The Awareness of Darkness and Light
written by Gill Marsden
Like a pearl diver desperate for oxygen, Deanna Troi's gasp rent her bedroom's still air. Her silver-backed hair brush clattered from her hands to the dressing table, smashed Marcofian crystal jars and sent their gleaming stoppers scattering like bombs down the aisle of a basilica. Spilled cosmetics ran red around an archipelago of fragmented glass.
Deanna came to her feet. Unable to maintain balance, she stumbled back to her dressing table stool. "Will?"
Not just nothing, but nothingness. A definable quality. A real thing. As real as her own, wide-eyed reflection in the flat gleam of her dressing table mirror. Only more so. Deanna pulled back from it. Her empathy ran flat as if it were a life monitor and the plug had just been pulled.
/Imzadi? Please, Will"/
Deanna's fingers fumbled for the combadge tilted onto its side and lying on the reflective plate of her looking glass. The metal was cold, but she did not feel it. Ivory blossom in a squat, navy blue jar breathed peppery scent from across the room, but she did not smell it. A lagoon of cranberry-red rouge bled silently across her bedroom carpet, but she did not see it. The combadge under her fingers warbled, awaited a destination to send the enquiry nowhere near her lips, but snagged somewhere in her brain like debris caught on telegraph wires. It keened in her mind like an empty wind through derelict pylons.
He's not here...
He's not here..!
Deanna's cold hand clenched so tightly around the dead metal, its three points made pricks in her palm. They bled little garnets, as if on behalf of the man who was not there. She did not feel it. She felt nothing. Nothingness.
"Counselor Troi to sickbay." The words seemed to stumble out of her throat of their own volition.
"Sickbay. Go ahead, Counselor."
"Commander Riker " Deanna's belly ached. Muscles knotted. The small of her back contracted. A frantic pulse throbbed in her skull. She was not ready to have confirmed what she already knew. She was not ready to be told that Will was dead, that her Imzadi had, finally, surrendered his life in pursuit of his duty. "Commander Riker ?"
"He's fine, Counselor "
No! You're wrong!
"The implantation of the Trill symbiont is complete. The commander is resting now."
Deanna forgot she was supposed to be talking. Her heartbeat stuttered, stumbled, flipped itself, and then continued. Her concentration bristled; her empathic sense scoured the world around her. If Will was alive, why could she not sense him? If Will was alive, why could she not find him? If Will was alive, why could she not touch him?
/What's wrong, Will?/
Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, the computer, concluding Deanna had nothing
more to say, or no one to say it to, terminated the idling com-link.
".... abilities to convince them of that fact, Counselor?"
The captain was speaking directly to her; Deanna heard the words, but they came to her from miles' distance. Their sense became lost in the long journey from Jean-Luc Picard's lips to her own ears.
Deanna and the captain were the only ones in the briefing room. Deanna wished she were not in this room. She did not want to sit here looking at Will's empty chair. She almost believed she could see the blurred imprint of his big, restless body in the creased upholstery. She could almost see him making those creases as he twisted to glance at Picard next to him, or scowled at the situations with which they were confronted, or grinned in appreciation at the originator of an outlandish solution so preposterous that it just might work.
The outlandish. The preposterous. The solution.
Will had come up with his own solution. It had come out of his mouth there, right across from her, where he had been sitting in that very same, now very empty, chair. He had swivelled his gaze on her, as he did when he knew she had a caution waiting for him on her lips. He had denied her the opportunity to say it, as if by denying it, he would not feel the force of its censure. He had. Deanna had made sure of that.
"Counselor?" Picard asked, again.
Like an wilderness explorer peering through a desert of white-out, Deanna tried to focus on the captain's face. She had never dreamed it would feel like this! Feared, maybe. Yes, definitely feared; but not really dreamed it would be this empty. It was too sudden. It was too absolute. The amputation had been too severe, too swift, too brutal. It was too soon! She just needed time . She needed time to acclimate; to get her bearings in this wilderness with its horizon torn away.
She had never been this alone. Even when Will had not been there, he was. Even when he had been across the galaxy's mind-stretching, untraversable distances; even when he was cocooned in his own thoughts, he was still there. With her. Where he belonged.
She could not bear it, but she must.
Even in those years after their failed rendez-vous on Risa, it had not been like this: this empathic vertigo. Even before she had met him, she had not been this desolate.
"Deanna?" the captain asked again, and Deanna was aware of him.
Captain Picard was watching her trying to pretend her life was not marooned on abrupt, unexpected grief. He had an expression on his face which suggested he appreciated the effort she was making. Deanna's empathy reached out and gripped the familiarity of Jean-Luc Picard's personality as if it were a life preserver tossed to her on a ship wrecked sea.
"Sir?" Deanna asked, and Picard repeated the question he should have been asking of his first officer. His first officer wasn't there to be asked.
"Do you think Laka Trial has the ability to convince them, Counselor?"
"If she does not, it will not be through lack of determination, Captain. Her commitment to avoid this war is very strong." The words almost sounded cohesive. They even sounded as if she knew what they meant. They almost convinced the captain. Almost.
"The commitment of anyone on this ship to avoid this war is very strong,
Counselor," the captain muttered, after what seemed like a decade of silence.
It almost sounded like a reprimand. Deanna felt herself accepting it on behalf
of the man at whom it was most likely aimed.
"Let's get to it."
They had. And now Will was gone.
* * *
"Are you Counselor Troi?"
Before looking up to meet Odan's gaze, Deanna took a moment to gather her lips into a smile. She knew the ambassador had been watching her even before he had approached her table, even before he had spoken, because there was a colossus of impenetrable unfamiliarity where there should have been the familiar, teaming whirlpool that was Will's personality.
Odan was standing just beyond the perimeter of Deanna's Ten Forward table: a stranger maintaining a discreet distance. Deanna felt the warmth she had compelled to reach her eyes drain away. This person wearing Will's face, who had dressed Will's body, who had styled Will's hair and who was looking at her with Will's blue eyes, barely knew her name. He felt nothing for her, except in frames of reference to Beverly Crusher. She did not exist for him beyond that. She had never existed for him beyond that. She would never exist for him beyond that.
Deanna felt her hand clench on the table top. She turned her empathy away from this stranger. She needed to sense Will. She needed to talk to him. She needed to feel him. Only Will could give her the strength to survive this loss of him. Only he could provide solace for this empathic bereavement.
I need him back.
She almost said it.
She almost got to her feet and demanded it.
I need to feel him!
"You are Doctor Beverly's friend?" Odan asked, and Deanna could sense uncertainty lacing the question. She knew if she denied it, the ambassador would apologise, turn, walk away. He was on the verge of doing so now.
Deanna dredged up a smile from the sediment of her reserves. It didn't feel the same on her face as the smiles she had for the man who had been born with the face looking back at her. It wasn't even the smile she had for complete strangers, or for those seeking her professional counsel. And this man needed it.
She did not know if she had it within her to give.
Odan's hand indicated the chair abandoned by Beverly Crusher. The doctor had fled Ten Forward as if her hair were on fire.
"May I talk to you, Counselor Troi?"
Deanna sensed, rather than heard, the conversations around her begin to dip; how attention was staring to wander in Odan's direction while trying to appear not to. It wasn't Odan's fault he had come here. It wasn't his fault the first officer's body was standing in the middle of the Ten Forward lounge like it had never been here before; was drawing curiosity as if it was magnetic. It wasn't Odan's fault gazes were fixing on him now and not even pretending to be looking elsewhere.
Damn it, Will! You were even sure I'd baby-sit your reputation while you're gone!
If his body did something Will Riker would not have it do in public in a million years, then Deanna didn't think he'd be particularly pleased when he woke up from this particularly outlandish, this particularly preposterous solution to their problem.
"If you can't take the hangover, don't lift the glass. If you can't afford to lose it, don't even come to the table."
Deanna got to her feet, fending off the memory of his voice, the resonances of him keeping it company like an emotional sound track. It was too painful. It was too distressing to contemplate that she may never feel his concern, his comfort, his friendship, his humour, his love, embracing her again. It was too daunting a prospect to live without the possibility of his emotions enfolding her again, his personality clattering around her mind like the irrepressible thing it was.
"I think perhaps it's a little too public in here for the conversation you want to have, Ambassador?"
Will's head nodded, and Deanna accompanied Odan from the room.
She didn't know which one of their dignity she was trying to preserve: Odan's
or Will's. At that moment, she didn't feel particularly charitable to either
Space lay thickly outside the window of the arboretum like the sable fur of a witch's cat. Inside, Deanna could smell rose bushes. She supposed she could have chosen somewhere with less implications of what Odan had approached her to avoid losing, but it was the only place she had been able to think of: somewhere private, somewhere public. She didn't want to be in the same closed room as this man whose personality, whose emotions, were so foreign to her, so unlike Will's, that when she looked at his face, she didn't see Will in it at all. She found it difficult to understand how others could see her Imzadi when she could not! Beverly must have a special talent for seeing things which weren't even there!
Odan smiled, gently.
"Counselor Troi, you look at me as if you have never seen my face before. I know that not to be the case."
"No," Deanna agreed, letting the man with Will's face draw her back to him with the smile that was so almost-familiar, it was astonishing how different it really was. "That isn't the case."
"Would she mind?" Odan asked. He indicated the two of them. "Would Doctor Beverly mind my talking with you?"
"I don't think so," Deanna said, and in doing so, felt relief crowd out of her companion.
His relief was so unlike Will's, it was unrecognisable. It was easier that way. Will's came out of him like air from a punctured balloon, but there was always something left which boasted, â€-I knew I could beat this thing.' Except once or twice when he hadn't been sure at all, and it was all bluster. Deanna wanted to feel that bravado again.
Odan shifted Will's body against the stone bench.
"Deanna," she corrected. "If you prefer, call me Deanna. After all, we do have a mutual friend." It had been far easier to say than she imagined.
"Beverly," she clarified, in case there could be any confusion.
"You are very gracious, Deanna."
Deanna smiled. It felt genuine. She was warming to the Trill. He had his own charm, an essential good cheer and sense of humour; his own warmth. Will had all of those things in buckets, but there was nothing of his in what Deanna found in Odan. Deanna allowed her empathy closer to him, and struggled to overcome the vacuum of Will's absence.
"Beverly mentions you a great deal," Odan said, choosing that moment to smile again. He was sharing a confidence he could trust her to keep. "I hope I'm not embarrassing either of you by telling you that."
Deanna grappled for her equilibrium.
"I'm sure you aren't."
"She...." Odan's blue gaze drifted to the roses, clustered in their bush like cake decorations waiting to be picked from the pantry. His gaze sharpened.
Deanna flinched: there was no good humour in him any more. "I'm sorry," she apologised, seeing the thorns of a memory in the ambassador's tortured expression.
Odan's gaze snapped back to her.
"Are you an empath?"
"Yes. I'm half Betazoid."
The frown frayed into a wide smile.
"Forgive my bluntness, Coun... Deanna ... I didn't realise." Odan seemed to relax back against the bench. "Of course, I don't usually get this far north." He shared a self-deprecating smile with her.
Deanna stared at him. For moments briefer than snowflakes, Will's personality had risen to the fore and his consciousness had greeted her. Then it had sunk back into a mire of otherness, had become someone Deanna did not recognise, and who identified her only as Doctor Beverly's friend.
The frown was back on Odan's face.
"I have offended you!"
The ambassador's need to apologise made him reach out to touch her hand. Deanna felt him to the base of her skull: alien; reasonable; desperate. He was so in love, it scared Deanna to even contemplate the passion he felt for Beverly Crusher.
Deanna straightened her shoulders. She forced her gaze to meet this sincere stranger's.
"Not at all. I just..." She shook her head, knowing that the man watching her dislodging her curls did not appreciate those curls an eighth as much as the man her empathy had momentarily sensed, for an instant so brief it was as transitory as lightening miles in the distance. But she had sensed Will. He had been there.
It had been unmistakably him.
He had always been unmistakable.
Now he had become something else. The same. Different. Changed. Sublimated. Undifferentiated. Lost. Other.
"You wanted to talk about Beverly," Deanna said. Her voice sounded hurried, too loud, strident almost. She didn't think Odan could possibly realise how arduous for her this was: to be feeling nothing when she should have been feeling everything.
Deanna took her gaze from the ambassador's watchful, insightful eyes and remembered quiet days on the bridge. She remembered how Will sometimes flirted just by sending his attention in her direction. His gaze would be fixed on the view screen. He would be relaxed in his chair. Even the captain next to him would be convinced his first officer's attention was on his job when in actual fact it was stealing a moment to dance with his counselor a few footsteps away.
She wanted him back again. She wanted him here! Now! Nothing made any sense without him. Her world had no up and no down. She felt as if she were staggering around the Enterprise, listing into rooms like a schooner with half of its ballast blown.
The ambassador was studying her.
"I think, perhaps there is something you want to talk about, Counselor Troi."
He left the statement to hang in the air like a bouquet she might want to catch, or avoid. Either way, Deanna knew he would let it be her choice.
"You are good at this, Ambassador," she allowed, finally: a stalling tactic to allow herself more time to think, to consider the implications of her discovery.
"Do you think I am trying to manipulate you?" Will's eyes telegraphed Odan's hurt as only Will's could. It was the first time Deanna had seen something familiar in him, something that even remotely looked like Will. But her eyes hadn't really been looking: her perceptions of him were primarily, and far more, empathic than they were physical, despite her love for his body and the things it had done for her. But she could live without that, as long as she had him in her mind, or near it. She knew it wasn't fair on him. She knew that. She knew that. He found ways of surviving. She was cruel. She was as cruel as he had been. He shouldn't have left her. Every day of his life, he should not threaten to do so again!
"No. No, I don't think you are trying to manipulate me, Ambassador."
"You can sense that?" Intrigue made the ambassador lean slightly forward. He almost seemed to be studying her face, as if she was about to glow orange with the effort of her empathic sense. He pulled back, as if aware he was being impolite. He smiled in apology for his overt curiosity.
"And because Beverly loves you."
Odan leaned forward again. Deanna saw a sharp glance of pain come to life in his eyes. He waved away her concern.
"I..." Odan's attention was back with the roses, closed up for the night into tight buds, as if, they too, were afraid of the darkness. "I would very much like my relationship with Doctor Beverly..."
"Go on," Deanna encouraged when his pause became a silence; when it looked as if it were going to stretch all the way to Peliar Zel and wake up everyone there with the absoluteness of it.
"I would very much like my relationship with Doctor Beverly to become physical again."
Odan's expression became wry. It became so much like Will Riker's, that Deanna
found herself expecting to feel his resonance again. But it was only the familiar
planes of Will's familiar face conspiring to bring another expression to it
that looked familiar, but wasn't. "If," Odan murmured with Will's
relish of the allusive, "this body can take it."
That was too much! Deanna leaned forward.
"Will?" she demanded. That tone of voice; that intonation; that choice of words had, once again, been too close to the real thing; the personality behind it had been too authentic, too genuinely rendered.
"Will?" His name was on her lips and into the air before she could stop it.
"Will, can you ..."
Deanna faltered. She didn't know to which one of them she was speaking. And it mattered that she did know! She scanned Odan's face. She raked through him with her empathy in the way she would have been on hands and knees scrambling for small change lost behind cushions.
"Ambassador, Will's... consciousness. I can't feel it. I can't sense him at all. Is he... Is he all right?" Fear made her question sound lame, trite.
Odan seemed to be coming to some sort of decision. Conflicts wrestled themselves across his face. His hand left his thigh against which it had been resting. Deanna could see a sheen of sweat on his palm. His colour was more ragged now than it had been in Ten Forward. Sweat gathered at his throat.
His hand rose to her cheek. Deanna let it approach. She let it touch her. She had expected Will's personality to come rapping on the door of her empathy with the cheerfully casual rat-tat-tat always ensuring him entry. She felt only Odan and the stutter of clammy skin.
"This," the ambassador murmured, "is difficult for me too." His voice was lost in the darkness, velvet and hushed like the confessional. "I have never felt this multiplicity before. And this breaks my society's taboos."
"Then... don't..." Deanna's protest was half-hearted, obligatory, and she suspected both of them knew it.
"He needs you," Odan murmured. "He needs this."
Deanna felt the familiar hand drift to her jaw; span across her neck. She let its fingers caress her; touch her hair, slip to her breast. It rested there with no movement behind it at all. She felt her heartbeat hammer against the touch. She felt Will's body lean into her. She felt the familiar weight of his solid thigh against hers; his shoulder against her. His lips were so close, she could taste him.
Will Riker washed over her like an ocean wave. Will Riker surged through her like a gasp of oxygen. He looked deep into her eyes, as he had done a thousand times before, and Deanna knew he remembered what he saw reflected there. She felt how he recognised himself in her memories of him. He remembered everything they had ever done together, even those things he wanted to forget. She felt him reach out; grasp hold; cling tight.
Deanna felt her eyes close. Will was like walking back into a familiar room with all the furniture, all the decorations, the ambience resorted. It was as if he had never been away. Deanna knew that, one day, he would go away. One day he would go for good. One day he would die, and it would be like this. One day he would go, and he would not be able to come back. Ever. Even for a visit such as this one. Deanna remembered now why he made her so angry. She remembered again why she would not allow him to be her lover once more.
"Deanna? De- a-nna?" Will's breath making her name caught Deanna's attention in ways other men yelling it across an empty room never could.
Will's lips pressed deeper into hers. His hand slipped from her breast to her hip in a movement so natural, so familiar, Deanna hardly noticed. She felt his arm lock. She felt the weight of him settle against her, certain it could be withstood, confident this support was always there for him. He rested against her, breathing shallow, aching breaths. His forehead pressed against hers. He still found the energy to take advantage of the proximity of her lips.
"I need you." His breath was warm. "I need you, Imzadi."
There was more want in him than there had been in years; more longing; more need to be reminded of her than Deanna had ever felt before.
"Imzadi." He said it in the way a man a thousand miles lost in the desert dreams of water. He came seeping back into her. Deanna opened herself up and drank him in. She almost gasped with the relief of him. He went surging through her like a tidal wave. Her hand gripped his shoulder. She felt her fingers brush the hair from his forehead. Sweat clustered at her fingertips. He was cold. He was hot. His mind was on an even keel, perhaps a little fuzzy at the edges. He'd known fuzzy before. He worked well when most of him was in pieces.
"Will, do you know where you are?"
Will opened unfixed, unseeing eyes. Pain glanced through his expression with the severity of a broken-necked bottle in a bar-room brawl. Muscles contracted in an effort to get away from it. He pressed his forehead back against hers. He closed his eyes, knowing hers would keep watch for him in this moment of defencelessness. She found her hand on him, her fingers scant inches from intimacy. She moved them; touched him. Her empathy sensed his immediate response; her ears heard it; her touch felt it.
"I know it's hurting," Will muttered against her ear, as if it was a confession only for her ears, and not even for his own. "It hurts." He opened his eyes. A gear shifted. It brought him to more familiar territory. "Did you notice I'd gone?"
"Perhaps when I wasn't busy, I might have noticed you weren't around."
She felt his amusement degrade into pain. The breath of it scraped against her cheek. It grated against her mind like glasspaper. Will's hand on her hip clenched until it hurt. His arousal withered. Deanna's empathy recognised this pain. She felt it for whose it was: the symbiont and the host shared it. Their reactions to it were identical. Except Deanna had felt, and seen, how much better Odan had been coping with it moments before than Will was doing now.
Deanna felt the resignation of the man leaning into her; his acceptance. It crossed the line from being Will's own and became Odan's. But it was still Will. The two of them â€ Will and the thing living in his belly â€ dealt with this unfamiliar pain in exactly the same way. Deanna pulled back from what she was feeling. This was too much Odan, not enough Will. Is this what Beverly had been so reticent about? It was still Will. It was Odan. Deanna, like the doctor before her, could not cope with this blurring. If the symbiont and host shared a new experience for the first time, would each of their responses to it be the same? Would she be unable to tell which were Odan's emotions, which were Will's? Would they eventually become as intertwined as creepers around a bow? How long would it take: this coming together? How soon before she lost Will's uniqueness? Would it happen before the symbiont was taken out of his body? Would he come back to her as someone else?
"Will?" Deanna turned his name into a demand.
Will's lips moved as if he was trying to respond.
"Will?" Deanna demanded, sharply.
Will opened his eyes and smiled at her.
"Don't worry." His fingertips traced the edge of her jaw. "It doesn't look good on you, Imzadi."
Deanna wanted to ask him all of the questions teeming around her mind, but she asked none of them because there was more at stake than merely her panic. Around Peliar Zel lives hung by threads only this man could keep from fraying.
She pulled away from him. She managed to do it without him realising she had moved at all. He still leaned against her, into her, taking advantage of how his body, his mind, always had a refuge in her. He would use it now.
"Don't forget to come back to me, Will."
Will's fingers tangled themselves in her hair.
His lips pulled away from hers.
"I won't forget."
His body pulled itself away from her, Odan got to his feet, and Deanna was alone.
It had been like a glimpse into the future: the future in which her Imzadi was dead, and she mourned, and her grief screamed for impossible respite. Deanna wished, not for the first time, that she just loved Will Riker's body; was in love with what she saw and only peripherally aware of what made him the individual he was. She wished that when they spoke, she and he conversed only with an opaque, confusing verbal language, not with the clarity and erudition of telepathy. She wished she could not see into his soul, that she did not understand it. But it wasn't that way for Betazoids; and so was not that way for her. It would never be that way for her. She sometimes wished it could be. It would be so much easier just to mourn his body, the memory of his face, some idealised concept of his personality, his faded voice, the memory of his touch. That grief would be so much easier to bear than the one would if she were to let him any further in.
"He feels the pain, doesn't he?" Deanna said, finally. The realisation settled against her like a slab of marble on her back.
"Yes," Odan acknowledged. "He can feel the pain."
"That's all he can feel isn't it?" Deanna murmured. "Only pain?"
She felt the back of Odan's hand brush her shoulder as he moved past her. She couldn't tell if it had been a deliberate gesture. Whatever it was, it was nothing compared to the brush of Will's emotions. She did not want to think how Will's reaction to the pain in his body had been a comfort to her â€ because it was him, and she needed to feel him. But it had been.
"He loves you," Odan said.
"I know," Deanna murmured.
"He loves you more than you think. Differently to how you believe."
"Do you know that?" Deanna asked. How could this other person know him, understand him, with better clarity than she?
"Yes," Odan agreed with Will's surety of voice. "I know that.
Goodnight, Counselor Troi. Thank you for your time."
Ms. Krig touched her arm.
The teacher was holding the school reports Deanna had made the journey to
the classroom to collect. It was merely a diversion, something to occupy her.
Doing something â€ anything â€ was just a
diversion: a blind alley down which she could focus, with nothing at the bottom
of it to tempt her with the possibility that Will would not come home. His desperation
had clung to her in the arboretum like a drowning man taking his last gasp of
Deanna wanted him. She wanted him so very badly. This time it was all in her body. It was his fault! He had taught her this preoccupation with sex, with lovemaking. It was his doing! He had ignited it in her again. Even sublimated inside another personality, he still came after her with a persistence both flattering and frightening.
Did he not realise it was his mind she wanted to bury herself in? Did he not realise it was his mind that ... to borrow Will's own vernacular â€ she wanted to fuck?
"Wouldn't you rather be alone with me? Alone with me in your mind?"
"Is something wrong, Counselor Troi?"
Deanna skimmed the crust off her depleted reserve of affability and tried to find another hook over which to tether her poise. She was losing it. She was losing it so completely she might never find it again. If Will died ....
"I'm fine, Carole. Now, where were we?"
Carole Krig might have been in her office, but Deanna Troi's empathy was suddenly darting to the bridge, to the captain's ready room. The captain was talking there with Odan. Odan was saying, "Then it's my job to see that nothing goes wrong."
Picard was shaking his head in an amazement bordering on disbelief.
Deanna Troi, decks below, almost slumped at the weight of Will Riker's pain.
Through it, she felt the familiar pulse of his personality. Then it was gone,
like a stray surge of power down a disused line, even before it had ever really
"Didn't they give you an office?" Beverly asked. As an effort to be cheerful, it fell so short of the mark, it was pitiful to see. As an acknowledgement of her friend's worry, it was gratefully received.
Deanna smiled, feeling like a scavenger amongst the last of her reserves.
"I prefer yours. It's much better appointed."
She could see turmoil etched through every line on the doctor's tarnished face. It was duller now for having been so completely stripped of its previous glow than if that glow had never been there in the first place. The doctor moved painstakingly, stiffly, unlike the dancer she was. Her back seemed to be bowed, as if she had been cowering in a corner for the best part of her life. Deanna felt as if she had been huddled there with her while they had endured the hours Odan had spent incarcerated in conciliation with the representatives of Alpha and Beta moons; while they vainly waited for the Trill ship that seemed destined never to reach them; while they waited for Will's body to reach its limit.
"We'll swap," Beverly said. "Think you can handle a few skinned knees?"
Deanna watched the doctor place her medi kit on her desk. It had almost become a part of her over the last days: an extension of her body, as if that was who she was â€ doctor. That was part of who Odan wanted her to be: his Doctor Beverly. He needed more from her than tending a skinned knee. He needed her to keep him alive. They all needed her. The weight of their combined need curved her spine.
Instinctively, Deanna reached out. Beverly was in her arms before either of them realised it.
After a moment, Beverly pulled back. "I'm okay. Really." She looked away. "Well, not really. But you already know that."
Deanna smiled. She wanted to tell her friend that they all appreciated the effort she was making, but, it would sound like the platitude she would not intend it to be, so Deanna said nothing; just tried to let the sentiment come through in a smile which was too forced to achieve its aims.
"I need to get back to the bridge," Beverly said.
Deanna watched the doctor's fingers skimming over hypos, their reservoirs, phials. Weapons to keep death at bay; keep it out there in the dark where it belong, beyond the entrance to their cave. Beverly closed the case. It snapped so loudly, it rattled the empath's bones. Beverly almost looked as if she wanted to leave. Her hand clenched in a gesture that made it look far more graceful than it would have, had her hands not been a surgeon's.
"I need to be there when..."
"Will's body dies?" Deanna asked into the pause.
Beverly's eyes, which seemed for days now to have been glazed like cataracts, focused.
"He isn't going to die, Deanna."
Deanna looked evenly back at her.
Beverly looked away.
"It's a possibility," she admitted.
"It's more than that."
"Yes," Beverly agreed, after an age of silence, as a deference to the friendship this situation was strengthening when maybe it should have weakened it. "It is more than just a possibility."
After a moment, the doctor put down her case. She rounded the table.
"I'm prepared, Beverly."
Beverly nodded, as if she had been deceived. As if she wanted to be deceived. After a moment, she lay her hand across the same spot Odan had touched before her, and Will Riker before him. Deanna covered it with her own.
"Will you be able to get the symbiont out?" Deanna asked. "Before Will's body dies?"
"I hope so."
"You will need to say goodbye to him," Deanna said. "To Odan. Before he is removed. In case he does not survive until the Trill ship arrives."
"Yes," Beverly agreed.
"You will have that chance, won't you?"
"I hope so. If he is still conscious. I hope so."
"I ..." Tears threaded themselves around the empath's words, made them pearly with sorrow. They seemed to be turning her previous courage to rust. "I'm not going to be able to say goodbye to him, am I? I won't get the chance to tell Will goodbye? His brain will die while it's still Odan. He'll be Odan."
"I will do my best to remove Odan in time for you to say goodbye to Will," Beverly assured.
"He needs to know he is going to die, Beverly. He needs to know that."
Will would want to watch death's advance over his horizon, Deanna knew. He would not want to go to it never having heard its stealthy, cowardly, creep on his back.
"He needs to die as Will Riker, not as Odan. Do you understand that?"
Would he, Deanna wondered, finally be cheated of the death he so recklessly courted, as if death was a woman, and he had to give her his attention on a daily basis, but for whom, and typically so, he could find no fidelity?
"And I need to say good bye to his mind."
She saw the expression on Beverly's face.
"Don't give up," Beverly said, and Deanna knew that Beverly did
not understand how she needed to stand on the platform of his life and wave
Will off. She needed to give him a part of herself to take with him. She needed
to give him that part of her empathy which he had won and claimed so long ago;
that part of her empathy that would always be his.
"Beverly, I need to say goodbye to Will's mind in the way that Humans feel the need to say goodbye to the bodies of their loved ones."
Beached beyond the line of surgical activity, Deanna Troi watched as Beverly Crusher and her team worked. She turned her back for a moment on the choreographed commotion. Not seeing did not help. She could still sense the tumult battering at the sickbay walls. She could still sense Will by his utter absence. She could still hear Beverly's voice.
"Odan? Odan, can you hear me?"
Deanna turned around in time to see Odan's eyes roll in his skull. His face was lax, as if there was no personality in his head at all. Whoever he was, he wasn't with them in that room. If there was life on that table, it seemed to be melting away like butter in a hissing skillet. A life monitor stumbled across its screen. It hung on to its minimal register with all the hopeless tenacity of icicles clinging to a thawing ledge. Deanna fancied she could see Will Riker in that obstinacy and her heart took a cautious leap.
"Fifteen cc's metrazine."
The hypo landed squarely in the doctor's open palm.
"Laser scalpel," the doctor demanded. "Resus: panel."
The scalpel thudded into Beverly's grip. She side-stepped the resuscitation panel being swung over her patient, and the man on the bio-bed jerked slightly as the instrument came on line, as if he resented the machinery doing his living for him.
Beneath the doctor's hands, the symbiont writhed in its makeshift home as if it was suffocating in this cave of flesh, and had to escape. The muscles of Will Riker's belly heaved like geological plates disturbed by a tectonic shift. The symbiont was fighting. Deanna heard something from the back of Will's throat that sounded like splintering oak. She saw his fingers flicker; his hands try to lift themselves as if he needed to reach the life inside him, bring it calm. His lips rustled like the shredded edges of blue linen; formed tattered, silent syllables. His head tipped back. Muscles and sinews in his neck corded. Will breathed hard, as if he was at altitude and could not find oxygen in the thin air.
The doctor began cutting.
Deanna felt blood seep under her tongue.
Deanna watched the doctor leave the incision she had made in Will's belly for her assistant to close. Beverly was holding the symbiont that was Odan in her hands and Deanna could read that suddenly, to Beverly, it did not feel wrong. It no longer felt wrong. This was why they were out here. Beverly understood that this was as natural for Odan's species, as for Betazoids, it was to be in love with the unique sensations of someone else's emotional responses.
Deanna found herself by the bio-bed.
/Hang on, Imzadi./
Her empathy felt as if it was caressing a corpse.
Will Riker's eyes watched her without seeing.
Then, from somewhere quite near, but from such a far distance she did almost did not feel it, she sensed him.
Will knew who he was.
He knew who was fighting for his life here today.
His fear was familiar, and Deanna was comforted by its familiarity. It mixed with her own like a shaken cocktail until she could not tell which measure was his, and which measure was her own. They were at their most potent when they were like this. Together they were intoxicating. Fear frosted over him. Regret solidified in his mind until Deanna could feel nothing but his grief for this life he loved and was terrified he might be leaving behind.
Will was remembering. He was remembering standing on the bridge of the Federation's flag ship. Deanna knew he was remembering this â€ she knew by the way his emotions were exactly the same as they were every time he stepped onto that deck. She knew Picard was standing next to him. She knew Worf, as always, was at their backs. She knew there was something happening on the forward sensors which had his brain racing to formulate a strategy to offer his captain.
She felt Will as he tried to snag a hold on the reality he thought she might represent; but, he could not keep it. Fear twitched along his jaw. Deanna felt death run her fingernails along his spine. She whispered seductions in his mind. She poured cool water against his fear. She beckoned him to her satin sheets. He felt her come to cradle him. She caressed him in ways only a woman knows how to get the best out of a man. Will wanted to give himself to this dangerous creature. She placed cold kisses on his lips. She slid her tongue into his mouth, explored his life, tugged it from his body.
Somewhere, a life monitor protested in the strongest possible terms.
Will wanted to touch her. He did not want to go to another pair of arms without first taking leave of hers.
He wanted to say her name.
He wanted to feel her come into his mind.
He wanted to lift his hand.
It would not lift. He couldn't even feel it.
Knowing what he wanted, Deanna's hand tightened on his shoulder. She could not reach his hand. It was still under the life support panel.
/I'm here, Will. And so are you./
Beverly and her staff still worked on him as if he were the big prize and none of them was prepared to go home without it. If she had to, Beverly Crusher was going to get up on that table and kick him back to life.
"Hold on, Will. Commander? Do you hear me, Commander Riker?"
Deanna knew the doctor was using his rank because she believed it was the one thing, above all else, he would make the effort to come back to. Beverly looked deep into his sagging face.
"Do you hear me, Commander Riker?"
Deanna knew that in his mind, he was with someone else. A woman. She courted him. He responded like the unfaithful, half-reluctant lover he so often found himself to be. Unable to resist. Unable to commit.
"Damn it, Will! You are on my team now, so start pulling your weight, Commander!"
Beverly pressed a hypo to his throat. Will flinched. It indicated the sudden optimism of the situation more eloquently than a hundred medi-banks ever could.
Deanna felt Will's awareness snag against hers. His gaze focused. His mind sharpened.
Deanna felt his search for her. She sent her empathy out to meet him.
Something, possessed of typical Will Riker bravado, constricted the slack muscles in his face and tried to pass itself off as a smile.
/Hi, Honey, I'm home!/
Deanna knew there was a presence at her door even before the door chime vibrated through the darkness. It brought her to wakefulness even before the buzzer sounded. Until she came awake, Deanna had not realised she had been sleeping.
"Ambassador Odan," she greeted, unaware how surprise clinked in her voice. This was not who she had been expecting â€ and yet it had been. She felt like the recipient of a gift: knowing what it contains because its wrappings cannot disguise it, yet still surprised when the ribbons are untied.
Deanna took a step back from the threshold. There was an expression on the ambassador's face she did not understand, but she understood the resonance of sadness strung out in the Trill. She felt its familiar vibration as clearly as a strumming note. It stirred her like the first bars of beloved music.
The ambassador stepped forward.
"He will not let me leave you a second time without saying goodbye." The words came out of the ambassador's mouth almost as if she did not understand what she was saying, from where the impulse to be here had come.
Deanna was aware that she was staring at the ambassador even as the Trill leaned forward to brush her cheek. Deanna felt herself stiffen, but did not pull away.
"Part of what I am," Odan murmured, "will always be yours. I do not understand it. Only the need to say it."
Deanna felt the Trill's fingers span across her throat, hook under her jaw and draw her into a deep kiss.
Abruptly, the Trill stepped back, as if these were barriers she was unwilling to cross.
"Open it," Will encouraged. He was indicating the wrappings Deanna was holding in her hands, and leaning forward nonchalantly against the back of the chair at her dining table, trying to give the impression he didn't need its convenient support. Deanna stood across from him, the table between them like a national boarder. She knew what the gift would be even as she open the wrappings, and the fluted bottle filled her palm.
"Marcofian crystal. How did you know?"
"Think I don't know every time you are in here smashing every gift I ever gave you? I could hear the clatter all the way down to sickbay."
Deanna laid the bottle to one side.
"Hum... Your hearing must be exceptional."
Will puffed out his chest in a way that was more bravado than ego.
"All of me is exceptional, Counselor!"
At that moment he looked as exceptional as the runt of an alley-cat litter.
"You can sit down if you want," Deanna told him.
She watched as he slumped into her couch.
"What's wrong?" Will queried. The question stained both his mind and his lips. Worry preoccupied him, like a fish bone in his throat. "Please. Tell me."
"Nothing." Deanna tried to give him a bright smile, but it seemed to collapse into her face.
Will sighed; a great exhalation which was meant to indicate he neither believed her, nor was prepared to be deceived. It indicated, too, that he didn't have much stamina for this, and was calling on back-ups.
"Talk to me, Imzadi."
He made it sound more like a demand to get the shields back up than a request for clarification of this distance laid down between them. Watching him, Deanna knew what he was thinking. She felt the sudden, bitter surge of hurt flush through his chest. She saw his hand clench. He was remembering that she had not come to his bedside. At least she had not been there when he'd been awake enough to know about it. It was probably part of the reason he'd badgered, cajoled, wheedled his way out of Beverly Crusher's care. It had probably taken all the charm he had the strength to polish; the collecting of every favour the doctor owed him. And maybe she felt she owed him a couple of extra ones. Deanna knew that Will would have unashamedly laid every one of her markers on the table. She would only have allowed him out of her sight after seeking the assurance of his immediate return. She had relented after a week, because even her resilience was no match for Will Riker's relentless tenacity.
Now Deanna knew that Will was rapidly losing patience with this struggling silence between himself and the woman for whom he had called in all debts to be with. At least there was comfort in the way their tension was binding them together as it might have pushed others apart.
Will was looking over at her as if she were a problem just appeared on the forward sensors, and showed absolutely no indication of diminishing in threat any time soon. He looked away and schooled his expression.
"Imzadi?" he asked with all the gentleness Deanna could tell he did not feel. It was a testament to what they had, that Deanna did not hear any of the aggression in his voice that she could feel in his mind.
"Imzadi?" Will asked for a second time, and Deanna knew that he was determined not to leave this room until he had an answer and explanation.
"Do you remember the last time you called me that?" she asked. The crystal flute Will had just given her stood on her dining table like petrified tear shed millennia ago and still bearing testimony to ages-old grief.
Will's gaze went to the bland Starfleet fittings across the room. He was trying to suppress the emotions Deanna had missed so desperately. He was punishing her.
"Anniversaries," he offered, "birthdays, I've never been very good with." He looked at her and smiled, a little uncertainly, Deanna both felt and saw. "You know that."
"It was here," Deanna told him, unwarmed by the warmth of his smile, inured to its professional charm. "In this room."
Will nodded as if he could accept that, except maybe he wasn't so sure. After a moment his eyes narrowed.
"The arboretum," he said, slowly, undecided if he was open for reprimand or congratulation, but at this point willing to face either, if it could dispel this unease in the air. "I could be wrong." He smiled again, and Deanna felt his gentle humour. "I usually am."
"Odan came to say goodbye," Deanna said. "Before she left."
Will waited. He was confused. The expression on his face said he was waiting for more input, that extrapolating from such deceptively benign statements wasn't a challenge he was prepared to risk at the moment.
"She kissed me," Deanna continued. She could still feel the brush of the Trill's lips deep against her own, her fingers fanned against her throat. "She held me."
Will's head was leaning back against the cushion. His eyes were closed.
"This is starting to sound like one of those whodunits Data has started to read."
His tone was sarcastic, and he did well to keep it un-creased by the twinge of grief Deanna had sensed in him. Will opened his eyes. They almost focused. "Think we could have this conversation in a straight-forward A,B,C sort of way, Deanna? Because if we don't, I'm going to be asleep by the time you work around to telling me what's on your mind."
His eyes closed again as if in demonstration, but Deanna could sense his wakefulness. It bristled through the room like a long range sensor probing the vault of space for Borg. Will's apprehension, his irritation, fogged around his place on the couch like storm clouds clinging to a mountain peak â€ however much he thought he was guarding them against her.
"She kissed me. She held me. She kissed me, she held me the way that you used to do. She said," Deanna informed him, loudly, "that you would not allow her leave me a second time without saying goodbye."
The statement hung in the air like a grenade unsure whether or not its pin has been pulled. Perhaps that was just Will's reaction to the statement. Deanna's empathy listened to him: he couldn't decide if he wanted to launch himself over its imminent explosion, and shield her from its blast, or let it go off, and see which of them coped with their injuries the better.
"Part of you is in her, Will. She took part of you away."
Deanna didn't say, 'She took part of you away from me', but both of them knew that's what she meant.
Will didn't even open his eyes.
"I guess so."
"You 'guess so'? What's that supposed to mean?"
Suddenly, Will was coming to his feet. There was no grace in him. He seemed to be carrying life in his belly. Even his hand unconsciously went to his abdomen as if he needed to protect the thing he'd felt struggling to live inside him.
"You can't do this to me every time I take a professional decision up there on the bridge which you disagree with down here in quarters, Deanna! I won't let you do this to me this time!"
He looked as bad as he had days before, and Deanna wondered what the hell he had managed to say to Beverly Crusher to get him this remission from her care. But, she wasn't going to allow let his physical appearance deter her from this. There was clarity in his mind, and it was as unforgiving as an autopsy slab.
"I'm still here, Deanna! I haven't gone anywhere. It's just," Will was seeking an analogy, "a file she copied. Data transfer."
"Data transfer?" Deanna repeated. Outrage crisped the edges of her voice like parchment flung into flames and rescued before too much damage can be done. "Data transfer," she murmured, her tone accusatory. "This is typical of you!"
Will's gaze swung dangerously, like the edges of blades.
"You think I'm an expert on the Trill all of a sudden? You think I carried one of them in my belly for a few days and that makes me a leading authority? You think I did this specifically to piss you off?"
"All of you?" She interrupted his flow before it gained momentum. "How much of you did she take?" Deanna asked. She was beyond making it a casual question. He flaunted himself around the galaxy as if he was a carny, and his life and anything attached to it were a two-bit sideshow. Come and try your strength!
"A couple of bytes. Maybe." Will continued his own analogy, unaware of the one in her head. "I don't know!"
Deanna watched as he stood back where he had originally been, behind the shield of her dining room table, his hands clenched white around the back of the chair. He used the same stance he used on the bridge: leaning into the ops station, facing the view screen, threatening who he saw there with more reprisal for their challenges to the captain's ship than Picard himself ever felt the need to use.
"I don't think you should be here, Will."
"Are you asking me to leave?"
"I think you should be in sickbay."
Will lifted his wrist, and Deanna could see a sickbay monitor pinned to its underside.
"This goes off, and Bev's up here in gold medal winning time."
So far, it obviously hadn't, and the CMO had not come to get him; so, it was just the two of them here in this room. The two of them. Possibly less than that.
Will's fingers went to the crystal bottle. Deanna knew how it felt in his palm. It was cold and sharp; fragile and strong.
"Will, I could sense you in the ambassador," Deanna said finally, relenting a little. He seemed the same, wholly unchanged, familiar, comforting. She was relieved to find nothing missing.
"It was very disorientating to look into another face and sense you." It had been difficult not to fall into the Trill's waiting embrace. It had been difficult to not believe that Will Riker was looking back at her through the Trill's dun eyes. It was easy now to understand Beverly's previous difficulties.
"I think I can understand that," Will sympathised. "But I'm still here. All of me is still here. The original." Deanna caught his gaze, noticed his crooked grin. She sensed his self-belief that some considered unmitigated arrogance. "And still the best."
Deanna nodded. "I know."
"Deanna, you have always known I can't give my job any less commitment because I know you worry about me. I will never let that affect the decisions I take. I won't even try to curb my instincts because I know there is a chance you might be ordering up lilies one day."
Deanna looked away. Will's remains wouldn't find repose under tranquil green turf and the guardianship of a watchful oak. When he went, there wouldn't be enough of him to take home. Deanna knew it to be true. She had known it the moment she had met him. He ran through his life as if it were a race, and he had to beat himself to the winning post. Lately he had found some respite, here on the Enterprise. She could not be certain his life would last long enough for him to enjoy what he had found here. She wished she did not feel this way. But she did, and no amount of rationalising it would make its weight any easier to bear.
Abruptly, Will came to his feet. He almost made it look like a movement he hadn't been planning in advance.
"Maybe it would be better if I did leave."
Deanna watched him walk to the door. He did so slowly, as if the pain Deanna could sense in his mind was wrapped around his ankles like tangled sheets.
"I missed you," she said, when he had reached the door. "When you were Odan's host."
Will had turned to look at her.
"This thing has really thrown you."
Deanna nodded, not sure her voice would hold for the duration of the single breath it would take to say, 'yes'.
"Don't say it would have changed your decision, Will, had you known in advance."
"All right, I won't say that."
Deanna nodded, known that he hadn't been planning on saying it, anyway. Only the captain had the right to seek clarification, demand apologies, for the decisions his first officer took up there on the bridge. The captain was the only one who would get them.
Will stayed by the door. He spent a long time looking back at her, as if from a distance he was afraid he didn't have the stamina to cross.
Deanna felt sympathy for him. He knew that something had changed between them, just as she did. The terrain, once so familiar, seemed to have altered beyond all recognition. There were no maps for this, no compasses, no convenient explorers who had been down this way before and had reported back to base with its easiest crossing. Loving someone from another world had always been a learning experience for both of them, and Will should not have thought it would stop now; not when he wanted her so much that he was willing to continually find himself in these uncharted waters.
"I..." Consideration creased Will's face. "Odan ... I ... We?" He opted for straight forward. "My body made love to Beverly."
"Which doesn't bother you." Will said it as the plain fact he knew it to be.
"Of course not. You know that."
"But Odan walking off this ship with my ... emotions? Parts of my ... personality ... in her head. That does bother you?" Will realised. It was a realisation only moments old.
"Yes." Deanna had thought about saying, 'Oh, well done, Will! Good of you to finally listen to what I'm telling you.'
"But I'm still me, Deanna. Nothing has gone from me that wasn't there a week ago."
"But you feel that when Odan has another relationship, part of what she will be sharing is part of me?" Will was stumbling over what he saw as uneven ground, but Deanna could see him gaining his footing, becoming more sure of the terrain as he went. "You think that part of what Beverly got from Odan, might also have been some parts me? My emotional responses?"
"Beverly isn't empathic!" Will almost snorted. "And she certainly isn't you!
"I know that, Will."
"But you're still jealous?"
He said it as if it was all the flattery a man could ever need. He said it as if she'd given his performance in her bed five gleaming stars. He meant it. It made a smile come to his face that was almost triumphant. At the very least it was joyful.
"Perhaps," Deanna allowed.
Will's head was lolling back against the door jamb, and Deanna knew he was going to ask her. She could see it in the way his thumb pried off the medical alarm at his wrist; the way he came to a decision without even realising it; the way his desire touched her, even before its owner was really aware it had been aroused. She watched him walking towards her. She remembered how he had been in the arboretum. She remembered how much he needed her body. As much as she needed his emotions. Perhaps more so.
He stood so close to her, he managed to touch her without touching her at all. He lay his hands on her shoulders. She could feel the weight of him behind them.
He shifted position so that his thigh caressed hers, so that she was acutely aware of the physical evidence of the arousal she had already sensed in his mind.
His request came out of its barracks reluctantly, like a weary soldier too tired to go back into the fight, too determined to have this thing beaten, surrendered.
"Let me make love to you, Imzadi."
She could sense his wanting. It was deep like gravity wells; difficult to contain; difficult for him to have put into such simple words. Hard for him to have made a request of, when he had wanted to sweep her from her feet, and carry her into the bedroom.
Deanna thought about that moment in the arboretum, that brief moment, when it had been Will there more than Odan. He had locked onto that moment with her, had seen her as he had seen her years before when she had allowed herself to be his, before she had become so scared to let him near her because one day he would take himself away and never come back. He wanted to convince her he was still himself. Just Will Riker. All of him present and correct. All of him for her. He wanted to convince her, he wanted to apologise in the only way he knew how, the only way he could. She could sense in him his motives were entirely altruistic. She didn't want his altruism. It was so much harder to resist. He, when he wanted nothing more than to worship her, was almost impossible to withstand.
"Deanna?" Will's voice strained, as if keeping the request to a request was choking him, as if his self control was about to breach its envelope.
"It's been a long time, Will."
She saw his gaze sharpen; felt his mind wince.
Will lifted his touch from her shoulders in the same way he would have, if he'd just discovered an inadvertent hand on the captain's knee. He stepped back from her like a cadet snapping to attention. Humiliation seared hotly in him. He tried his best to keep its simmering surface away from her empathy. Deanna left it alone because she knew how much it was burning him. He turned to leave. Resignation straightened his shoulders. His voice snapped like a rubber band.
"Forget I asked. Forget I have ever asked!"
He let all the hurt he could muster come trailing out of him. He could play this empathic game of hers as well as anyone who had been in the game as long as he.
At the door he turned to her.
"Sometimes, staying away from you is difficult to do, Deanna. It's difficult to live with. It is difficult to know that your empathy can have any of this ..." his fingers rapped against his temple so loud that they made noise ..."at any time of day or night but I barely get to touch you. Believe me, Deanna, it is difficult to live with."
"I'm sorry, Will."
"Yes," Will agreed, lemon tartness shading the edges of his voice and his expression. His mind became acidic. "Of course you are, Imzadi."
The doors opened for him, and Deanna could feel the churn of his thoughts. She could not dispute his need. She knew he was poised to run headlong into any pair of arms that would take him.
"Take care of the crystal." Will nodded to the lonely bottle gleaming dully on the polished table. "It's probably more fragile than it looks."
Deanna knew he wasn't talking about the glass.
He came to a standstill in the doorway, but did not turn back to her. His lack of momentum was the only acknowledgement of her question.
Deanna felt dismay gape in him. She saw the unconscious way his hand went to his belly. He even looked down.
"Of losing you," Deanna clarified to his turned back.
"Tonight?" Will asked, still without turning. "Or permanently?" He said it as if there was a very real possibility. He tried to make her believe it was by not offering any contradiction, any assurance to the contrary. He tried to make her believe what he wanted by manipulating his emotions in the way she had taught him.
"Your emotions to a physical relationship are different to a platonic one," Deanna said. It was not for the first time.
"Don't make it sound like a character flaw, Deanna. It isn't."
"I mean, what I would sense from you, if our relationship were physical would be much more complex, much harder for me to survive when..."
"'I beam down to Planet Nowhere, and take both barrels of a Cardassian phaser?"
"Why do you think my mother is the way she is, Will? Why do you think she is so restless? She misses my father. She is trying to find him again. Every hour of every day she is in mourning for him. She can't forget. She can't forget because his very absence is his presence."
"That's ironic, don't you think? That being the way I feel about you. Your body. Every day of my life. I love you. And that means sometimes, I feel the need to show it physically. Maybe that's my species, or my sex. Maybe, it's just me. You know that I will stay away from you, Deanna, if that's what you want. Only today, I also need you to know how difficult it is for me."
"I'm scared, Will!"
"You think you have the monopoly on scared, Deanna? You really think there are days I don't question my own sanity for being out here? For taking the risks I take? You really think there are days I don't wonder if today is the day the captain's finally not asking more of me than I have the guts to volunteer?"
"What happened to 'the game isn't big enough unless it scares you a little', Commander?" Deanna asked, and heard how her voice sneered around the question. She could feel the churn of Will's thought-processes: his first instinct to deny he had ever said that. "It doesn't matter whether you remember saying it or not, Will. The point is, it epitomises your attitude to life. The life you think you want to share with me!"
"Think I want to share with you? I'm not a fifteen year old trying to get my hand up your skirt, Deanna. I know what I want. I also know that I am a Starfleet officer, and I won't change that. Not even for you." Will took a step further out into the corridor.
Deanna could see his back brace, but he did not turn to her.
"I'm sorry, but for once you are going to have to do far better than that!"
"Make love to me, Imzadi."
Finally, eventually, Will turned back to her. Deanna watched his big shoulder sag against the door frame. He smiled fractionally. It managed to soften the edges of his face, the bad mood. He even laughed.
"Right now, I don't think I could turn in a performance worthy of you." Will's hands spread in a gesture of gentle self-deprecation. "I couldn't make love to you tonight even if I wanted to, Imzadi. Deanna, I just needed to hear you say it."
/Then sleep with me,/ she whispered into him.
She went towards him, as if she had to provide encouragement. As if she had to convince him. She had to convince him, because he could not read her emotions, but when she had read his, when Will had summoned up all his courage to ask her what he had asked, she had known there was no part of her Will Riker missing. He was as familiar, as unchanged, as a beloved landscape. Every contour of him remained. Every contradiction wound itself around every other contradiction within him, and became the familiar Gordian Knot of the man he had always been. There was no unravelling him, and she should not even try.
/Hold me, Will. /
She could afford whatever part of him had been duplicated and carried away, because the essence of who he was, what she loved, stood before her undiminished; whole; beloved.
Will stepped forward. The door closed at his back.
Deanna felt his hand take hers. She felt his grip tighten around her fingers, overcome the resistance she had not intended to give. Will's desire had gone. He was too sore, too tired. In its place was determination to make her understand this. He was not too tired, too sore, for that. Deanna didn't think he ever would be when she saw how his gaze caught hers. There was challenge in his own. His head was full of this agenda. He could wait a lifetime to find himself back in her bed. This, he had to make her understand tonight. There would always be other beds for him; other lovers to keep him entertained, energised, flattered, fulfilled, satisfied and satiated. But only his Imzadi could understand this.
She watched Will as he tugged his shirt from the waist of his trousers. He unhooked the waistband and opened the front. He took hold of her hand, and lay its palm flat against his naked belly. She felt the steady rise and fall of his breath pushing against her palm. He pressed his hand against hers, and her hand tighter against him. His hand left hers. He left her there to rest against him. He breathed against her for silent moments. He watched her watching him.
She felt his muscles contract under her palm.
"It's empty, Deanna."
She lifted her face to look at him. His expression was serious, intent. He had to make her believe this thing. He covered her hand with his own, applying a subtle pressure that she should listen to what he was telling her: listen to his words, take note of his actions ... communicate with him in his own language.
"That was Odan." Will caught hold of her hand again and journeyed with it to his face. He pressed her against his temple; the place he believed she touched his mind. His eyes closed. Concentration clouded his face. Effort made his closed lids ripple across his darting gaze.
/This is me,/ Will's mind murmured.
"This is me," his voice echoed, in case he hadn't managed to do the thing she had taught him so long ago on distant Betazed.
"It's for you. Just for you. This," Will's palm pressed against hers, against his skull, covering it, "is what I have for you. You know I never let anyone else in here. Never any other women. Never."
Deanna watched him, listened to him, sensed him, and recalled, as she did so, the moment of their reunion aboard the Enterprise. She remembered how she had gone straight into his mind; how she had asked him if he remembered what she had taught him of Betazoids, their demands for, and assurances of, fidelity. She knew now, as she had known then, that Will had always tried his best to behave like a Betazoid lover, to be Imzadi for her, even in the years they had been separated.
"I haven't given myself away," Will murmured. "Nobody has stolen my soul."
But if they had, Deanna knew the he would have waved it adios for the service of this ship.
"Don't let this thing beat us, Deanna." He took hold of her hand.
"Please don't let this thing beat us."
Scant seconds after his head hit Deanna's pillows, Will was asleep. Deanna pressed the sickbay medi-alarm back where it belonged. She held him. She sensed him. Her empathy accompanied the peaks and troughs of his familiar, deep and contented sleep. She recognised the familiar dip of her divan under his weight. She was reminded how beautifully he filled her bed.
She knew he'd been truthful: she knew he never took telepaths to his bed. She knew how he stayed away from empaths. She knew he avoided lovers who would plunder his mind; run their empathy around his personality; sink their telepathy into his consciousness; dine on his emotions. Deanna knew that her Imzadi maintained his fidelity in ways non-telepaths rarely recognised; he was faithful in ways the mind-blind barely understood. He waited for her. He would wait a lifetime Deanna knew, if he did not surrender that lifetime first in service of his uniform: his other mistress.
Eventually, Deanna slept too, and dreamed, as she so often did, of what her
future would be like if she were brave enough to allow Will Riker back in to
her bed permanently for the second and final time....