker's privacy diligently, and Thompson had first deflected Picard's call by saying his captain was unavailable.  Jean Luc was familiar with the tactic, so he then requested to speak to Geordi, who patched him through, explaining that the first officer was merely trying to keep the media from further exploiting their Captain. 

        Picard nodded approvingly.  He had been outraged when he saw the footage of Will last night on the Galactic News Service.  The reporters were like sharks going in for the kill.  They had caught Will unaware at the space station where the Soyuz had stopped briefly en route to earth.  Riker, obviously wretched, had tried to be polite until one reporter asked him how he felt about leaving his wife on a mining facility that was unsafe enough to have killed her and everyone else in it.  If that wasn't enough, the reporter then callously asked if it was true that Cecily had been six months pregnant with his son.  Will's grief stricken countenance had made great press, and thus had been flashed by the sensationalistic news service all over Federation territory.

     When Jean Luc finally got through to Will, he felt like his compassionate words were hollow and meaningless in the face of his friend's grief.  Picard decided then that he would attend the services on earth come hell or high water, and set about arranging it immediately.  Commodore Picard began to send out urgent messages to people in high places as he called in more than a few favors to secure immediate passage to earth.

 

     Will stayed up as long as possible, avoiding the dark bedroom.  He went in again for about the tenth time to check on Laurel.  She lay with her blankets tossed off and tangled around her feet.  Her index finger captured loosely in her rosebud mouth, her soft melodic breathing breaking the silence.   Riker watched her sleep for long minutes, then covering her up, he kissed her soft curly head and ran the back of his finger over the softness of her cheek.  It was 0200.  Yawning again, he knew he couldn't put off going to bed any longer.  He was dead on his feet.  Stumbling into his room, he pulled off  his clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor.  Will expected Cecily to make some snide comment, but only for a moment, until he remembered.  He slipped under the covers, laying alone in a bed which had always held two. Will reached over and grabbed her pillow, clutching it to his chest as he turned on his side, eyes wide open. The new ritual began.

      Staring at the wall had become his mind's cue to begin projecting his tape.  Her face was calm and serene, as if she was only sleeping and not dead. He reached to touch her face, but it was cold.  As he picked her up, her head lolled to the side, her body devoid of life, her arms hanging limply.  His mind played it over and over, trying to convince him that this bizarre twist of fate was for real.  Will's heart blindly told him she couldn't have actually left him and Laurel like this...  And so his mind played the tapes that held the damning evidence; over and over and over, until his heart accepted what his mind already knew.  Tears dammed up behind his eyes.  Volcanic grief was kept tightly locked in his throat; it's unrelieved pressure causing a painful ache which matched the tightness in his chest.  He hardly noticed. Laurel stirred in the other room, and Riker heard her call out "mommy" in her sleep.  It was more than he could bear.  Will lost the tenuous hold on his emotions.  He buried his face in the pillow, her lingering scent loosing the floodgate of his grief.  Hot tears flowed bitterly, pulling the life out of him as if they contained the very blood of his soul..

      The fourth morning after Cecily's death found the Soyuz dropping out of warp to enter the Sol system.  Riker was already late for a final briefing with his staff, but he had gone to the pre-school to spend a few minutes talking with Laurel anyway.  She didn't want to go to grandpa's.   "Sweetheart," he said gently, "we're going to see Granny and Grandpa."

       She looked down sullenly, "no gampa, no gamma."

       Riker squatted down to her level.  "Granny and Grandpa love you Laurel.. And want to meet you.  Your mommy was their little girl."  Laurel looked up at her daddy, tears shining in her eyes and held her arms to him with a silent plea.  His time schedule went up in smoke.  He didn't care.  Gathering her soft little body up into his arms, he grabbed a blanket and went to the rocking chair and began to rock.  Will gently pushed her head down onto his chest and wiped her eyes as he softly sang the lullaby that Cecily had always sung to her at bedtime.  He wrapped her warmly with the soft blanket, trying to imagine how he was ever going to be both mother and father to this precious child. Finally, her finger found her mouth again and she drifted off to sleep.  Catching the attendant's eye, he regretfully handed the warm bundle to him and left for the bridge.

     "Sir, the Enterprise is hailing us."  Riker looked up, showing real interest in something for the first time in days.  "The Enterprise?   Put her through." 

      Jean Luc Picard's face filled the giant view screen on the bridge.  "Will, with your permission, I'd like to accompany you down...are you ready?" 

      Will was unsure of himself for a moment, so surprised was he by his old Captain's unplanned arrival.  "Uh, yes.. I am.  I just have to pick up Laurel."

       Picard nodded gravely.  "Fine,  I'll come by the Soyuz with a shuttle at 0900."

       Riker, used to seven years of serving under Picard, didn't even think to argue.  "Yes sir..."  He replied automatically, too numb to express the gratitude he was feeling.

      "Understood." Picard replied, and the screen returned to the view of earth floating lazily beneath them. 

        Two hours later, Picard glanced over at Will as he piloted the shuttle towards the landing area outside the small town of Angel Fire.  He was unsure of what to say. His own nature was so reserved, and Will had always been the one who expressed his emotions openly. Maybe just being here would be enough.  Jean Luc watched Will holding Laurel in his lap.  Her burnished curls fell over the edge of Will's arm and she lay in it's crook.  One of the few times Picard had seen the shadows lift from Will was when he was playing with his daughter.  He'd been pulling her finger out of her mouth and letting her shove it enthusiastically back in... They both laughed every time he pulled it out and it made a popping sound.  Now they were both quiet.  Laurel had fallen asleep, her chubby hand curled tightly around one of Wills fingers, her face pushed into his chest.  Will was pensively stroking her hair, wrapping the bronze curls around and around his finger.  He had the look of a brooding mountain lion.  Outwardly relaxed but dangerous as if he had a coiled steel spring inside that was ready to unleash at the slightest touch.  Picard kept his peace.  There would be time later.  He had made some folks at Starfleet very unhappy, but he'd gotten a full week off.  After getting clearance to land, Picard pulled the shuttle into it's docking area.

      Glancing at Will, Jean Luc indicated the hatch..  "Shall we, Will?" he asked gently.  Will took a deep breath, steeling himself  for the meeting with Cecily's parents.  Gently, he rearranged his daughter so that she was sleeping on his shoulder, and then picked up his bags. 

  .  "Jean Luc, I'd like to meet with my in-laws alone at first if you don't mind."  Picard nodded with understanding, seeing the dread in Wills eyes.

     "Of course I don't mind, Will.  I've booked a room in town.  I'll catch up with you in the morning."  Picard said a silent prayer that the Braxtons would receive their son-in-law warmly, and then opened the hatch, stepping aside to allow Will to disembark.

 

    Rachael and Thomas Braxton stood at the shuttle hanger, waiting for their son-in-law and grandchild to arrive.  Tom was still angry with Will, and blamed him irrationally for the death of their daughter.  Rachael realized he would see the wrong of it soon enough, but she knew it was going to be tough on Will in the meantime.  The Braxtons had never met Captain Riker in person, so when the six foot four man stepped out of the hanger, carrying a baby, and several cases, Rachael found herself amazed to see how tall and broad he was.  He saw them instantly and began to walk their way.  Although Rachael's own heart had been broken by the death of her daughter, it went out immediately to this young man who was obviously as torn by his grief as they were by theirs.  His bearing was erect, but he looked positively haggard.  Ignoring her husbands stiff posture, she walked to meet him part way.  "Will.  Come, let us help you with your things."

      He smiled at her tentatively and put the cases down and nodded at her, "Rachael.,"  extending his hand to her husband as he added "Tom."  When Thomas didn't respond in kind, Will dropped his hand resignedly and bowed his shoulders.  "I'm sorry." 

      Rachael took Will's free hand, glaring at her husband before she looked up into Riker's face.  She waited patiently until he returned her gaze.  "We're all hurting Will.  And each of us must deal with it in our own way.  You're welcome here because Cecily loved you."  She chuckled,  "She practically worshipped the ground you walked on in fact.  Now let's go home and put our baby to bed."  She reached up and tentatively stroked Laurel's red hair. "Just like your mommy's"  She whispered to the sleeping child.

 

      Reaching down, she picked up one of the cases, and handed the other to Thomas.  "OK.  When the men get tongue tied, the women must take up the slack," she decided.   And she proceeded to talk to Will about inconsequential things; the flora, the local history. Will Riker's eyes threatened to overflow as he nodded his unspoken thanks and followed Rachael and Tom from the hangar.  Rachael kept up the small talk up until they finally arrived at a substantial home which had been styled after the log homes which had flourished in the 1970's.  "Here we are boys," she said, and opened the door, encouraging the silent men to enter.

 

 

 

                                        Chapter 12 "Going Through the Motions"

    

       Will did not sleep and had spent the hours pacing restlessly, pausing occasionally to gaze with troubled eyes at Laurel sleeping peacefully in the crib.  The Braxton house had been empty and quiet when they'd first arrived the day before, but the place had quickly filled up with various relatives who stopped by to meet Cecily's husband and to fuss over her child.  Will had greeted them mechanically, their names and faces nothing but a blur.  He worried that Laurel would be overwhelmed by all the attention, but she smiled and chattered happily, thoroughly endearing herself to her mother's family.  Thomas Braxton played often with his grandchild, but had only a hard stare for her father.  It made Will's chest tighten painfully every time he caught the older man watching him with such contempt. The light in the eastern sky was failing rapidly when he finally broke his silence.  "Come on, boy.  We're going for a walk."  Will looked up, too numb to protest or even be surprised.  Rachael watched with growing concern, as the two men started down the gravel road. 

     They'd gone almost a mile before Cecily's father finally spoke.  "Listen, son.  I don't blame you so much.  It's just been so hard losing my little girl." 

     Will nodded.  "I know."

     They walked a little further and Tom continued, "Laurel's a beautiful kid, Will.  Except for those blue eyes she looks just like Cecily did at that age."   Will managed a weak smile, but it faded quickly when Braxton continued.  "You're not planning on taking her back out there with you, are you?"

      Will was so startled that he stopped walking and stared at his father-in-law in astonishment.  He'd never considered that he wouldn't keep his daughter with him.  Laurel was his life now.  Tom Braxton read his face.  "It's far too dangerous."  He accused.  "You obviously couldn't take care of my daughter, so how in god's name are you going to take care of my grandchild all by yourself?"  Will tried to answer, but the words caught and stuck in his throat.  Maybe Cecily's father was right, he thought miserably.  Braxton took a step closer, locking his unyielding eyes with Will's.  "If you really love her, you'll do what's best for the child.  Leave her with us.  She'll have a good home and a family who loves her.  You can visit her when you're in port.  And she'll be safe.  It's what my daughter would have wanted for her baby."  Tom gave Will one last challenging stare and turned around, heading back for the ranch house.  It's lights twinkled in the distance.  Will couldn't bring himself to immediately follow.  He stood in the middle of the road, feeling crushed as the weight of the world fell on his shoulders.  Maybe Tom Braxton was right.  Maybe Laurel would be better off without him.  The question tore at his heart all night as he paced, looking often upon his sleeping child.

       Rachael rapped lightly on the door.  "Will?"  She called softly.  "It's 7 am.  Breakfast is ready.  Do you need help with the baby?"

       "No.  Thank you.  We'll be down in a few minutes..."  He answered her politely and her mother's heart when out to him.  She'd listened to him pacing throughout the night.  She wished she knew him well enough to break through his carefully constructed control and reach the man inside to comfort him.  Cecily had obviously chosen a good man, someone who had loved her very much. 

         The morning had dawned dark and dreary.  Heavy fog shrouded the mountainside and a light mist was falling, covering the grassy slopes with droplets of moisture.  Because the temperature had dropped considerably during the night, Jean Luc Picard pulled a coat on over his dress uniform as he prepared for the funeral service.  He was dreading this ceremony.  Although he respected it's purpose in providing closure for those left behind, he found it cruel as well.  It would be a difficult day for Will.  Starfleet be damned, he was glad that he had come.

      The mourners streamed up the hill from the old adobe church and gathered closely around the open grave.  Laforge, Thompson and Chao's uniforms earned them some speculative glances from the friends of the family.  On the other side of the grave, Will stood slightly apart from the rest of Cecily's family; almost as if he were not included in their circle of closeness.  Rachael had wisely prevailed upon him to leave Laurel back at the house with one of Cecily's aunts rather than expose her to the cold rain that was falling.  Jean Luc Picard went to stand at his  former first officer's side.  Riker glanced at him but quickly looked away; knowing full well that Picard might be uncomfortable with the grief he was unable to contain. 

       Jean Luc found himself wishing that Beverly had been able to come to the service.  She would know how to help Will through this.  Jean Luc cared for Will, and had become quite close to him during their years together on the Enterprise; but they had rarely shared their emotions with each other.  He'd never seen Will cry before this, and he could only remember a single occasion where he'd allowed Will to see that side of himself.

     Picard's memory unwillingly turned back to the days following his assimilation into the Borg collective.  Beverly had been able to remove the implants, and Deanna had talked with him for hours about what had happened. Her compassion and understanding had been very therapeutic, but the biggest help had come from his first officer who'd smoothed everything over for him professionally, and then put himself at his Captain's disposal personally as well.  Picard remembered well his mortification at losing control and crying in front of his first officer, but what he would remain forever grateful for was the graceful and compassionate way Riker had dealt with it. 

    The minister began the service, quietly speaking of Cecily and all the good she had done in her life- a dutiful daughter, a talented physician, a loving wife and mother.  Jean Luc saw Will's shoulders shake with silent grief as the eulogy came to a close.  Compassion overruled reserve.  He put his arms around the younger man,  pulling him into an embrace as the coffin was lowered into the ground and the minister dropped the first handful of dirt onto it, intoning "ashes to ashes and dust to dust."  

 

      Deanna was standing to the rear of the crowd, opposite from the side of the grave on which the family stood.  She have arrived late on purpose, guiltily hoping she could sneak in and not attract too much attention.  Gratefully, she spied Geordi and slipped quietly in beside him.  Geordi didn't speak but instead reached over and grasped her hand tightly; not seeming the least bit surprised to see her.  Picard stood stiffly next to Will, looking distinctly uncomfortable.  Deanna could easily sense the depth of his compassion and his strong desire to support Will.  From long acquaintance, she also knew that he was uneasy in the role of comforter, but he seemed to be coping extraordinarily well with today's ordeal .  Will himself seemed shrouded in a dense fog, his responses gray and blunted.  Deanna felt no compulsion to delve deeper, knowing that this was just Will's attempt to protect  himself against his overwhelming emotions. She watched him carefully, noting that he had positioned himself somewhat off to the side of the family, not quite seeming to be a part of their group.  Somehow this seemed odd and troubling although she couldn't quite understand why it would be so.  She felt her eyes well with sympathetic tears as she watched him standing so stiffly, looking so vulnerable and alone. Deanna wanted to reach out and smooth away the lines of fatigue and grief that had been etched around his eyes and mouth.  But she couldn't.  She wanted to reach out with her empathic senses and comfort him.  But she didn't.  The minister's words droned on hypnotically in the background.  Deanna closed her eyes momentarily as she bathed herself in the sensation of Will's nearness again.  Even though his outer emotions were chaotic and filled with guilt and confusion, the warm strength of his personality and the solid comfort of his presence hadn't changed.  If anything, she found that it had deepened like a fine piece of wooden furniture deepens it's color as it is burnished with age and care. The sensation was like finding the lost piece to a complex puzzle and dropping it firmly into place.  The picture was finally complete. 

      Deanna knew that Will was not even aware of her presence, and for that she was glad.  Later she would find time to talk to him.  Maybe after the hard edge of his grief had faded.  She found comfort in the presence of Phil Chao and his wife; knowing that Will was in fine hands.  The closing words of the ancient earth ritual penetrated her thoughts.  The wooden casket rattled hollowly with the first shovel full of dirt thrown upon it.  She watched the minister hand the shovel over to Will and wondered if he would be able to play the grim part given him.  Will's hands shook as he finally dug the shovel into the loose pile of dirt and dropped it into the hole.  The casket echoed hollowly again.  Deanna shuddered deeply.  Will's control had broken and she was buffeted by a sudden uncontrolled outpouring of his abandonment and loss.  As Geordi grabbed her arm to help steady her, she refocused her blurred vision to see Captain Picard wrapping his arms around Will's shaking shoulders, as if he could contain force of his friends anguish within the bounds of his embrace. 

     The service was over, and Deanna watched as Picard led Will back to the church where their transportation back to the house awaited.  Geordi asked if she was coming to the Braxton's home, but she told him she thought it would be better if she waited.  He nodded his understanding and gave her a long hug and kissed her cheek.  Acutely sensitive to Will right now, Deanna abruptly felt something in his balance shift.  Tentatively she reached out, but could feel little of his former pain.  However brutal his anguish had been, she was now far more distressed to feel this hard blunted barrier.  It was like steel door slamming shut on the most sensitive part of his soul.  She watched him, her heart deeply troubled, until she could no longer see the group of mourners clearly. 

     Back at the Braxtons, Will sank deeply into the overstuffed chair; almost as if he might hide from the multitude of family and well-wishers who accosted him.   Repetitiously, he thanked the people who came to give their condolences, stoically bearing the attention focused on him and Laurel.  He just wished they would go away and leave him alone to be with his daughter.  Holding her warm sleepy body against his chest made his protective instincts surge.  How on earth could he possibly leave her here with her grandparents?  But what if Thomas was right, how could he take her when he left?  Will honestly didn't think he could face the prospect of living apart from Laurel.  Her love and dependence was the only thing that had kept him from complete despair.  But his duty to the Federation tore at him, and he knew that he couldn't leave Starfleet during a time when they were stretched so thin; when a Borg invasion seemed inescapable.  Both questions hammered at him relentlessly, with no easy answer in sight.  The slight headache he had started the day with began to pound with savage intensity.  When Laurel finally fell asleep, clutching her bear with one hand and her daddy with the other, he thankfully made his excuses and escaped up the stairs to his room.

                                                                            ************************

 

 Will spent the next few weeks mechanically going through the motions of living and working.  He and Laurel spent two days in France with Jean Luc before the Enterprise captain had to return to duty; afterwards Will returned with his daughter to New Mexico.  Rachael and Tom insisted that he live there while the Soyuz was refitted and he was reassigned to train crews.  It was a convenient solution and Rachael did her best to make her son-in-law feel welcome. Tom said nothing more about Will leaving Laurel behind, but it was obvious to him that the bond between Laurel and her grandparents was growing stronger every day.  After the first two days she didn't cry any more when Will left for work in the morning, and when grandpa offered to take her to town for ice cream after dinner she was always eager to go, despite the fact that she hadn't seen her daddy all day. Will tried to console himself with the fact that Laurel was happy and well-loved, but he found himself feeling less and less important in her life.  It was the only thing that hurt him anymore.  Everything else had subsided to a dull, gray ache.     

 

                                                 ************************

 

     Halfway around the world Tessa Chao frowned at her husband.   Phil  was uncharacteristically upset.  "Tessa, I know this is a terrific opportunity for you...and you've put your career on hold for the last three years for me- and turnabout is only fair play.  But I feel like I'm deserting Will by leaving right now."

    Tessa Chao nodded.  "I understand, dear.  I feel for the poor lamb too.  But even if you stay, you can't bring Cecily back.  One way or the other he's going to have to learn to live with this."

    Phil drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully.  "I'm just worried about leaving him in someone else's hands.  You know- someone who doesn't understand him."  Phil stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets worriedly.  "Hell, Tessa, fact is, there's probably more than a few ship's counselors out there who'd pull the rug out from under him right now."

    Tessa frowned.  "What do you mean?  You don't think he's competent to command?"

    Phil shook his head.  "Of course I think he's competent!  Blast it all Tess, I wouldn't put the crew at risk!   I'm just saying that someone who doesn't know him might think otherwise...and someone who doesn't know him isn't going to get anywhere trying to help him through this.  He's in complete denial about his feelings."

      "Then you need to find someone to replace you who knows him well."  Phil's wife observed quietly.

      The Soyuz's counselor sighed in frustration.  "That's easier said than done."

       Tessa studied him for a moment, carefully gauging his mood.  Well, she'd already done it, and it couldn't be undone.  "I invited Deanna Troi for dinner tonight dear."

      Phil looked at her in surprise.  "Deanna?  Considering their history - I really don't think-."  Tessa knew better than to say anything.  She could almost see the thoughts churning slowly in her husband's head as he carefully considered the idea.   "She did come to the funeral,"  he muttered to himself.  "and she did say she was turning down the professorship because she wanted to get back out into space."  Phil's worried expression gradually dissolved into a self-satisfied smile.  "Tess, my darling, you're brilliant!" 

         That evening, Deanna and the Chaos had a very pleasant meal, gossiping about mutual friends from the old days and discussing her doctoral thesis.  After starting on dessert Phil brought up the topic of Will Riker.  Deanna had meant to call him after the funeral, but somehow couldn't think of what she would say, so instead she'd just sent him a note of condolence.  She listened with concern as Phil talked about  the way he was handling- or rather, not handling his grief.  It was the typical Will Riker reaction of bury the pain and go on.  He had done it many times before, but Deanna knew that the powerful grief she had sensed at the funeral was not going to go away on it's own. 

     Tessa gave her excuses and left Deanna and Phil to their professional discussion.  Phil found Deanna's insights helpful, but didn't let on that he was really more interested in Deanna's personal feelings about Will than her professional opinions.  They'd talked for over an hour before Phil made his suggestion.  Deanna paused for a moment before saying she'd think about it.  She wasn't lying.  It was a difficult decision, knowing her feelings were not necessarily her best guide- and for that matter, Will might not even want her there. 

                                                           *********

 

       Captain Riker took the news of Phil Chao's resignation with muted regret.  He was sorry to lose his best friend and an excellent ship's counselor, but he also understood the reasons.  There was little for an eminent xenobiologist to do on a ship that was involved primarily in diplomatic and defensive missions.  Tessa's job offer was just too good to turn down.  Phil had not expected a major reaction from this man who allowed himself to feel so little these days, so he wasn't surprised by Riker's quiet resignation.  "Well, we're not scheduled to leave for another five weeks.  I guess that'll be plenty of time for Starfleet to reassign someone to your position..."

       "Actually, Captain, I already had someone in mind for you,"  Phil confessed.  "I already took the liberty of speaking with her-  and she's interested in the position."

        "Fine, I'm sure she'll be fine.  Drop off the paperwork to me and I'll sign it..." Will answered dispiritedly.  He tried to care, but it really didn't matter to him.  In fact, he wasn't at all sure that he was even going to be on the Soyuz when it left port.  He'd been thinking more and more about taking a ground-based assignment.  Space no longer seemed so appealing with the growing prospect of losing his daughter.  And if he stayed on earth, he wouldn't have to worry about that. 

         Phil unexpectedly handed him the padd that he was carrying.  "I have it right here Will."

        Riker accepted it without comment, scrawling his signature on the bottom of the page before even glancing at the name of the officer who's transfer he was approving.  Phil saw his eyebrows arch slightly in surprise.  "Deanna Troi?" 

         "Is there a problem?"  Phil asked neutrally.  Will looked at him for a moment, searching inside himself for the emotional reaction he'd expected her name to elicit.  There was none.  He couldn't feel like that anymore.  Not since-.

         "No.  No problem.  It's fine."  Will handed back the pad. 

                                    

                                                   ***********************

 

   Tom looked up from the magazine he was reading as Will came in.  "Hello, Captain."  He greeted him.  Will tried to smile gamely although he hated  Tom Braxton's habit of calling him 'captain' whenever he was in uniform.  There was something hostile and mocking about it.

   "Is Laurel still up?"

   Tom shook his head.  "She had a busy day Will.  We took her blueberry picking and she fell asleep right after supper.  Rachael put her to bed since you weren't here."

     The statement somehow sounded like an accusation to Will and he winced.  His schedule had been brutal for the past two weeks and he hated the fact that it had robbed him of so much time with his daughter.  "I'll go check on her," he said quietly, mounting the steps leading to the second floor.  He stood over his daughter's crib and watched her sleep as he stroked her hair.  It was precisely the color of Cecily's.  A lump rose in his throat and he pushed the thought of his wife away.  Laurel stirred and sighed in her sleep, tightly hugging the stuffed bunny her grandpa had given her.  Will looked around for the ragged blue bear he'd bought for her when she was only six months old.  He spotted it laying discarded in the toy box. 

   "Will?  Have you had any dinner?"  Rachael asked softly from the doorway.  He glanced up at her, trying to hide the pain he was feeling.

    "Yes.  Thank you Rachael.  I grabbed a bite between meetings."  He lied.  He'd lost a good ten or fifteen pounds since Cecily died, but it didn't matter.  He just wasn't hungry.

     "You can at least have some dessert, son.  I made a blueberry pie.  It was Cecily's favorite and I want to initiate you.  Get changed and come on down,"  she coaxed.

      Will gave her a smile and changed into jeans and a comfortable old sweater that Cecily had bought for him on shore leave on Araborn VI.  Looking once more at Laurel, he went downstairs to join his in-laws.  Just as he sat down on the sofa with his pie, the comm unit beeped.  Tom answered and signaled his daughter's husband.  "Will.  It's for you."  He watched Will's face as first consternation, and then resignation crossed it.  Will came back and remained standing as he broke the news.  He had to leave tomorrow.

     "Tomorrow ??"  Rachael exclaimed in disbelief. 

       Will sighed.  "doesn't give me much of a chance to get the crew together."  He scanned through the padd, looking for Thompson's home number.  Upstairs, Laurel started to cry and he looked up.  Rachael touched his arm.  "It's OK.  I'll get her."

        Will contacted Thompson and spoke tersely to his first officer.  "Things are breaking down quickly on the Cardassian border, Number One.  Star Fleet's afraid this one is going to escalate into a full-scale confrontation.  We have 24 hours to pull together as much of the crew as we can and get underway."

         "Yes sir.  I- I'll get going on that right now..."  Thompson's voice sounded uncertain but by this time Will knew that was deceptive.  His Number One would be on top of the situation. "Right, I'm counting on you."   Will clicked off the channel and looked up at Tom Braxton who'd remained standing nearby.

         "What about Laurel?" the older man demanded.  "You're leaving her here with us, right?" 

         Will took a deep breath.  He'd hoped to have more time to decide.  "No Tom.  I've decided she's going with me."

          Tom advanced on him.  "Like hell she is, Riker!  You can't even give her a decent home.  What kind of father are you?  She needs a loving family, not some hot-shot idiot who's going to get  her slaughtered like her mother!"

          Will flinched as if Tom had struck him; his face flushing with guilt and anger.  He opened his mouth to reply, but Rachael spoke first from the top of the stairs.  "Tom!  You have no right to talk to him that way!"

          Tom turned on his wife, his face full of fury.  "Well, it's true Rach.  He's going to take Laurel out there and she's going to end up dead just like Cecily!  He has no right..."

         "He has every right.  He's her father, Tom" she said gently.  Will turned his head, staring resolutely out the window, wishing he was anywhere but there. 

         "It's too damned dangerous!"  Braxton insisted.    Rachael came down the stairs and confronted her husband, looking somewhat dangerous herself despite her diminutive height.  Will was reminded, with a sharp pang, of his confrontation with Cecily so long ago; when she'd stood in his ready room and shouted at him about his degrading attitude. Obviously she'd inherited her fire from her mother.

           "May I remind you, Thomas Braxton," she continued unabated, "that we raised three children on board star ships?  Life is a risk, no matter where you live it.  Will is going to take Laurel with him because that's where they both belong.  Can't you see he loves her, just like you always loved your daughters?   And Will is no more responsible for Cecily's death than you or me, and if you don't soon get it through that hard head of yours, you are going to end up losing your son-in-law and granddaughter too!"

           Tom Braxton gave a choked retort and wheeled, striding out the door and into the night.  Will and Rachael stood there in silence for long moments until Will finally spoke.  "I'll go get Laurel and leave now."  He started up the stairs, but she grabbed his arm.

        "Will, please, don't.  I know Tom, and he's just grieving the only way he knows how, which is by being angry.  He'll get over it, I promise.  He's really a good man.  He doesn't blame you.  Not really.  Please don't leave us tonight.  For me and Laurel, Will-

and Cecily."

        Will stayed, but he lay awake that night, listening for the sounds of Tom Braxton's return.  The door slammed and he heard them arguing loudly for a while, then finally there was silence.  In the morning when he left for Star Fleet Headquarters, Tom was nowhere to be seen.  When Will returned in the late afternoon to gather up Laurel and their belongings, he still had not appeared.  Rachael walked with them to the landing area where one of the Soyuz's shuttles was waiting for her captain.   Rachael embraced Laurel fiercely and bid Will a tearful goodbye.  Just as he stepped onto the craft  and was ready to shut the hatch a voice stopped him.  "Will?"

         He turned to see Tom Braxton crossing the tarmac.  Tom stopped before him.  "Forgive a foolish old man?"

         Will nodded, his visage softening as he accepted his father in law's extended hand. 

          "Good luck, Will.  Be careful out there and come back to us.  Remember that.  You and Laurel will always have a home to come back to."  The older man looked straight into Riker's eyes.  "Whatever else happened, you loved my daughter-  and you made her happy.  For that I'm grateful to you."

        The shuttle lifted off into the clear New Mexico sky and Rachael gently took her husband's arm.  "That was a good thing you just did, Tom." 

        He nodded and smiled down at her, wiping a tear from her cheek. "Don't cry now, Rach.  They're going to come home again.  I feel it."

 

 

               Deanna had gotten the call from her new commander just before going to sleep the night before.  Usually not at her best at 0700 in the morning, she grumbled while throwing a few last few minute items into her valise.  Hunger pangs annoyed her as her stomach fluttered.  She had a bad case of nerves; partially, she thought, from excitement about being space borne again, but mostly it was from thinking about coming face to face with Will. Three years since they had shared a real conversation.  Three years since she had shared his thoughts.  Without a clue as to what to expect, she pushed her awareness outward.  His presence was warm and sure, but his emotions were hidden from her by imposing barriers.  Walls, she suspected, to keep others out, and his emotions in. 

     Phil's concerns about Will had been plaguing her since their dinner, and she turned them over carefully in her mind. The door chimed, announcing the arrival of her transport.  "Come," she yelled, grabbing her valise and slinging it over her shoulder.  Emerging from her bedroom, she stared in surprise as she recognized the first officer of the Soyuz standing in her living room. 

     "Commander Thompson,"  she said, "I didn't expect an escort, but I am grateful."  The first officer stood ill at ease and eyed her with distrust.  His feelings seemed to almost border on hostility.  "Dr. Troi," he began, but she wouldn't let him go on.

    "I will be using the title Counselor, Commander Thompson."

     He nodded, slightly nonplused.  "Counselor Troi, I came to let you know one thing, and one thing only."  She waited for him to go on, but he seemed to deflate, losing some of his steam.  "I just... well, I wanted you to know, to realize... that the Captain's not.. well he's....  I mean I don't want you to think...." He broke off  abruptly in frustration.  Deanna could feel his intense desire to protect Will, and she suddenly realized that Thompson had come to the privacy of her home to say something in his Captains defense; before she met him on board the Soyuz.   He was upset, and seemed deeply worried about Will.

     She tried to put him at rest .   "Commander, Will and I, Captain Riker if you will, are friends of long acquaintance.  And though I haven't seen him in the past three years, I still know him better than he probably knows himself."  She smiled warmly, but Thompson still looked doubtful.  She was not the least bit offended.  It was encouraging to find that Will was surrounded by people who cared about him.  She continued.  "I know what he's been through, and actually,  Commander Thompson, I was hoping that our past relationship would be of benefit in helping him work through this.  And I had also hoped that I could rely on you to fill me in on his past time with the Soyuz."  Thompson relaxed visibly, his smile a little less guarded.  "Well then, let me welcome you, Counselor Troi, to the Soyuz; Pride of Starfleet's defense."  She nodded and accepted his help loading her things into the waiting shuttle. 

     

     Will was checking with all of the ship's  departments to assure himself that everything was in order.  In engineering he was stopped by Geordi.  "Everything's ready Captain," the Chief Engineer said confidently. They bent over a schematic and continued to talk about the modifications that had been implemented to the warp engines when Geordi's face broke into a huge grin.  Looking up, Will saw the object of his attention.  Deanna Troi.  He straightened up slowly as she and Commander Thompson approached.  Deanna reached out her hand and he took it.  "Welcome aboard, Counselor.  It's good to see you again."

       Deanna felt a flash of surprise and disappointment.  She'd been so excited about finally seeing him again, but she sensed none of that reaction in him.  His emotions were muted and contained none of the passion she'd come to associate with his personality.  No sexual attraction, no deep affection, none of his usual joy and enthusiasm.  There were not even any of the negatives present that had come between them in the last few months on the Enterprise.  Her presence didn't elicit anything in him, except for simple acceptance.

       "It's nice to see you, too, Captain," was her response, as if nothing was amiss.

        Will glanced back down at the schematics.  "Thompson, notify the other officers that we'll meet in the command center at 0900."  He dismissed them with a wave.

 

                                            ****************************

 

         Starfleet command hadn't been wrong in their assessment of the situation on the Cardassian boarders.  The increase in activity keep the Soyuz and it's crew frantically busy for the next several months with everything from diplomatic negotiations to rescue operations.  The crew quickly fell into it's previous rhythm of efficiency and camaraderie.  The only difference was the lack of the Captain's involvement in ships' life.  He no longer conducted poker games for the officers in his quarters, and his usual manner of relaxed discipline had been replaced with a cool efficiency that separated him emotionally from the crew.  Thompson, Geordi and Deanna had talked many times of the change in Riker; but had not come up with a solution.  Deanna almost despaired of ever getting through his self-imposed cloak of isolation.

     Eventually, things calmed down on the Cardassian border.  With the pressure off for the moment, Deanna decided to take the opportunity to break through Will's emotional withdrawal before it hardened into permanence. She would force him to talk, and if that didn't work, she would at least get him to listen.

     "Captain," Dimonelli said, "we have a priority one message coming in from Starfleet Command."  Will glanced over at his first officer.  "You have the bridge Thompson.  I'll take it in the command center."  He gave Deanna what passed for a smile these days and left.  Thompson and Deanna exchanged looks.  The first officer had been aware of Deanna's hopes for progress with the Captain, and was now aware that her plan would have to be put on hold again.  A priority one message boded ill for any thoughts of relaxation for the exhausted crew of the Soyuz.  Riker came back from the command center, his face a deceptive mask of calm.  "Number One, call a meeting for all the executive officers right now". 

     Riker looked over each of his officers carefully.  "We are going to the Ramev system, to a planet called Cantos which lies along the outer edge of the Cardassian border."  At their questioning glances he continued.  "This will involve both a planet-side mission, and ships' reconnaissance.  I am leading an away team to the surface." he quelled Thompsons objection with an icy look, "and Commander Thompson will take the Soyuz and map out the activity of the Cardassian fleet in this area.  We need to know exactly where they are, and what capabilities they have".

      "What's happening on the planet, sir?" Thompson asked him, trying to get more information before he attempted to talk his commanding officer out of leading an away team..  Will's face twisted with distaste. 

     "The Cantonian government is corrupt beyond belief and their cities are densely populated.  They have neither the resources nor the inclination to take care of their peoples' needs, although they possess advanced technologies.  Only the very rich or the very corrupt have access to them, and those two characteristics seem to go hand in hand n on Cantos."  Will took a deep breath.  "Cardassian transport ships have been reported to be taking large numbers of Cantonians off planet, and are returning none of them.  New technologies have been turning up within the governing class."  He shook his head before going on.  "It is suspected that they are trading the one thing they have plenty of, which is people, in exchange for new technology.  In other words.... Slavery."  There was silence around the table as the officers took in the implications of his statement.  "Starfleet is rightfully concerned," Will continued.  "The Cantonian government is ripe for takeover by the Cardassians, which if it happens, will give Cardassia a very strong foothold in this sector."  Will gave each officer a  hard look.  "Avoiding a conflict which might destroy our treaty with Cardassia is of paramount importance to this whole sector.  You are ALL aware that the treaty is on very shaky ground right now."  They all nodded. "Our mission is of prime importance, but Starfleet Command has expressed its' utmost confidence in us.  I don't intend for us to let them down."  Everyone nodded again grimly.  "Number One - the details of your mission..." He handed Thompson a padd and turned to Troi.  "Counselor, you'll be accompanying me, so familiarize yourself with the situation.  Our ETA is five hours and twenty minutes.   I'll be unavailable except for emergency until then."  Deanna watched him leave, suspecting that she knew where he was going. 

 

         The only time Captain Will Riker felt anything like his former self was when he was with his daughter.  Laurel was twenty three months old now and Will was firmly wrapped around her little finger.  With her he could be warm and affectionate and his smiles were always real and heartfelt. 

     Deanna loved watching Will when he played with Laurel.  She marveled at what a skilled parent he had become, although it was the little things surprised her most, like the gentleness of his big hands when he delicately braided Laurel's auburn tresses, and the quiet, soothing way he was able to calm her when she was overtired and whining.  Deanna was thankful that he had this one emotional outlet, and that he was taking the time to relax with his daughter before their next mission.  She spent the next two hours reviewing everything she could find about the socio-dynamics of Cantos.   It was a troubled society and she found herself hard-pressed to remain objective as she read the reports on the slave trade with the Cardassians.  Several questions remained after she'd examined all the files, and she decided she would drop in on Riker for a few minutes, despite his request not to be disturbed.  She admitted that the truth was she just wanted to be near him for a while.  Although he was totally oblivious to the fact, they were still connected at a certain level, and she found his presence deeply satisfying. 

       "Come," he said.

       Deanna entered and found the vaunted captain of the Soyuz and his daughter laying on the floor with their heads close together, playing house with a family of stuffed animals.  Laurel looked up at her with her remarkable blue eyes and smiled.  "Hi Danma!"  Deanna grinned at the childs pleasure and sat down on the floor with them, ignoring the fact that Will didn't seem particularly pleased to have her here.  As ship's counselor it was part of her job to know all the children of the Soyuz, and one could hardly blame her if she took a special interest in the motherless daughter of the ships Captain.  She frequently took time to play with her when she stopped by the ship's child care center.

        "Something I can do for you counselor?"  Will asked neutrally and she nodded as Laurel scooted over beside her and handed her a stuffed giraffe.  "There were a few things I wanted to discuss with you about our upcoming mission Captain."  She said, taking the giraffe and walking it playfully up Laurel's arm, causing her to giggle.

         "Daddy g'affe."  Laurel said brightly and Deanna smiled at her.

         "This is the daddy giraffe?  Where's the baby?".

          Laurel scuttled off to find it, clamoring over Will's legs as he sat up.  "You looked over the reports, right?"  He asked.

          Deanna was about to reply when Laurel interrupted.  "Baby g'affe!"  She pronounced proudly, dropping a smaller stuffed giraffe into Deanna's lap.

          Deanna made a show of examining the little creature.  "Oh, it's a nice baby, Laurel.  I bet the daddy giraffe really loves her." 

         Laurel grinned, draping her arms around her own daddy.  "un-hunh."

        Without thinking, Deanna asked "Where's the mommy giraffe?"

          Laurel's face looked solemn as she took the two stuffed animals back from Troi.  "No momma."  She lisped softly.  "Momma gone.  Daddy g'affe cry."    

          For the briefest moment Deanna saw the grief plainly in Will's face, and then his control snapped back into place so swiftly she almost recoiled.  "Laurel.  Why don't you go pick out what jamas you're going to take to stay  with Aunt Ana tonight?" The toddler skittered off again happily, as Will looked at Troi with embarrassment.  "Out of the mouths of babes."  He said resignedly.

          It was the most vulnerable Deanna had seen him in all the time they'd been on Soyuz together.  She decided to take advantage of the moment, reaching out to lightly touch his arm. "Will, you can't just go on forever, pretending that you don't feel anything.  Even Laurel can sense that you're in pain over your loss.  You need to acknowledge it and come to terms with your grief.  Both for your sake- and for Laurel's."

          Will stared down bleakly at the stuffed animals in his hands.  "I know Deanna.  I just don't know how," he admitted softly, looking up as she laid one of her hands over his.

 

 

          "That's what I'm here for Will.  To help you."  She almost added "Imzadi," but quickly caught herself.  "When we get back from this mission will you please sit down and talk with me?   About Cecily and Laurel, and about what's happening inside that stubborn heart of yours.  It IS my job, you know."

           He hesitated a moment and then practically broke her heart with a weak imitation of his usual smile.  "OK Deanna,"  he agreed, just as Laurel came running back toting her pink footed pajamas with the bunny tail attached.

 

 

 

                                       Chapter Thirteen  "The Bug Lady"

 

      Ensign Schmidt piloted the shuttle as Will acquainted lieutenant Aaron Levitz and Deanna with the details of their mission on Cantos.  Levitz was sitting in the co-pilot's seat as Deanna went over their supplies with a fine tooth comb; making sure that all was in order.  Aaron was newly assigned to the Soyuz, having joined the crew barely two weeks earlier. The Lieutenant was about ten years younger than Riker, and was almost satyr-like in looks.  His curly brown hair's length had been extended for the mission, and seemed unacquainted with the likes of a comb.  His light brown eyes slanted slightly upwards at their outer corners and sparkled with good humor.  "Captain, did I hear right that you have a little girl about the age of mine?" he asked curiously. 

     Will glanced over as if surprised that the younger man had spoken to him. Deanna watched him brighten perceptibly at the mention of Laurel.  "Yes...I have a daughter who will be two in another month."

   Levitz, obviously a proud papa, gave Riker a face splitting grin.  "My Maya will be two years old next week.  I just hope that we can get back from this mission in time for her party, or her mother will kill me."  Aaron stood in order to pull out a likeness of his child and handed it to Riker who studied it with the interest only another parent would show.  She was a carbon copy of her father in miniature.

  "She's a dandy," Will said finally, giving the picture back with a smile; the first real one, Deanna noted, that had graced his countenance in days. 

   "Well?" Aaron asked him expectantly.

   Riker turned back around, "Well what Lieutenant?"  he replied patiently, feeling somewhat lightened by the young father's enthusiasm.  

     Aaron's laughter filled the shuttle. Deanna thought it was quite delightful after Will's solemn ways . "Well," he asked grinning, "where's YOUR picture Captain?"

     Riker blinked, caught off guard, and then laughed as he pulled Laurel's picture from his pocket.  "Here," he said handing it over to Aaron, a glimmer of his old grin hovering around his lips," and don't you dare say she's anything less then perfect."

   Aaron stared at the picture Riker had given him.  It showed Cecily, Laurel and himself all smiling, the perfect family.  It was the very one that the news vids had plastered across the quadrant when the mining tragedy had occurred.  Obviously this was the first time Aaron had made the connection, and he looked over at the Captain with barely disguised sympathy.  "Well, she's a beauty sir, and that's no lie." 

    Will's smile faded as he saw the Lieutenant's expression change. "That she is,"  was all he said, taking the picture back from the subdued young man. Will remained silent until they reached orbit around Cantos.

 

                                                **************************

 

     "Sir, we've reached the beam in coordinates," said Ensign Schmidt.

     Riker nodded and looked at Deanna and Aaron.  "This is it.  Lets go."  Riker gave Schmidt some final instructions for emergency beam out,  then joined the others on the shuttle's transporter pads. 

     They materialized outside of the city, in a sparsely wooded area close to the main road.  "We should be about two miles outside the city's entrance," Riker said.  "Remember, the people here are poor and defeated, and we can't go in there looking like we just came from a party," he said, glancing meaningfully at the grinning Levitz.   Aaron dutifully changed his expression to one of dejected resignation.  The quick change brought another smile from Riker and he shook his head.  "Deanna, why don't you walk between us."

     They eased themselves onto the dusty road.  The ragged clothing they wore was soon covered with a layer of fine dust, and they blended easily with the groups of people who were making their way in to the city in hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families.  Deanna's luxurious hair had been captured into myriad's of tiny braids, and then tied back with an old piece of string. Her ivory complexion had been darkened to mimic  those that had been exposed to a lifetime under the harsh Cantos sun.  Riker's hair was  several inches longer than usual, and raggedly cut, and his beard no longer retained it's polished nautical look. He had layered several shirts, as if he were wearing everything he owned on his back.  All three had their comm badges hidden from sight.  By the time they reached the city gates, they were hot, thirsty and tired.   The guards at the gates mechanically asked each group of people the same questions. One stopped in front of Riker; looking him over more carefully than Riker was comfortable with.  "Name, village and what is your business here in Cass,"  he asked, his surly voice holding a challenge.

      Riker answered quietly, presenting himself in the manner of someone who had no fight left to him.  "Weller Mentas,  my wife Kajon," he said nodding to Deanna, "and my cousin Jedrey Anten."  He stared steadfastly at the guard's boots in the manner of one who had been thoroughly subdued by his life's circumstances.  "We have come looking for work here.  Our village, Antile, has all but died since the crop failure this year.  I can no longer support my family there."  Riker's voice came out sounding distressed and non-threatening.  He looked up only when the guard remained silent.  The man was staring at Deanna with a speculative gleam.

     "You don't have children?" the guard asked.

      Riker tried to keep the hard edge from his voice, but was only partially successful.  "Our son died in the famine, and my wife is now with child."

      The guard nodded, apparently satisfied.  "Fine.  Go on.  Stay in the Quartos sector," and he waved them past as if they no longer held any interest to him.

      Riker grabbed Deanna's arm and jerked his head at Aaron, hurrying them down the filthy street till they were well away from the entrance.  Slowing down, he kept his voice pitched low.  "We've got to find Benton, our contact.  His report said it's too risky for us to make inquiries, so he's set it up for us to meet him in one of the local inns; The Palace.  We're to wait there through the supper hour each day until he finds us."

    Deanna looked about her in distaste.  The stink of the city assailing her delicate sense of smell.  "It smells like a sewer."

    Will smiled without mirth, "It IS a sewer Deanna, watch where you step."  With that admonition the three of them continued their trek down the crowded avenue, avoiding what filth they could. 

      "Here," Will said about forty-five minutes later, finally stopping in front of a building which seemed able to remain standing only through the support of neighboring buildings it was squeezed  between.  The paint peeled off of siding that was a patchwork of wood, metal and some other unknown substance, and it's once proud sign canted off to one side, it's gilded writing barely legible. 

    "THIS is the place?" Deanna asked him dubiously.  "You're sure?"

    Will put his arm around her shoulder.  "Come on, let's go in.  It can't be as bad as it looks from here."  Aaron snorted his amusement and followed behind. 

     The large room was dark and smelled of mildew and other unidentified odors.  Riker motioned for them to wait, and he went to the bar at the far end of the room.  An overweight woman rose from behind the bar like a leviathan rising from the deep.  Her garb was better quality than most of what Riker had seen on the streets, but had been ill used.  The dress was filthy, and the seams, stressed by the bulging flesh, were slowly losing the battle to remain whole.  She leaned against the bar and practically knocked Will out with her foul breath.  "What can I do for you, handsome?" 

     Riker played the part of defeated immigrant still, not raising his eyes from the bar top.  "Rooms please, for my wife and I, and my cousin." 

     The woman squinted as she looked across the room.  "Rooms, Ha!" she said. "We have but one room. And you'll have to share it.  Meals included." 

     Riker raised his eyes to her grimy neck, stifling his revulsion as a black bug crawled out of her hair and made it's way down her bosom.  "How much?" he asked quickly, knowing it was expected.

     Her voice changed, becoming slightly husky.  He inadvertently looked up.  "That depends on you, dear.  My what gorgeous eyes you have!" she said, batting her own lashes preposterously.  "Three soviniets a night, with breakfast and supper.  Unless, of course,  you'd like to work a little trade." 

    Riker's stomach lurched at her implied innuendo.  "No, three soviniets is fine." he said, realizing too late that it was probably far too much. 

    He spun on his heel to her venomous retort.  "Fine,  I'll give you the "best" room in the house."  Somehow Riker doubted that she would

     Benton did not show up at the Palace that evening.  Will and the others were hungry but none of them were inclined to try the unwholesome looking slop that was supposed to be dinner.  The bowls and cups were no cleaner than the skinny young girl who slapped them on the table and then skittered away in fright as the hulking proprietress made her way to their table.  "What's wrong?  Food ain't good enough for you?"  She demanded, shoving Deanna's shoulder rudely.  

       Mindful of their roles as poor immigrants, Will picked up his dirty spoon and took a big bite of one of the unidentifiable brown lumps in his bowl.  Fighting his gag reflex he swallowed and gave the woman a timid smile.  "No. It's fine...my wife just...isn't feeling well."  Levitz kept his head studiously down as he went through the motions of sampling his food, without ever actually touching it to his lips.

       Leaning close enough to Will that he was nearly overwhelmed by the stench of her body odor and cheap perfume, the woman smiled suggestively.  "I bet a big powerful man like you ain't near satisfied with a sickly little thing like that."

      Deanna began coughing convulsively and Will wondered whether she was acting "sickly"  or hiding laughter at his predicament.  Unsure of what to say, he looked back down at his food, hoping the proprietress would lose interest.  Instead she leaned even closer.

      "Tell you what.  You come upstairs with me for a while and I'll see that your little precious there gets something to eat that more suits her delicate tastes."  

      He was completely unprepared for her big meaty hand reaching down between him and the table and grabbing his crotch.  Deanna's eyes widened.  She had seen Will Riker face a core breach with less shock in his eyes.  He stood up abruptly, knocking his chair over in the process.  "I'm sorry..."  He protested, trying his best to escape her clutches while retaining a shred of diplomacy.  "I'm married ...I'm really not interested..." The men at the table next to them dissolved into raucous laughter and the woman's expression turned from seduction to fury.  She took a step closer to Will, her foul breath and yellowed teeth making him wince.

    "You're going to be sorry you said that."  She threatened, leering at Deanna as she turned away.      

                                                      ******************

 

     The room was as bad as they expected it to be. The only furniture was one stained mattress sitting on a metal frame in the corner. A single bare light bulb illuminated the filth.  "Oh god, I hope this guy contacts us tomorrow."  Levitz muttered as Will locked the flimsy door behind them.

    "That makes two of us."  Will agreed.  He could think of  few worlds that he had found so utterly squalid and depressing.

      Deanna made a sound of dismay and Will turned to look at her.  She was peering at the bed, with her face wrinkled in disgust.  "This mattress is crawling with bugs."

      Lt. Levitz smiled sardonically.  "Well, I was wondering how we were going to do

this."  He glanced at Riker.  "Seeing that you're the captain, sir, I'd say that you get the bed.  I'll be happy to sleep on the floor."

        "...and they say rank hath it's privileges..."  the captain muttered with a smile.

Deanna was glad to see him responding to Aaron Levitz's sense of humor.  The lieutenant was a good influence.

       They did their best to make themselves comfortable on the filthy wooden floor.     They laid in the darkness, listening to the shouts and noise coming from the street, and trying not to think about what kind of vermin skittered around this room at night.

        "I'm starved."  Aaron commented in the darkness and Deanna piped up. 

       "Think how I feel.  I could have had a decent meal if the captain wasn't so squeamish." 

         She heard Will turn to her in the darkness.  "Counselor - I'd do just about anything to assure your comfort...but that was WAY above and beyond the call of duty..."  The three of them laughed quietly, and then lapsed into silence.  Slowly their weariness caught up with them, and they slept.

      Deanna woke with a start two hours later. There was another gunshot in the street and some screaming before the silence reclaimed the night.  She shivered and sat up stiffly.  The temperature had dropped and she was very cold.  She took one of  Will's shirts that she'd been using as a pillow and wrapped it around herself.  "Deanna?"  He whispered in the darkness, surprising her.  "Are you OK?"

          "Just cold..."  she whispered back, sorry that she'd wakened him, but finding his voice reassuring none the less.

          "Come here-"  He instructed quietly, and she scooted over across the foot or two of space that separated them.  Very gently he pulled her down, pillowing her head on his chest, his arms encircling her protectively.  "Go back to sleep..."  he murmured, already drifting off himself.

           The sensation of  being wrapped in his warm embrace was sublime.  She laid

awake, listening to his even breathing and the steady beat of his heart as he slept.  His shirt was a loose-fitting tunic, and tentatively she slid her fingers beneath it,  resting her hand on his bare skin.  She resisted the urge to caress him, knowing that her touch would be even more unsettling to him than the crude groping of the inn's proprietress.  Deanna sighed.  She'd known, even before returning to the Soyuz, that she still had feelings for him.  But she had not been prepared for how powerful those feelings were going to be.    Professionally, she knew he needed time and objective counseling to help him cast aside the grief that covered him like a shroud, but it was agony for her to be so close to him, and to hold in all the things she wanted to say.  He was asleep, so she said one of them now-  whispered it almost soundlessly in the dark.  "Imzadi."  It felt so very good to her, as if this was always meant to be.  She closed her eyes, pretending they were somewhere else- pretending that they were lovers again, wrapped around each other in the afterglow of lovemaking.  It wasn't hard to imagine and she finally drifted to sleep dreaming of the Jalara jungle.

       Deanna woke early, as the first light of morning began to illuminate the room.  Will still held her and she opened her mind to his.  She could sense the emotions there, shrouded by slumber, and she smiled.  He was at peace and she allowed herself to luxuriate in the familiar sense of him as he had been before grief had gripped his heart so completely.  Will murmured something softly in his sleep and held her a little more closely.  Deanna knew the loving, semi-erotic thoughts that flowed from him as he began to awaken were not for her, but even so, it was hard to move from his embrace.  Reluctantly, she removed her hand from under his shirt and sat up.  "mmm - Cecily..."  he breathed softly, reaching sleepily for her.

        Deanna bit her lip.  "No.  Will.  It's me.  Deanna."

       "Deanna?"  He repeated dully, opening his eyes to look at her in the dimness.  She both felt and saw his grief reemerge again, obliterating all the joy and peace she had sensed this morning.  "Deanna."  He said again, as if to assure himself that Cecily was really not there.  "Oh..."  He sat up, glad for the dim light that hid him from Troi's scrutiny.

         They sat there in silence for a few minutes,  Will too pained to talk and Deanna too unsure of her own heart to try to help him.  Finally he rose, brushing the dirt from the floor off his clothing and going to look out the grimy window at the ramshackle street below.  "I'm going to go for a walk..."  He said at last.  "Stay with Levitz..."

 

      The cold, predawn haze suited his mood perfectly as he aimlessly wandered the

squalid streets, thinking of Cecily. 

      The proprietress of the Palace watched him slip out the front door into the street and smiled to herself.  He was one gorgeous hunk of a man.  Maybe, with his skinny little wife out of the picture, he'd be more cooperative.  Wheezing asthmatically, she waddled over to a table in the corner where four slave traders were eating their grease-laden breakfasts.  "I've got some goods for you upstairs that I think you'll like.  The kind of sweet, delicate little thing the Cardassians just eat up.  She should bring us a nice price ..."

.      Deanna sighed and leaned back against the wall, straightening back up abruptly when a cockroach-like creature skittered beside her head. 

       "It must be really hard for him..."  Aaron observed from the other side of the room, taking her by surprise.  She'd assumed he was still asleep.  "Losing his wife, trying to raise a kid on his own, and run a starship at the same time..."

      Troi felt self-conscious for a moment, wondering if Levitz had seen her sleeping in Will's arms, but she heard  no innuendoes in his voice, and sensed only sympathy in his emotions.  "Yes."  She agreed, "It's very hard for him."

      Lt. Levitz sat up "I felt like an idiot yesterday when I asked to see his kid's picture.  There I am babbling about how my wife is going to be upset if I'm not back in time for Maya's party...I had heard about his wife - but I just wasn't thinking..."

      Deanna slipped gratefully back into the role of Counselor, relieved to have something to think about besides the way Will Riker made her feel.  "Aaron, there's no reason to feel awkward about that.  One of the biggest problems that a grieving individual encounters is the tendency for everyone to walk on eggshells around them.  The captain was not upset with you for talking about your wife and child.  In fact, I think he was enjoying the opportunity to interact with another new father.  You two have a great deal in common, and I think that you could become good friends."

      Levitz was silent for a moment before asking  "You are, aren't you? ...good friends, I mean?  It seems like you understand each other..."

      Deanna sighed enigmatically.  "Yes.  We are good friends.  Whether we understand each other or not anymore...I'm not sure..."

      Aaron cocked his head.  "Anymore?...."

      She shook her head, a little mortified that she'd let her feelings show.  "Will and I were once...we were once very close...it was a long time ago...and things just didn't work out..."

     Aaron was about to comment when there was a loud rap on the door.  "You want breakfast or not?"  The loud voice of the inn's proprietress demanded.

     Aaron shot Troi a grin,  as he stood up and dusted himself off.  "The captain's going to be sorry he missed her..."  he said under his breath as he went to open the door.

     The woman peered inside the room before handing him the covered tray.  "Where did your friend go?"

     "Looking for work."  Aaron answered warily and saw her nod.  This would work perfectly, she thought to herself.  As soon as they had a few bites of the "special" breakfast she'd made them they would be out cold.  The traders could make off quietly with their goods and she could tell the good looking one that his wife had run away with his cousin.  She grinned salaciously.  Then, she would "comfort" him.

      "Well, thanks!"  Aaron said, shutting the door in her face before his already churning stomach rebelled against her aroma.  He turned to Troi doubtfully.  "Breakfast has arrived.  Do I risk taking off the cover?"

      She nodded doubtfully, hunger warring with the certainty that whatever the woman had brought them was going to be inedible.  Aaron peaked under the lid and then smiled as he took it off the rest of the way.  It actually looked good.  There were two pieces of some sort of melon, accompanied by a flat bread and beverages in sparkling, clean glasses.

"I think our  landlady is trying to make a good impression on the Captain."  He said with a grin and Deanna had to laugh as she took her portion of melon from the tray.

    "I don't think it's going to work..."  She smirked, "But you can't blame her for trying..."

     They were both starving, and dug into the food with relish.  Aaron had eaten almost his entire portion of melon before he paused suddenly.  "I feel really strange...dizzy..."  He tumbled face forward and Deanna moved to help him, but the sedative overcame her before she could reach his side.  Her last thought was that Will would be back soon and everything would be all right.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                        Chapter 14 "Capture"

 

       Will walked the streets of the city for more than an hour.  The morning's heavy mist had made the thin layers of his clothing damp and clammy.  Dismal squalor and abject poverty assailed him from every side.  Instead of dissipating, his depression seemed to grow more oppressive with every step.   With conscious effort, he pulled his mind away from the dark thoughts of his loss and loneliness.  He chided himself for wandering the streets in a haze of self indulgence, realizing he couldn't allow himself time for self pity if their mission was going to be accomplished.  Picking up his pace he hurried back to the inn, remembering as he entered to change his erect posture.  He slumped his shoulders and restricted his gaze to shifting sideward glances, and views of the vast vistas of filth which covered the inn's wooden floors. 

     "Hey handsome," the innkeeper called to Will from across the room, the unmusical grating of her voice made him cringe inwardly.  Not seeing any way to politely avoid her, he slouched to the bar.  "Come a little closer to me handsome," she wheezed, posing herself lewdly in what she must have perceived as a provocative stance.  Will reflexively leaned back away from her, than cursed himself for breaking character.  Thankfully, she appeared not to notice his untimely aversion.  The room suddenly became quiet, causing the hair on Will's arms and the back of his neck to prickle.  He turned his head, trying to look up the stairs just as the innkeeper placed her hefty paw on his shoulder.  He gritted his teeth smiling, forcing  himself to not wrench away from her touch.  She leaned closer to him, the stench of her breath nauseating him.   "I fixed it so you and I could have a little time together; handsome.  And I WILL make it worth your while," she said, licking her greasy, painted lips.  Will faced her again reluctantly, revolted by the thought of what he might have to do to satisfy her enough to let go of any information.  Making himself lean in closer to her, he gave her the full benefit of his electric smile.

      "Well darlin, if we're going to be better friends, I need to know your name don't I?"  Being the unexpected object of Will's unmitigated charm elicited a torrent of flustered simpering and grotesque posing from the ungainly behemoth.  "You can call me Sari," she said, leaning over to expose even more of her grimy bosom as she fluttered her false lashes at him.  

     There was a loud thud from upstairs and Sari cast a furtive look towards the stairway.  Will craned his neck in the direction of her glance, his premonition of danger increasing as he saw three large men shuffling down the upper hallway towards the top of the stairs.  One carried what was obviously a person wrapped up as tightly as a cocoon in an old blanket, while the other two seemed to be scanning the room.  A warning klaxon  went off in the back of Will's head as he turned to face the stuttering innkeeper.  "What's happening?" he asked her with deceptive mildness.  He heard the clomp of booted feet on the stairs and felt the vibration through the wooden floor.

    "Nothing to concern us," she snapped.  "Just some patrons who got sick.  They're taking 'em to the sick house." Will turned again to observe the three men, his sense of unease escalating exponentially as another man appeared from the hall, carrying a similarly bundled person.  What appeared to be the head of the first bundle was bobbing heavily with each step of the man who carried it.  Riker swore belatedly when he saw several thin black braids slide into plain view. 

     They had Deanna!  Without stopping to think that he was outnumbered, he jerked away from the fanatic grip of the innkeeper and launched himself at nearest of the three still coming down the stairs.  He hit the first man in the gut with all the force of an Alaskan grizzly, and the slaver toppled like a felled tree, the weight of his body pushing Will over backwards as the two of them rolled down the stairs into a disorganized heap.. Will disentangled himself and shook the stars out of his eyes, only to throw himself up the stairs once  more.  Where is Benton?, he wondered frantically as he raced up the stairs two at a time.  The man carrying Deanna had retreated behind his partner, the oily trader in front giving a roar of his own as he charged Will at the edge of the stairwell. The two big men were evenly matched, but the trader was on higher ground, giving him a distinct advantage.  He was also carrying an ugly club which was imbedded with short ragged hooks of metal.  He swung powerfully, aiming it at Riker's head.  Riker stumbled sideways, barely saving his head from being crushed.  But he couldn't avoid the club completely, and its spiked end ripped into the muscles and bone of his shoulder, causing him to cry out. The spikes caught the thin material of his shirts, ripping them half way off.   Rivulets of blood ran freely down his arm. The powerful blow left him off balance and a booted foot which connected with his unprotected kidneys drove him to his knees in agonizing pain.  The slaver smiled in anticipation as he finished the job with another carefully placed kick, this time to Riker's face.  It knocked him  through the flimsy balustrade and down ten feet to the floor below. 

      "Get him up," the leader bellowed with vicious satisfaction as he spat on the unmoving form of his adversary.

     Sari's high pitched protests could be heard above the clamor, "He was to be mine Sorjen!  He was my price!!!" 

        The leader looked her over with unveiled ridicule.  "He saw too much Sari.  Besides, he is big and quite strong.  Exactly the type they're looking for.  So... you will just have to find another..... toy," he spat, his voice dripping with amused contempt. 

     The trader who had kicked Riker off the stairs was now trying to rouse him.  When he had no success he walked over to the corner and picked up a bucket filled with dirty water used to mop the floors.  Grinning, he threw it in the unconscious man's face.   Riker moaned as he regained consciousness. Sorjen nodded to the other slaver and they grabbed Riker's arms and roughly pulled him to his feet.  They tied his arms behind his back, drawing the rope cruelly tight at both at the wrist and the elbow.  Sorjen jerked his head to the others, and they left through the back exit to the animals which awaited in the alley.

                                                        ******************

 

      Deanna awoke to the forward swaying motion of a riding beast, and also to fierce pain.  Other than a drug induced headache, she judged that it wasn't her own pain that she was feeling, but Will's.  Her wrists were loosely tied to the pommel of the saddle, and her feet were strapped to the stirrups with leather thongs.  Her thighs and ankles were chaffed raw, but other than that she seemed to be intact. Opening her puffy eyes, she squinted against the brightness of the mid-day sun.  Nothing ahead of her but more road, with mountains in the distance.  Her placid mount was tied securely in between two others, both of which were ridden by slavers.  She twisted around as far as her bonds would allow and looked behind her.  Her heart twisted as she saw Aaron and Will being dragged along behind them.  They were tied to the last mount by a ten foot rope which was split into two along the last four or five feet of it's length..  At one end was Aaron, the loop tied securely  around his wrists, and at the other end was Will.  His arms had been pulled tightly behind him, so the rope had been secured around his neck.  The dragging gait of the pack beasts raised clouds of  dry dust on the trail.  Both men were covered with thick layers of  the dust and were obviously exhausted.  

     The sun was brutal in it's strength and dark stains showed where sweat had soaked the clothing of both men. Not that there was much left of Will's shirt, she noticed.  Maybe she could get the traders to stop, she thought hopefully.  She could feel the mind numbing exhaustion of both the men behind her.  She tried to send Will both encouragement and strength.  His head snapped up to look at her briefly, but then he stumbled and fell to his knees.  Deanna's throat tightened with anxiety.  Aaron tried desperately to pull him back up to his feet, but he wasn't able to help Will stand before the forward pull of the rope jerked him face down in the middle of the road.  The beast continued its slow pace unabated and began to drag him.  Aaron and Deanna both yelled simultaneously for the men to stop, and grudgingly they did.

 

     Riker didn't even remember how he came to be face down in the dirt of the road.  He remembered feeling the surprise of Deanna's sudden presence in his mind.  He knew she was trying to help him, but it broke his concentration and the next thing he knew, he'd been choking in the dirt. He felt himself being dragged roughly up to his feet by strong hands.  Blinking furiously, he tried to rid his eyes of the dust that blurred his vision.  His forehead ached where he'd been kicked and his back, above his kidneys, throbbed.  Thankfully, he couldn't even feel his arms, or the injury to his shoulder he'd taken in the brawl.  Someone pushed him down again to his knees, but in the shade this time, and on some grass.  "Captain," he heard the breathless voice of Aaron close to him, "are you ok?". 

    "I'm OK," Will assured him. "I just need to catch my breath".  He let himself collapse awkwardly onto his side, smelling the fragrant grasses under his nose as he wondered whether the numbness in his arms indicated any permanent damage.  "How's Deanna?" he whispered.

     Aaron replied quietly, glancing at Troi still seated on the beast and watching them worriedly.  "Well, she's certainly doing better than me or you sir."

     Riker forced a smile and coughed from the irritation of the dust in his throat. "These must be slavers," he said.   

       Aaron nodded dismally.  "I'm afraid you're right sir.  We've got front row seats to this event".  The Lieutenant  watched the captain carefully as he closed his eyes, and tried not to worry.  Riker looked bad.  One of the traders came over to them and threw some chunks of hard bread onto the ground beside them.

      "You need to undo his hands so he can feed himself," Aaron complained.

     "Not bloody likely."  The trader grinned.  "It's up to you to feed him, or he doesn't eat," the trader mocked.  "After the fight he put up at the inn, Sorjen doesn't want him untied until we reached the pens."                         

        Aaron levered himself painfully onto his knees and crawled over to where Riker lay.  He picked up the bread and ripped a piece off with his teeth with great difficulty. His own wrists had been rubbed skinless by the rough ropes and it was becoming quite painful to move them.  The bread was as dry as dirt and had about as much taste as wood shavings. Aaron forced himself to chew, and managed to get the bread down his dry throat.  He painfully  reached over and offered some to Riker, but the Captain shook his head in refusal and closed his eyes again, just trying to rest and regain his strength..   Aaron grimaced with sympathy and called to the guards.  "Please.  We need water over here."  

     Deanna had been sitting against a tall tree when one of the guards reached down and grabbed her wrist, yanking her to her feet.  "Here, wench " he said, "Make yourself useful and take this to your friends over there."  Keeping her eyes lowered so he wouldn't see the relief there, she hurried over to where Will and Aaron were.  Will was lying on his side with his back towards her.  She handed the canteen to Aaron first and watched him as he gratefully drank the warm, brackish water.

     After a few swallows, Aaron motioned for Deanna to help.  "C-" Aaron started to say Captain and quickly changed it to "Cousin", aware of the slave-trader's scrutiny.  "You need to drink some water."  Together, he and Deanna pulled Will into a sitting position.   Deanna bit back her concern as she got her first good look at him.  Even covered with dust, she had no trouble seeing the dark purpling bruises which had spread over his cheek bone and brow.  She quickly began examining him for further injuries and sucked in her breath when she saw his shoulder.  The flesh had been wickedly shredded and the bloody wounds were now caked with dirt and filth from the trail, which was why she hadn't seen them from her vantage at the front of their train. 

       Will saw her distress.  "My arms are numb so it doesn't hurt, Deanna.  Don't worry about it," he whispered.  She gently touched his battered face, turning it so that she could help him drink. Will raised his eyes towards her gratefully.  She let herself bask in the trust she saw there.  Aaron was gratified to see the return of some spark to the Captain's eyes.                                          

        "Deanna, have you tried your comm badge?" Riker asked quietly. She nodded, indicating her lack of  luck in getting a response.  The Captain's had been lost along with most of his shirt, and Aaron's was not responding either.  He sighed, realizing there would be no help from the Soyuz in the foreseeable future.

       The slavers began shouting at each other and Aaron whispered for Deanna and Will to get ready.   They both helped the captain to his feet, and Aaron grimaced in sympathy as Riker swore at his own helplessness.  With his arms tied so tightly he had no balance or leverage..   Sorjen's second in command came over with his beast and grabbed the single end of their rope. Tying it to the other slaver's saddle he sauntered back.  He grabbed  Deanna's arm roughly and gave the captain  a look of taunting challenge.  "Your wife eh?" He said expectantly, running his hand up her arm and around her back, pulling her suddenly towards him as he forced a brutal kiss on her.  Aaron saw the blood drain from Riker's face and tried to caution him with his eyes against responding rashly..

      When Will saw the trader mauling Deanna, every bitter accusation that Cecily's father had made against him filled his mind.  He hadn't been able to protect Cecily and she had died because of it, and now he was unable to protect Deanna.  Grief and rage consumed him as he lunged against the rope to get at the slaver.  But the other man had been watching for just such a move from atop his mount, and he yanked the rope which bound both Will and Aaron together with a sadistic savagery.  Aaron was jerked roughly onto his knees with enough force to make his teeth rattle.  He opened his eyes and saw that the captain was face down in the dirt again, gasping for breath from the pressure of the rope on his trachea.  He scrambled over to him and got his fingers inserted in between the rope and his neck, relieving the pressure.  "Up and on the road you two," the slaver growled with satisfaction as he spat at their feet.  "We need to make the pens by nightfall."

     The rest of the journey was a haze of choking dust and burning sun, and putting one foot in front of the other.  They reached the encampment an hour after the sun went down.  Standing in the middle of the grounds with heads hanging, they waited as Sorjen approached them.  It was obvious his pride was still smarting from being downed by Riker's unexpected  attack on him at the inn.  Sorjen grabbed the Captains hair and pulled his face up to force Will to meet his eyes with his own.  Riker opened his eyes a crack and gave him a look of pure contempt.

    "We're here, slave."  Sorjen said, twisting the last word into the vilest insult.  "You will go to the pens now and await your new masters."

      "My wife?" Will had the presence of mind to mumble.  "What about my wife?"

      Sorjen laughed.  "You no longer have a wife, slave."  He pushed Riker backwards into Aaron, motioning to the other slaver.  "Cut them loose and then put them in the central pens Jatok, and see if they sink or swim."  The man nodded and grabbed the rope which still bound them together.

        "Welcome to your new home boys," he said with a short laugh.

 

 

     One of the slavers lifted up the heavy metal grate while the other cut the bonds holding Will's arms behind his back, then shoved him roughly into the hole.  Will managed to land on his feet, but didn't have any time to celebrate the fact because Aaron Levitz came tumbling in after him, hitting him square in the back and driving him to the ground.

  "Ugh- sorry sir."  Levitz mumbled, disentangling himself from his commanding officer.

   "Next time, YOU go first."  Will grunted breathlessly.  Levitz almost smiled, until he saw that they were surrounded.  They scrambled to their feet and Will murmured softly "Back-to-back with me, lieutenant."  Will scanned the circle of men around them, searching for their leader. His arms hung loosely at his sides, the impaired circulation slowly returning with a vengeance.  He cursed as the shooting pains escalated.  His arms began to throb with the unaccustomed flow of blood to the starved tissue, and his joints were stiff and painful.  But the worst pain was the shoulder that had taken the hit from the club.  He couldn't move it without excruciating pain, and falling on it hadn't helped; breaking open the half formed scabs, causing them to bleed freely again.  Will used his training to close his mind to the pain, which was by no means the worst he had ever felt, knowing that he'd have to use all his skill in the fight he assumed was coming.

   One of the men stepped forward from the rest of the rabble.  "We want your clothes, now," he snarled.  Will looked him over, letting his face show disdain.  The leader was reasonably attired, but Will noted that there were others wearing little more than rags.

    Riker cast a look at the shreds of his own tunic and smiled sardonically.  "Well- you can have my shirt, if you really want it."  With a curse, the prisoner nodded to one of the other men in the circle and they advanced on the two Starfleet officers.

    The fight was short.  The other men were strong and brutal, but their fighting methods were crude and they didn't stand a chance against Aaron and Will's years of martial arts training; even though Will was handicapped by his shoulder.  In moments, the two attackers were pinned to the ground, and the rest of the group stepped back warily.  The vanquished ringleader didn't dare move.  Will Riker's boot heel was on his throat and he was painfully aware that Riker could crush his trachea at will.  He stared up at the big man, wondering what he was waiting for.  "Take HIS clothes!"  One of the ragtag band called out.

     Will shook his head, taking his foot off the man's neck.  "No.  They belong to him."  He said simply, turning to Aaron and gesturing for him to release the man he had pinned.  The leader and Riker stared at each other for a moment, each taking the others measure.  Finally the leader broke eye contact and turned his back on the two officers.

     Riker and Levitz quickly explored their prison, the other prisoners giving them wide berth.  "Ain't no way outta here."  One man finally volunteered and Will found himself forced to agree.  He sagged with defeat as he and Levitz chose a spot in the corner to sit, resigning themselves to wait for an opportunity to present itself.  Will steadfastly ignored the fire in his shoulder and his other various aches and pains left over from the fight at the inn and the tribulations of the trail.  The hours passed slowly, marked by the movement of the shaft of sunlight that entered from the barred grate and made it's way slowly across the floor of their prison.  With the setting sun the cell became a murky black and the oppressive heat quickly gave way to bone-chilling cold.  Aaron huddled beside Riker, hugging his knees, his head jerking up periodically in an effort to stay awake.

     "Go ahead and get some sleep Aaron,"  Will told him sympathetically after feeling the young lieutenant jerk himself awake yet again.  "I'll keep an eye on our 'friends' for a while."

     As weary as he was, Will knew he wouldn't sleep.  His mind was churning, turning over each bit of information they had gathered, trying to figure out a way out of this predicament.   His thoughts kept turning back to Deanna Troi.  He knew with a sick certainty what the slavers intended for her.  He tried to clear his thoughts so that he could be open to her mind, but it had been so long that he doubted it was possible anymore.

    Five hundred yards away Deanna suddenly straightened.  The sensation was unfamiliar.  It had been a long time, but it was definitely him.  Reaching out to her- worried for her.  She concentrated a moment, trying to send back to him thoughts of comfort and reassurance, but the fleeting touch  was gone as suddenly as it had come.  Still, that brief caress of her mind had bolstered her courage and given her the conviction that she had to act now.

    Apparently the slavers had some rather quaint ideas about women.  While the men were kept locked securely in the pits, surrounded by armed guards at the ready, the few female prisoners here were kept in comparative comfort, with only minimal security.  Deanna suspected wryly that they never dreamed a female would attempt an escape.  She'd been locked in a room in the trader's house.  The  wood floor was bare of furniture or coverings except for a sagging steel bed, and the window was boarded up; but there was a cramped bathroom, complete with running water.  Gratefully, she washed the dust and grime from the day off her face, doing her best to rearrange her hair into a pleasing style. Steeling her courage she walked to the door of her room and knocked.  "Excuse me?"

    "What do you want?"  The lone guard stationed in the hall demanded.

     Telling herself it was the only way, she assumed the sexiest voice she could manage.  "I'm lonely in here all alone.  I could use a little company," she purred.

      There was a long pause, as she felt the guard's sense of duty warring with his lust.  "I promise- I'll be a VERY good girl," she encouraged suggestively.  She was rewarded by the click of the key in the door.  Swallowing her rising revulsion, she smiled invitingly as he stepped in the room, and moved towards him.  He grinned, exposing his rotting teeth as she stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on the side of his mouth.  "Oh, you're very handsome!" she flirted.  "Why don't you take off this big 'ol coat so I can feel you against me?"

     The guard hesitated again, but the woman ran her tongue over her lips enticingly and he felt his body respond to her luscious promise.  He swallowed, causing his adams apple to bob nervously. There was really not anything to worry about, he rationalized.  She's just a woman, and a small, fragile one at that.  He'd been working at this camp for months, often pulling double shifts  with practically no time off for relaxation.  He decided suddenly that he deserved this little prize.  Laying his heavy shotgun down on the bed behind him he started to take off the bulky coat with her assistance.  She pressed up against him as she slid it back off his shoulders, caressing his muscles. The unaccustomed  feel of a woman's body rubbing up against his caused his lust to rise, blinding him to anything else.  She pushed the coat down his arms, moaning with her own excitement.  He closed his eyes,  grinding his body against hers. Then, at the moment where both his arms were entangled in fabric, his groin exploded with mind numbing pain as she lashed out at him with her knee. 

 

     With a strength born of desperation, calling on every minute of self-defense training she'd been forced to endure over the years, Deanna kicked him again.  He went down like a stone, still struggling to free himself and fight off this wild woman who was hurting him in a way he had never dreamed possible.  Deanna grabbed the shotgun off the bed, and trying not to think about what she was doing, she smashed the heavy butt brutally into his skull.  He went limp and she stood up in astonishment for a split second, both proud of and appalled by what she had just done. A sound outside her window reminded her that there was no time to waste, and she quickly pulled the coat the rest of the way off the senseless guard.  Donning both it and the guards' cap, she grabbed the gun and made her way out into the hall.  Finding no more guards, she quickly passed beyond the slaver's house and sprinted across the narrow field and into the safety of the woods beyond.

 

       The rebel guerrillas had spotted her as soon as she came around the corner of the structure.  She was moving stealthily, and then broke into a run, as if afraid of capture.  She ran straight for their position and Tremin had no trouble reaching out and snaring her, grabbing her shotgun as she slipped into the underbrush.  She struggled vainly against his strong arms, and the cap fell off, her braids cascading down around her shoulders.  Tremin released her in surprise.  "You're a woman!"  He observed dryly.  Then, yanking her arm, he hauled her back under the cover of the brush.

     For a moment she was afraid that she'd run directly into more slavers, but the emotions she sensed from this one were different.  "I was a prisoner...I got away..."  She explained breathlessly. Tremin studied her for a long moment and then turned to his companion and said something softly.  Turning back to Deanna he nodded.  "You will come with me."  His voice was sympathetic and almost gentle and Deanna's mind was flooded with relief.

 

     The relief became even greater when she met the man to whom Tremin whispered before calling her forward.  He was a thin, intense whip of a man and she strained to see his face in the deep shadows of the nighttime forest.  "I am Benton."  He said simply. "I understand you have escaped from the slavers..."  Deanna quickly told him the entire story, noticing their grins in the darkness when she related how she'd gotten away.

Benton nodded with satisfaction.  "I heard what happened at the Palace and feared that it was you who were captured.  We came here to find out- and to free our other comrades being held." 

       He was interrupted by another man who emerged from the shadows like a ghost. "Benton.  Everyone is ready.  It's time," he whispered. 

      Benton nodded and looked back at Troi.  She impressed him as an extraordinarily lovely woman, as well as one of exceptional intelligence and courage.  "You can wait here..." he told her, "Or you may come with us to free your comrades..."

    Deanna squared her shoulders.  "I'm going with you."

 

                                                       *********

 

       Will was in the shadowy world between wakefulness and sleep.  He had barely had anything to eat or drink in two days, and his injuries left him feeling weak and exhausted.  His mind drifted between the uneasy rustlings of his fellow prisoners, memories of Cecily, and worries about Deanna and the safety of his little girl back on the Soyuz.  Suddenly startled into full awareness by the sounds of shots being fired, he scrambled to his feet, along with Levitz and the other prisoners, straining to make out what was happening above them.  There were shouts of alarm and the sounds of people running.  Gunfire crackled in the night and he heard the scream of someone who'd been hit.  After what seemed like an eternity someone pulled back the metal grate over the entrance to the pit and shined a light in on the dazed men below. "Hey!  Don't worry!  We're friends and we've come to get you out!  Stand clear, we're lowering a ladder for you."

      Will and Aaron pushed to the front of the milling group of men and when the ladder was lowered they were the first ones up out of the pit.  Will's arms were still not strong enough, and he cursed softly at himself as he accepted the help of the two men kneeling above the hole.  As soon as he was out he turned back to them. "Where are the women prisoners kept?  I've got to find my wife," he demanded, as Levitz emerged next.  One of the men pointed to the structure at the end of the compound and Will and Aaron sprinted away.

      They rushed through the house, shoving open doors, calling her name, but the rooms were silent, abandoned except for one soldier with an ugly head wound who was sprawled unconscious beside a bed.  Will turned to Aaron.  "Damn it.  She's not here!"  He exclaimed, thinking the worst.  What if she had already been sold to the Cardassians?  What if she was dead?  He felt the same agony grip his soul that he had felt that day in the mining colony while looking for Cecily, knowing she was dead, knowing he had failed to protect someone he loved. 

     Aaron saw the look on his captain's face and guessed at what thoughts were going through his mind.  He almost reached out and told Riker that it wasn't his fault, but the captain had already turned and started down the steps, taking two at a time.  "Maybe they've got her somewhere else...c'mon - let's go!" 

     Deanna was wandering among the milling prisoners, looking for some sign of Will or Aaron.  She felt her desperation rise as she realized they weren't there.  She turned once more and scanned the surrounding area, and clasped her hands together as she saw them emerge from the house.  Her heart leapt as she saw Will, battered and bruised, but still alive and whole.  "Will!  Here!"  she shouted, waving to catch his attention.

     She felt his emotions clearly as he spotted her.  Fear and grief giving way suddenly to joy.  "Deanna!"  He exclaimed, breaking into a huge grin.  She wasn't sure who ran into whose arms, but suddenly they were hugging each other tightly, their minds touching as they shared a moment of oneness and celebration.  To Deanna it felt like coming home again.  Aaron Levitz hung back and watched them, grinning himself, but unwilling to intrude on this happy reunion. 

    He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, a glint of light on steel.  On the ground just a few feet from Riker and Troi, one of the slavers who'd been left for dead had regained consciousness.  With the last of his strength he'd picked up his gun and taken aim, determined to take someone with him into the netherworld.  "WATCH OUT!"  Aaron screamed.  Will looked up just in time to swing Deanna out of the gunman's sights before he fired.  He took the shot to his left side and staggered, looking into Deanna's eyes with a look of surprised regret before he collapsed.  Troi grabbed him as he went down, breaking his fall.  "Imzadi!" She screamed the word, not even aware of what she was saying as his blood splashed onto her tunic.

 

     Aaron ran to the group of rebels who had gathered around Riker and Deanna.  He pushed his way to the center and stared in horror at the mess the close range shotgun blast had made of his captain.  Gathering his wits he ripped off his tunic and folded it into a compressed bundle.  Laying it on top of the gaping wound he applied as much pressure as he dared to slow the bleeding.  "Come on," he shouted, "We've got to get out of here and get the Captain to a doctor now!"  Tremin nodded and motioned to his men to help Riker.  Aaron grabbed the arm of the dazed Betazoid and took off for the cover of the woods. 

 

     For several hours Deanna was still numb with shock from the brutality of Will's shooting.  His blood still covered her tunic and arms, turning her skin sticky as it dried.  She let Aaron's touch guide her as she strove to keep contact with Will.  His presence was weak but steady, and she spent herself as she reached out to him, giving him strength and encouragement even though he was barely conscious.  The men had immediately given up trying to get him to walk.  Even with a man on either side it was impossible.  So they rigged up a crude stretcher with coats and two stout straight branches,  and were making good time as they sped through the dense woods.  "How long till we can get him to a doctor?" she asked wearily.

       Benton turned briefly, worry lining his face.  "If we're lucky, by dawn.  That's if we travel all night." 

        Deanna let the words sink in with stunned disbelief.  She didn't know if Will could survive that long.  She reached out and grabbed his hand as his arm slipped off the stretcher.  It was sticky with blood, but felt cool and clammy.  She gnawed her lip, worried, and hoping he wasn't in shock.  "Can't we stop for a minute?  I'm worried about Captain Riker." 

     Benton turned his head again.  His expression told her everything.  "We can't stop yet, Deanna.  We're still too close to the pens.  We killed some of their own and they won't be giving up so easily.  I'm sure that they're still looking for us."

    Deanna knew he was right but she protested anyway.  "At least stop so I can check his bandages." 

     Benton grudgingly complied and motioned for the group to spread out and keep alert.  He watched as Deanna pulled back the cloak that Aaron had laid over Riker's torso.  The wound was serious.  Riker's chances didn't look good at all to the guerrilla leader's experienced eye.  Dark red blood saturated the rough bandage Aaron had rigged earlier, soaking through the make-shift stretcher as well.  Even in the darkness Benton could detect the deep pallor of the man's skin.  He reached over and felt for a pulse.  It was weak and thready, and very rapid.  A sure sign of shock after such a great blood loss.  Riker's heart was overworked as it tried to compensate for the loss of blood volume by pumping what was left through is system at a frantic rate.  He looked at Deanna, knowing she could sense his mood.  "Make another bandage.  We've got to move on."  When she reached to take off the old one he grabbed her hand.  "No don't move that or the bleeding will start again.  Put the new one on top of it."  Benton gave her another heavy shirt from his backpack.  "Here, use this."  He noticed the shaking of her hands as she quickly rigged the shirt into another bandage.  Reaching down, he tore more strips from the bottom of her skirt and helped her bind the bandages tightly.  "It'll have to do. We've got to move on."  Benton hardened himself against the pain he saw in her face as they moved out again.

 

     The long hours of the night seemed to drag on interminably for Deanna.  She was footsore and heartsick, and she couldn't help but see that Will was fighting for every breath he took.  It was an hour before dawn when they finally reached the edge of the city; the first blush of the sunrise creeping from behind the tall spiraling edifices which rose from the center of the most densely populated area.  As beautiful as those central structures were, the effect was ruined by the sprawl of the drab industrial complexes which came right up to it's edge.  The industries in turn were surrounded by the cancerous spread of ramshackle homes that reached the cities outer edge.  Deanna looked at Benton, brushing her braids back from her face. "Where are we taking him?"

       Benton answered her slowly.  "I'm sending Tremin in to scout, he'll find the best place."

      Deanna's heart was sank even further, but she knew they had no choice.  She sat down next to Will and checked his bandage again.  It was saturated as she knew it would be.  He was still bleeding, despite their best efforts to stop it.  With the loss of each precious drop, he was quickly losing the strength he needed to fight.  Deanna asked Benton for another shirt and sluggishly bound it on top of the others.  Finished with her task, she tore what remained of Will's shirt off of him and wet it with water from the canteen.  Gently she cleaned the filth and blood off of his face, revealing the deep purple and blue of the bruises from his fight at the inn.  She combed his hair with her fingers.  It was damp with sweat as she pushed it's unaccustomed length away from his eyes.  Resting her head for a moment on Will's good shoulder, she wept silently, too exhausted to be aware of Lieutenant Levitz's gaze.  Tears would do Will no good, she knew, and scrubbing her face resolutely, she grabbed her canteen and poured it's contents over his shoulder trying unsuccessfully to wash the dirt and filth from the wound.  It was ugly and swollen with fever, the shredded flesh filled with purulent infection.  But her mind told her that this injury was secondary.  It wasn't what was stealing his life from her. Under the blood soaked shirts was the cause, the gaping wound in his side.  Loss of blood could easily kill him- but he was also in danger of a systemic sepsis from massive infection.  The longer they waited, the greater risks he faced.

       "...anna," Will breathed, hardly loud enough for Deanna to hear. 

       "Will," she whispered, brushing his hair back off his face, over and over.

       "Laurel-," he struggled, "take care-   Please."   She felt the fear that clawed at him.  He was telling her to take care of his daughter.  He was telling her that he was going to die.  Deanna's throat constricted around the words she wanted to say to him.  That he wasn't going anywhere.  That he could take care of her himself.  That there was no need for any of this silliness.  But finally she just nodded in defeat, whispering to him that she would never let anything harm his daughter- and that she would love her like she was her own child.  Blackness filled her heart, feeling that what she had said was an admission to both him and to herself  that she had given up.  But it seemed to bring him comfort, and that was more important now.

     

      

    

    

 

                                           Chapter 15  "The Hospital"

 

     Aaron helplessly watched Riker's life slipping away before his eyes, his mind drifting back to the night the three of them had spent together at the inn.  Troi didn't know it, but he had seen her laying curled up in the captains arms, in a much more cozy position than casual acquaintances would be found in, no matter how cold it was.  Then he had heard her whisper " Imzadi".  Aaron had picked up some kind of a vague notion of what that meant from his Betazoid roommate at the academy.  It was like some kind of a life-long bond that Betazoids could share with one person only.  Kind of a spiritual and physical thing all wrapped together in a way he couldn't understand, no matter how much his friend tried to explain it to him.   He didn't exactly understand what had gone on between the captain and counselor Troi., but he had heard plenty of rumors floating about during his career. 

     Aaron's eyes refocused and he studied the two of them together again.  Troi's slumped posture betrayed her defeat.  Aaron felt his ire rise at the unfairness of it all.  He had seen the stark panic in the Captain's eyes when Troi was nowhere to be found, and he had also seen the joy and relief when they had spotted each other across the yards.  He was damned if he was going to sit around and do nothing here. He pulled Troi away from the Captain's side and he forced her to look at him.   "Counselor Troi, the captain is NOT going to die.  Not unless you let him.  You can't give up hope now."  Aaron Levitz was exactly the same height as Troi.  He commanded her gaze.   "I don't pretend to understand what your Imzadi connection with the captain means, but I'm not so blind that I can't see that it goes deep with both of you."  He tried to convey the earnestness of his belief to her.  "The captain needs your strength, counselor, and I think he needs your belief to hang on to his life."  Aaron shook his head, "and maybe he even needs more than I know- but whatever that might be...  I know that only you can give it to him."  Aaron's voice became gentler.  "But Troi, you've got to believe too." 

     Deanna blinked, causing tears to overflow and make muddy tracks down through the layers of dirt on her face.  She knew in the depth of her heart that Aaron was right.   She had given up hope; and by giving up she may have left Will nothing to hold on to. Giving Aaron a grateful hug, she went back to Will.  Sitting down cross legged on the dirt she lifted his arm and lay it over her lap and around her left side.  His other hand she held loosely in hers and worried as she felt its chilled clamminess.  She pulled the cloak up around his neck and stroked his head with her free hand.  Looking within, she focused deeply to find her own center first.  Pushing through the darkest flow of her emotions, she searched for the balance of harmony that was her innermost soul.  Finding it, she waited.  Gathering it's calm center close to her, she slowly regained the strength she needed to leave again.  But this time she brought the balance and peace away with her; wearing it like a cloak, filling herself with it and feeling it's strength like a potent elixir.  .

      Ready now, Deanna ventured forward into the vortex of Will's emotions; pushing past fear and pain; pushing past the resignation and grief.  She searched for his center as she had searched for her own.  There!  She found it buried amongst the rubble of the walls that had protected Will, only now they were now no longer standing.  Tentatively she reached in to gently touch what she had not felt in years.  Will's unguarded self.  The bare essence of his heart.  It was everything about him that was good, and it was everything about him  that she loved and cherished.  What Deanna felt now was something she was determined never to lose again.  Slowly and lovingly, she began to construct a bridge between his center and hers.  Rebuilding the connection that, although worn and weak, still existed there between them.  Deanna was encouraged as she saw the gradual reinforcing of their bond.  She was forging a path that would allow her to send Will the strength that only she could give him.  Gently, with great calm and control, she allowed the flow of energy to begin it's journey to her Imzadi; willingly depleting her own reserves to give him enough strength of will to survive.  He had to survive. 

                                                                            *****************

 

 

     Benton seen enough wounded men to realize that Riker might not even make it to the hospital.  He'd lost far too much blood, and it had been much too long since he had been shot.   Infection would get him, Benton speculated, if the blood loss didn't.  He watched the Betazoid as she kept vigil next to his side.  Shaking his head, he turned away.  Allowing her the privacy of her pain.  Squinting his eyes against the sunrise, he studied the edges of the city and spied Tremin snaking his way up the trail that led to their sanctuary. Vastly relieved, he turned to tell the others to get ready.  He was anxious to get Will into medical care, such as it was.  He also needed to get himself back to his base so he could try and contact the Soyuz.  Checking to make sure that the Captain was secure on the stretcher, he led them swiftly out. 

           

 

                                   ********************************************

 

     Deanna stared dumbly at the battered brown building before them. This couldn't be the hospital Tremin had found for Will.  Could it?  She absently ran her fingers down the splintered door frame as the men brought Will through the emergency entrance.  A harried nurse met them in the front lobby and hurried them through after taking a quick glance at the bloody bandages on Will's side. Patients in the waiting room complained loudly, but were silenced when the nurse said, "Life and death emergencies have priority."  Another nurse came in and they hoisted Will from the stretcher onto a narrow examination table.  They began efficiently cutting off his clothing, and then covered him with a light blanket, leaving the bandages on for the doctor to remove.  One of them reached over and lightly slapped his face, repeatedly asking him if he knew his name, or where he was.  He didn't answer, but he did briefly open his eyes for a moment.  "Hmmm, pretty boy," the first nurse said with a grim smile, throwing his bloody clothing into a blue hamper on the other side of the room.  She continued to hook him up to various monitors which slowly made Will look as if he was growing tentacles from his arms and chest.  Deanna stood in the corner, making herself as small as possible.

      A man who could only have been the doctor pushed his way into the room.  His bustling energy making up for his small stature.  "Ok... what do we have here?" he asked as he flipped on the impossibly bright exam lights. 

     "Human male.  Shotgun wound to the side and lacerations to the left shoulder are the worst of it."  The nurse said dispassionately.  "Probable infection, shock and hypovolemia due to blood loss."

      "That'll do for starters,"  the physician replied, deadpan.   The doctor checked the monitors and barely spared a glance for Deanna.  "Pressure's bottomed out.  I want two IV's started... One with Normal Saline wide open...  I need blood gases, and a CBT, lytes and type and cross match stat."  He rubbed his hands together.   "OK... lets take this off," he said, cutting through the homemade bandages.  He looked at the hole in Will's side without speaking for only a split second, then he began stuffing the wound with large surgical pads; making another pressure bandage.  "Get those IV's going and call SU so we can get him moved.  Start an ectidosamine drip, 250 milligrams at 15 cc's an hour as soon as you have a good line; and get the surgical team up to SU stat!  Prep him for surgery!" 

      Deanna watched with  fearful apprehension as the nurses worked on either side of Will; slapping his veins and sticking him with metal needles repeatedly, trying to find a patent vein without success.  "I'm having a hard time finding a vein that'll hold!" the first nurse snapped as she held pressure on yet another that had blown.

     "Then do a cut down on a larger vein"   he said calmly.  The nurse ripped open the sterilized package and scattered it's contents on Will's lap; using him as a table.  Deanna's eyes were riveted on the wicked looking scalpel she wielded.  Pulling back the blankets the nurse continued her search, finally grunting with satisfaction as she cut into a large leg vein and deftly inserted the large bore needle.  Deanna's stomach felt queasy and she closed her eyes for a moment.  It was so barbaric.  Needles and knives, tubes and bags... monitors with their terrifying beeping that measured the rhythms of his life.  Where was the Soyuz? she wondered helplessly.   She was jerked back to an awareness of the room when she heard gagging.  She saw Will's back arch slightly as the doctor that was standing by his head shoved some kind of semi flexible tubing down his throat. They had put a blanket under his shoulders, raising his chest and hyper-extending his neck.  "Got it," the doctor grunted and pulled the blanket from beneath Will.  All right, he's intubated," he said,  "We'll hook him to the ventilator in the S.U."  Deanna remained unnoticed as they wheeled the gurney past her and out the door.  Unable to touch his body, she reached out to touch his mind.

 

                                              ******************************

 

   Only eight hours after the Soyuz had left the away team on Cantos and departed for patrol of the border, negotiations between Cardassia and the Federation broke down.  Cardassia proclaimed all previous treaties null and void, and their fleet swept over the established neutral zone.  As ordered, the Soyuz dropped back to defend Starbase 72, and to wait for Federation reinforcements to arrive.  They were hard pressed to defend the station, and Thompson wondered grimly what Riker would say when he saw the condition of his ship.  They'd lost three crew members.  There was a minor hull breach in the cargo bay.  They had significant damage to their propulsion systems and, at least until emergency repairs were complete, their warp drive was inoperable.   Thompson rested his head in his hands for a moment, and wished, not for the first time, that his commanding officer would miraculously reappear.  He had no desire to be a captain, especially not in time of war.   His grim thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the officer of the watch.  "Commander Thompson?  I have Commodore Picard for you..." 

        Richard Thompson swallowed hard.  He wondered how someone as easy-going and informal as Captain Riker had been so comfortable working with this man for all those years.  Jean Luc Picard was nothing if not intimidating.   "Put him through."

        Picard had only met Thompson once, at Cecily Riker's funeral.  He'd not been particularly impressed, but Will had spoken highly of him, and that was enough for Picard.  "Commander Thompson?  I was hoping to speak with Will  ..."

        Thompson hesitated.  "Uh, sir - Will - that is, uh, Captain Riker, isn't on board, sir..."

Picard frowned at him, and Thompson launched into a lengthy explanation, including how they had lost contact with the shuttle they'd left orbiting Cantos.  He was dimly aware that he was lapsing into what Riker jokingly referred to as bureaucratic doublespeak, but he was determined that Picard would understand his awkward position and his sincere desire to remedy the situation.

     Picard frowned at him.  "Considering how rapidly conditions are deteriorating, I  believe we should make an attempt to recover your officers as quickly as possible.  It's likely that Cantos may end up behind enemy lines in the near future."

     Thompson nodded quickly.  "I agree sir...and believe me, there's nothing I want more than for Captain Riker to be back in the center seat."

     Picard studied Will's first officer for a long moment.  "Very well, Commander.  I suggest you withdraw with the Soyuz and make the necessary emergency repairs.  I'll take the Enterprise to Cantos to retrieve the away team and we will contact you as soon as we have them aboard."  Thompson nodded with relief but Picard was not through.  "Oh...and Commander...just out of curiosity...does the Captain often lead away missions?"

     Thompson frowned slightly himself.  "Well, I think he would lead every away team if he had the choice...we...we have sort of a running battle over that, sir.  I quote regulations and argue what's best for the ship...and he usually gives in- although he's never happy about it.  He- he claims I act like a mother hen..."

     Commander Thompson was unprepared for the wide smile that Picard graced him with.   "I see- very well then.  Picard out."  The commodore chuckled.  He couldn't wait to discuss that interesting bit of information with his former first officer.  Rising, he headed for the bridge to inform his crew that they were going to the aid of some old friends.

                                                     ********************

 

      Aaron Levitz tried his combadge for the tenth time in the last half hour, hoping against hope that it would suddenly prove functional.  It seemed that a prompt rescue by the Soyuz was the last and best hope for his captain. 

      It was not for no reason that there was no answer to Lt. Levitz hail, because Ensign Schmidt's body had been vaporized by a blast of phaser fire, right after he'd revealed everything about his mission to the soldiers who'd blown his shuttle out of the sky.  His last emotion was disappointment in himself for having broken so easily under their brutal interrogation.  The Cardassian Commander had holstered his weapon and smiled.  Captain Riker was well known and would make a wonderful trophy to take home to Cardassia.  He ordered a full-scale search to begin immediately.

                                         

                                               **********************************

 

        Only hours after the conversation with Thompson, Jean Luc Picard sat in the center seat and watched the planet of Cantos come into view.  He was relieved to find only a minor Cardassian presence there so far.  The single ship in orbit was a small, lightly armed cruiser that departed hastily when they detected the Federation flagship.  It took sensors mere seconds to locate the remains of the shuttle in a decaying orbit.  Beverly, sitting in the chair to Picard's left, heaved a sigh of relief as Data reported that there were no bodies in the debris field.  She was worried about her friends, and she could see the tension in Picard, in spite of his practiced calm.  Despite the years that had separated them, Picard still thought of Will and Deanna as two of his very closest friends.  Bev leaned towards the Commodore and whispered quietly "This kind of feels like old times; searching for Will and Deanna on an away mission gone bad."

       Picard afforded her a momentary glance.  "Let us hope that it has not gone too much awry Beverly."  Jean Luc sighed.  "But in the meantime, it might be wise to prepare for casualties."

      Beverly rose from the chair.  "Probably a good idea seeing Will is involved..."     

    

      Deanna was feeling overwhelmed as she sat in the Intensive Therapy Unit's waiting room.  The Emergency room staff had assured her that he would be coming to ITU after his surgery.   Not long after she had arrived there, a gray haired, small sparrow-like woman had come to see her with mountains of papers for her to sign.  Stating that she had no employment. Stating that she had no co-payor or employer who would stand surety for Will's debt.  Stating that she had the power to make medical decision for Will.  Medical care was expensive, the woman assured her when Deanna asked.  There was a limited amount that the hospital was willing or even able to do when they had critical patients who could not pay.  They had to be practical, the woman said, because they had no help from the government or other outside sources.  If too many people receiving expensive treatment didn't pay, they would just have to shut their doors to everyone.  Giving in, she signed everything the woman shoved in front of her.

Deanna wearily leaned her head back against the wall after the sparrow woman left; exhausted from the ordeals of the past several days.  Working with Will had also taken it's toll on her body's stores of energy, but regardless of that fact, she extended questing tendrils towards him again.  She could feel his presence, but had sensed nothing else since they had used their crude anesthesia.  She began to doze lightly, and then slipped quickly into an exhausted sleep.

 

   She awoke to see Benton sitting across from her reading from a booklet.  He looked up when he saw she had awakened.  "Anything?" she asked groggily.

    He shook his head negatively.  "Not yet." 

    Just then a nurse stuck her head in the door.  She gave them both the once over look.  "You guys with the gunshot wound?" she asked sourly.  At their nod's she popped her gum. "He's on the floor now.  You can go see him if you want.  Family only," she said glaring at Benton when he made to rise. 

     Deanna followed the nurse through a maze of dirty corridors that were  lined with both empty and occupied patients beds.  Moans of pain and the emotions of the sick surrounded her, and the anxiety of their families battered at her worn defenses.  They pushed through a set of double doors marked ITU and walked past numerous beds that were only separated from each other by worn curtains.  Finally, they stopped and the nurse motioned her in.  "Thirty minutes is all.  Then you gotta leave" she said with a final pop of her gum. 

     The sounds of humming, beeping and clicking assailed her from the small space she entered.  She went to him and stood silently, at a loss as she tried to separate Will from the machines he was attached to.  He had several IV's attached to various bags of fluid, and one which was attached to what looked like a blood product.  They all ran through a pumping system whose beeping added to the wild cacophony of the room.  He was hooked up to a pressure monitor of some sort that flashed its incomprehensible readings across a screen seated above his head.  Areas of his chest were shaved with leads attached.  They led to a monitor which showed every beat of his heart, and kept it's time with an interminable beeping.  The most distressing of all, however, was the machine next to the bed.  It seemed to be some kind of mini bellows attached to a clear accordion-like tube which protruded like a growth out of Wills mouth.  It pulled on side of him mouth down and was taped securely in place. 

     The only thing that kept Deanna from screaming at the top of her lungs was the steady touch of Will's presence in her mind.  She reached through the tubing and gripped his hand, running her fingers through his unruly hair.  "You need a haircut, mister," she whispered, hot tears threatening yet again.

    Aaron poked his head suddenly through the curtain.  "Counselor," he whispered, "how is he?"

    Deanna motioned him to come in and he shook her head.  "We've got to get him back to the ship," she said.

     Aaron smiled grimly.  "I'm working on that.  Have you still got your comm badge?"     Deanna nodded, rubbing her burning eyes.  "Good," he said softly, I'll keep you posted.  By the way," he said as an afterthought, "the only way I could get in here was to say I was your brother."  She gave him a blank smile and nodded her understanding.  Aaron slipped out as quietly as he had slipped in. Deanna pulled over a chair and sat at the bedside, hoping that the nurse would forget she was here.  Her exhausted body betrayed her again and she fell asleep holding Will's hand, her head resting against the old mattress he lay on. 

 

                                                       *******************

 

     Worf had been scanning the surface of the planet for comm badge signatures.   Picard had debated simply opening a hailing frequency, but he was hesitant to tip off the small Cardassian garrison on Cantos.  At last, after much calibrating of his sensors, Worf located Riker's badge.  Picard gave the order for the transporter room to beam the badge and it's owner directly to the bridge.  He was expecting Will, but the figure taking shape certainly did not belong to the captain of the Soyuz.  Worf quickly drew his phaser as an enormous, malodorous woman materialized and gawked back at them in confusion.

    "Who the hell are you?"  She demanded of the Klingon, but was answered instead by Picard's calm inquiry.

     "You're wearing a communications badge- may I ask how you acquired it?"

     She glanced down at the pretty gold pin she'd attached to the straining fabric covering her bosom.  "An admirer gave it to me," she asserted defensively.

      Picard knew Will had an eye for women- or at least he had before he'd settled down to become a husband and father.  But Picard sincerely doubted that even Will could find anything to admire in this particular specimen.  "May I ask his name, madam?" he said dryly.

        She looked surprised for a moment as if the thought of a name had never occurred to her.  "I don't know.  I just called him 'handsome'.  He had the prettiest blue eyes..."

        Riker for sure, thought Picard.  "And he GAVE you this badge?" he demanded doubtfully. 

       Something about this man's  demeanor made her realize that this was not a man to lie to.  "Well, actually - it got ripped off his shirt in a fight..."  She admitted sullenly.  "Before some slavers hauled him off."

                                                 

                                                       **********************

 

     Deanna awoke to the sounds of a shrill alarm going off beside her head.  She jerked her head up off the mattress just as a nurse rushed in and shooed her out of the way; quickly checking the respirator.   Muttering, the nurse punched a few buttons and then cursed softly.  "His respiration is too fast," she continued to mutter to herself as she punched the bedside intercom.  "Call the attending physician," she said as she started listening to Riker's lungs with the apparatus hanging around her neck.  Minutes later, the curtains were flung back and the doctor came in, looking to the nurse for answers.  "Respiration's are up from twelve to thirty- and maybe some tracheal deviation and increasing dyspnea." 

       The doctor listened to Riker's chest.  "Absent breath sounds in the left lung.  Tension pneumothorax," he guessed.   "Take him off the respirator and bag him! I'll try to decompress" he said, opening a kit from the bedside tray.

       "BP is falling and he's bradycardic," the nurse intoned.  Deanna could see that Will's breathing was becoming more and more labored, but Deanna was still appalled by the huge needle that the doctor was preparing to stick into her Imzadi's chest.  This could have been taken care of without ANY invasive procedures on the ship.  Suddenly dizzy, she squeezed her eyes shut after the doctor plunged the needle through Will's chest wall, quickly withdrawing the air that had compressed his lung. 

      "There," the doctor said, watching the monitors closely.  He finally looked at Deanna and motioned curtly for her to follow.  "Reduce the vent settings and hook him back up," he told the nurse, almost as an afterthought.

      The doctor stopped abruptly and turned to face Deanna Troi.  "He is your husband?"  Deanna mutely nodded.  "Is he in any trouble?" 

       Deanna schooled her face to remain impassive.  "Trouble?" she echoed back to him. 

       The physician looked around. "There are questions being asked.  About someone with your husband's description and injuries.  I'm afraid you've got more problems than just discontinuing life support." 

       Deanna gaped at him.  "Discontinuing life support?" she practically shouted. "You can't discontinue life support!  He's not dead!  And he won't die unless you take him off the ventilator!"

       He looked at her strangely.  "I know that, but you have no way to pay for his care.  The hospital cannot care for a long term patient who cannot pay," he said, as if stating the obvious. 

       Deanna stared dumbfounded, nothing coming out of her open mouth.  "But he's not going to die," she finally sputtered.  "You can't just stop treatment because we can't pay!"

       His eyes softened, "I know it's hard.  But we all have to face the facts.  It's either this, or have no hospital at all.  These are the hard choices."

       Deanna's eyes pleaded with him.  "Can't you just give us a little time?"

       The doctor was silent for a moment.  "I can't guarantee anything because it's not my decision to make.  But I'll do what I can.  You go get something to eat.  You look like you're about to fall over.  I promise nothing will be done before you get back. "

         Aaron materialized by her side and took her arm.  "I'll feed her doctor, and thanks."  The doctor watched them as they left the ITU, knowing there was really nothing in his power that could change what he'd told her.

 

                                                **************************

 

     Picard looked at the large woman curiously. " Data, find out what you can about these slavers our guest is talking about.  And then return her back to where you found her."  

      Data nodded and took the unresisting woman by her flabby arm.  "If you will come with me," he said politely.  She gave him a ingratiating smile, already looking the android up and down with obvious speculation.

       Picard shook his head.  "Worf. Keep scanning for those comm badges.  "Aye sir" the Klingon said, in a tone that indicated he had never stopped doing so.

     Aaron Levitz was fiddling with something that ought to boost the signals of the Soyuz comm badges once he was finished.  "Ahh!," he said aloud, "that ought to do it."

     Deanna had returned to Will's room after Aaron had forced her to eat.  She did feel better.  She had quickly gotten used to the steady buzzes, clicks and beeps that kept the staff alerted to Will's minute by minute condition.  She had almost dozed off again when the sound of angry voices coming towards their end of the unit made her sit up abruptly.  She couldn't make out what they were saying.  The curtained partition was pulled sharply back and Will's doctor and a sharp faced woman entered; looking first at her, than at Will.

     "Do it Callori," the woman said coldly.  Deanna sensed acute distress from Wills' doctor, but felt nothing but a callous lack of compassion from the woman beside him.  "Now!" the hospital administrator snapped in irritation.  Callori gave Deanna a quick look of apology and walked over to the bedside.  Reaching over,  he turned off the respirator.  Deanna's mouth formed a silent circle of protest, but before she could form the words, Callori had pulled the tube from Will's throat.  Jumping to her feet as she felt Will's primal  panic, she watched with horror as his blue eyes flew open and he threw his head backwards, arching his neck as his body desperately tried to force him to suck air into oxygen deprived lungs.

  "Help him," she cried, throwing herself at Will's doctor.  The two Cantosians watched incredulously as she shimmered and then vanished into thin air.

    

         Worf's tone was triumphant.  "Sir!  I have located Counselor Troi and Lieutenant Levitz!"

          "Very well."  The commodore acknowledged.  "Have the transporter room beam them aboard...  Let's hope they are still attached to their badges."     

 

 

 

 

                                        Chapter Sixteen  "Rescue"

 

     Unexpectedly, Deanna saw Will's hand slipping away from hers, becoming insubstantial and then transparent.  She tried to cry out but was unable to make a sound; finally realizing that she was caught in a transporter beam.  A moment later she materialized on the bridge of the USS Enterprise with Aaron Levitz.  She was no longer holding Will's hand.  He had been left behind.   "No!"  She cried out, even before Picard could say a word.  "Will!  You've got to get Will!"

         Jean Luc Picard saw the panic in her eyes as he grabbed her arms.  "Where is he, Counselor?"   

          "He was with me!  I was holding his hand!"  Deanna said, trying to control the terror that held her in it's grip.

           "Worf...."  Picard said, unnecessarily.  The Klingon was already scanning the location they'd beamed Troi from.

           "Sir!  There are several life forms present.  But I cannot distinguish between human and Cantosian readings."

           Deanna twisted away from Picard, her eyes locking onto Worf's  "Beam them all to sickbay!  Now Worf!  He's dying!"

               Worf hesitated, looking to the Commodore for instructions.  Personally, he wanted nothing more than to comply with Troi's desperate plea, but as security officer he was against beaming aboard several possibly dangerous individuals.  Deanna saw that he was waiting for instructions from Picard and she turned back to the Commodore  "Will's dying..."  She pleaded, not caring how unprofessional she sounded.  "Please."  Jean Luc Picard kept his eyes steadfastly on the Klingon, fighting his own desire to throw caution to the wind.  It was Will Riker's life hanging in the balance, but he could not in good conscience endanger his ship and the medical team that stood waiting. 

          Worf stepped boldly around the console.  "Commodore!  Permission to beam down and retrieve the Captain!"  Picard made a split second decision, nodding a quick affirmative even as his security officer pulled out his phaser and barked orders to the transporter chief.  A moment later the Klingon disappeared in a shimmer of light.  The last word Worf heard was Deanna's urgent plea.  "Hurry!" 

         Deanna didn't know precisely how long Will could survive, but she was still connected, her center to his, and she could feel his panic giving way to blackness.  He was slipping away.        

          Picard tapped his communicator.  "Dr. Crusher!  Captain Riker will be beamed directly to you, hopefully in a matter of moments..."  He warned crisply.                                        

          "Acknowledged!"  Beverly replied as she grabbed her tricorder.  More softly she added  "Why does that not surprise me?"   Alyssa Ogawa gave her a worried look of agreement as they prepared for the worst.

           Picard finally allowed himself to look back at Troi.  She had closed her eyes, attempting to regain her composure.  "Deanna..." He said more gently then usual, "Shall we go to meet them in sickbay?"  Picard turned to the bedraggled looking young man who had given Troi's hand an encouraging squeeze as she nodded.  "Lt. Levitz I believe?  Accompany us, please.  I have a few questions"  he requested, realizing that Troi was going to be of very little use in her current state of mind

        Down on the planet's surface, the worn curtain was thrown back and the two Cardassians who rushed in were just in time to see the transporter effect fade from the spot where Deanna Troi had been standing.  Dr. Callori  wheeled to find a phaser aimed at his head.  The other Cardassian shoved the Hospital Administrator aside as he stared down at the human thrashing on the bed.  "Federation scum!"  He spat, recognizing Riker as the one whom they sought.  He turned and with one swift motion grabbed Callori by the throat.  "Do not let him die!" He roared, shoving the hapless Doctor forward to stumble against the bed.  Callori grabbed the tracheal tube, his nervousness causing him to fumble and drop it.  He scrambled to pick it back up, desperately aware of the Cardassian phaser pressed into the base of his skull.  But he was aware also that this patient was beyond his help.   The monitors alarms squealed, demanding attention as Riker's vital signs collapsed, adding to the surreal quality of the scene.  At last Callori got his numb fingers around the slippery tube and straightened up- only to find himself facing a huge Klingon who materialized and aimed and fired his phaser in one motion; dropping the Cardassian who had held the Administrator.  Callori ducked quickly back down, trying to escape out of the line of fire, and the soldier who had been holding him got off a shot at the hulking Star Fleet officer.  The doctor's movement disrupted the Cardassian's aim, causing his shot to barely connect with the tip of the Klingon's weapon.  Dropping the hot phaser in disgust, Worf launched himself across the bed, pulling out his dagger as his massive frame smashed into his smaller opponent, sending him flying.  The Cardassian's head split with a sickening crack as it impacted against the tile wall.  Whirling, Worf quickly assessed the two Cantosians as non-threatening.  The administrator was fighting her way through the curtains to escape the mayhem, while Callori still cowered on the floor at the head of the bed.  His hands were held up in front of his face in an ineffective effort to ward off the bodily damage he seemed to expect.  Worf's expression was one of contempt as he turned his attention to Riker, whose struggles had grown still during the fight.

        Worf was not an expert on human physiology, but Riker's color was gray, and his lips had turned distinctly blue. He appeared lifeless, or close to it.  Cursing, Worf assessed the tubes and wires running from Riker's body, and grimaced at the tortures these doctors had inflicted upon his friend in the name of medicine.  Not knowing what else to do, he used his dagger to slash through the tubes and wires and picked Will Riker up, slapping his own combadge.  "Two to beam directly to sickbay!"  He roared. 

        Callori watched them disappear and thankfully heaved a sigh of relief.  He collapsed limply back against the wall, praising his gods for saving him from this madness.

                                                            ************

 

 

         Jean Luc Picard's stomach was by no means weak, and during his career he had seen more than his share of horrific sights, but he was not prepared for the macabre appearance of his former first officer.  Worf materialized with Riker's limp body cradled closely in his arms like a child.  Riker's head was hanging limply back and his arms dangled loosely.  Picard's first impression was of colors:  the shocking deep red of the blood that drained from severed IV lines; white bandages and blue lips; gray skin and the green lead wires that dangled from the black patches attached to his chest.  The medical team closed ranks around Will, cutting off his view as Beverly swiftly barked out orders.  Picard ran a hand over his bald pate, fighting down the dread that hammered at him.

        A nurse detached herself from the crowded area about the biobed, walking towards them.  "I'm sorry sirs.  You're going to have to leave."  She pushed them towards the next room.  "You can wait in the lounge and I promise I'll keep you informed" she told them gently but firmly; herding Picard, Troi, Levitz and Worf out of the surgical suite.  As they left, Picard distinctly heard Beverly Crusher's voice above the others, the uncharacteristic edge of desperation to it chilling him.  "Come on, Will.  Please.  Come on back to us."  

        Aaron Levitz completed his narration while they waited in sickbay for word of the Captain.  Picard sighed heavily.  "The irony is, lieutenant, that the entire point of your mission has now become moot.  Cantos is not a federation member and is not strategically significant enough to the Federation for us to mount a defense against the Cardassians here.  We have been ordered to fall back to The Teanrian system."

         Levitz looked over at Deanna to see her reaction, but she had her eyes closed and seemed deep into almost a trance-like state.  He ran a hand through his tousled curls.  "So Benton- he and all the others---we're just abandoning them?"

        Picard gazed out at the starfield, his face set in hard lines.  "Benton is a Cantosian national, not a federation officer.  We're at war, lieutenant.  And we are on the defensive.  Perhaps when the tide turns..."

        Levitz face was flushed and he wasn't ready to let it be.  "And what about Captain Riker sir?  Is he going to die for nothing?" he demanded. 

     Picard shook his head emphatically.  "Don't underestimate the will of the Captain, Mr. Levitz- or the talents of Dr. Crusher."   Picard felt anything but confident himself as he reassured the lieutenant.  He had yet to hear from Beverly, which in itself was a bad sign.  Fifteen minutes ago a nurse rushing by had reported that Riker was alive, but that his chances were still marginal at best.  There had been no word since.  Looking at Levitz, Picard saw the worry in the young man's eyes, worry that he knew was reflected in his own. 

     "Commodore, you're needed on the bridge," came the announcement over the comm system.  Picard sighed.  It seemed his duty to the ship would always have to come first, no matter how badly he wanted to stay until he heard from Beverly's own mouth that Will was all right. 

     Beverly Crusher's race had first been one against time... Immediately upon seeing the cyanotic cast to Riker's skin, she had swiftly set up a life support to breath for him and oxygenate his starved tissues.  As close as she could determine, he'd been almost totally without oxygen for three minutes... His respiratory problems had been caused by the very machine he'd been hooked up to for breathing.  The high pressure of the ventilator had caused a rupture in the alveoli of one of his lungs,  and then it had been a cascade of problems after that.  She studied her initial readings.  It seemed as though most of the delicate cerebral tissues were recoverable, and his cardiac muscle was strong and had taken no serious damage.  Now that he was hooked up to proper life support, his respiratory problems were easing.  She read his lab values and started to give out orders.  "We need four units of red blood cells, stat."  One of the nurses left to carry out her order. >From what Bev could see, he was in the early stages of sepsis as a result of the severity of the multiple traumas and his early lack of care.  She sent another nurse scurrying to set up and begin a heavy course of antibiotics and antibody therapy.  Dr. Selar remained with her in the operating area.  Bev removed the heavy bandages on Will's side and took a close look at his wound.  She breathed deeply through her nose as she assessed the mess the crude projectile weapon had made of his side.  The Cantosian physicians had obviously been afraid to close the wound for fear of infection, so all they had done was to trim the edges of  traumatized tissue, leaving it to heal by primary intention.  Their primitive methods of sterilization would have guaranteed massive infection had they closed.   As it was, Will was developing sepsis despite these precautions. Bev noted the crude repair to his hepatic organ after she pulled away the packing that surrounded it.  She had to stop for a moment as she shuddered at the unspeakable things Will had been subjected to under the guise of medical care.   "He'd have died down there," she said, almost to herself.

         "You are undoubtedly correct Dr. Crusher," the Vulcan agreed while assisting with the sterilization process, and further healing of the liver.  They worked side by side for over three hours, Beverly only noticing the pain in her back and her stiff neck as she straightened up after finally closing.  "I'll be in my office," she said, rubbing her lower back.  "Call me if there is any change."  Bev pulled off her surgical garb and went to Deanna and the others. 

     When she got there, Deanna and a curly headed young man were the only ones left waiting.  Deanna looked up, her bloodshot eyes asking for confirmation of that which she had already picked up from Bev's emotions.  They hugged first... long and hard.  Bev stepped back and studied her disheveled friend, "He should recover- but not overnight I'm afraid.  The insult of Cantosian medical science, added on top of his injuries, has taken a huge toll.  But," she said with a slight smile,  " Will was strong and healthy, and plenty stubborn- I think he should be OK." 

     Deanna nodded her understanding, grateful for Beverly's strong faith in Will's ability to pull through against the odds.  "Can I go to be with him?" she asked hopefully.  Bev nodded, and Deanna went into Will's room, pulling a chair close to the head of the biobed.  Slipping her hand under the light blanket, she ran it along his warm skin searching for his hand.  Finding it, she pulled it from under the blanket, holding it close to her heart.  Then, she closed her eyes and began to send Will warmth and assurance along their newly reestablished bond, carefully filtering out her own emotions of love and longing.  Slowly her consciousness of their surroundings faded as she slipped into the comfortable sharing they had known so many years before.

     Deanna stayed with him as long as she could, but her own fatigue finally forced her to seek out the quarters she had been assigned.  She showered, ate, and then collapsed onto the bed.  It was late the next morning before she finally woke and headed back to sickbay.   She was relieved when she saw him.  "He looks much better," she said, looking hopefully at her friend.

         Beverly smiled at her.  "He's doing just fine.  The sepsis is under control and his wound is beginning to heal."

          Deanna brushed the hair back from his forehead tenderly.  She could sense him: calm, relaxed and unfocussed under the blanket of sedation.  "How much longer will it be before he wakes up?"

           "I want to keep him sedated for at least another twenty-four hours,"  Beverly replied. "He needs to concentrate all his resources on healing, and you know as well as I do that as soon as he's awake he'll be impossible.  Clamoring to get out of here if he has to be carried out."

           Deanna laughed softly.  "Will is many things, but a good patient is not one of them."

           Beverly made a minute adjustment to the rich oxygen field that was carrying medication to his healing lungs.  "I know.  That's why I found it so ironic that he ended up marrying his physician."  Bev chuckled.  "Cecily claimed it was a case of  'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'."

           Deanna forced a smile at the mention of Will's late wife.  "I never met her.  What was she like?"

           Beverly thought for a moment.  "I didn't get a chance to spend much time with her, but she seemed very sweet, quiet, but very warm and easy to talk to.  And she ADORED Will.  They were wonderful together." Beverly trailed off, seeing Deanna's pensive expression.  "Come on." she suggested, changing the subject.  "Let's go grab a little lunch in 10-Forward.  Guinan'll be very happy to see you."

          An hour later the two women were still picking over the remains of their lunch, laughing and talking and catching up on each other's lives.  "I'm so glad to talk to you again."  Beverly confessed.  "I've missed our friendship."

          Deanna nodded.  "Me too.  I wish I'd done a better job of keeping in touch, but things were a little strained before I left the Enterprise, and I was concerned."

          Beverly touched her arm.  "Deanna, I never meant to judge you.  It was just a difficult position for me."  She searched for the right words.  "Have you ever had a patient who is engaging in some self-destructive behavior, but isn't interested in your advice?  You feel so frustrated, and helpless..."

          Troi nodded.  "You thought that my relationship with Worf was self-destructive?"

           The doctor hesitated.  She didn't want to open old wounds.  "It's just that I always thought you were still in love with Will," she confessed softly.  "And I thought that maybe, subconsciously, you were just trying to force a change in your relationship with him.  But you were going about it all wrong!  I could see how desperately Will was hurting, and it was too hard for me to stay objective.  I was convinced that you were hurting yourself, and Worf in the long run, too."

            Deanna stared out the windows at the stars for a long moment.  "After Will left I felt like everyone was blaming me for it.  Will took the high ground and I was at fault..."

            "It was a lot more complicated than that."  Beverly said supportively, but Deanna shook her head.

             "No.  I'm not sure it was.  I think you're right.  I cared about Worf, but we weren't even remotely compatible...at the time I didn't realize it, but I really think I pursued a relationship with him mostly because I was tired of maintaining the status quo with Will....I tried to convince myself that Imzadi didn't matter - and I closed myself off to him emotionally.  When Will left I was totally shocked...but it also made me stop and think about what I was doing...and I spent the last three years getting my priorities straightened out "

      Deanna trailed off into silence, and Beverly sipped her coffee.  "I was really surprised when I heard you took the position on the Soyuz."

       Deanna smiled ruefully.  "I think that raised alot of eyebrows.  But I had already decided I wanted to get back into space...and Phil Chao convinced me that the Soyuz was the right place for me.  I thought that I could help Will through his grief. I didn't think our previous relationship would be a problem because we've both grown and changed a lot."

      The doctor studied her friend carefully.  "And is it a problem?"

      "Not for Will."  Deanna said reluctantly.       

      Beverly leaned closer.  "But for you?"

       Deanna almost whispered her next words.  "I knew I still had feelings for him Bev.  I was at Cecily's funeral and I was almost overwhelmed just by the sense of him.  But I thought that just being around him would be enough.  I wasn't prepared for feeling this way."

       "What way is that?"  Crusher asked softly.

       Deanna ducked her head, embarrassed, but anxious to finally talk to someone about the raging emotions that she felt whenever he was near.  "I love him, Beverly.  The changes in him have only made my feelings stronger.  The experience with Cecily....fathering a child...he' s acquired so much more depth and sensitivity..."  She shook her head to indicate that she couldn't find the right words and Crusher nodded in understanding.

       "And he's more vulnerable, too."  Beverly reminded her.

       Deanna acknowledged her with a sigh.  "Yes.  He is.  He still hasn't allowed himself to come to terms with his grief.  He's constructed this elaborate defense to keep himself from feeling the pain.  I think he's afraid that if he opens his heart to it he'll never find his way back out again."

       Beverly stared into her coffee cup.  "I remember feeling that way after Jack died- and feeling certain that I would never allow myself to love again. Of course, eventually I did.  But it was a long and painful process to get there.  It's not something that can be hurried."   Realizing that her words may have sounded like a rebuke, she reached across the table and squeezed her friend's hand.  "Deanna.  I've always felt that you and Will were destined to be together.  And I still feel that way.  Just be patient with him, and be very sure of yourself before you start trifling with his heart.  He's had enough heart-ache for a lifetime....I think maybe you both have..."

       Deanna squeezed her hand in return.  "Thank you for understanding."  She said softly.   The two women exchanged a look, acknowledging a friendship that been strained, yet come away stronger for it.  Deanna suddenly felt more optimistic than she had in a long time, and more mischievous too.  Lowering her voice she asked conspiratorially, "....Well, now that I've told you about my love life.  What about yours?  You and Commodore Picard seem terribly cozy these days..."

 

 

 

 

 

                                            Chapter17 "Recovery"

 

     Will became conscious first of the faint sound of voices in the distance.  With his eyes still closed, he wasn't aware of where he was or what had happened to him.  The last clear memory he had was the escape from the slave pens, and then being shot just as he had found Deanna.  Everything else was blank.  Will ached everywhere and felt awful, like he'd been camping on death's doorstep.  He groaned as he opened his eyes, his vision was bleary and the room swam in and out of focus.   He could hear the sounds of a woman's voice approaching.  It sounded very much like Beverly Crusher's.  But he knew that couldn't be.  She was still on the Enterprise, and the Enterprise wasn't patrolling this sector as far as he knew.  He blinked his eyes, trying to force the blurred images into a sharper picture. Partially successful, he squinted and took a look at the room he was laying in.  It was one that he was far more familiar with then he would have liked.   Apparently he was stuck in the Enterprise's critical care unit.

      He heard the voices again... closer this time.  It was Beverly Crusher- he was sure of it!  And Levitz too.  He strained to hear what they were saying and tried to sit up.... "Damn," he cursed weakly.   Bev had put a restraining field around the bed.   Now he was struggling with feelings of claustrophobia on top of everything else.

     The voices were right outside the door now.   "The Soyuz sustained substantial damage, Doctor," he heard Lieutenant Levitz say.  "I'm afraid they're out of the battle for now." 

     The sedation was still clouding Riker's ability to think clearly.  His pulse began to race and his heart hammered in his chest.  What about casualties, his mind screamed.  Where was Laurel!   His mind jumped erratically.  Deanna... was she all right?  Will felt the room tilt and panic began to take over.  His respiratory rate doubled and alarms began to go off, only serving to increase his agitation.

     Beverly heard the alarms and was at Will's side in seconds. He stared at her in a wild eyed state of extreme agitation.  "Where's Laurel?" he demanded, his anxiety making his words come out in a breathless whisper.

     Realizing he must have overheard her conversation with the young Lieutenant, Beverly motioned Aaron into the room.   Levitz came around on the other side of Bev and looked to her for instruction.  "Tell the Captain how Laurel is- and the rest of the crew. "  Will grabbed her hand as she brought it close to his neck with a hypospray.  She paused as Levitz nodded  his understanding.  She could have easily overpowered Will but decided that he might not need the sedation once he heard what his officer had to say.

     "Captain,"  Aaron laid his hand on Will's shoulder for emphasis, "I made sure that Laurel was fine... I promise, she's OK."  Gratefully, Aaron saw the major force of Riker's panic fade from his eyes.  He understood it completely... He'd felt the same fears regarding his own family's safety.

        "The crew?"  Riker demanded. 

         Aaron frowned slightly, wondering if he should lie. "Three dead, sir.  Pullayup, Meg Donalson, and Chemoni Cliz. Everyone else is fine."

         Will swallowed hard.  "Damn..."  He swore softly,  "and Deanna?"

        "She's fine, Captain"  Aaron said soothingly, impressing Beverly with his obvious concern for his commanding officer. "You took a hit that would have killed her for sure...  Now YOU, on the other hand sir, have some serious recuperating to do.  Doctor Crusher put you together on a wing and a prayer and it was a very close thing." 

      Bev watched his life-signs carefully.  She wasn't about to let Will get into trouble.  "How do you feel Will?" she asked gently.   She wasn't expecting him to open his eyes and pin her with his intense stare.

       "I need to see Laurel," he stated.

       "She's OK, Will."  Bev tried to assure him, watching his life-signs begin to escalate again. "But the Soyuz is light years away right now."

         Levitz broke in.  "Captain.  I can set up a comm link so you can see each other.  Just give me fifteen minutes tops."  Riker gave him a grateful look and began to relax again. 

         Bev pulled Levitz out of the room.   "Thank you, Lieutenant.  I don't want him upset or I'm going to have to sedate him.   And I'd really rather not do that again because it can cause it's own problems."  Aaron nodded as she left, then he contacted the Soyuz to set up the comm link. 

         Geordi already had his hands full when Levitz contacted him.  "All right," he said, willing to do anything to relieve Riker's anxiety about his daughter.   "I'll have it ready for you in five minutes... We'll go direct from the Captains quarters.  She's in there now with her nanny."  Geordi delegated the necessary arrangements and then signaled the Enterprise that all was ready.  He had spent what little free time he had since Will was gone, playing with Laurel, or at least checking on her when he couldn't leave the engine room.  He had repair crews working round the clock-but it didn't look like they would be engaging the Cardassians any time soon.  "OK Levitz," he said, "it's a go any time you're ready."

     Aaron thanked him and rushed back into sickbay.  "OK Captain.. it's a go."  He straightened the covers and moved the unnecessary apparatus away as he began raising the head of the bed .  But he had to stop when Riker's face paled and he indicated he was suffering from vertigo.

      A picture of Laurel filled the screen.  She was wearing a pretty yellow dress and had her curls pulled up in a ribbon.   Her finger was firmly ensconced in her mouth.  Riker smiled at her.  "Hi pumpkin." 

       Laurels face lit up and she squirmed out of her caretaker's arms and walked close to the screen, reaching out her hand as if she could touch him.  "Daddy," she squealed happily.  Riker's eyes filled with tears.  "Daddy come," she demanded.  "Daddy kiss," she asked more uncertainly when he didn't immediately respond.  Riker was at a loss.  He didn't know how to tell her he couldn't come.  His arms ached to hold her close to him.  He actually felt a sharp pain in his chest.  He knew that it had to be from wanting to be with her.

      "Sweetheart, Daddy'll come soon,"  He promised as a few unintentional tears slid down his cheeks.  He quickly wiped them away, hoping she didn't see them and hating the weakness that made him lose control.  The last thing he wanted to do was upset her.

       Laurel's hand loomed large on the screen as she tried to touch his face.  She looked at him with surprised hurt, becoming increasingly upset at her inability to get to her Daddy.  "Daddy come," she wailed, screwing up her face as the level of her siren cry escalated.  Her pale skin flushed darkly as she tried  to touch Riker's image on the screen.  "Daddy come!", she cried repeatedly, gasping for breath as sobs shook her tiny body. 

     Riker vainly tried to block out her sorrow, unable to deal with it yet himself.  He couldn't catch his breath, and he fought as much against the pain in his heart as he did the pain in his body.

     Deanna had felt Will's distress earlier, but had put off going to see him when it seemed to subside on it's own.  She sat in ten-forward, which was almost deserted, chatting with Guinan and catching her up on the past three years of her life on earth.  She could feel the hostess' careful assessment of her.  Guinan had smiled a lot but hadn't said much.  "So how was it being aboard the Soyuz, under Captain Riker's command?"  Guinan finally asked.

     Deanna smiled as she talked about her short stay on the Soyuz.  "He's got a wonderful crew, and they have tremendous respect for him.  But I think they're also worried about him.  Will suffered a devastating blow when his wife was killed; and I'm afraid he's not taking the loss well."  Deanna stopped for a moment before continuing.  "I didn't mean that like it sounded, Guinan.  What I mean is that I'm afraid that Will's not allowing himself to grieve normally.  He's holding it inside locked away, instead of facing it and making it his own."  Guinan looked pensive, as if unsure that what she was going to say was a good thing.   

    "Deanna, I know that Will's marriage to Cecily was hard on you.  But I think you need to understand how good Cecily and Will were together.  I don't think I ever saw him happier than the last time we saw them together as a family."  Deanna nodded, hiding the guilty pang she felt as Guinan painted such a rosy picture of the Riker family.  Although she understood that Guinan wasn't trying to hurt her, it hurt just the same; especially since she knew he never would have left the Enterprise had she not stubbornly insisted on continuing her relationship with Worf.

      "Guinan, I know..." she began.  But before she could finish the thought, the building discomfort she'd been sensing from Will exploded into an acute anxiety and pain that she felt as if it were her own.  She stood up abruptly, spilling their drinks.  "I'm sorry,"  she said with no small distress, "It's Will- I've got to go." 

     Deanna raced along the corridors to sickbay, trying to sense what had upset Will so deeply.  But all she could sense was his pain and increasing agitation.  Almost there, she abruptly felt his consciousness begin to fade.  She entered sickbay to see Bev standing anxiously next to him with a hypospray in her hand, as the sounds of a child crying filled the room.  She looked at the screen which was still activated to see the contorted face of Laurel, and then looked at Will, just in time to see the anguished lines of his face relax under the effect of the sedative Bev had given him.  She stood in front of Will, blocking the childs view of him.  Talking soothingly, she was able to calm Laurel down by telling her that daddy was taking a nap. 

 

     Deanna convinced Beverly that her presence would be enough to keep Will on an even keel.  Beverly nodded. She wasn't going to artificially induce consciousness, but they would see what happened when the effects of the sedative wore off naturally.  Deanna stayed with Will for the three hours that he slept, stroking his hair and holding his hand.  She hoped that she hadn't overestimated her abilities as she felt the anxiety reawaken in him with his returning consciousness.   Deanna rubbed his hand and focusing on feelings of calm and reassurance.  The sedation began to wear off and she studied his face as he became aware of his surroundings once again.   His eyelids fluttered as he tried to focus.   "Hello, Will..."  She said soothingly.  He glanced at her and looked away, but she kept on talking.  "Beverly says you're doing fine, and should be up and around in a few days.  Laurel is fine.  I talked with her over the comm link, and I think she understands that you'll be back soon -"  She went on to explain the whole situation to him, in the same calming, soothing tone of voice; feeling him relax as he was given all the facts.  While she spoke she caressed the hand that she held in hers, sensing his growing trust and gratitude.  When Beverly poked her head in a few minutes later she found Will and Deanna talking softly, and she disconnected the restraining field. 

      Will sighed.  "Thanks, Bev.  I promise I'll behave.  Sorry about earlier-  I was sort of disoriented..."

        She smiled at him over her tricorder.  "I've heard that being unconscious for four days will do that to you,"  she teased gently to let him know that she understood.  Laying aside the tricorder she pulled back the blanket and inspected his side.  Because of the massive infection she hadn't been able to use conventional tissue regeneration therapy, and it was healing a little more slowly than she wished; however, it was making steady progress.  She saw Deanna look at the area and turn away with a wince.  "we're getting there..."  She reassured them both, pulling the sheet back up and measuring the expression on Will's face.  "Do you feel up for visitors?  Jean Luc has been pestering me..."

       He nodded.  "Of course."

       The captain of the Enterprise smiled warmly as he walked in a few minutes later.  "Well, good afternoon Will.  It's good to see you back with us." Jean Luc meant it on more than one level, the image of Will's lifeless body which Worf had carried aboard flashing through his memory.

      Riker gamely tried to smile but it came out as more of a grimace.  "I guess I owe you a big thank you for coming to the rescue.  From what Beverly tells me you had exquisite timing."

     Picard nodded.  "I would have preferred a slightly larger margin for comfort..."  He agreed, studying his former first officer.  He was thin, and pale, but he seemed to be doing well enough.

      Will grimaced as he shifted his position.  "Not to sound ungrateful, sir...but when do you think you can get me back aboard the Soyuz?"

      The Commodore frowned.  He'd known this was coming, and was fully cognizant of the fact that Will was not going to be happy with the reply.  "Unfortunately Will, at the moment we are quite busy with the Cardassians in this sector.  As you probably know, the Soyuz has fallen back for emergency repairs.  I'm afraid it could be several weeks..."

    Picard watched the muscles in Riker's jaw clench as he bit back a heated reply.  "A shuttle, then?"  Riker more demanded than suggested.

    The Commodore shook his head regretfully.  "I'm sorry, Will.  That's out of the question.  The Cardassians would be on you like sharks- even if you were physically well enough for the five day shuttle trip."

    "I've GOT to get back to my ship immediately!"  Riker replied, not placated by Picard's soothing tone of voice. 

    Jean Luc tried to strike the perfect note between firmness and genuine sympathy.  "I'm sorry, Will...it just isn't possible right now.  I can understand your feelings, but there is little you could do on the Soyuz at this point anyway.  She needs repairs and you need to convalesce." 

    Will shook his head angrily, pushing himself to a sitting position despite the obvious pain it caused him.  Picard kept himself from helping Will, not wanting to make him feel pitied.  Then the thought occurred to him that Beverly was going to be very angry about this.  "You DON'T understand my feelings!"  Riker snapped back.  "Jean Luc, It's not the damned ship!  Thompson and Geordi can deal with that!  It's my little girl!  Six months ago her mommy went on an away mission and never came back, and now her daddy's gone too.  She needs me, and damn it, she doesn't understand!  She's just a baby..."  His voice broke and he looked away.

      Jean Luc didn't know what to say.  Cecily's funeral and the two following days at Le Barre were still fresh in his mind.  He had never seen a man as broken and lost as Will had been during that dark time, and Picard had become convinced that Will would not have survived it if not for his devotion to his daughter.   He could only imagine the frustration that his friend was feeling right now.  He laid a hand on Riker's shoulder.  "I promise that you and Laurel will not be separated for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary, Will."   Picard felt him slump in resignation, and Riker nodded his head in silent acknowledgment.

     Picard withdrew his hand and there was an awkward pause.  The kind that Jean Luc had grown accustomed to Will filling with a bit of gentle humor.  Picard smiled slightly.  "And now, Will, there is something that you can do for me."  Riker looked up at him and Jean Luc lowered his voice.  "Please lay back down before Beverly comes in and has my hide for allowing you to sit up."   He saw the surprise gleam in Riker's blue eyes, followed by a small but gratifying smile.

     "Aye, sir..."  Will agreed, easing himself painfully back down onto the bed.  He admitted to himself that Picard's hands were tied and there was nothing to be gained by pressing the issue any further.   Will forced himself to swallow his despair, putting on a brave front for the benefit of his former captain.  "I take it that time hasn't mellowed out the good doctor?"

     Picard smiled.  "If anything, she's gotten more demanding."

     "There's a cure for that, you know..."  Will teased, genuine amusement finding it's way back into his eyes despite everything.

     Perfectly aware that he was being set up, Picard raised one eyebrow skeptically  "And that is...?"

       "Marry her."  Will murmured, taking advantage of his condition to close his eyes and pretend he was asleep.  Picard stared at him for a moment, then shaking his head, he walked from the room.  When he was gone, Will opened his eyes again and stared bleakly at the ceiling, wondering how long it would be before he saw his child again.

                                      

      Deanna hoped her frustration wasn't showing.  After Picard had left him Will slept most of the remainder of the day.  She spoke to him for a few minutes in the evening, but she could tell the window of opportunity was already closing.  As he got physically stronger he was reconstructing his mental and emotional walls as well.  Deanna knew she was not the only one who noticed it.  The feeling was such that one would have thought that a rank insignia had been sewn onto his hospital gown.  The nurse who'd called him "honey" in the uncertain hours just after their rescue had switched to "sir", and even Beverly had referred to him as "Captain Riker" when Deanna asked how he was doing.  Any hope that he might still be open to her emotionally vanished when he called her "Counselor" as he  thanked her politely for her concern.   Even the mention of Laurel evoked nothing more from him than the mouthing of all the platitudes they'd used on him the previous day.  "I'm sure she'll be fine, she's in good hands, it won't be too long."   Of course, Deanna could sense his real feelings that he had buried neatly and efficiently, using the guise of bringing himself up to speed on the Cardassian conflict and keeping abreast of the state of repairs on the Soyuz, to ward off personal conversations.

       "Well..."  She said, rising from the chair near his bed.  "I suppose I should let you work." 

       He glanced up from the padd screen, as if remembering that she was still sitting there.  "Sure.  Fine.  I'm sure you have things to do," he replied, his attention already drifting back to Thompson's report.   For once he was grateful for his first officer's almost obsessive thoroughness.  "Thank you, Counselor."  He murmured distractedly.

      Deanna was wounded by his dismissal.  As a psychologist she understood the emotional dynamics that were causing him to behave this way, but Deanna couldn't keep the hurt entirely out of her voice as she turned towards the door.  She had invested all of her emotional strength in him for the last week,  and now he was apparently brushing her off without a second thought.  "Sorry I bothered you, Captain," she said, more to herself than him.

      The door slid open and she was about to step through.  "Deanna."  She turned back to him at the sound of her name spoken gently.  She sensed his genuine regret.  "I'm sorry..."   He apologized.  "You've been wonderful these past couple of days.  It's just this situation."  He gestured at the padd. "I feel like I'm out of the loop.  We're at war, my ship is in pieces, and I have no idea what the hell is going on.  I just need to get a handle on it all."

     She nodded, chastising herself for letting him see her hurt.  "I understand, Will."

      He smiled at her, his blue eyes full of warmth.  "You always do, Imzadi."  His eyes widened and he seemed as shocked by what he'd said as she.  The word had just come out spontaneously.

     "It's nice to hear you say that again."  She said with a soft smile, then turned and left before he had a chance to say anything to spoil the moment.

      Will stared after her, wishing he could read her feelings.  Hell, he wished he could read his own.  Where had that word come from after all this time?  Something had changed, but he couldn't put his finger on it.  It felt good, though; like a small glimmer of light warming up an unused room after a long cold winter.

 

 

 

                                               Chapter 18 "The Party"

 

     Almost three weeks had passed since Will had been brought to sickbay more dead than alive. Beverly was more than pleased with his remarkable recovery.  Although he was still thinner than his normal weight, he was suffering from no other obvious ill effects.  She was concerned, however, with the changes she noticed in his personality.  Beverly missed the humor which used to be so close to the surface in the old Will Riker.  He seemed to hold himself away from the other crew members, and had become so serious that she couldn't  remember the last time she'd seen his famous smile.  He seemed no closer to reconciling himself to Cecily's death.  In fact he wouldn't even talk about it.  That worried Bev most of all.

 

     Will left the bridge distinctly annoyed.  He'd paid little attention to establishing any new relationships, or even reestablishing old ones while aboard the Enterprise.  His recovery had been painfully slow in his own mind, although he supposed he was lucky to have survived at all.  One crew member in particular had been especially persistent in her pursuit in her attentions; Lt. Anister, Picard's new science officer.  He politely rebuffed her rather obvious overtures, but it seemed as if she was oblivious to anything but her own intent.  After a few encounters, Will ignored her almost to the point of rudeness.  He did try to spend time with Picard however, comfortable in the knowledge that his old captain was not going to pry or try to psychoanalyze him. 

     Will had risen early to check on the progress of the Soyuz,  and have his daily conference with Thompson and Geordi about the affairs of the ship and it's crew.  However the most important times of day for him was always  when he talked to Laurel.  He smiled as he visualized Laurel's sleepy morning face as he'd sent her love and kisses during her breakfast.   Her bedtime ritual now included waiting for his call after her jammies were on.  Will had moved heaven and earth in order to be there at the appointed time.  Today's workout was going to have to wait, he'd been putting in long hours at the research center, studying strategy and tactics, knowing they might be useful if the upcoming peace agreement with the Cardassians fell through.   Obvious to anyone but himself, he was doing anything  and everything to keep himself from having too much time to think about Cecily and the anger growing inside of himself.

 

 Will's thoughts drifted towards tonight's plans.  He looked forward to taking off the mantle of command for a little while with Deanna.  They often met  to share a meal in his quarters and discuss the events of the day.  He was more grateful than he knew how to express for Deanna's unfailing availability, both while he was restricted to his bed, and after he'd been discharged from Beverly's care.   He felt somehow reconnected to her again since he'd let the word "Imzadi" slip out in sickbay, but he suffered  a deep inward struggle over what, if anything, that might mean.  Their relationship had become one full of contradiction for Will.  On one hand, being with her gave him the peace he longed for, but on the other, the minute he let himself enjoy her presence, he was barraged by guilt and anger.  No matter how strong and compelling his desire was to be near her, when they were together, he couldn't allow himself to go beyond light conversation. That they were both frustrated beyond belief was obvious to him, but in spite of his ambivalent feelings, he couldn't deny the enjoyment that being in her presence brought him, and he couldn't deny that he ultimately wanted more than light conversation from her. 

     Last night Deanna had seemed to understand, and didn't pressure him for more than he could give.  She joked, more than half serious, that she wasn't going to be able to fit into ANY of her clothes if he didn't stop cooking her such rich meals and scrumptious desserts.   But he was just going to keep on doing it.  It was the one way he could show her the thanks that he found so hard to articulate.  The Enterprise was due to rendezvous tomorrow morning at 0800 hours with the Soyuz, and he was no nearer to a resolution concerning his feelings then he had been almost three weeks earlier. 

 

                                                                            ****************

 

     Riker was killing time as he sat at the bar in ten-forward, nursing the last of his drink in the dimly lit comfort of the lounge.  He felt someone sit next to him an hoped they weren't looking for conversation.

      "Captain Riker," said Lt. Anister. 

     Will put his glass down deliberately before answering.  Guinan glided up to him and addressed him with a long slow stare.  Smiling, as she so often did, and looking as if she held the universes secrets in her dark gaze.

      "Well, Captain," she said, leaning towards him, her voice intentionally low, creating an intimate space between them while pointedly ignoring Anister.  Grapevine says you're going back to your ship tomorrow morning?" 

      "That's right.  0800."

      "I suppose you can hardly wait?"

      He rubbed his glass in a circular motion on the bar top.  "That's right." 

      By this time Lt. Anister had finally gotten the message and left.

      Will looked down into the reflective surface of the bar, and then back up into Guinan's eyes, trying to voice the question which hung delicately between them.

     "Guinan, you told me once that it wouldn't hurt forever," he began-the air seemed heavy as he struggled to continue.  Guinan waited patiently.  He started again.  "You were right, although I didn't believe you at the time," he said and shook his head.  By force of will, his eyes met hers again, searching for answers to his still unspoken question. 

 

     Guinan wished she could share the sorrows that weighed so heavily on Will's heart; but centuries of hard experience had taught her that that pain had to be dealt with honestly before one could move past it.  She touched his hand, her coolness absorbing his heat.  She breathed deeply before she carefully began. 

      "Captain.  You feel things deeply."  She paused, never taking her eyes from his.  "But this is a different kind of pain, and it's going to be a different type of recovery.   "Until you feel the depth of your own pain and loss, you're just not going to recover."  She watched him carefully with her next words.  "You know your father felt the same pain when your mother died."   Riker's face twisted.  Guinan continued, determined to finish.  "He never could deal with the depth of his pain; and you both suffered the consequences of his withdrawal.  Are you going to do the same thing to Laurel?"  Guinan waited and watched, but Will said nothing more than goodbye after squeezing her hand tightly.     Shaking her head in silence she absently rubbed the already glossy depths of the bar top.  She was sure he had listened.  But whether or not he would allow it to look at his deepest feelings was anyone's guess.  But it didn't appear that he was going to let anyone in, anytime soon.  

 

     Will clenched his jaw.  He knew the truth of her statement, it hit him like a fist in his gut.  As he walked out of ten-forward he purposefully tried to clear his mind of their conversation, hanging out a mental "do not disturb" sign as he compartmentalized it neatly away.  He switched gears and decided to stop by Deanna's quarters before going to bed.  He needed to call Laurel yet tonight, and he and Deanna had missed their supper as a result of some briefings Picard had asked Will to participate int.  While waiting for her to open the door he thought about the party he and Deanna had planned for Laurel tomorrow afternoon. 

     "Will," she exclaimed, breaking into his thoughts as she pulled him into her quarters.  "What brings you by?"

        He grinned like a little boy.  "Just excited to be going back, I guess," he said glad for an excuse to take his thoughts off of his conversation with Guinan.   "I still need to see Laurel tonight.   Can I talk to her here?"

       Deanna smiled and linked her arm through his.  "Of course Captain.  You can connect in the living room." 

     Will threw himself down on the couch and had communications connect him to his ship and then to Laurel's room.  Her sleepy face filled the screen, lighting up at the sight of her daddy.  "Daddy.  No schweep." she said stubbornly around the finger in her mouth.

     Will tried not to laugh at the exasperated look on her caregiver's face.  "Yes Laurel, you have to sleep," he said sternly.

         Laurel looked down pouting, only to raise her eyes with an impish twinkle.  "Dana schweep?"

        Will looked around and saw that Deanna could indeed be seen by Laurel.  He was at a loss.  "I love you Laurel.  But you have to sleep now."  Instead of complying, Laurel pulled her finger out of her mouth.

         "Dana play," she said,  batting her blue eyes. 

          Deanna laughed and quickly covered her mouth at Will's glare.  "Where'd she learn that Will?" she said softly, smirking.  "I see you aren't the only one who knows how to use those baby blues effectively.  Is it genetic do you suppose?"

         Laurel squealed with laughter as Will threw a pillow at Deanna and missed.  "Daddy's going to go night night," he said to both Deanna and Laurel. " And Laurel, it's time for you to go night night too," he said and then finished the ritual of gestures they had made up to substitute for a good night kiss.  "I love you, pumpkin.  Sleep tight.  Daddy will be home soon."

       "Night daddy," Laurel said wistfully as the screen faded to black.

        Deanna hated that Will was going to leave so soon, she knew that there'd be much less time together after they boarded the Soyuz.  Plopping down on the couch she patted the seat beside her.  "Sit down Captain,"  she said.  Will hesitated then complied.  She sensed his spirit of playfulness evaporating like mist under the sun and felt his inward defenses jump to attention.

       "I really need to go, Deanna," he finally said after a few awkward moments.   Meet you in the transporter room tomorrow morning."  

       Deanna sensed that Will's emotions were conflicted and she wasn't sure just how his feelings pertained to her, although she could guess.  "OK Will," she said, keeping her voice purposefully light and cheerful.  "I guess we could both use the sleep.  I'll take care of the details for the party tonight before I go to bed."   Will's smile emerged again, comforting her with it's momentary warmth.  "Thanks, I'll see you in the morning," he said.  Holding her hand he leaned over to kiss her on the cheek, lingering slightly longer than normal. 

     Deanna felt his yearning pushing past his guilt.  Her senses reveled in his closeness, inhaling his scent, feeling the soft brush of his beard against her skin.  His eyes were closed, his long dark lashes still against his cheek.  Her heart pounded and the rushing of her blood seemed abnormally loud in her ears.  Feeling his hesitation she held her breath, but it only lasted a moment more before he withdrew.  "Goodnight Deanna," he said.  Her pulse raced as she silently watched him leave.

 

     Early the next morning, Thompson walked erratically around the bridge of the Soyuz; leaning over consoles, poking his nose into everything and making sure that all was ready for Riker's arrival.  He checked and double checked until he practically drove his crew crazy.   The ship was like new, and the crew was anxious to get their captain back and return to normal.   Thompson had done an exemplary job in returning the ship to full capacity, but his knowledge of interpersonal relationships was still lacking.              

      "Thompson to LaForge," he said. 

     "LaForge here," came the instant reply.

     "Everything OK?" Thompson asked for the third time that morning.  Geordi's mental sigh was almost audible.

     "Commander, all systems are go.. She's running perfectly," he said, slowly enunciating each word.

       Thompson clasped his hands behind his back and checked the time.   Thirty minutes till ETA. His shoulders knotted up as he thought about facing the Captain over the damage to the ship and the fatalities which had occurred during his command.  Suddenly remembering that he hadn't checked on Laurel Riker since the night before, he gave over the bridge and went to the command center for privacy.  The child care center staff assured him that all was well and that Laurel was unaware that today was any different from any other.  Those had been the Captain's specific orders.  He hadn't wanted her to be upset if something should delay his return. 

       "Commander, Captain Riker and Counselor Troi are ready to transport."  Dimonelli's voice cut into Thompson's fretting. 

      Thompson's chest tightened and he said, "Right.  I'll be there right away."  He took one last look around the ready room, making certain that everything was precisely the way Riker had left it. and then rushed to the transporter room and smoothed his hair, trying o maintain some kind of dignity while the Captain and Troi shimmered into view.

     Riker took a deep breath and looked around as the transporter beam loosed its hold on him.  It felt good to be back on board his own ship.  But it was a little strange.  Sort of like coming home after an extended vacation. Thompson stood nervously at attention.  He smiled then, knowing nothing had changed, giving his first officer a firm handshake. 

      "Number one!  Nice to see you again.  It's good to be back."

      Thompson gave him a nervous smile.  "Sir."

      Riker patted him on the shoulder reassuringly, "You've done a fine job in a tough situation.  You can bring me up to speed a little later.  Right now I've got someone I need to see," he said with a wink.

      Thompson looked startled, as if wondering how seeing someone could possibly be more important than talking about the ship.  He looked at Troi, and then back at the Captain.  "Of course sir.  I'll be on the bridge." 

     Will started out for the door, pausing for a moment before passing through to look at Deanna. "I'll meet you on the holodeck at noon to set up for the party? "   Her warm smile captured him for a moment and he took a deep breath before he made a move to leave.  "Ok, I'll see you there," he said and then turned and followed the corridor towards his quarters.  He acknowledged the enthusiastic greetings of the crewmen he passed, but never broke stride.   Opening his door, he witnessed Laurel taking a deep breath to continue the tantrum she'd been in the process of throwing.   Instead, seeing him,  her eyes grew round and she screamed at the top of her lungs, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"  She launched herself into his arms.  Will knelt on the floor to catch her and held her tight as she threw her arms around his neck.  Her hair smelled sweetly of peach shampoo and felt as soft as spun silk against his skin.  She grabbed his ears and began pulling his head up and down.  "Daddy home!" she shouted, her face filled with joy and excitement, just inches from his own.  Will was laughing and crying at the same time as they covered each others faces with kisses, rubbing their noses together.  He rocked backwards, throwing her up in the air making her squeal her delight. 

     Laurel's nanny grinned and slipped out unobtrusively during the commotion.  They played together for a long time until Will's yawns mingled with hers.  He grabbed her and swung her up under his arm. 

       "Nap time young lady,"  he announced.

       "No nap," she said, her voice muffled in his shirt.

       "OK.  No nap."  He agreed, grabbing a storybook.  "We'll just go lay down on Daddy's bed and I'll read you a story, OK?"

       She looked at him speculatively and then stuck her finger into her mouth.  "Uggy Ducky" she proclaimed contentedly.  Will took her into his bedroom and pulled the cover down, throwing her on the bed.   Sitting on the edge, he pulled off his shoes and shirt and lay down.  Laurel immediately snuggled in beside him as he opened the book and began to read the ancient tale of the Ugly Duckling.  It wasn't  long before twin sets of soft snoring filled the room.

     Will woke an hour later, feeling more refreshed and relaxed than he could remember feeling in a long time.  He laid there quietly for a few minutes, listening to Laurel's soft breathing and marveling at the perfect little hand that laid on his chest.  It was one of those moments that he wanted to etch in his memory to keep with him forever.   Reluctantly, he finally woke her.  She was perfectly happy to go to day-care when he promised her an extra-special surprise for the afternoon, and he left her playing on the rug beside another little girl who he recognized as Maya Levitz.

 

       For the next two hours Captain Riker reestablished his presence on the ship, making an inspection tour with a nervous Commander Thompson at his side.   After the first half hour the first officer stopped apologizing and began to realize that his captain was not blaming him for anything.  By the time they were through, Thompson was actually smiling along with Riker and looking at his brief stint in the center seat in a whole new light. 

      Precisely at noon the captain excused himself and made his way to the holodeck to meet the Ship's Counselor and address the important issues of the birthday party. "It's perfect."  He said with satisfaction.  They'd programmed a park on a warm spring day.  Birds sang in the trees and butterflies flitted among the flowers.  There were several picnic tables to accommodate the celebrants, and an old-fashioned merry-go-round to provide rides and joyful background music.

      "Almost"  Deanna agreed.  "But we still need party games."  There are going to be eight children between two and five.  If we don't have games guess who ends up being the entertainment!"

      Will Riker smirked.  "I know a few good party games..."  he teased, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

      Deanna grinned at his playful mood, and slapped him lightly in the belly.  "I really don't think Laurel's old enough for those kind of games."

      Will winced at the thought of his sweet little girl someday engaging in the distractions of his own youth.  ""Laurel's NEVER going to be old enough for those!"  He said.

     She laughed at him.  "Spoken like a true over-protective Daddy."

     He shrugged sheepishly, not even bothering to dispute her accusation.  "OK.  What then?  Pin the Tail on the Donkey?"

     "That's better."  Deanna said and then brightened perceptibly, retrieving a large colorful ball from the bag of supplies she'd brought with her.  "... and I also replicated a Tianis."  She tossed the ball to him and he looked at it curiously.

     "What is it?"

     "A traditional Betazoid game.  I had one at all my parties when I was little."  She caught the ball as he tossed it back.  "It has an internal timer.  The children pass it around to the music.  The object is to be the one holding it when it goes off.  It showers the child with glitter and they get to be the Tianis, or "sparkling one" for the rest of the party.  And they get a special treat."

     Will was about to reply when the Tianis ball erupted in a flurry of shiny confetti.  "What the...?"  Deanna said, brushing glitter which perversely stuck to her uniform.  "It was defective!"

Will dissolved in laughter and she shot him a warning glare.  "I have to be in a meeting in fifteen minutes!  I can't go to a counseling session like this!"  Reaching up, she felt the confetti caught in her chignon and groaned.  "Oh no..."

      "If I make any puns about your sparkling personality are you going to hit me?"  Will teased, and Deanna gave in to the humor of the situation.

        "Probably,"  She said, undoing her hair and letting it fall around her shoulders.  "Computer.  One hair brush."  She ordered.  Sitting down on the picnic table bench she applied herself to the task of brushing the confetti from her thick, dark locks.

 

         Will wondered if Deanna knew how watching her this way was effecting him.  His mind drifted back over the years, remembering when they were lovers.  He used to unpin her hair, loving the way her tresses looked when they were free, and savoring the silky feel of her hair as it swept over his body.  And after they made love, he would lay back and watch her as she brushed her hair, just like now.  He remembered that often the sight so stimulated him that he undid her labors as soon as she was done. 

 

       Deanna sat facing away from Will, feeling his gaze and sensing the shift in his emotions as she drew out the process of brushing her hair.  He sat on the picnic table behind her and took  the brush from her hand.

      "Here, I want to do that for you..."  He said.  Deanna smiled at him for a moment before closing her eyes and leaning back against his thighs.  She closed her eyes as she reveled in the sensual long slow strokes of the brush.  She was enjoying the flow of his increasingly erotic thoughts and the feel of his muscular legs and gave a low involuntary sigh of pleasure.  She pictured his big strong hands braiding Laurel's hair, and the strength of his emotions and his touch made her remember those same hands doing other things to his Imzadi, long ago.   She wanted to prolong this feeling forever.  "Will?  Would you braid it for me?"  He murmured his assent, and she felt him begin to separate her locks, drawing them firmly but gently in from each side as he fashioned a french braid.

      "You do that well..."  She said. 

     He chuckled softly.  "I never knew how easy this really was.  Laurel always squirms around so much..." 

     Will's close proximity made her feel like squirming herself, his light touch driving her to distraction.  Much too soon, he came to the end of the braid and reached around her to pick up her hair band from the bench.  His chest pressed against the back of her shoulders for a moment, and she controlled her shiver of delight.  Opening her mind to his, she felt a similar response in him.  His face was mere inches from her hair and she inhaled his familiar, intoxicating scent. 

     He  lifted the braid aside.  "You have some glitter on your neck..." He whispered, the heat of his breath warming her ear.  Very gently, he brushed the nape of her neck with his fingertips and she gasped quietly at his feather- touch.  She bent her head forward to expose more of her neck and then exhaled as warm lips replaced his fingers.   Soft, sensuous kisses followed a path down to her shoulder.  She hardly dared breathe for fear that she would break the magical spell.  She had fantasized about this, hoped for it, dreamed about it...   Her comm badge intruded.

    "Counselor Troi?" Lt. Bhai's strident voice said."

    She felt him pull away abruptly, both physically and emotionally.  Deanna stood, tapping her badge with automatic response.

     "Troi here." But her attention was entirely focused on Will Riker and the guilt and self-loathing she sensed from him.

       "Counselor- Bhat and I need to talk to you.  He is being a total idiot about this whole thing and I've had it!" 

     Deanna tried to focus on what her distraught patient was babbling about, but it seemed inconsequential compared to her own crisis.  Will was backing away from her, his expression full of pain as his conflicted feelings fought their way to the surface.

     She reached out a hand to him and he shook his head negatively, mouthing the words "I'm sorry" not having  the will to make them heard.

     "Counselor?  Are you there?  Are you listening to me?"  Bhai said.

      Deanna spoke impatiently. "Lt. Bhai.  I want you and Bhat to take a time out.  Just separate for a few minutes and cool down.  Then both of you meet me in my office in a half hour..."  The distraught woman began to protest and Deanna quickly added "Troi out.  It was too late, though.  Will had slipped out of the holodeck, unwilling or unable to face the cause of his pain.        

           Deanna sat back down on the bench, tentatively touching the spot on her neck that still tingled from his kisses.  She thought about going after him, but realized she was probably the last person he needed to see at the moment.  She wanted to go after him, but regardless of how badly she wanted him, she knew her presence would only cloud the real issue.   She he couldn't force him to let go of Cecily.  He was going to have to do it for himself.

        

                                                    **********************

 

        Later that afternoon, Will and Deanna kept the children too busy to get bored or in trouble.   The games had been a huge success.   

      "Dana go round?"  Laurel detached herself from her daddy's leg and held her hand out to Deanna Troi. 

          Deanna smiled at her.  "You want to go on the carousel AGAIN?"  She asked?  Laurel nodded eagerly. 

           Deanna picked her up.  "OK.  One more time."  She agreed.  "Which horsy do you want?"

          Will turned from his conversation with Geordi Laforge and watched as Deanna lifted his laughing daughter up onto one of the Carousel horses.   As the horse began to go up, Laurel clutched the pole with one hand and clung to Deanna with the other as the ride began to pick up speed. 

     "Laurel sure does like Deanna."  Geordi commented, following his captain's gaze.

      Will nodded absently.  They looked like the perfect mother and daughter pair together, only they weren't.  Cecily should be the one laughing and sharing this birthday with her little girl.  It made his heart ache to think that Laurel would never even remember her mother when she was grown.  Even now the idea of "mommy"  was becoming an abstract for her, an idea based on the stories he told her.

      Deanna looked so beautiful and carefree that for a moment he felt only resentment and anger towards her.  Who was she to come bursting back into his life like this?  That had ended long ago - even before he'd promised to be faithful to Cecily forever.  What right did she have to gain Laurel's love?  What right did she have to make him feel the things he'd swore he'd never feel for anyone again?  The ride ended and Laurel came running back to her daddy, breathless with excitement.  He swept her up in his arms and hugged her fiercely, fighting back the tears that sprang unbidden to his eyes.

      Deanna hung back and Aaron Levitz came up beside her.  "We're going to have to get going..."