"I thought I might find you here."
Will Riker's heavy gaze dragged itself to the open doorway as if it were almost too much of an effort.
"Beverly." His tone underscored the inevitability of her arrival; perhaps even his resignation about it.
He leaned back into the couch as the doctor took a step across the threshold, and he was reminded again that this woman was a dancer. He didn't care. It wasn't Beverly Crusher's poise, her grace, he wanted to see. Hers couldn't even come close to distracting him from the ones he wanted, needed, to see. He was satisfied with his reaction. He would have felt anything less to have been infidelity. He didn't know why fidelity was so important to him now.
"I bought you something, Will."
"Oh?" He faked an impressive brightness; he was bone-weary of attempting the charade. He saw the hypo in her hands. "Oh." He waved it away. "No more, Beverly. I think I want to feel my pain." He looked deep into her eyes as she came to sit by him on Deanna Troi's couch. "Actually, I know I want to feel it.
Beverly studied him. His immaculate edges had frayed. He looked as if he should be down in the Enterprise cargo bays swabbing their floors, not up on her bridge. He hadn't been up to the bridge in days. Fatigue, which had found a home in his face just as the rigour of shock had finally thawed from it, was ageing him even as she watched. Disbelief still glared in his eyes like two tarnished pennies. Beverly wandered how long it had been since he had ingested something that wasn't hard liquor; slept a night that was sleep and not a drunken stupor; had awakened in a morning without a hangover so severe it felt as if his jaw would snap. Looking at him now, Beverly thought it must have been a long time.
"I'm sure Deanna would have something to say about that," Beverly told him, turning her face away from the fumes of rancid alcohol on his breath. "About this." She indicated his appearance. His eyes were so tired, or he was still so inebriated from the night before, the doctor thought he was having trouble focusing. Perhaps he was still shell-shocked. Perhaps that was for the best. At least where he was, the pain was at its most lenient.
"What do you think she would have to say?" Riker challenged. His expression curdled into aggression as he made a show of settling back into the chair, defying her to come up with something - anything - as incisive as Deanna Troi's insight and analysis. Her insight and analysis of him.
Will Riker, who in his time might have been accused of being too accomplished at wielding a challenging gaze and too ready to hold it, felt his eyes close. It was at that moment he realised no one in his life - no one who had gone before, no one who would come after - would ever come close to chasing away the chill now embracing him. He knew for certain there would be others - other women. They would still come to the first officer's bed, slip between his sheets with their own agendas. They always had, they always would. He might even invite them. Welcome them. But none of them would do anything for him but satisfy his physical needs. If he ever thawed sufficiently to have them again. If he ever de-frosted at all. Even an acid bellyful of breakfast bourbon had not come close to warming him.
He felt like something they had dug up from a Breen tomb; something that had lain there for millennia and would never be warm; would never come alive again. They would all come to look at it, this relic from the past: inspect it, poke it, prod it. None of them would ever touch him. He would not allow himself to be touched.
He felt Beverly's hand on his forearm.
"It's okay," she murmured, seeing the deluge behind his eyes he was so valiantly trying to keep back with only his closed eyelids. "You are supposed to feel this. You are supposed to hurt. You are even supposed to cry."
He looked back at her as if it was the most asinine notion he had ever heard. But Beverly Crusher could see it on the horizon. When it came, and it did, it came out of him in an Old Testament flood.
She held him. She held him so unlike Deanna Troi had held him, her very comfort hammered home the loss she had only hope, but no expectation, of ever relieving.
"I don't know how this could happen! How the hell could this happen?
He had wrenched out of her arms, and flung himself across the room before she realised she had lost him. She watched him lean again the window's cold edge. She thought perhaps he found more comfort in its perceived chill than she had been able to give him, than he would allow any of them to give him. He wanted cold not warmth. He wanted hard not soft. He wanted to be kicked in the teeth. He wanted to get down to the holodeck and hurl all the abuse he could muster at his Klingon friend in the hope the Klingon would forget that friendship, and inflict a pain so terrible it would break through his barriers of utter numbness. He wanted to feel something. Something other than grating, endless loss. Physical pain would not do it. No physical pain could even aspire to the serrated-edged hurt keening his skull.
"How did this happen?"
Beverly looked away. He was so unlike the person he had been a week before: so hollow, so crumbling, so disorientated, it was difficult to believe he had ever been that straight-backed, broad-shouldered, capable man.
"I don't know. Will -"
He looked at her sharply. For a moment, he even looked as if he was in control of himself. He almost looked as if he could have walked straight out of that room to the bridge, and taken charge of it. Except it was unlikely the captain would have allowed his barefoot first officer to stand watch on his bridge while still in night clothes bearing testament to every hour of the week he had lived in them.
"Don't say it," he told her. His voice held all the authority the situation did not demand. Even his face regimented itself into an expression more suitable to the bridge, as if his muscles were working on a reflex over which he had no control. After a moment, Beverly knew his voice would be more gentle. It was. "Please, Beverly. Don't say it again."
"No," Beverly murmured. She could taste the apology on her lips, feel its familiar syllables and sharp shapes; knew how it ached to be said. She kept a grip on it, swallowed the words, but never the sentiment, never the need to say it.
One day she would say it. One day she would look him in the eye. One day in this uncertain future, she would lean over him and say, "I am sorry, Will Riker." And he, with a reflective, gentle, smile on his face, would even believe her. Perhaps.
It wasn't her fault. She knew that. The man gazing into space, as if the answers were moored off the port bow, knew that. The captain, taking refuge on his bridge, knew that. So why did she think that it was? Because Beverly was the one who had killed her. She was the one who had looked Will Riker in the eye, and told him it was going to be all right.
"It's the gentlest way," she had assured, but he had refused to be convinced, as if there was no way gentle enough. Not for the woman who owned his soul.
"Can I get you something?" Beverly asked, finally. "Lunch?" she clarified when Riker eventually looked at her as if he thought she was going to come over to him with another hypo.
"What the hell is that?" he had asked the first time, knocking away her hand with an anger that was more frustration, but had left her no less bruised.
"Something to help you sleep."
"Something to clear your head."
Eventually, he'd stopped trying to fend her off. In the end, he'd just let her nudge the dispensing stream against his throat and jab the trigger. Nothing she had given him came close to having the effects of good, old fashioned Kentucky bourbon. It had him out on his back, and unconscious. And that was the only place he wanted to be - so far deep in a litre of whisky, his grief could not come after him.
Except it did.
It chased him into his dreams like the determined adversary it was. It knocked down the portcullis of his unconscious and came seeping though the cracks in his mind. It made Deanna come to life. It made her smile for him. It made her laugh with him. It made her lay her hand against his face and kiss him. It made her younger than she had been and breathlessly chasing him around her bed. It made her call him Imzadi. It made her beautiful, young, whole. It made her listen to him even after every other ear would have turned away. It made her understand him; sympathise with him; bully him; cajole him.
It reminded him grief would still be waiting for him in the morning. It made him resurface into naked grey daybreak with no weapons to defend himself against its determined ambush. It made him want to die. Almost.
"Im not hungry."
"How long since you've eaten, Will?"
"I'm not hungry," he repeated, without even a moment's consideration to the question. There was enough liquor in him to kill any hunger - except the one he most sorely felt.
"Taken a shower?" Beverly asked quietly
Riker turned back to the window.
He'd chosen them, and they were all that was left to him, without solace in their dark reaches, and aching cold. He pressed his forehead against the cold transparency. He felt the outside chill all the way through to his skull. If he stayed there long enough, perhaps it might reach into his brain; freeze his mind; seize up the ceaseless churn of thoughts.
"Take a shower," Beverly told him. "Go put on some clothes. When you're finished, I'll have some food waiting for you."
"Hell, it must be bad if you're encouraging me to put food down my throat." He addressed the remark to the reflection looking back at him from the chill window. He did not even recognise himself: defeat was not something he'd seen before on his own face. When he had seen it on the faces of others, he had felt a curl of derision come to his lip. He saw both of them now, reflected back at him.
The doctor, his friend, turned a weary gaze on this man she hardly recognised as the Will Riker who Deanna Troi had loved. Had they loved each other less - perhaps expressed it more explicitly - the doctor might have been spared this stark demonstration of what they had meant to each other.
"The person you were closer to in your life than you have ever been to anyone else has just died, Will. I think that makes it bad enough."
He stared at her for several moments. He stared at her for so long, the doctor did not know what he was going to say. There was absolutely no expression on his face at all. There hadnâ€t been. For days he had been like this. Part of her worried he would never come out of it. Part of her believed he would never convalesce from this grief. Part of her knew how none of them ever recovered from a loss like this one.
"I'm sorry," she said, finally.
"No," Riker murmured. "I'm sorry. I know you are hurting too."
"Yes, " Beverly agreed, thinking if he could acknowledge that, then perhaps there was some hope for a satisfactory recovery. She smiled a smile that was as dilute as over-iced tin. "Go remind me what a handsome first officer we have. I'll fix some lunch."
He gave her a look of bemused amusement.
"When he makes the effort."
"And you think it's worth making the effort today?"
"For Deanna," Beverly suggested.
She watched him turn and walk into Deanna's bedroom. She heard him in her bathroom.
Eventually he re-emerged, looking little better than he had before. At least he had made the effort, and Beverly waited for him at the table.
His footsteps faltered as he came back into the lounge, and for a moment, Beverly knew he had not been expecting her. A shadow of grief constricted his face
"You do a nice line in light lunches," Riker observed in a tone Beverly almost failed to recognise as a bluff. "Ever thought of the catering business?"
"Think I should set up outside Ten Forward?" Beverly asked. "I figure they must get a lot of passing trade."
She watched him twisting his fork between his fingers, discrediting his previous observation by pushing food around his plate. She could see distance in his eyes. He was not with her in that room. He was not even sharing the same day.
"I'm sorry?" he asked, moments later. "What did you say?"
"Eat. I said eat."
* * * *
"Feel better?" Beverly asked, when Riker had finally completed the endurance event which had been his attempt to finish lunch. Every bite had been sandpaper, every swallow had grated against his throat. He didn't think each mouthful was going to get around the tombstone of grief in his throat, but it had seemed to.
"Yeah," he muttered, surprised. "I suppose so." His eyes brightened for a moment in an offer of gratitude completely out of proportion to this small demonstration of her friendship.
Beverly nodded in the direction of the bedroom. She could see the dishevelled sheets to which Deanna Troi had never invited Will Riker again during her lifetime, but between which he had taken to sleeping after her death. She could see Deanna's nightgown across her pillow. Beverly looked away, not wanting to imagine this man lying in that bed, and trying to comfort himself in all the desperate ways people do when their lives have crumbled beneath their previously sure feet.
"You've been packing?" Beverly asked. There were cases on the floor.
"Yes. Lwaxana asked me..." He tried again. "She...."
Beverly patted his knee.
"There are a few things she would like." Riker looked down at his feet. "There are a couple of things I'd like to keep. If there is anything you -?"
"I'd like that. Thank you, Will."
"She was writing a paper. Did you know that?" He made an effort to recall the title, to give it suitable gravitas. "The effects of distorted personality on the Human perception of self." Frail laughter skittered out from between his teeth in the way it might have if he'd been spitting out marbles. "I suppose we've had the odd incidence of that on this ship." He favoured his companion with a slight smile. "Guess one or two of us might find ourselves mentioned in there somewhere?"
Beverly tried to meet his eye.
"I suppose we might."
"Coffee?" Riker asked, coming to his feet so suddenly, Beverly thought he might be trying to get away from her. But after a moment, she didn't think that was the case.
"Lemon tea," he told the replicator, as if he remembered. Beverly supposed it could just have been a lucky guess.
"It's hard," Riker admitted, finally, coming back to the table. "It's harder than I ever dreamed it might be."
Beverly nodded slightly. A glazed smile skidded across her face, and, unable to find an anchor, was lost
She remembered other deaths. Another death. She still carried its grief in her pocket every day. After a while the burden had stopped diminishing, and its weight still reminded her it was there if she should ever feel the need to touch it. From time to time it would make its presence felt - inappropriately, doggedly, inevitably.
They were wrong, those who said time heals all. They had never been down this road she still travelled. They had never embarked on this reluctant journey as the man at her side was doing now.
"I try," Riker muttered, "I try to remember her how she was. How she really was. I try to remember how I really knew hew - all the things she meant to me. All I can see is the whore in Ten Forward. The hag on your biobed." He raised a challenging eyebrow at Beverly's startled reaction to his choice of words. "It's the truth. It hurts." He looked away, but his gaze was turned inwards, as if he was trying to place this thing, illuminate it, give it his undivided attention. "And I want to hurt." Bitter relish spiked his voice.
"Will." She turned his name into an admonishment. A gentle one, but nevertheless, still a caution. "Don't do this to yourself. Don't do this to Deanna."
"Maybe you're right," he relented. "But - " He paused for so long, his companion thought he would not start again. "But I can still feel her. I had her in my arms." He glanced at the bed where he had endured so many recent troubled nights. The bed where he could have spent so many different ones. A recent one. "I had her in my arms... I could have taken advantage of that. I could have given her what she wanted from me. But I didn't. I ran away. I did the 'decent thing'." He said 'decent thing' as if it made him a pitiful excuse for a friend. "I should have let her seduce me. At least I would have been able to make love to her one last time!"
"That isn't really the way you would have wanted it, Will." Beverly reminded him, quietly, a little sternly. "It isn't really the way either of you would have wanted to make love for the last time." Beverly watched his fingers probing the place where Deanna Troi's crimson nails had gouged trenches in his neck.
"You don't think so?" Riker snorted, his derision for her disbelief convincing her of his contradiction. "If I could turn back the clock -"
His cup went hurtling across the lounge. It smashed against the far wall. An arc of black coffee clung to the wall like a dead rainbow.
"I want -" He came to his feet. Beverly watched him pace. The knots in his body, his hands, were more articulate than his words could ever hope to be. "I want to hold her. I want to touch her. I want to remember what it was like to make love to her, Beverly. Just once. Just one more time. My memories of that are so old. So far away!" He moved as if intending to go pick up the damage, piece together the smashed china. "I want to find this Ves Alkar and push my phaser down his throat. I want to kill him. I want it to take years. I want to devote my life to it."
Beverly watched him. She pulled back from the severity of his gaze, the veracity of his tone, the utter belief he had in what he was saying.
"It won't do any good, Will. You know that."
"Won't it? He killed her, Beverly1 He took my Imzadi away from me. And you know the worst part? He did it even before she died! That night she was in Ten Forward? She didn't have a clue who I was! She couldn't have cared who the hell I was. She just wanted sex. She just wanted a willing body to satisfy her. Ironic don't you think?" He turned a bitter face to her. "How very ironic! The only man on the ship -" he didn't even pause to acknowledge how his words were less accurate than their sentiment, "- who wouldn't give her what she wanted! It had to be me. I was the only one who wanted it badly enough to resist her!" His head shook in disbelief. "They were right! Every damn one of them who said I should have married her. They were right!"
"You still have your career. You still have the rest of your life."
He looked at her with the same expression he would have used a week ago if she had suggested he showed some mercy at the poker table.
"You aren't convincing me, Beverly. You aren't even convincing yourself."
"No," she relented, admitting the truth of his words; regretting her own. "I suppose not."
She watched him go back to the couch. He was calmer now. His aggression had given way to regret; to might-have-beens; and if-onlys. They would stay with him for a lifetime. They were his own. They would mould themselves to him like old shoes. He would wear them every day. He would wear them far longer than he would ever have worn a wedding band. Even Deanna Troi's
"I found this."
He held up a child's toy. It was pitifully small in the first officer's big hand.
"Ian Andrew," Beverly murmured. She knew what was coming next. She thought of Wes. She thought of how she wanted to hold him. She wanted to thank him for being; for having been born; for bearing the demands of her solace so well. She wanted to thank him for wearing Jack in his face.
Riker held the toy engine in his hands. It was a brighter red than the colour of the uniform he had not worn in days. Beverly thought he needed to get back into it. He needed to do it soon, or he would never return to the thing for which he had damaged his love for this woman. He was paying the price now. Beverly thought it was costing him more than he could afford to pay. She thought this time, his pile was empty. He no longer had even the stake to stay in the game.
"Don't punish yourself, Will."
"I would have given her children." He looked back at her. He said it as if by telling her this, she must carefully nurse its truth on behalf of the woman who would never bear any more children, and never his. "I would have given her my children."
Had he been telling her this a month, a year, a decade from now, Beverly might have questioned his assertion, but at that moment she kept her mouth closed. There was desperation in his voice. He was saying it as if it were a plea he was offering up to any conveniently-passing, benevolent god who would take him up on his offer, and, in return, give him back Deanna Troi. Beverly said nothing. He did not want to hear this truth. Too many of them were already crowded onto his bowing back.
"She would have made a good mother." He let the toy fall back onto the pillow from where he had plucked it. "The best."
"Will," Beverly cautioned. "Don't do this to yourself."
"I'm enjoying myself, Doctor. I'm enjoying watching the fruits of my labours." He glanced at her, bitterly. "I'm turning into Jean-Luc Picard, and who the hell wouldn't be happy with that!"
"You. You aren't Jean-Luc Picard. You're Will Riker. You are different people. You are different species!"
"Careful, Beverly, even you shouldn't risk insulting both your CO's in the same breath."
"Commander!" she said, sharply.
He frowned at her.
"Will," she murmured, more gently than she had expected to sound. "You have to stop this. You have to stop torturing yourself like this."
"Why? Is that going to make her come back to me? Is that going to make her smile for me again? Is that going to make her say, 'pull yourself together, Will'? Is that going to let me feel her eyes on my back every time I leave the bridge with an away team, and she's wondering if this will be the time I don't come back? Is that going to make me feel her hand in mine? Is it going to let me watch her eat chocolate, and wish she was giving me the same attention? Is that going to make her lean over the poker table Tuesdays, and think she can distract me with her cleavage?'
Beverly Crusher came to her feet.
"Stop it, Will!"
Her shout fled to the walls, hid itself in a corner and cowered there in the sudden silence.
Riker looked back at the woman standing by the table, her fists clenched in the debris of the meal for which neither of them had felt any appetite.
"I know," Riker admitted, finally. "I know!"
He watched her come towards him. He leaned into her kiss. It brushed his cheek. It almost contained some comfort. It fell so short of what he needed, what Beverly had intended, a spasm of grief exploded against his chest.
"Beverly, I can't -" Cope.
Beverly's fingers across Riker's lips prevented the word's passage from his mouth. She suspected it had never been on his lips in his lifetime. She would not allow him to say it now. Not even under these circumstances.
"Get some sleep, Will. Take a walk. Spend some time on the bridge," she suggested, hoping this was the one he would choose, even if he just sat there - present but ultimately absent. "Go breathe down Geordi's neck for a couple of hours. Do something for yourself."
Riker turned away from her. He had to keep a hold of this thing. He had to nurse it, and cherish it. He had to pin it to his chest, wear it like a medal. He needed this hurt. He needed this punishment because it was kindergarten to the real world of his grief.
"I want to make love to her one last time, Beverly. Because she wouldn't let our relationship become physical again. I've always had a hard time believing she really understood how much I did love her."
Beverly projected a look which he would interpret as a suggestion he had lost his grip on his senses. This was grief talking. She hoped this was grief talking.
"You proved how much you loved her when you wouldn't let her seduce you. If she was here, Deanna would tell you what you didn't do proved how much you cared. You sleep with other women, Commander. You didn't sleep with Deanna because that isn't what she wanted. And you respected that. You loved her enough to respect that. Because you respected that, Deanna did know just how much you loved her."
Riker looked away. He pushed his face into his hands. He addressed himself to the wall of his cold palms. His words came out of his mouth quietly, cautiously; almost as if giving them life was akin to admitting the most heinous of sexual perversions.
"I wanted to be her lover again. It was hard just being her friend. It was so damned hard!" He said it as if his very admission was a betrayal of their years of friendship.
Beverly watched him, thinking these words should have been out of his mouth before now; thinking it should not have been she who was listening to them fall like hailstones. He should have said this so long ago, and to Deanna Troi.
Beverly turned away. Perhaps he had said them. Perhaps Deanna had still resisted. If she had, then Beverly thought perhaps Deanna Troi should have been here to witness this aftermath for herself. Yet, the night Deanna Toi had done her best to seduce him with Alkar's poison in her brain, Will Riker had still resisted - because that was what she would have wanted from her friend. Beverly found herself thinking he deserved a better reward than this for his fidelity.
"I know it was hard, Will. I know."
She spoke with so much sincerity, it seemed to reach him.
"You said something about a walk?" he remembered, drawing himself away from the threads of tangled emotions he knew he had no hope of ever unravelling.
"What about the holodeck?" Beverly suggested. "A couple of hours fishing? It doesn't mean you love her any less just because she isn't on your mind every moment of every day. You won't offend her just because you take a little time out for yourself. Believe me.
"No one can ever take her away from you again, Will. No one." Her hand tightened its grip as if in emphasis of her words. "And one day, you will even feel able to share your memories of her."
"One day," she confirmed, but there was caution in her tone. That day was not ringed red on any calendar. It lay out there, uncertain and constantly shifting.
"But not soon?" Riker queried. He already knew the answer to that.
She shook his arm, gently.
"No more bourbon, Commander."
He turned away.
"That I can't promise."
"Use synthehol, Will. If you really do have to drink yourself into a coma, do it with synthehol." Her voice was sharp, determined.
Riker heard her leave. He heard the door close.
He watched the warping starlight. Today it would not shine, even for him. He did not believe it would have any charm for him ever again.
"This time, it was you who went away without saying goodbye. I know what that feels like now. But I don't think I ever managed to hurt you quite this much, Imzadi."