Choices

by Kate

SUBJECT: R/T
RATING: A for adult audiences only
DISCLAIMER: Paramount owns most of the characters; I own my ideas.
SETTING: Post Nemesis, on the Titan
FEEDBACK: Yes, absolutely. If you read it, please tell me - even flames.

WARNING: This story concerns itself with a choice some of us may struggle with in our lives. In the course of exploring this issue, some content about homosexuality will be included. If the thought of having one of our favorite characters wrestle a bit with sexual identity and relationship boundaries upsets you, feel free to skip this story.

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CHAPTER ONE: Comings and Goings

It was midday on the U.S.S. Titan. As the Bridge crew went about their assigned duties, the Titan's captain and his wife were ensconced in their quarters, discussing her upcoming trip to a conference at Starfleet Medical, back on Earth

"So how long will you be gone?" Will Riker asked the Titan's Counselor. Deanna Troi's ebony eyes sparkled with gentle merriment as she mussed her husband's already tousled hair and replied, "You look like a lost little boy when you look at me that way, Will." Cupping his bearded face with her hand, she smiled at his puppy-dog expression and added, "Two weeks, Will. It's just two weeks."

Deanna leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on Will's cheek. He grinned, grabbed her hand and snorted, "Hey, you're going away for two weeks and all I get is a peck on the cheek? Come on now!" The petite Betazoid chuckled as she shook her head.

"What?" her husband said, stretching out his hands palms-up in question. "What's so funny?"

Deanna tapped his nose affectionately. "You, Will Riker, are something else."

"Well, I guess that makes me unique then, doesn't it?" Riker winked. At the nod of his wife, Will took her by the arms and drew her into his embrace. "Now," he breathed, "*this* is how you *should* do it." Locking his mouth against hers, they joined in a sensuous and loving kiss. The couple forgot about their surroundings as they lost themselves to the pleasures of their oral choreography.

A few moments later, they pulled part. Resting his forehead against the top of Deanna's head, Will sighed, "I'm going to miss this, you know." Deanna nodded. "Me too, Imzadi." And then for an untold amount of time, the two of them just sat there on the couch in wordless communion. Waves of profound love and appreciation washed back and forth across the inscrutable connection that bound them as Imzadi.

The Betazoid was the one to break the intimate spell their inner beings had woven. "So…," she began. The captain righted his head and echoed, "Yeah…so…" Deanna cleared her throat and continued, "Well it seems you'll be kept quite busy while I'm gone."

"Yes," Will sighed as he forced his attention to thoughts of the mission he would be on during his wife's absence. Running his fingers though his spiky hair, he added, "Yeah, the Galgalians have made it very clear that they want closer ties with the Federation."

"What do we know about them?" Deanna asked, locking her ebony eyes on Riker's blue ones.

"Not much, really. That's why we have Yarden Orth, a Federation specialist, coming on board to assist in these discussions."

"Yarden Orth?" Troi exclaimed. In response to the questioning expression on her husband's face, she smiled and added, "I've known Yarden for many years! I haven't seen him in a long time…"

"I take it he's from Betazed?" Will asked. Deanna responded first with a nod and then continued, "Yes he is. He is a brilliant scholar of alien cultures and governments. So, while his official post has been at the University, he has been asked to be a part of numerous diplomatic missions." Then she giggled softly, shaking her head at a memory of her fellow citizen from her home planet.

"What?" Riker shot at his wife. "What is that about?" Deanna laid a calming hand on Will's arm and replied, "Oh, it's just that Yarden is…well…"

"Well what?" Will demanded.

"Well, let's just say that Yarden is a most colorful personality, a bit like my mother," the petite Betazoid grinned. Will rolled his eyes up in exasperation. "Great," he grumbled, "Just great. I get stuck with Lwaxana Troi in drag for two weeks. Lucky me."

"Actually, Will," she remarked, both irritated and amused by his characterization of her mother, "I think you'll find him a pleasure to work with. Despite his flamboyance, he has a remarkable ability to make those around him feel quite relaxed and comfortable."

"Not something I can say…" started to slip out of Will's mouth.

"Yes, I know, Will, not something you can say about my mother," Deanna interjected in a seemingly stern voice. A second later, she broke into hearty laughter, tacitly inviting her husband to join in.

Riker wrapped his arm around his wife's slim shoulders. He turned his head towards hers and traced an invisible path down the side of her face with his finger. "I wish we had more time like this, Imzadi…" Will sighed.

"Me too," Deanna agreed. "Especially like this," she added and brought her warm lips once again to his. Will nodded into the kiss. For an endless instant, their lips remained locked together. Then Riker pulled back and stared intently into the ebony eyes of his wife.

"So tell me again why Starfleet Medical needs you, Counselor?"

The Betazoid, being fully aware of the frustrated desire that underlay his use of her title, smiled indulgently. She laid a loving hand on his cheek and replied, "They've asked me to present my findings on the effects on families and communities of long-term periods in space."

"And they had to pick you because…?" Will grumbled, eliciting a tolerant chuckle from Deanna. "They picked me," she responded, underscoring her answer by tapping his chest, "because I've had the most experience. After all," she continued, now crossing her arms and tilting her head back regally, "I *am* the first counselor Starfleet put on a starship, Will Riker." Troi's eyes sparkled with challenge as she stared up at the tall man seated before her.

"Well," Riker grinned as he laid his large hands on her slim shoulders, "they could not have found a more qualified presenter." He closed the small distance between them, his lips hovering just above hers.

"Flattery, Captain, will get you everywhere," Deanna sighed, melting into yet another sensuous kiss.

<<Counselor Troi>> A voice coming over ship's communications shattered the intimate moment. Pulling away from her husband's mouth, the counselor cleared her throat. "Yes? Troi here."

<<Your transport will be ready for departure in 30 minutes>>

"Very well," she acknowledged. "Troi out." She looked at Will with an apologetic shrug of her shoulders. "Well…," she began. Will stood up and offered her his hand, saying, "Yeah, it's that time."

As soon as Deanna was on her feet, her husband had her wrapped in a tender embrace. As was so often his habit with her, Will buried his face in the sweet-smelling crook of her neck. Into her hair, he whispered the traditional Betazin invocation, "Go well and return well on the path the gods have set for you, my Imzadi."

The chimes to the entrance of their quarters sang out. Riker righted himself and straightened his tunic. "Come in," he called out. The door slid open to reveal an ensign standing at attention.

"Ensign Michaels reporting to assist Counselor Troi with her luggage, sir," the young man announced. Riker touched his finger to his forehead in a casual salute.

"At ease, ensign." The officer nodded and relaxed his stance. In an instant, he spotted Deanna's satchel and stepped over to retrieve it. "I'll take this to the transport, Counselor."

Deanna smiled at the ensign. "Thank you, Ensign Michaels." After offering a formal salute to both the captain and his wife, the young man stepped into the corridor.

Will turned and offered his arm to Deanna. "It's time, Imzadi." She threaded her arm around her husband's. "It is indeed."

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CHAPTER TWO: Hello Goodbye

Several hours had passed since the Academy transport whisked Deanna Troi earthward for her conference at Starfleet Medical. Will Riker spent them seated at the desk in his Ready Room, reviewing files on the upcoming diplomatic mission to Galgalan. The last of those files contained a cultural report written by the Betazoid scholar who would be assisting in the mission.

The Titan's captain began to scan the contents of the report. As his eyes took in the words, his mind started to wander. What kind of person would this Yarden Orth turn out to be? Would he be imperious and melodramatic like Lwaxana Troi, as Deanna had hinted? Gods, if Orth should indeed prove to be like the Betazoid matriarch, how would he manage it without going nuts? His patience, after all, had its limits, ones Deanna's mother had repeatedly pushed to the maximum.

Will shook his head and ran his hand through his tousled hair. Then his eyes happened to fall on the holopic of his wife that he kept on his desk. Releasing a sigh, he reached over to touch the image. Deanna had only been gone for a few hours and already he missed her intensely. The spark of her presence that burned within him was growing dimmer as the transport took her further away, leaving him with an unpleasant emptiness in its place.

The trilling of the comm system jerked him out of his momentary melancholy. "Transporter Room One to Captain Riker," came a disembodied voice.

"Riker here."

"The transport from Betazed has arrived. Yarden Orth is requesting permission to board."

"Permission granted. I will meet Mr. Orth in the Transporter Room."

"Very good, sir."

"Riker out."

The tall commanding officer arose from his chair. Deciding then and there that he would find a way to survive a male incarnation of his mother-in-law, Will walked to the turbolift with his habitual ambling but confident stride.

A short while later, Riker entered Transporter Room One. Immediately, he saw that the Transporter Chief was waiting for his approval. The captain gave his subordinate officer a nod of approval. "Transporting now," the crewman stated as he operated the controls.

Almost immediately, a silhouette sparkled into existence on the transporter pad. An instant later, the silhouette solidified into the corporeal form of their visitor. And Will Riker's jaw nearly dropped when he finally saw the Betazoid.

Standing before him in the transport chamber was a humanoid dressed in blindingly bright red and yellow skin-tight tunic and pants and with perfectly coiffed wavy dark hair. But for his ebony eyes, no one would have known that Yarden Orth was Betazoid. For, unlike the typical males of his planet, Orth had a muscular and perfectly sculpted body.

Riker stared at the visitor in uncharacteristic silence. The Betazoid locked eyes for a brief instant with the captain. And then Orth's eyes seemed to give Will the briefest of once-overs. Or was that Will's imagination? He couldn't be sure. A moment later, a warm smile spread across Yarden's handsome features. Stepping off the platform, he stretched out his hand in greeting.

"You must be Captain Riker," Orth said as he grabbed Will's hand to shake it. His hand clasped around the Betazoid's, Riker grinned and replied, "I am." Then after staring a moment longer than he knew to be courteous, the tall officer apologized, "I'm sorry. How rude of me. You've come a long way and must be tired after your travels."

Yarden slipped his hand from Will's grasp and placed it on the taller man's forearm. "It has been a long journey. You don't happen to know where a tired guy could find a place to crash, do you?" And then he chuckled, a note of merriment dancing in his eyes.

Orth's easy manner and ready humor immediately put Riker at ease. The captain of the Titan clapped a friendly hand on his visitor's shoulder and grinned. "Of course. Let me show you to your quarters."

Yarden bent down to pick up his satchel and slung it over his shoulder. Stretching out his hand, he said, "Lead the way, good captain."

A short trip brought the two men to one of the cabins set aside for guests. Will keyed in the code to unlock the door and then ushered his companion in. "I imagine you've traveled enough to know the ins and outs of ship-board replicators and cabin lights," he smiled, gesturing around the room. "But if you have any questions at all, just ask…," he started to add.

"…The computer," Orth chimed in with a snicker. Riker smiled and nodded. "Right, right." He started to walk towards the entryway. "I'll leave you now to get settled."

"Thank you, Captain." Then, giving the tall officer an inscrutable look, Orth continued, "We do need to meet sometime later though, to begin to review the situation with the Galgalians."

Will hesitated in the open doorway. "Yes, we do. But we've got another day before we reach the planet. How about doing this tomorrow, after you've had a chance to rest?"

"Fine," Yarden smiled. "What about joining me for a non-working dinner tonight? It might be a nice way to get to know one another before we start working together."

Riker snapped his fingers as a sudden thought popped into his mind. "I wish I could, but I've got a meeting scheduled for this evening." Offering his guest a friendly grin, Riker added, "But if it's informal company you're looking for, you can always hit the Forward Lounge. There's always someone there."

"As long as it doesn't hit back," Orth responded with a wink. "Thanks, Captain. Until tomorrow then?"

"Yes, until tomorrow." And with that, Will touched his finger to his brow in an informal salute and stepped out the door. He did not see the hungry look on Yarden's face as he exited.

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CHAPTER THREE: Breaking the Ice

The next afternoon, Will Riker was seated in his chair on the Bridge, serving out his scheduled tour of duty for the day. At exactly 1300 hours, the doors to the turbolift slid open to reveal the Betazoid visitor, Yarden Orth, less garishly dressed than the day before. With the fluid, almost feminine gait of a dancer, Orth stepped out of the turbolift and scanned the space, looking for the captain. After a moment's search, his ebony eyes alit upon Riker's massive form.

"Ah, Captain," Yarden called out as he approached the Captain's Chair. The Betazoid's mellifluous baritone drew Will's attention to him immediately. For the briefest of instants, Riker stared, curious as to whether Orth would be as outlandishly dressed as the day before. Then, the Titan's captain arose from his seat and stepped towards his visitor. With a welcoming smile, Will gestured towards the Ready Room.

"Please join me in my Ready Room, Mr. Orth. I have all of the pertinent files there."

"My pleasure, Captain," Yarden responded, mirroring the captain's pleasant mien.

Once they had both entered the Ready Room, Will immediately sat down behind his desk. "Have a seat, Mr. Orth," he said, pointing to one of the chairs in front of the desk.

"Thanks, Captain Riker." Yarden sat down and crossed his legs loosely. Steepling his fingers together before him, Orth added, "And please, call me Yarden. At least while we are working together." The Betazoid snickered. "The formality of 'Mr. Orth' wears thin really fast, you know," he winked.

As had been true the day before, Yarden's quick wit and pleasant manner put Will at ease. He smiled at Orth's comments and nodded, "I imagine it would…"

"I'll bet that will never be a problem with your title, will it Captain?" the Betazoid said with a smile.

"No way!" the tall captain exclaimed. "I worked too damned hard to get here!" He underscored his words with an emphatic smack of his fist to the desk top. Then Riker sat back in his chair and laid one leg over the knee of his other leg. Breaking into an easy smile, he commented, "But I'm not stuck on it, you know. So, feel free to call me Will." Running a hand through his unruly hair, Riker added, "Hell, all the crew does behind my back…"

To Orth's look of surprise, the captain explained, "Yeah, word has gotten back to me that they refer to me as 'Captain Will'. I have that on impeccable authority. You see," he laughed, "it helps when you're married to the Ship's Counselor!" He jerked his thumb towards the holopic of Deanna that rested on his desk.

"Ah, Deanna Troi…," Yarden beamed as he looked at the image. "She is a most special woman, Will."

"How long…" Riker began.

"How long have I known her?" Orth finished. "We met when she came back to the University of Betazed for post-graduate studies."

"Were you…," Will stammered, then thought better of asking the question, shaking his head and gesturing with his fingers over his mouth as if to erase the words he'd just spoken.

The Betazoid smiled indulgently - so much like Deanna did, Will thought at that moment. "No, Will, we were nothing more than friends. I can promise you that!"

"How did you know what I'd be asking?" the captain asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Did you read my mind?"

"Of course not, Captain," Yarden reassured him. "It would be a terrible breach of etiquette for me to do so." Then breaking into easy laugher, he added, "I leave that sort of thing to Lwaxana Troi."

"You must be joking," Riker insisted, his mask of skepticism melting into a shocked grin.

"Hardly, Will." Orth leaned over the top of the desk and offered a conspiratorial wink. "She's become legendary for her nosiness. She does it enough to make up for all the rest of the residents of Betazed." With that, Riker started laughing in earnest, his concern totally a thing of the past.

After a few moments of shared mirth, Yarden leaned forward in his chair and said, "Now, how can I be of assistance in regard to this mission, Will?" Riker stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment and then responded, "Well, I've read the files on Galgalan, but I'd like your perspective on how best to approach these people."

"Certainly, Will," the Betazoid said, arising from his chair.

"Where are you going?" the captain asked. Yarden shook his head, smiling broadly. "No where. I just think better if I am on the move. Sort of stirs up the right neurotransmitters…"

"Ah, I see," Will commented. Orth let out a chuckle and added, "It gives new meaning to the phrase thinking on one's feet, eh?" With that, Riker found himself once again laughing at the Betazoid's easy and quick humor. Deanna had indeed been quite right: despite having an outlandish taste in sartorial matters, Yarden had a way of making him feel very comfortable. More than just comfortable, Will realized. Already, he felt as if he'd known the Betazoid for years. And he found Orth to be instantly likeable.

Yarden began to pace the perimeter of the Ready Room. Will watched with fascination as the man before him moved with sinuous grace. There was something very attractive about the way the Betazoid's slim body moved through space, his loose clothing accenting rather than hiding his well-muscled form. And then Will abruptly ended his reverie, shocked that he could become so absorbed in the appearance of another male, let alone a Betazoid one at that.

Orth began to speak, seemingly oblivious to his companion's obvious stares. "Well, as you know, Galgalian space travel technology is in the early stages of warp drive development. The rest of their technology is at about where Earth's was at the middle of the 21st century…"

Yarden paused in his perambulations to roll his sleeves up, revealing smooth-skinned but perfectly sculpted forearms and biceps. "Hmm...Let's see," he began once more as he resumed his pacing, "socially, they are highly stratified and very attached to protocol."

"Then I'll need you at my side to guide me in my choice of words," Riker interjected. "I don't want a poor choice of words on my part to start an interstellar incident."

"Oh I hardly think you need to worry about that, Will. From what I've heard, between your poker skills and your extensive experiences with numerous alien cultures, you are one of the best diplomats Starfleet has." Orth offered the captain an encouraging grin. Riker laughed in response, adding, "You know, flattery will get you every where, my friend."

"Well, almost every where, at least," the Betazoid quipped, offering a mischievous wink.
Another wave of appreciation for Orth washed through Will as he considered the man's comforting jocularity once again. Yes, Riker thought to himself, he really did like this odd but appealing fellow.

"Now," Yarden spoke again, "the Galgalians have no special resources on their planet to offer the Federation. But what they do offer is a strategic location from which the Federation can easily keep an eye on several enemies. So that will be what they will want to stress in their meetings with us…"

"I see," the tall captain said. "And how do you suggest approaching them tomorrow in our first meeting?"

"Tomorrow - and most likely several days beyond - will seem to you to be purely social, Will, and perhaps a waste of your time," Orth replied. "But with their attachment to social niceties, this is an essential first step. If our behavior meshes with their social expectations, the road ahead will be fairly smooth. If we make a misstep, we might as well abandon the mission then and there."

'"Very good," Will commented with a smile. "This one's your baby, Yarden." Bowing his upper body down in mock humility, Riker chuckled, "I yield to superiority."

"As well you should," the Betazoid jibed back, breaking into hearty laughter. After a few moments, he spoke again. "Do you have any other questions for me, Will?" Riker sat back in his chair and perched his feet on his desk. Yarden watched as a look of intense curiosity flitted across the tall man's bearded visage, then disappeared.

"Yeah, just one," Will replied.

"And that would be?"

"Tell me about yourself. All I know is that you did your studies at the University of Betazed in alien cultures and that you have been on the faculty there for a number of years…How is it…," Will stopped himself before the rest of his words exited his mouth, as if embarrassed by what he was about to say. But his periodic obvious glances at Orth's physique had revealed his true intent.

"You are no doubt wondering how it is a bookish sort like me has the appearance that I do, yes?" A bright red flush of embarrassment stole over Riker's face. Then a note of annoyance crept into his expression. Yarden didn't miss either change.

"Again Will, let me assure you that I did not probe your mind," Orth explained in a reassuring voice. "I did happen to notice the way you looked at me from time to time, and guessed from that that you were curious about the apparent incongruity of my appearance with my profession."

"But still, it was rude…," Will stammered, running a nervous hand through his spiky hair. Yarden jumped in with a laugh, saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know…Your mother told you not to stare." Leaning over to place a companionable hand on Riker's forearm, he added, "But I could care less. It really doesn't bother me…" Then, gesturing to his tunic, Orth said with a merry wink, "When you dress the way I like to, you get *used* to being stared at!"

Yarden finally sat in the chair in front of Will's desk and then resumed speaking. "Me? You might characterize me as rather a sybaritic sort. If it feels good, I do it…" Riker's eyes went wide with that remark. Noting the captain's surprise, the Betazoid explained, "It comes from all those years of studying and experiencing alien cultures…You know, seeing new things and trying them on for size…" Will nodded with understanding.

"And that has, in turn, nurtured my appreciation for a variety of physical activities, some of which have helped me gain the build I have today."

Yarden arose once again from his chair. "Say Will," he said, "are you familiar with the ancient Terran game of basketball?"

"Vaguely," Riker responded. "I've seen holovids of the game, but never really played it much.

"Well how about learning today?" Orth's face was full of excited animation, making him look like an eager child.

"Sure," Will smiled, "why not? I'm off duty at 1600 hours. I'll meet you in the gym then."

"Splendid. 1600 hours it is then!" With that, Yarden grabbed Will's hand, gave it a vigorous shake, and turn to leave the Ready Room. The bemused yet pensive captain watched his guest exit the room, aware that he felt strangely drawn to this outlandish sybarite.

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CHAPTER 4: Getting to Know You

At the end of the fourth and final day of formal but successful negotiations with the Galgalians about admission to the Federation, Captain Will Riker sat at his desk in his cabin. Despite his mind-numbing fatigue, he was intent on responding to the subspace message he had just received from his absent wife, Ship's Counselor Deanna Troi.

"Imzadi," he began to narrate, "you will have to forgive me if I don't seem too coherent right now, but negotiating with the Galgalians and tip-toeing through their sticky rules of protocol has just plain worn me out." With a tired sigh, he continued, "I didn't used to wear out so quickly…" He rubbed his blood-shot eyes with his fingers. "Damn, wherever my get-up-and-go went, I'd sure like to get some of it back just about now…"

Riker leaned back in his chair and took a sip of water from a glass he had placed next to the computer monitor. "I can't tell you how much I miss you, Deanna…Even with all the crew aboard, the Titan seems empty without you. And I feel incomplete, empty even, without you here…" Will's hoarse voice drifted off as his eyes focused momentarily on the large holopic that hung on the opposite wall of the two of them at their Terran wedding.

"Sorry…My attention wandered for a bit there…" he apologized. Then the Titan's captain resumed his monologue. "Hell, enough of my complaints, sweetheart." He straightened up in his chair and continued. "I'm glad to hear that you arrived at the Academy without a problem. And I'm not the least bit surprised that your presentation is going so well." He winked and then added, "What else would you get from the best?"

A moment later, Riker's blue eyes lit up with a sudden thought. "You know, Deanna, you were so right about Yarden Orth." Will stroked his bearded jaw line as he spoke. "He really is a brilliant scholar." Nodding sagely, he explained, "There is no way I could have concluded these negotiations so successfully without his knowledge and constant guidance."

An instant later, an amused snort escaped his grinning lips. "But he sure is one flashy dresser! Hell, you couldn't miss him in an Alaskan blizzard!" Then a more serious expression returned to Will's face. "But he does have this way of making you forget all of that outrageousness and instead feel like he's one of your favorite drinking pals…Not to mention the fact that he is an incredible athlete…You know, he even introduced me to an old Terran game called basketball…And yes, dear, he beat the pants off me!" Riker offered this last comment with a hearty laugh.

"And no," he remarked a moment later as if responding to what he knew his wife would be asking at that point, "I couldn't challenge him to a round of Parisi Squares. He doesn't know how to play…Says he's too busy perfecting his skills in other sports to bother learning."

Will paused once more to take another sip of water. Then, fingering the disc that held his recommendations to the Federation concerning the Galgalians, he remarked, "As you may have guessed, the negotiations are finished. I'll be recommending that the Federation admit Galgalan as a member."

A rueful smirk then darkened his face. "And so they want to thank us with a big reception tomorrow." Riker ran his fingers through his tousled hair. "Gods, you know how much I hate those, Deanna," he groaned. "But yeah, yeah, I know: I'll survive it. I don't need you here to know that's what you're thinking."

Just then, the chimes to the captain's doorway sang out. The bearded officer's glance shot towards the door. "Looks like I've got company, Deanna, so I need to sign off now. Keep me in your dreams, Imzadi, as I keep you in mine. And know my love for you grows by the day."

Will hit the send key and then called out, "Come in." The doors slid open to reveal the handsome Betazoid visitor, Yarden Orth. Riker rose from his chair.

"Did I interrupt anything?" Orth asked with a look of genuine concern. Will smiled and walked towards his guest. "No, not really," Riker responded. Gesturing towards the computer on his desk, he added, "I was just composing a message to Deanna."

"Ah, I see," Yarden acknowledged. With fluid, graceful steps, he slowly walked around the living area of the Rikers' cabin. As he moved, Orth fastened his attentive gaze on the various items that gave the room a distinct sense of who lived there. Giving an occasional nod or grin, he acknowledged each item in its turn.

The Betazoid stopped dead in his tracks when he noticed the large wedding holopic of Will and Deanna. He stared at the image with wide-eyed wonder for a moment. Riker noticed where his guest's eyes were directed and broke into a proud and expectant smile.

"A *Terran* wedding?" Orth blurted out in apparent shock. "I can't imagine Lwaxana Troi tolerating such a thing!" And then his face blushed bright red and his fingers flew to his mouth as he realized his faux pas. Turning his embarrassed face towards his host, he began to apologize.

"That was terribly rude of me, Will. Please accept…" The tall captain smiled and shook his head. Leaning back against the edge of his desk, he interjected, "No apologies necessary, Yarden, really…And you're right, Lwaxana *would not* have put up with us not having a traditional Betazoid wedding…" With a mischievous wink, Will added, "So we did both!"

As soon as Yarden heard Will's comment about the Betazoid nuptials, he scanned his host's physique quickly. Riker noticed his guest's glance and took it as an unspoken assessment of his own no-longer slim torso. Will slapped his palms against his abdomen and laughed. "Yep, that was quite a sight alright! I'm no spring chicken, that's for sure." Then, offering a conspiratorial wink, he added, "But then again, nor is Lwaxana!"

This last remark drew out a hearty guffaw from Orth. "Oh gods, I would have given anything to see that one," spilled out between the Betazoid's sniggers. "That woman has worn such flouncy clothing for so long, it's hard to even *guess* what might be under that disguise!"

"Disguise?" Will sputtered, laughing so hard tears were making their way down his cheeks. "You are a cruel man, Yarden Orth! If the mighty Lwaxana Troi only knew what we were saying about her…"

"Saying? Who was just saying?" Yarden jumped in, stabbing the air for dramatic effect. Then, as the Betazoid fought to rein in his hilarity, he challenged, "How's this?" Orth sashayed across the room, his hips swaying, his hands wildly gesticulating and his loose neon-red and orange tunic billowing about him like a dress. It was a deadly accurate impression of Deanna's eccentric and outlandish mother.

Riker now found himself doubled over with consuming laughter. As his shrieks of mirth shook his frame, he held out his hand in a halting gesture. "Gods, stop Yarden…Please…" Between his own guffaws, Orth managed to utter, "Sure, sure…But I just couldn't resist."

Each man remained where he stood in Will's cabin, waiting until each one's urge to laugh had finally passed. Once it had, Will drew in a cleansing breath and straightened up. "Some how," the Titan's captain began, "I don't think doing hysterically funny impressions is the reason that brought you to my cabin."

"Actually, Will, no it wasn't," the alien visitor agreed. "Though that sure was a lot of fun…," he added with a wink. Before Riker could venture a response, Orth continued, "In fact, what brought me here was the thought that with such a successful conclusion to the negotiations, you are entitled to a bit of celebrating. You really carried the day!"

"Carried the day? Me? Hardly," Will objected. "You were the key to this whole process, Yarden. If I'd tried this unaided, gods only knows the negotiations would probably be going down the hopper."

"You sell your considerable diplomatic skills quite short, my friend," Yarden countered. "But," he smiled, "to keep you happy, how about we simply say that we made a damn good team?"

"Okay, okay," Riker yielded, "A good team…"

"So, what do you say we celebrate our success?" the Betazoid scholar asked, clapping a friendly hand on the taller man's beefy shoulder. Without thinking, Will placed his hand over Yarden's in a spontaneous gesture of friendship and appreciation. An instant later, a sudden question popped into Riker's mind uninvited: was that all there was to that hand-to-hand contact? Surely he'd clasped, shaken and otherwise connected his hand with those of many individuals, male and female. So why did this seemingly natural contact command his attention?

Finding no ready answer to his momentary inquiry, the tall captain shook his head slightly, smiled and endorsed his guest's suggestion with a hearty, "Hell, why not?" He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards a cabinet in the wall. "I've got a private stash in there that would make Deep Space station bartenders envious. Name your poison!"

"Scotch, if you've got it," Orth replied as he sauntered over to the couch.

"Have I got Scotch? Wait until you taste this stuff: 100 proof liquor from the heart of Scotland, via the personal collection of a dear friend of mine aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. It's simply amazing," Riker recounted as he stepped over to retrieve the beverage and two glasses from the cabinet.

After he poured out a good measure of Scotch into each of the glasses and handed one to his guest, Will lifted his glass into the air. "A toast…" Offering a warm smile to his companion, who nodded expectantly, the Titan's captain recited, "To great successes and to new relationships…"

"Here, here," Orth cheered, leaning forward to clink his glass against Will's. With that, the two men took hearty swigs of the amber liquid, each one relishing the pleasurable burn as the beverage made its way down his throat.

"Ah, perfection," Yarden sighed, watching the liquid swirl in his glass as he rocked the receptacle gently. "Just like your wedding holopic there on the wall."

A proud smile spread over Will's bearded visage. "Well, it was the perfect wedding, you know. Camera lenses don't lie," he asserted. "But how could a wedding be anything else but perfect when it is with the most amazing woman in the universe?"

"Indeed she is that, Will. You are one lucky man," Orth agreed, taking another sip of his beverage. And then the two men lapsed into contented silence, brought on by a mixture of the liquor's calming effects, their pleasure at the successes of the day and the incredible fatigue that came from the endless hours of negotiations.

After a few quiet moments, Riker snapped his fingers and exclaimed, "How about some music? You do like music, don't you?"

"Absolutely," the Betazoid responded. "I've yet to hear a form I've not enjoyed."

"Ah, well then let me treat you to some of Earth's finest: twentieth century Jazz. Computer, play Riker File Jazz 20th Century, sub file Gershwin Rhapsody, one-quarter volume." Nodding expectantly, Will added, "This is the best of the best!"

A moment later, the wailing sounds of a clarinet sliding upwards through several octaves met their ears. Riker sipped his drink and sat down as the favored piece of music continued. He watched as his alien guest slid down into a comfortable slumping position on the couch and shut his eyes to concentrate on the music. And for several minutes, all that could be heard were the soaring and sultry notes of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

After listening quietly for a while, a sudden wave of profound exhaustion washed through the tall captain. "I'm sorry, Yarden, but all of a sudden, I'm really fading here." The Betazoid put his glass down and began to rise. With an understanding smile, he agreed, "You know, I am too."

As Will stood up, his eyes fastened once again upon their wedding portrait. Then, as he ushered his guest to the door, Riker asked, "So tell me, how is it that an eligible fellow like you never married?"

A bemused grin appeared on Orth's handsome face. "Actually, I came close to cementing a formal relationship…" The Betazoid stepped to the door but turned to face his host. The smile faded from his face.

"I hear a 'but' there," Riker observed.

"Perceptive as ever, my good host." A pained expression filled Yarden's face. "Close, but then he broke it off…"

"Excuse me," Will interjected with surprise, "but did I just hear you say, 'he'?"

"You did indeed." Orth focused his intensely serious eyes on Will's startled ones. "I said 'he', Will."

"You mean you are…?" Riker uttered in a shocked whisper. All of a sudden, he felt very uncomfortable. And though he tried to put on his best poker face to hide his feelings, the involuntary widening of his eyes gave him away.

"Yes, I am what you Terrans would call 'gay'. On Betazed, it's just one of many lifestyle choices," Yarden explained, stunned by his companion's disconcerted reaction. The door slid open behind him.

"It is late Will. We both need sleep." With those terse words, the Betazoid stepped into the corridor and the door slid shut. Will Riker stared at the doorway in exhausted confusion. "Yes, sleep…That's what I need…"

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

CHAPTER 5: Questions

The next morning found Will Riker seated in the Captain's chair on the Bridge of the Titan. And though his body was present for his duty shift, his thoughts were elsewhere, far away. Try as he might to force his attention to the routines of running his ship, his mind drifted over and over again to the situation with his Betazoid guest, Yarden Orth.

After Orth left his quarters the night before, Riker had spent a restless and nearly sleepless night in his bed. Tossing and turning endlessly through the wee hours, his physical agitation was mirrored by the ceaseless repetition of questions that plagued his mind. Again and again, he asked himself why it was that he was so thrown by Yarden's profession of homosexuality. Will couldn't understand it. After all, he had always thought himself to be rather open-minded and tolerant about variations in behaviors.

Did his shock mean that he in fact harbored latent homophobia? Were his seeming tolerance and welcoming attitudes just a veneer over a darker, more judgmental self? The more his increasingly tired mind considered this possibility, the more Will felt that something else underlay his reaction. What that something else was, he could not say; his brain was too exhausted to make sense out of anything.

Those unanswered queries continued to swirl around Riker's mind as he went through the motions of arising and dressing for duty in the morning. His preoccupation and mind-numbing exhaustion ensured he had no appetite for breakfast. So Will took with him to his duty shift a body bereft of rest and sustenance and a mind solely focused on his own private universe.

As the captain of the Titan sat on the Bridge, images of the eccentric yet charismatic Betazoid kept entangling themselves in his thoughts. Each time the alien's likeness came to mind, Riker felt a vague spasm in his gut, much like the sensation he got so many years ago when he, as a teenage lothario-in-the-making, approached his first desired conquests. And he no more understood that reaction than he did his dismay at Orth's sexual preference. After all, the Betazoid visitor was a man, not a woman.

Suddenly, the voice of an ensign startled the brooding man out of his consuming reverie. "Captain Riker, sir?" she announced, holding a padd in her outstretched hand. Jerking his head up in surprise, he looked at her with seeming incomprehension.

"You asked me to deliver these, Captain," the officer intoned, still waiting for her superior to take the proffered device from her hand. In the next instant, Riker regained his full awareness of his surroundings. Clearing his throat nervously, he responded, "And this would be…?"

"The level two diagnostics on the communications subsystem arrays, sir."

Will snapped his fingers. "Right." Reaching out to take the data from the young woman before him, he added, "Thanks, Ensign…Palmer is it?"

"Yes sir. Palmer, sir."

"Very good, Ensign Palmer," Riker smiled. Just then, the officer at Communications announced, "Incoming subspace message from Starfleet Medical, sir." The Titan's captain arose from his seat and acknowledged, "Patch it through to the Ready Room. I will take it there."

"Very good, sir," the officer replied.

A few of his distance-eating strides took the tall man into his Ready Room. Sitting down at his desk, Riker spun the monitor around so he could view the sender of the message. For a moment, all he saw was the Starfleet logo. But in the next instant, it faded to reveal the transmitting party: Deanna Troi.

"Deanna!" Will exclaimed joyously. "What a surprise!"

"A good one, I hope?" the Betazoid psychologist countered, eyeing her husband with curiosity.

"Of course! Why wouldn't it be?" Riker grinned. "So, to what do I owe this *wonderful* surprise, Imzadi?" He leaned back and steepled his fingers in front of him, just as his former commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard, used to do.

"I wanted to let you know that they shortened the conference, so I'll be returning home early," Deanna announced. A broad smile filled Will's face. "How soon is early?" he asked eagerly.

His wife smiled back. "I'm leaving this afternoon. I should be back at about this time two days from now."

"That's wonderful, Deanna!" the tall man beamed. "I've missed you."

"And I you too, Imzadi," Troi returned. After a moment's silence, she asked, "So how has it been working with Yarden?" Upon hearing the name of the person his thoughts had been obsessed with, Riker's smile wilted with surprise. Somehow, in that instant, he felt as if he'd been caught with a dirty secret of some sort, though he didn't know why. Not wanting to open up his hidden preoccupation to an instant analysis by his wife, Riker quickly slapped a new grin on his face.

Deanna missed neither the rapid change in her husband's manner nor the fact that his new smile did not quite reach his eyes. Staring intently at Will, she asked, "Has there been some problem with Yarden?"

Almost too quickly, the Titan's captain replied, "Uh no, no…Of course not. I'm just very tired, Deanna. As I said in my latest message to you, these proceedings have really taken a lot out of me…" The Betazoid continued to stare, knowing that Will's answer was incomplete. Riker saw the expectant look on his wife's face and threw up his hands defensively.

"Really, Deanna…I'm just exhausted…Mr. Orth has been very helpful." Will hoped his attempt at covering up his unintentionally revealing falter was convincing. But he could not tell, as Deanna just nodded and offered an inscrutable grin. "I see…," was all she said.

"Well," she began after another moment's silence, "I'm going to go start packing to so I can be ready when the transport leaves here in an hour." She kissed her finger tips and then touched them to the screen. "I love you, Will. Don't forget that," she whispered, reassuring her spouse of her abiding affection. And then the screen faded back into the static Starfleet logo.

Will Riker stared at the faceless screen, lost in thought. Why had her question about Yarden Orth thrown him so? Why did he feel as if he had something to hide concerning his feelings about the Betazoid scholar? Why indeed? The tall captain shook his head. He didn't understand it at all, which in and of itself bothered him. Usually, he knew exactly what was in his own mind. But now, he was no more master of understanding his emotions than he was truthful with his wife. What was it about that eccentric alien that commanded such obsessive thought?

A weary Will Riker ran his fingers through his tousled hair and slumped limply in his chair. A wave of exhausted numbness washed through him. "Hell," he sighed to himself, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, "if I don't get some sleep before this reception, I won't even know my own damned name." And with that, Will arose from his chair. "Maybe this will begin to make some sense if I get some rest," he murmured to himself as he headed for the door.

Riker marched out from his Ready room and announced to his second in command, "You have the Bridge. I will be in my quarters. And unless the universe is exploding, I don't want to be disturbed." The Titan's First Officer acknowledged the assignment, "Of course, Sir." Waving a dismissive hand towards his subordinate, Will Riker nearly stumbled into the turbolift. His mumbled words of something not making sense were swallowed up as the turbolift doors slid shut.

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

CHAPTER 6: In the Dark

A very weary Will Riker leaned heavily against the wall of the corridor as he punched in the code to his quarters. Once the door slid open, he stumbled through the entrance. With heavy steps, he dragged his way to his bedroom. Once there, he fell forward onto the welcoming surface of his bed. An instant later, he was fast asleep.

Soon, Will found himself lost in a grey, misty dimension discerned only in the world of slumber. The thick mist scudded by his body like rain clouds driven by the wind. Dense as pea soup, it made it impossible for the tall man to see anything around him. Then, out of nowhere, he heard a soft, unevenly staccato hiss. As untold moments went by, the hiss became more audible and took on the distinctive sound of voices.

"Will…," called out one, clearly a woman. Her voice sounded so familiar…Who was it?

Now out of the swirling fog came an utterance from a male. "Will…," he said. Again, the slumber-bound captain thought he recognized that voice as well, but it wasn't clear enough for him to be sure…

Back and forth went the articulations of Riker's name, female to male voice and back, like the tick-tock of a metronome. And the closer they came to him, the more discernable the identities of the speakers became.

Sudden recognition flooded Will: the voices belonged to Deanna Troi and to Yarden Orth. A few moments later, he apprehended the provocative, sultry tone of his wife's voice, and the seemingly seductive quality to that of the Betazoid scholar. And then the duo finally emerged from the thick mist.

Will's eyes immediately focused onto his Imzadi's face. Deanna's ebony eyes were smoldering with passion and locked on his. As he searched her features, she ran the tip of her tongue along her lips in a fashion that never failed to send the heat of hungry desire flooding into his loins and hardening his manhood. Now was no exception. "Gods…Imzadi," he moaned as he reached for her.

At that moment, Yarden purred, "Will…I'm here." His dark eyes were, like Deanna's, heavy-lidded with carnal hunger. His loose, brightly colored tunic fell off of his shoulder, exposing the perfectly sculpted deltoid and trapezius muscles that had always caught Riker's eye. Once Orth knew he had the aroused man's attention, he beckoned him with an inviting hand gesture and a provocative tilt to his slim hips.

Upon viewing the alluring Betazoid, Will's heart skipped a beat. Staring at Yarden's handsome and passion-filled face, Riker felt another jolt of heat shoot into his groin and harden him further. An instant later, Will looked down at his engorged member as if it belonged to someone else; he was shocked to realize that he'd reacted to Orth just as he had to Deanna.

Jumbled thoughts swirled in the bewildered man's mind. How could he have reacted to Yarden's come-on the same way that he did with Deanna's sensuous invitation? How could that be? He'd always loved women, cherished them, worshipped their every curve, scent and response. He'd never had a sexual thought about a man in his life…

Woman…man…Round and round his confused thoughts swirled, an internal counterpoint to Deanna and Yarden continuing to call out his name, each one vying for his attention…Slowly, the pair of Betazoids faded, sucked into the misty miasma that eddied about him. And then nothing remained but the mist itself…

The time piece on Will Riker's nightstand chirped its wake-up call. Little by little, its mechanical voice drew the sleeping giant out of his slumber. Will crooked open his eyes and sat up. He knew immediately that he was partially aroused, but could not remember anything about his dreams. Raking his fingers though his tousled hair, he smiled and sighed, "Ah, it must have been about Deanna…" He picked up the holopic of his wife from its spot on the nightstand and ran a gentle finger along its surface as if to stroke her face. "Yeah, it must have been…" Then, looking over to her empty side of the bed, he mumbled, "But nothing to do about this but take a cold shower…Shit, I hate it when she's away."

A short time later found the captain of the Titan showered, dressed in his formal uniform and on his way to the celebratory reception on Galgal. The beam-down point was not far from the cavernous ballroom in which the festivities were being held. Indeed, the reception was close enough that all Will Riker had to do was follow the sounds of the voices and exotic music that wafted down the corridor.

When he arrived at the ballroom, Riker paused by the doorway to take in the spectacle before him. The room was filled with Galgalians wearing royal blue garb. "Ah, this must be their idea of dressing up!" he chuckled to himself, remembering the dull grey outfits the planet's representatives had stuck to during the diplomatic talks. With an amused smile on his face, the tall man entered the room.

No sooner than he had stepped into the reception but the government leader, Nasi Sar, caught sight of him, smiled and began to walk in his direction. At the Galgalian's side, engaged in an animated commentary of some sort, was Yarden Orth. A powerful wave of nervousness washed through Will when he realized who was with Sar. Riker had not spoken to Orth since the night before, when the Betazoid revealed his sexual orientation. The captain was not sure what kind of reception the scholar would afford him now.

"Captain Riker! Welcome, welcome," the Galgalian leader exclaimed as he grabbed Will's hand in a firm but friendly hand-shake. "I am glad you could be with us tonight." The nasi's smile and voice bespoke of genuine warmth and appreciation, which made it easy for Will to return the courtesy.

"I would not miss such a momentous occasion," the Titan's chief executive officer replied with a pleasant smile. Knowing his words were not entirely true, Will avoided Orth's scrutinizing stare. Instead, he focused on the host, waiting for him to speak again.

Nasi Sar grinned and gestured to the Betazoid at his side. "Mr. Orth has described to me the extent of your diplomatic skills and experience, Captain Riker. You are a most impressive man." Will stole a glance at Yarden, noticing his inscrutable expression, and then focused again on the Galgalian's face.

"I'm afraid that Mr. Orth overstates my credentials," Riker replied, tipping his head in the Betazoid's direction. Nasi Sar smiled and shook his head. "I hardly think so, Captain." Then the Galgalian bowed and swept his hand in front of him, gesturing towards the people and various buffet tables around them. "And now, Captain Riker, please enjoy our humble hospitality."

Nasi Sar then turned away, only to be drawn into a conversation with another high-ranking Galgalian official. Yarden Orth, who had been watching the exchange between the Titan's captain and the Galgalian official, locked his dark eyes on Riker's. For a moment, the Betazoid seemed to stare right into Will's very soul, leaving the tall man feeling uncomfortable. And then Orth too turned away, giving his attention to the Galgalians once more.

Will spent the better part of the next hour and a half chatting with various representatives of the planet. As that time wore on, he found himself feeling more and more claustrophobic; having been raised outdoors, he had never developed a tolerance for crowded places. So, as soon as he found a moment to step away from the milling throng of natives and Titan officers, he made his way to the nearest exit.

He stepped through opened doors to find himself outdoors on a veranda that was bordered with flowering indigenous plants. Serpentine vines dangled gently in the cool breeze, casting dancing shadows on the ground. A sweet scent wafted in the air.

Will stepped onto the brick surface of the veranda and looked around. He spotted an ornately carved bench at the far end. With a smile of relief, he walked quickly over to the bench, eager to get off of his aching feet. Once he sat down, he closed his eyes and simply listened to the soothing quiet chorus produced by unseen nocturnal creatures.

After a few calming moments, Riker's reverie was broken by the sound of footsteps on the concrete. "Shit," he swore to himself, "there's no escape, is there?" Then he opened his eyes to see who had intruded upon his temporary sanctuary. He was met with the approaching figure of Yarden Orth.

"Just great…," Will muttered to himself. "This just tops my evening." As he watched the Betazoid draw nearer, he remembered how unhappy Orth had seemed when he left the night before. Riker had no idea what to expect from him now. Not knowing made Will uncomfortable.

"Might I join you?" Yarden asked, his face an inscrutable mask. At the sound of Orth's voice, all the questions that had plagued Will earlier about himself and the Betazoid came rushing back, heightening his discomfort.

"Sure," Riker responded with a smile that did not reach his eyes. Sweeping his hand over the bench, he invited his visitor to sit with him. Without a word, Orth sat down next to the tall captain.

For several minutes, the two men sat on the concrete bench, looking at everything but one another. Not a word was exchanged. Quickly, the silence between them, punctuated by the din from inside the ballroom mixed with the soft sounds of the night outside, became almost tangibly tense.

After a seeming eternity, their wordlessness was broken by the quiet, melodious voice of the Betazoid. "I think that last night left too many things unsaid." Orth locked his dark eyes on Riker's face, waiting for the tall man's response.

"That could well be," the captain answered in a flat voice. He wore his most impassive poker expression as he studied the alien's face. It was the only way Will could keep all of his nagging questions at bay while in the presence of his companion.

"You know," Yarden opined, ignoring Riker's flat response, "I've never been comfortable with leaving loose ends untied…And I feel that there are things I need to clear up with you before I leave tomorrow." He pivoted his body on the bench to face Will directly. "Will I have a chance to do so, Captain?"

The pleading look on Orth's face was almost child-like in its sincerity. Will was touched immediately by the obvious pain that underlay the Betazoid's request. It was a look he had seen on Deanna's face many times, and he could no more deny Yarden than he could his wife.

With a genuine smile that broke through his impassive mask, Riker responded, "Yes, you will." Orth nodded, an appreciative grin on his face. "And that's 'Will' to you," the captain added with a wink.

"Right, right," Yarden acknowledged with a relieved smile.

"You leave at 1400 hours tomorrow?" Will asked.

Orth's eyes went wide in response to the query. "How did you know the time of my departure?"

"You forget, I'm the captain," Riker explained proudly. "I make it my business to know who is coming aboard or leaving. That goes for visitors as well as crew."

Yarden's mouth opened to comment, but Will resumed speaking before the Betazoid could get a word out. "So, why don't you come to my Ready Room at 1100 hours?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," the Betazoid acknowledged warmly. He rose and extended his hand. Will reached out to shake it.

"Tomorrow then," Riker said.

"Yes, tomorrow," Orth echoed. Then he added, "Well, I think I'll head back into the reception. Care to join me?"

"No, not really," Will responded, shaking his head. "I've never cared for affairs like this. I was raised out-of-doors. These sorts of events make me feel very confined and uncomfortable."

"Ah, I see," Yarden said with a smile of understanding. "Well then, I will just have to chat up that many more Galgalians," he laughed.

"Better you than me!" Riker joked back. Yarden nodded. "Indeed!" And with that, the Betazoid scholar turned on his feet and headed back towards the ballroom.

As he watched the retreating form of his visitor, Will Riker's smile faded. The questions that he had suppressed during his conversation with Orth once again poured into his mind. And now he had one more to add to the mix: what was Yarden going to say to him tomorrow?

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

CHAPTER 7: An Odyssey

The next morning found the Titan's captain seated in his Ready Room, his long legs crossed and booted feet resting on the desk in front of him. Piled in his lap were several PADDs and the key board for his computer. He had thought that he would catch up on some paperwork before Yarden Orth, the Betazoid visitor, came to talk to him. And so he sat, scrutinizing the PADD in one hand and typing in data with the other.

Suddenly, the chimes to his door rang out. Riker was so immersed in his work that the sound startled him. He jerked involuntarily, and his lapful of PADDs went flying all over the floor. Looking around in surprise, he glanced at the chronometer on the desk and noticed the hour: 1100. "Oh shit," he muttered to himself as he realized who was at the door.

A bolt of nervousness shot through him as he called out, "Come in." The doors slid open to reveal the gaudily dressed Orth. Before entering, Yarden asked, "May I come in?"

Will cleared his throat and offered a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "Please do." Then he stretched out one foot and quickly started kicking the scattered data devices under his desk, hoping to hide his unplanned mess from his guest.

Orth laughed as he caught on to what the tall commander was doing. "Ah, I see you are a follower of my favorite kind of cleaning method: kick, stash and hide!" Riker looked up, a bit red-faced, to see only gentle merriment on his visitor's face.

"Yeah," Will stammered as he kicked the last PADD under his desk. "I was hoping you wouldn't catch me at it…"

"Don't worry Will," Yarden chuckled, "I *never* clean up what can be shoved under the bed." Offering a conspiratorial wink, he added, "It's a tried and true method, believe me! I've used it with 100 percent *success*" - his finger stabbed the air for emphasis - "for over 30 years!"

Orth's self-deprecating humor burst through Riker's tension and brought a genuine smile to his bearded face. For a brief moment, Will even forgot that he had been nervous at all. But then, Yarden cleared his throat, hinting that he was waiting for an invitation to sit. In an instant, all of Riker's tension rippled through him once again.

Orth picked up on Will's discomfort and decided to move things along himself. "Is it alright if I sit down?" The Betazoid gestured to the chair in front of Will's desk. Riker's crystal blue eyes followed his guest's hand. With a sheepish grin, he replied, "Of course, of course! Please sit down." Then, as he walked towards the bulkhead where the replicator was located, he asked," Can I get you anything?"

"Actually yes," Yarden responded with a pleasant smile. "A cup of valerian root tea would be perfect." The word 'valerian' caught Riker's attention. He turned his head in his visitor's direction. "Valerian? That's Deanna's favorite tea!"

"That's not too surprising, really. It is a very popular tea on Betazed," Yarden commented.

"Well then valerian root tea it is," Will smiled. "Computer, one cup of black coffee and one cup of valerian root tea, both hot." In an instant, the requested beverages materialized on the replicator pad. Riker picked them up, delivered the tea to his guest, and then went to sit in his chair behind the desk.

The two men sipped their drinks in awkward silence. Will looked to Orth's face and found the Betazoid scanning him with an inscrutable expression on his handsome face. That brought Riker back to the reason Yarden was here before him in the first place. And though that realization sent another bolt of nervousness coursing through him, he decided to take the initiative and start the conversation.

"You said you wanted to talk with me?" Will asked, masking his disquiet with a neutral facial expression.

"Yes, Will." Yarden locked his ebony eyes on the seemingly impassive face of the Titan's captain. "As I said last night, I do not like leaving loose ends behind." He blew the steam away from his hot tea and took a sip. Still staring at Riker, Orth continued, "And I do think there is a major loose end between us."

"Go ahead," Will nodded, "I'm listening." He put his mug down on the desk and leaned back in his chair, waiting for the Betazoid to continue.

With an acknowledging tilt of his head, Yarden began. "Informing you of my sexual orientation threw you." Riker opened his mouth to defend himself. "No, no, Will, you need not apologize." The Betazoid held up a hand to silence his host. Then, cocking his head at an angle, he asked, "What *is* most curious, though, is why it did throw you? You are, after all married to a Betazoid and are well aware that unlike Terran humans, we Betazoids have no discomfort about our sexuality."

That was the very same question that Will had asked himself repeatedly over the last day and an half. And each time he asked it, he could not find an answer. Or perhaps it was that he didn't *allow* himself to find an answer. And now here was Yarden Orth asking that very same question and he no more had answer for it now than he did when Orth mentioned his sexual orientation.

Riker began to stroke his beard, an act he engaged in while thinking or listening. In this instance, it was also a way to keep his nervous hand busy. "I suppose you are right, Yarden. But I have no answers for you." He shot a penetrating glance at his visitor's face. "Hell, I don't have any answers for myself…"

"Will," Orth said in a kindly voice, "I think you do know the answer." Will's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "But you must find it for yourself." In that instant, Riker felt as if he'd been exposed, that some dark secret of his had been revealed. And that feeling left him uneasy…

Yarden sensed Riker's disquiet but chose not to comment on it. Instead, he waited for his host to respond to what had just been said. A silence, heavy with tension and unasked questions, ensued.

The awkward lull ended with a speculative observation from the captain. "I think," he began tentatively, "that your admission made me wonder about how you really viewed me…" Orth nodded with understanding. Then Will went on. "I mean, up until then, it had seemed that we were just friends, buddies almost…"

"And we were friends and buddies," Yarden smiled. "In my mind, nothing has happened to change that, Will."

"Nothing has happened?" Riker asked with a note of sarcasm. "But for me, it has…"

Yarden understood immediately what concerned his host. "Look Will," Orth replied, "for me nothing *has* changed. Would you like to know why?" Riker stared at his guest, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer. But he decided that he might as well hear Orth out. He could deal with the repercussions later. With a half-hearted wave of his hand, Will invited Yarden to explain.

"Will, you need to know that from the moment I first saw you, I was immediately attracted to you." Upon hearing these words, Riker's heart began to beat harder and a red blush crept up to his cheeks.

Yarden continued, heedless of the captain's seeming chagrin. "You are everything I've ever wanted in a man: tall, handsome, brilliant, talented, well-spoken, charming, well-situated in life…" Orth looked down at his hands for a moment, then locked his eyes once again on the tall man across the desk. "Gods, Will, the fantasies I've had…," he sighed. "…What I would love to be doing with you, to you…And what pleasures I could give you…" A wistful expression settled onto Yarden's face as he cast an idle momentary glance towards Will's groin.

If he could have melted into his chair in that moment, Will Riker would gladly have done so. He could hardly believe what the Betazoid was telling him, let alone where he had directed his gaze. Riker's face flushed deep red with supreme embarrassment.

"And this is what you thought while we were together all those times?" Will asked in a tight voice.

"Not the whole time, of course not," Orth asserted with a snort. "But some of the time, yes…especially at night, when I've been alone in bed…" The Betazoid smiled and seemed to look right through Riker. "Ah, some of the best orgasms I've ever had…" he sighed.

With this final intimate confession, Will shot up from his chair. He had heard quite enough. He did not need to know every erotic detail of the Betazoid's private fantasies.

Yarden rose from his seat and caught the captain by his elbow. In a voice full of gentle sincerity, Orth said, "Please Will, you need to know two things that I learned a very long time ago. Things that might make a difference here." Riker turned on his feet to face his guest. "Well?" he asked, annoyance and sudden impatience filling his face.

Yarden gestured back towards the seats they had just vacated. "Can we finish this sitting? I think it would be more comfortable if we did." Without a word, Will walked back towards his seat and sat down. His irritation was nearly tangible by this point. "Go ahead," he growled.

Riker's angry gruffness did not deter Orth from speaking once again. "You need to know this, Will: that everyone has fantasies of all sorts, whether they admit it or not. And there is nothing wrong with that…" Will nodded, waiting for Yarden to continue.

"The only thing here that is different is that I voiced mine to you." Riker started to rise from his chair again. Orth raised a hand and begged, "Please let me finish." Will dropped back down into his seat, unable to deny the pleading tone of his guest's voice.

"You need to understand, Will, that thinking something is *not* the same as *doing* something." He studied Riker's face. "Now, you can't tell me that you haven't ever had fantasies about other women before you married Deanna?" Will's eyes went wide with surprise; again, he felt as if he'd been found out. Yarden saw the momentary shock register on the captain's face and knew in that instant that he had Will's full attention.

"Oh don't be so shocked, Will," Orth winked. "As I said before, *all* of us have fantasies about other people from time to time." Riker nodded sheepishly. The shorter man smiled and added, "And for me, coming from a planet where everyone can read one's mind whenever they want, there is no point denying or even attempting to hide anything that I might fantasize about…" Yarden leaned over the top of Will's desk and rested his elbows on the surface.

Riker's face was still filled with skepticism. Orth snickered. "Let me put it to you this way, Will…An old Terran rule that I think serves many people well…It's 'you can look all you want, but you can't touch'."

With the mention of that adage, Will's qualms began to evaporate slightly. He nodded thoughtfully, knowing that Yarden's words were true -- *all* of them…He had, indeed, fantasized about various women for years, but in most cases knew not to act on those impulses. He did a lot of looking, but far less touching. So how could he be upset with his guest doing the same thing?

As Will ran through this brief analysis in his mind, he found he was able to view Orth's opinions more abstractly and thus distance himself from the discomfort they generated. Quickly, he was able to shove his concerns and annoyance into a dark corner in the recesses of his mind to be dealt with at another time. And as he did, he felt his anger and tension ebb from him.

A relaxed grin finally filled Riker's features. The Betazoid noticed the change immediately. He offered a warm smile as he said, "I am glad we talked." He rose and reached out to shake Riker's large hand. "And now, good captain, I need to pack." Still holding on to Will's hand, Orth added, "It has been an honor and a pleasure working with you."

"And you too," the taller man replied sincerely.

The Betazoid turned towards the door to leave. Before stepping through the open entryway, he remarked, "Give my regards to Deanna…" The words "Captain Will" coupled with a mischievous snicker trailed behind him as the doors swished shut.

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

CHAPTER 8: Restless Night

Will Riker had spent years perfecting the art of burying disturbing thoughts or feelings deeply in the recesses of his mind. As a result, he was usually able to transcend his personal feelings and carry out his duties without a hitch. This was part of what had made him the successful if brash first officer he had been for so long on the Enterprise, and then later the respected and focused captain of the U.S.S. Titan. The afternoon that the Betazoid scholar, Yarden Orth, departed, that mental ability was what allowed Riker to avoid thinking about the issues that his visitor's revealed homosexuality raised. Instead, the Titan's commanding officer devoted his entire being to the running of his ship, as if the eccentric alien had never set foot on board.

Indeed, Riker hid those provocative thoughts so well that they didn't even surface again when he was relaxing in his quarters, sipping an after-dinner scotch on the rocks. Stretched out comfortably across the couch, the tall man let the ambient strains of 20th century jazz weave their calming magic. Little by little, the soothing tones stripped away the dross of the routine matters that made up his stint on the Bridge.

As the patina of his day's work receded, the tall man's eyes were drawn almost magnetically to the holopic that hung on the wall over the entertainment unit. It was one of the two of them taken at their Terran wedding, and one that often brought a smile to his face. Except when she was away, as she was now. And as happened during those other absences, the image of his beloved wife sent a jolt of painful emptiness through his soul.

"Ah Deanna…," Riker sighed, then asked, "Computer, what is the time?"

"It is 2400 hours," the device's mechanical voice responded.

"Shit," Will grumbled, staring at the holopic with intense longing. "Another 12 damned hours before I see you…" He crossed his arms over his chest, closed his eyes and rested his head on the top edge of the couch. As a grin spread across his bearded visage, he mumbled to himself, "Ah, but if you here now…" With those words, a familiar erotic scene began to play behind his lowered lids. Remembered sensations suffused his being - her taste, her touch, her sultry voice. Will's breath caught in his throat as a wave of tingling desire washed through his groin and hardened his manhood. Smiling at that awareness, the aroused man chuckled to himself, "Now that's the Will Riker I *know*…As straight as ever."

After a few more minutes of enjoying his steamy fantasy, Riker opened his eyes, sat up and slapped his hands onto his thighs. With a pronounced yawn, he murmured, "time for some sleep…Probably won't get much tomorrow night." A huge smile filled his face. "Not if I have my way about it!"

In short order, the Titan's captain was ready for bed. After he lay down, he pulled Deanna's pillow to him and wrapped his arms around it. Soothing hints of his wife's sweet fragrance wafted from the pillow and lured him gently into the realm of slumber.

For an untold amount of time, Will slept soundly, his rest unpunctuated by thoughts of any sort. Then a seemingly familiar dream began…Fingers….He felt the touch of fingers on his body. With light strokes, they traveled the length of his abdomen and left tingling paths in their wake. Then those instruments of pleasure traced provocative paths up his thighs, stopping just short of his hirsute groin.

Will smiled in his sleep. On a whisper he exhaled, "Deanna…" Still unconscious and on instinct, the aroused man pulled his pajama bottoms down enough to release his growing erection.

The fingers resumed their tantalizing movements, now more closely focused on Riker's genitals. With agonizing slowness, the digits ran lazy circles around his groin, ending with breath-stealing strokes down his hardened manhood. A stimulated groan rumbled out of Will's mouth.

In the next instant, warm lips and tongue replaced the fingers. With wet strokes, the oral trio alternately mouthed and then licked Will's genitals. Another grunt emerged from the sleeping man. And then his partner's mouth encased Riker's erection and began to suck it.

Up to this point in his erotic dream, Will had kept his eyes shut, just as he often did when making love with Deanna. He was intent on soaking up every pleasurable sensation that the fantasy lover could trigger. But then Riker opened his eyes in his dream, expecting to be met with the aroused visage of his Imzadi.

That face did not belong to Deanna. It belonged to Yarden Orth, and the hands that had now so skillfully brought him close to the edge of ecstasy were those of the Betazoid scholar as well. Will's eyebrows shot up in total shock and he opened his mouth to scream, but Orth gestured for silence with his index finger upon his lips. In the next instant, before Riker had a chance to react, Yarden locked his mouth over Will's. With a hungry sweep of his tongue across the taller man's lips, the Betazoid sought entry. The next thing Will knew, Yarden began to plunder his mouth with passionate abandon. And then the dream ended as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the slumbering captain of the Titan with the urgent tingling of unfulfilled sexual stimulation.

Only a few instants later, Will woke up to find himself sweating, rock hard and with his pajamas pants down around his thighs. The memory of Yarden's consuming kiss popped into his mind and sent a surge of heated energy into his groin, reinforcing his already rigid erection. In that instant, the aroused captain realized he had *liked* everything the Betazoid had done to him in his dream. No, more than that, he had *enjoyed* it!

"Oh Gods," Will breathed, now consumed by the insistent throbbing of his solid manhood. He tried to think of something else - anything else - that would allow his erection to deflate without masturbation. Riker forced images of Ferengi, of Cardassians, even of Borg into his mind, hoping for relief. But even those were punctuated by recurring views of Yarden Orth's handsome face, flushed with passion. And so his mental exercise left Will as stimulated and in need of relief as before.

With a muttered "Shit!" Riker wrapped his hand around his rigid phallus and began to stroke himself to the plateau that would give him the respite he sought. As he did so, he tried to focus solely on the act and on his mounting tension. "Focus, Riker, focus," he grumbled to himself, pumping his organ aggressively. "Just the damned prick. Nothing more." For a moment or two, he was met with success as the growing heat of his impending orgasm captured his entire attention. But just as he approached the crest of his release, once again the image of Orth's flushed face appeared in his thoughts. And it was Yarden's name that was on the libidinous man's lips as he exploded over the edge.

Will Riker lay on his bed, his now flaccid organ limp in his hand and seminal fluid soaking his abdominal and chest hair. He knew what had been in his mind and on his lips as he came; for the first time in many years, it was not his Imzadi. Viewing his soiled torso, he sighed, "Now how could that be?" The Titan's captain turned his gaze towards the holopic of Deanna that rested on his bed stand. Speaking to it as if she was really there, he commented, "You have been the only one I see when I come, Deanna."

Shaking his head, Riker sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. As he rose to a stand, he allowed his sleepwear to drop to the floor. With an absent-minded kick, he stepped out of the garment and made his way to the hygiene unit.

A few minutes later, Will had the water going in the shower. He opted for the coldest temperature possible; he wanted to force himself completely back into reality. Once the shower met with his approval, the tall man stepped into the stall and positioned himself under the cold liquid. As he lathered himself liberally with soap, he let his mind wander to his schedule for the day. As soon as he did, the realization that Deanna was returning that very day shot through him.

"Oh shit…What is Deanna going to think of this?" Riker slumped against the stall wall, the jets of water pounding him in the face. "What do I tell her?" He shook his dripping head ruefully. "Yeah right," Will answered his unarticulated question, "I can see it now…Oh Deanna, by the way, while you were away, I had these erotic dreams about your *male* friend from Betazed. And oh yeah, *his* face was what I saw when I jacked off…And I enjoyed it too…" He shoved his bearded visage more squarely under the streaming liquid. "Yeah, that will be just great."

He threw the bar of soap down onto the floor. "I can see the gossip making the rounds now: 'Hey, did you know that Captain Will had the hots for that Betazoid visitor?'" Again, he fell back against the wall of the shower. "And God knows…," Riker reflected to himself, "maybe it would even be true…" He crossed his arms over his chest. "And if it were, where would that leave me and Deanna?" His eyes watched a trickle of water forge a wet path down the stall door as his mind formulated its next thought. "Gods, I love her more than life itself…But I can't help what went through my mind, what happened in my dream…Would she even understand? How could she when I don't even understand it?"

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

CHAPTER 9: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

"Energize, lieutenant."

"Energizing, sir."

Will Riker acknowledged his subordinate's action with a slight nod. He stood opposite the transporter chamber and waited for his peripatetic wife to materialize on the device's pad. In the seemingly endless interval between his officer's echoed words and the humming of the transporter at work, a wave of equal parts nervousness and excitement surged through the tall captain, leaving his heart pounding out a wild rhythm and his stomach feeling as if it was full of fluttering butterflies.

Riker was normally not easily given to agitation. But the recent events surrounding the visit by Yarden Orth had left him singularly unsure not only of himself but also of what would happen to them once Deanna returned from her trip to Earth. And so the commanding officer of the Titan waited, twiddling his entwined thumbs behind his back, a sure indicator of his otherwise concealed perturbation.

A moment later, a sparkling silhouette began to coalesce in the transporter's chamber. In that same instant, the tension twisting Will Riker's innards was washed aside by a gentle, soul-filling wave of calming warmth. As that familiar sensation filled his being, a broad smile spread across his face. His troubled thoughts were in that instant a thing of the past and the name of the Betazoid scholar two forgotten words.

A travel-weary Deanna Troi materialized on the transporter pad. The long trip aboard the transport ship from Earth had left her uncharacteristically worn and rumpled looking. But all Will Riker saw was the most beautiful woman he had even known, let alone loved. Like a drunken man, for a seemingly endless moment, he stood and stared gape-mouthed at the exquisite vision standing before him.

Deanna beamed at her husband's obvious admiration and began to descend from the platform. Her movement shattered Riker's reverie. With an embarrassed blush, he stepped quickly towards his wife. Aware of the watching eyes of the officer at the control panel, the Titan's captain cleared his throat, slapped on a neutral facial expression and extended his hand towards his Betazoid spouse.

"Welcome back, Counselor." Potent blue eyes locked onto depthless ebony ones as Riker's large fingers wrapped around Troi's petite hand and held it as she stepped off of the transporter platform.

"Thank you, Captain." Deanna tipped her head demurely.

Will nodded towards the officer stationed at the controls. "As you were, Lieutenant." The officer acknowledged the command and watched as his superiors stepped out into the corridor.

Once outside the transporter room, Riker glanced quickly to his right and then to his left. Troi's eyes went wide in question, but before she could get a single word out, her husband had her bound up in his arms and his mouth sealed over hers in a searing kiss. Time was suspended as they lost themselves to a familiar oral choreography and heated trails left by caressing fingers, punctuated by needful groans.

After minutes seemingly without end, Deanna pulled her lips away from his and laid her hands on his solid chest. "Well," she breathed, "that was quite a hello, Captain Riker!"

"I wasn't quite finished, Counselor," Will replied in a thick voice. Again, he lowered his mouth towards hers. Troi placed her fingers over his lips. "Not here, Will," she whispered. "Someone could come around that bend any moment now." She jerked her eyes to the right to emphasize her point.

Her tall spouse shrugged his shoulders and gave her a devil-may-care look. Immediately, the Betazoid crossed her arms across her chest and cocked her head. "Is this the way you'd want to be seen?" With those words, she directed a pointed stare at his obvious and growing arousal.

A frustrated sigh exited Riker's lips as he righted himself. "As always, my dear Counselor, you are perfectly correct." Then a glint of mischief appeared in his clear blue eyes. "But I'm not done yet with my hello, so I'll just have to finish it later."

Deanna slapped her husband's arm playfully and shot back, "You know, there are some things in the universe that *never* seem to change. And your libido, William Thomas Riker, is one of them."

The Titan's captain nodded with an amused smile. "Well, isn't it nice to know that with the variability in the universe, there are a few things you can count on to remain the same?"

"Indeed it is, Captain," the Ship's Counselor responded, threading her arm around her spouse's. "Walk with me to our quarters?" she asked.

"You bet," Riker answered, now calming down from his earlier incipient passion. "But then I will have to return to the Bridge." He looked to see her reaction. She offered a reassuring grin. "I fully understand." She patted his arm. "In fact, I've got case files to get caught up on before I go back on duty tomorrow."

The two then fell into a companionable silence and walked to the nearest turbolift. After they stepped into the lift, the doors slid shut with a whooshing sound and he called out the desired deck. Both then leaned back against the bulkhead of the vehicle nearly at the same moment. Captain and counselor laughed at the way that they had come to mirror one another's behaviors in such situations. It was, they knew, the natural result of having known one another well for so many years.

Finally, Will broke the silence. "So, was your trip to Starfleet Medical as successful as you had hoped it would be?"

"Yes it was, Will. In fact, one of the reasons they shortened the conference was because my data and presentations were so thorough." Riker leaned over, kissed his wife on the cheek and murmured, "Well done, Imzadi." Then straightening up, he winked and added, "As usual."

Offering an appreciative smile, Deanna rejoined, "And I understand that your negotiations with the Galgalians were equally productive." Will's eyebrows arced in surprise. Troi patted her spouse on the hand. "I heard the news from a certain Admiral at Starfleet we both know well."

"Ah, I see," Riker nodded. He relaxed back against the turbolift wall. Once more, a comfortable silence filled the interior of the turbolift.

The Counselor's voice pierced the quiet a moment later. "It seems that Yarden Orth was indeed of real assistance to you on this mission." At the mention of the eccentric Betazoid's name, an unbidden wave of guilt began to wash through Will. In the next instant, in an effort to hide his feelings of iniquity from his wife, he slid a barrier into his thoughts.

His efforts were wasted. Just as Riker erected his mental shield, Deanna snapped her head towards him and exclaimed, "What was *that*, Will?"

"It was nothing," her husband responded, his face an inscrutable mask. Troi's dark eyes flashed with annoyance.

"That was most definitely *not* nothing, Will Riker," she shot back. "I felt a sense of guilt just now…" Deanna placed a gentle hand on the tall captain's arm. In a voice now laced with concern, she queried, "It was something to do with Yarden, wasn't it?"

Will's face was still unreadable as he replied, "It's nothing I'd like to discuss, Deanna." The Betazoid's eyes widened in question. Riker's features relaxed into a reassuring grin. He wrapped his hand around Troi's, gave it an affectionate squeeze, and insisted, "Really, it's nothing to worry about."

Deanna was skeptical of her partner's easy assurances. But she knew that Will Riker would only share with her what he wished to -- when *he* wanted to. And now was not that time. She only hoped whatever it was he was concealing was not as serious as it felt.


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

CHAPTER 10: Emanations

Later that day, Titan Counselor Deanna Troi sat on the sofa in her office. With her legs curled comfortably beneath her, she hummed a Betazoid folk melody to herself as she perused the data PADD in her hands. She'd been seated this way for a good hour and a half, absorbed in the task of catching up on some paperwork that had accumulated during her absence.

When Deanna completed her review of the patient file on that PADD, a sudden wave of fatigue washed through her. "Gods," she observed to herself, "all of that traveling took more out of me than I realized." Troi tossed the device onto a tower of PADDs precariously stacked on the coffee table in front of her. "Enough of that for now," she added emphatically. "Betazed was not built up in a day."

The Ship's Counselor sighed pleasantly as she stretched out her legs and settled herself into the soft embrace of the cushions. "Ah, that feels so nice." As she drew in a cleansing breath, her dark eyes focused on the holopic of her bearded husband. A knowing smile filled Deanna's face as she opened her mind to his mental emanations. An instant later, familiar waves of emotion began to wash through her, gently caressing her thoughts.

At first, Troi was met with a sense of tightly focused attention. She recognized instantly that the Captain of the Titan was fully immersed in the tasks of running his ship. It was a mindset she often sensed in Will Riker and had long ago grown to admire.

That concentrated intentness suddenly yielded to an explosion of intense guilt that pounded the Betazoid's mind so hard she nearly fainted. "Gods," she gasped as her hands flew to her head. But no sooner than she had caught her breath than her husband's mental barriers slammed down, cutting off his disquiet as quickly as it had begun.

"What was *that*?" Troi wondered aloud as she forced herself to take deep breaths. Her curiosity now aroused as to what else her spouse was feeling, she allowed Riker's mental energies to roll into her once more. Her cheeks blushed with embarrassment as his new mood broadcasted itself as if with neon lights. She didn't need to probe his actual thoughts to know exactly what was now in the man's mind. "William Thomas Riker," she snorted, "you horny devil! Duties, indeed!" And then Deanna -smiled broadly, for she knew what that portended for their time together later on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Captain of the Titan sat in his command seat on the Bridge of his vessel. Since parting with his wife earlier in the afternoon, Will Riker had been on the Bridge, absorbed in the multiple tasks of running the ship. When he wasn't busy reviewing PADDs that were presented from time to time by crew members, he split his attention between periodic glances at the view screen before him and reading department head reports on the computer monitor by his chair.

It was during his perusal of one such dispatch that Riker realized he had not read the summary that provided the background for that particular officer's report. Muttering a self-directed curse about ignoring the PADDs piling up on his desk, the captain rose to walk to the Ready Room. With purposeful strides, his long legs took him quickly across the Bridge and into the cabin in question.

As the doors to the Ready Room slid shut with a soft hiss, Will walked straight to his desk to retrieve the needed report. A hint of white caught his eye as leaned down to pick up the desired document off the desk's polished glassine surface. Riker knelt down to take a closer look. It was the corner of a PADD peeking out from underneath his desk. "Ah, it must have dropped from my lap yesterday when…," he murmured. But no sooner than he began the utterance than an image of a sexually aroused Yarden Orth, the gay Betazoid scholar, filled the tall captain's mind. Instantly, that memory triggered a tidal wave of guilt over the prior night's somnolent carnal fantasy. But in the next moment, filled with anger over losing control of his thoughts to his uninvited self-reproach and its triggering image, Riker rammed his fist hard against the side of his desk. "No! I will not think about this!" His curled hand thwacked the surface of his desk again as he stuffed his troubled emotions deep into his mind, locking them deep behind a mental barrier.

Shaking his throbbing hand as he rose, a gruff "Shit that hurts" exited Will's lips. Then his eyes spotted the holopic of his wife. Instantly, a memory of the sweet taste and feel of Deanna's mouth during their earlier kiss entered the captain's mind, pushing all pain aside and bringing a crooked grin to his lips. "Oh Gods, what I would have done to you if you hadn't stopped me," he muttered. The thought sent a charge of tingling warmth to his groin. "Well Imzadi, just wait until tonight!"

~~~~~~~~~~~

That evening, the Titan's captain and ship's counselor sat at the dining table in their quarters. The space was washed with the flickering light of a myriad of candles which cast dancing shadows about the walls. Quiet notes of soft jazz wafted in the air, punctuated by the muted hiss of spoken words and the clink of silverware on china.

Despite the occasional bits of casual conversation, Will and Deanna spent most of the meal in companionable silence. Reveling in one another's company after her enforced hiatus, each was deeply satisfied simply to be together and drink in the wonder that was the other.

Finally, Deanna sighed pleasantly, put her fork down and pushed her plate away. "Ah," she smiled, "I couldn't eat another bite."

"Not even if it were real food instead of this replicated substitute?" Riker's eyebrows rose in amusement.

"No, not even then, Will." Troi leaned over the table and wrapped her fingers around her husband's large hand. "There is nothing like being able to eat in one's home." Riker nodded, an understanding smile spreading across his bearded visage.

The Betazoid's expression turned serious. "Will, I felt some very strange things coming from you this afternoon…" A frisson of nervous surprise shot through the tall man, as though he'd been found out. Deanna's eyes went wide and her fingers tightened their grip around his hand. "What was *that*, Will?"

Riker recovered quickly from his mental stumble and instantly shoved all thoughts of Yarden Orth deep into an inaccessible corner of his mind. Before his wife could get another word out of her mouth, Will grinned broadly, arose and pulled her to her feet. Offering her his most knee-melting, charming smile, he said, "Dance with me, Deanna." And then he came around the table and drew the petite woman into his arms.

Troi opened her mouth to push her inquiry. Will shook his head, put a finger across her lips and leaned down to murmur in her ear. "Dance with me, Imzadi." Tightening his solid arms around her torso, he enmeshed his fingers in her thick tresses and rested his bearded cheek on her head. Then he allowed himself to be drawn into the hypnotic sensory mix of his beloved's intoxicating scent, the warmth of her feminine curves pressed against him, the soft strains of music coupled with the mesmerizing movements of their dancing. And in that moment, that was all that he knew: the fullness of his senses.

Wrapped in her tall husband's embrace, Deanna moved in tandem with his practiced steps. As was so often true, his gentle swaying had a calmative effect on her. In short order, any questions she might have thought of asking were lost to the intimate warmth that enveloped both her body and mind.

After a seeming eternity spent in their dancing embrace, Will murmured, "You know, as I recall, I had some unfinished business left over from this afternoon, Imzadi." Then he brought his lips to the edge of his wife's ear and brushed them ever so lightly along it. Her resulting gasp of pleasure brought a smile of success to his hirsute features.

Riker put his finger under Deanna's chin, tilted her face upwards from his chest and leaned down to offer a gentle kiss. "Does this remind you?" he breathed into her mouth.

"What do you think?" she smiled, pressing her lips to her husband's.

"I think you taste wonderful…" Will replied, devouring his wife's mouth. With hungry stabs of his tongue, he initiated a familiar dance of oral passion. The Betazoid responded in kind, parrying her husband's thrusts with her own.

After a seeming infinity, Riker broke the kiss and locked his desire-filled eyes on the flushed face of his spouse. "And I want to make love to you." Will wrapped his large hands around his wife's slim shoulders and began to push her down towards the carpet. "And that, Deanna Troi, is what I'm going to do right now."

"Right here?" Deanna questioned in a surprised whisper, crushed by the powerful waves of ravenous sexual hunger that now emanated from her husband.

"Yes, Imzadi, right here. Right now." The tall man straddled the Betazoid's prostrate body and began to shower nipping kisses along her neck and the edges of her ears. "You are so beautiful…," he murmured. He opened the top of his wife's tunic and slipped his knowledgeable fingers in to work certain magic upon her inviting breasts.

Deanna moaned as Will began to caress her hardened nipples. Each stroke sent pulses of charged heat shooting into her womanhood and deep into her belly. In turn, each throb of pleasure resounded across their inscrutable bond, fueling Riker's own single-minded passion and hardening his member beyond belief.

"You like that, do you Imzadi…?" He lowered his mouth to one of her rosy buds and began to suckle it.

"Gods…," was all the overwhelmed Betazoid could utter.

"No, it's just me," Will breathed as he moved to minister to her other breast. "Just you and me." He ran his tongue in taunting circles around her nipple. "No one but you and me…" His warm tongue now massaged the hardened tip. "And no worries about someone coming around the bend…" He kissed his way back up Deanna's flushed chest, along her neck and to her full lips while his hands opened her uniform up the rest of the way.

"No reason to stop now, Imzadi," spilled out of the hungry man as his lips closed over his wife's. Riker plundered Deanna's mouth with an abandon born of sudden near-desperation. But no sooner had Will begun his aggressive assault than Deanna's eyes flew open. In an instant, she had her hand cupped over her husband's lips. "Imzadi!" she interjected in a concerned voice. "What are you desperate about?"

The truth of Troi's question sent a withering bolt to Riker's erection and a splash of cold reality into the sexual haze that consumed his senses. In an instant, he clawed together his true feelings, shoved them safely in an inaccessible recess of his brain and growled, "I just want you so badly…"

Deanna scrutinized her husband's seemingly innocent expression. "That, William Riker, sounds like a line if I ever heard one…"

"A line maybe," Will breathed, "but still true…" He ran his index finger lightly down the side of her neck, then placed a butterfly kiss there. "I've missed you, Imzadi…"

"I see," Deanna smiled, wrapping her hands behind his head and enmeshing her fingers in his hair. "I could understand that…" And with that, she pulled her husband's lips to her own, inviting him to join her in a sensual oral dance.

"I'm glad you do," Will grinned as he met Deanna's kiss. For an untold span of time, he lost himself once again to the pleasures of her soft mouth and warm tongue. The taste and feel of her consumed his attention.

At the end of that delicious kiss, Riker pushed himself up onto his elbows. Staring down at his Imzadi with hungry eyes, he murmured, "You are so beautiful." He began drawing the zipper on her uniform down further. "I want to see all of you…"

Will planted a kiss on her already-exposed chest, and continued to pull down the fastener on her tunic. The sight of each exposed inch of her body sent bolts of throbbing passion through his gut and to his groin. He hardened once again. And this time, all that filled his being was his hunger for the beautiful woman facing him.

Again he joined his lips to hers. And as he reveled in the jousting of his tongue with hers, he became aware of fingers working to open the front of his tunic. Without breaking her oral union with her impassioned partner, Deanna swiftly opened his uniform and began to peel it back, exposing his hairy torso.

In the next moment, blind passion overtook them both and they scrambled to divest one another of their clothing. In short order, the offending garments were strewn about the living room floor, leaving the hungry pair free to satisfy their carnal cravings.

Will then paused to survey the shapely Betazoid before him in silent wonder. For though he wanted nothing more in that instant to sheath himself in her warm womanhood, he could hardly believe how stunning she was. Especially now, with her face flushed and her chest heaving with desire, her nipples erect and waiting for him to work more magic on them.

Again he breathed, "You are so beautiful." And then he began to suck one of Deanna's breasts, then the other - this time, back and forth, back and forth. His oral ministrations triggered spasms of exquisite tingling in Troi's groin and belly. She ground her hips into his erection and wrapped her fingers around it. With each of her masterful strokes, a guttural groan rumbled out of Riker's mouth.

"Oh gods, I have got to have you now," Will growled suddenly. Deanna nodded and spread her legs wide. "I'm ready for you, Imzadi." Quickly, he sheathed himself in her wet folds. "You feel so wet…" He rocked his pelvis. "So ready…" Again he thrust himself into her. "So wonderful."

"Please Will…" Deanna moaned, for she was as aroused as he was. She grabbed his buttocks as if to pull him in even deeper than he already was. "Now!" His final thrust set off their releases. In the next instant, blindingly powerful orgasms ripped through both of them, stripping them of all conscious thought and opening their inner beings to one another in utter exposure. Except for one corner of Will Riker's mind. The tiny corner into which he had shoved all of his concerns and feelings about Yarden Orth. And despite the overwhelming sense of orgasmic delight she shared with Will, some part of Deanna Troi knew that her soul partner had not opened himself totally during that moment of supreme melding.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 11: Locked Away

One afternoon a couple of weeks after Deanna Troi's return to the Titan, the ship's captain decided to visit the Forward Lounge for an off-duty drink. After getting a drink from the bar, Will Riker walked across the room to his favorite table by one of the view ports. On the way, he exchanged brief pleasantries with the other officers present. It was one of the ways, both formal and informal, in which he maintained a personal touch with his crew.

Once at his table, the sight of the passing stars caught his attention. Instead of sitting down as he had planned, he leaned against the cool glassine surface of the port to look out. The steady movement of celestial streaks before his eyes had a mesmerizing effect, drawing him into a meditative frame of mind. In that state of awareness, words and active thought faded. In their place was a heightened awareness of the soft cacophony of the lounge, the brightness of the stars, the coolness of the port against his shoulder. It was a sweet respite from the chaotic swirl of thoughts that usually filled his mind.

Slowly, like leaves floating down a gently flowing stream, images and sensations began to trickle through his consciousness. Deanna's depthless ebony eyes…her sultry voice…hints of the lilac fragrance of her freshly-washed hair…With utter but pleasant randomness such impressions tumbled through his being, filling him with an inner warmth that only his Imzadi could create. In turn, his growing sense of inner well-being brought forth a smile that was equal parts profound love and supreme satisfaction. In the next moment, his chest heaved with a contented sigh.

Will lost track of time as he continued to lean against the view port, letting his mind fill itself with thoughts of his wife. Soon, a familiar presence began to tickle the edges of his mind, pushing aside his reverie. A delighted smile spread across his face as he turned to see Deanna approaching him.

"To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Counselor?" Riker inquired as he pulled out a chair for his spouse.

"I had a gap in my schedule of patients today and thought a visit to the Lounge would be a nice break." She sat down and allowed Will to push her chair back in. "A break that just got much nicer," she added with a grin.

"For me as well." Riker offered her a friendly wink. He then reached across the table and wrapped his large fingers around Troi's petite hand.

"So how are your patients today?"

The Betazoid drew in a deep, relaxing breath. "Fine…Just the usual assortment of worries and needs."

The Titan's captain nodded, his eyes focused attentively on the ebony ones of his wife.
Deanna smiled as she drank in her husband's interest in her day's work. It was one of the things she had always loved about Will Riker: his ability to make her think that her work as ship's counselor was the most important thing in his universe.

"Any particular crew concerns?"

A light went off in Troi's mind. This was the opening she had been waiting for. Ever since her arrival aboard the Titan, she had sensed intermittent fleeting moments of guilt and anxiety in her husband. And during their love-making, normally a time of complete openness to each other, she was aware that there was a part of Will's being that was locked away from her. And though he had assured her there was no problem, Deanna knew that something was definitely wrong. Wrong enough that if left unaddressed, it would fester and infect not only their relationship but Riker's ability to function as a ship's captain. And now, as if handed on a gold platter, here was the perfect opportunity to push the matter out into the open.

Deanna nodded solemnly. "Yes, actually, Will, there is a crew member that I'm worried about."

Riker's eyes darkened with concern. "Is this someone that I know?"

Troi smiled slightly. "I believe you do."

"So," Will inquired, "what seems to be the problem with this officer?"

Deanna steepled her fingers on the table before her and paused before responding. Then she locked her ebony eyes on Riker's clear blue ones. "Well, it's difficult to say."

"What do you mean, it's difficult to say?" Will exclaimed, his eyebrows now arched in confusion.

"This officer won't talk to me about what is troubling him. But I do know that something is," Troi replied.

"You sense it?"

"Yes, I sense it, Will," Deanna said.

"I see," Riker nodded. "Is this affecting his performance in any way?"

"Not now, Will. But I have no doubt that it will soon enough. Whatever is bothering him can only sit unaddressed for so long before it will begin to slow his judgment. Not to mention what effects it might have on his personal relationships on board."

The Titan's captain studied the earnest face of the ship's counselor. "This sounds serious, Deanna," he intoned after a moment of thoughtful silence.

"It is."

"And you say he won't talk to you about it?"

"Well, in actuality, he insists that it is nothing to worry about," Troi responded.

"You know, Deanna, I could order this officer to talk to you…," Riker began. Deanna shook her head and opened her mouth to reply. But before she could get a sound out, he added with a smile, "but yes, yes, I know, Counselor, this isn't a proper therapeutic approach."

The comely Betazoid giggled her agreement. "Very good, Captain." With a merry wink, she added, "I see you're learning."

"One of the added benefits of living with a trained psychologist, Counselor."

"Indeed it is, Captain."

A pleasant silence descended on the couple. For a timeless moment, they sat together, simply enjoying one another's presence. It was a pleasure they had less time for now that they were married and on their own ship, and so they treasured the moments they could get.

Will was the first to break the quiet. "So what do we do about this officer's problem?"

Deanna leaned forward in her chair, closing the distance between her and the tall man across from her. "Why don't you tell me?

Will's eyes went wide with surprise. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me," Troi murmured. She stared at him expectantly.

"I'm sorry," Riker stammered. "I think I missed something here…"

"No, I don't think you have, Will." Deanna knew it would be only a matter of time before Will would make the connection, and so she waited in patient silence. All the while, she watched his handsome features intently.

Riker took a brief moment to consider what his wife had just said to him. An officer who had something on his mind but wouldn't talk about it… Someone who had not yet been impacted by his reticence, but would be… An officer he knew well…

And then understanding hit him like a ton of rocks. A flush of embarrassment crept across his face as he realized that all along, Deanna had been talking about him. *He* was the one who had a problem nagging at him that he would nonetheless not talk about…

"It's me, isn't it?"

"Yes, Will, it's you." Troi reached out and placed her hand over her spouse's and squeezed it. "And you need to get out into the open that secret that is festering inside of you. Because Will, whatever it is, if you keep it in, it *will* affect your ability to function as this ship's commanding officer…And it will create problems between us as well."

Riker drew in a tense breath, body language the Betazoid did not miss. Offering a comforting smile, she patted his hand. "I know a great place to talk."

"Now?" Will asked.

"Yes, Will, now. No more hiding this away." Deanna stood up and began to pull her companion from his chair. "Besides, I guarantee that you will feel better after you talk to me about it."

"Guaranteed you say?" Riker let out a nervous laugh.

"Absolutely."


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 12: Opened Doors

The doors to the ship's arboretum slid shut behind the Titan's Captain and Ship's Counselor. Deanna Troi smiled as she gestured towards the space's verdant interior. "This looks like the perfect place to talk."
Will Riker eyed the area skeptically. He was none to sure that this was such a great spot to discuss personal matters. But then again, truth be told, no place would be good for that purpose. Having always been uncomfortable talking about his feelings, he was not looking forward to revealing ones he felt were particularly embarrassing, and the locale of the coming conversation would do nothing to change that. Indeed, as he continued to scan the arboretum, his gut churned with nervous anticipation.

"It will be okay, Will. I promise," Troi murmured as she placed a comforting hand on her husband's arm. Riker responded with a wan grin. "Yeah, great."

"Here, let's go this way." Deanna pointed to a corner set off by the hanging tendrils of a thicket of weeping willows. The indicated location brought a crooked smile to Will's face as a memory of the last time they were there flashed across his mind. For an instant, he heard again their impassioned duet of gasps and pleasured moans and felt her skin, soft against his.

Riker's moment of fantasy was shattered by a slap on his arm. "That, Will Riker, is most assuredly *not* why we are here now," the Betazoid at his side snorted.

"Hey, can't a guy hope?" Will feigned amused innocence. A glance at his wife's non-nonsense mien brought an abrupt end to his moment of humor. "I guess not…," he muttered.

Soon enough, they found themselves in the secluded corner beneath the sheltering fronds of the willows. Without a word, they sat down on the rustic bench set in the center of the space. The silence between them was thick with tension.

Deanna spoke first. "Talk to me Will…" She locked her ebony gaze on Riker's face. "Tell me what you are hiding from me."

The Titan's captain looked away from Troi and began to pick non-existent lint off of his uniform sleeve. And then inexplicably, all of the feelings and doubts that he had managed to sequester exploded into his mind with the intensity of a detonating photon torpedo.

The sudden onslaught of her husband's conflicted emotions hit Deanna like a tidal wave, nearly knocking her over with their intensity. She grabbed the edge of the bench to steady herself and drew in a calming breath. Then Troi began to speak in measured tones. "Your torment is so strong, Will, that it nearly overwhelmed me just now. But you should know that I truly do not know what has you so troubled." Riker looked up at these words, an unspoken question mirrored in his face.

"Yes, I know I could have read your thoughts surreptitiously if I'd wished." Will stared at his wife, his gut twisted into a nervous knot. Offering a reassuring smile, Deanna continued, "But that would have been a violation of your privacy, Will." He nodded in agreement.

"And it would not have done you any good had I done so. You need to be the one to *tell* me what is in your mind."

A world of emotions tumbled wildly in the tall man's psyche. His attraction to the recent Betazoid visitor, Yarden Orth, vied with questions about his own sexuality - he, Will 'the Thrill' Riker, who had always been drawn to women like a moth to the flame. Overlaying this was a feeling of supreme guilt…Guilt over what he felt to be two-timing his beloved Imzadi, even if only in his nocturnal fantasy life. And how, how could he tell her…she, who had been hurt repeatedly over the years by his sexual wanderings…especially now that he was married to her? Would she not think he was doing the same thing yet again? How could he begin to share this without risking damaging his relationship, not to mention his marriage, with her?

Deanna's sultry voice broke into his tortured thoughts as her hand alit onto his arm. "Whatever it is, Will, it can't be that bad." Though Riker did not respond, his eyes bespoke skepticism.

"Okay, Will…Tell me, did you kill someone while I was away?"

Will's eyes went wide with surprise at her question. "Of course not!" he snorted. Troi had to smile at the strength of her husband's response. After a moment's chuckle, she continued. "Then I can hardly believe that what you did - or what you *think* you did - warrants the guilt and conflict that I sense from you now."

"You would if you knew," Riker mumbled, looking down once again at his hands.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," Deanna said. "What was that?"

"Nothing, nothing." The Titan's captain resumed examining his sleeves, as if expecting to find something on the immaculate fabric.

A ponderous silence fell over the couple seated on the bench. It was broken when the Betazoid spoke once again. "It has to do with Yarden Orth, doesn't it?

The utter surprise of hearing his wife speak that oh-so provocative name sent Will's heart slamming into his throat. The words "Oh shit, she knows" flew through his now spinning brain. He was too shocked to block his explosive reaction from spilling across the psychic bond he shared with Deanna.

Her husband's overwrought feelings buffeted Deanna powerfully. She struggled to remain upright, then spent a moment centering herself before she placed a reassuring hand on Will's arm. Drawing in a calming breath, she locked her dark eyes on his now-tortured features.

"What happened with Yarden, Will?"

Riker mumbled an undecipherable response. Hunched over and not meeting his wife's gaze, his guilt radiated off of him like heat from sun-baked pavement.

Still resting her hand on her husband's arm, Troi looked away. What about her Betazoid compatriot could have made the otherwise unflappable Will Riker so desperately uncomfortable? Certainly, it was neither Orth's outlandish sartorial tastes nor his melodramatic manner; Will had experienced far too many exotic aliens over the years for such things to bother him. And in every other regard she could think of in that moment, Yarden Orth seemed rather just the sort of warm fellow that her spouse would in fact enjoy being with. Deanna shook her head in dismay at having hit a dead end so quickly.

Letting out a soft sigh, Troi leaned back against the bench. It was clear that confronting her husband was not working. So, she decided just to talk about herself for a bit, hoping that might prompt him to open up a bit. She slid her hand off of Will's arm and rested her hands on her crossed legs. Still not looking at the troubled man beside her, she began to speak.

"You know, Will, my mother made growing up very difficult for me in many ways."

Riker turned to look at his wife, his eyebrows cocked high in curiosity. He was intrigued by what she had just said. Over their years together, she had said many things about her childhood and her mother, but never quite this.

"It's hard enough living in a world where everyone can listen in on your thoughts on a whim." Troi stared at the gently swaying branches before them. "But it was made infinitely worse by having a mother who thought nothing of intruding into my thoughts, and then telling me exactly what she thought of them."

Will placed his hand on Deanna's knee and gave it a loving squeeze. "I can't begin to imagine having to deal with that… Having someone judging me for what's in my mind…"

Troi casually rested her hand atop her spouse's, but did not look at him. "It was very hard for me as a young child. Even though my mother has always been a free spirit in many ways, there have been certain kinds of thoughts or feelings she would never hesitate to judge me for. And so I learned that there were things that had to be hidden away, or else suffer the wrath of my mother."

A whispered "a fate worse than death" slipped out of Will Riker's mouth before he thought the better of it. But the errant remark was immediately met with Deanna's soft laughter.

"For me as a child, that is how it felt," she responded, growing instantly more serious. Then she straightened her posture, now sitting upright on the bench. "But when I grew older, I realized something very important things…and I made sure my mother never forgot them."

"What were they?" Riker asked quietly. He did not wish to break the spell woven by his wife's reminiscing.

"First, that thoughts are just that - thoughts. And that we can no more control our thoughts than we can our breathing or the beating of our hearts..." Troi turned her head to see her tall husband nodding in agreement. Smiling at the sight of his engagement in her therapeutic process, she continued. "The second lesson is that one should therefore not be judged not by one's thoughts, but solely by how one acts. It is in fact a realization that many Betazoid children come to as they mature…"

"A very wise people, your children," Will opined, grinning in appreciation.

"I like to think so," Deanna responded pleasantly. Then she added, "And thank goodness for that, because if I were to be judged for some of the thoughts I have had over the years, I would have been shipped off to a Cardassian prison years ago!"

Riker's eyes went wide with surprise. "You? Thoughts that bad? Never!"

"Oh yes, Will, me!" The Betazoid's thin shoulders shook with laughter. "My thoughts…and some of my dreams too!" She offered a mischievous wink to Will's shocked expression and continued, "In fact, you should have heard what I was thinking while I was waiting to present my findings at one of the conferences. The officer who spoke before me was so dull, I couldn't keep my mind on what she was talking about…So I stopped trying…"

"Do I even want to know what you were thinking?"

"Sure, why not?" Deanna smiled. "You weren't planning to send me off to a Cardassian prison, were you?"

"Don't worry, your secrets are safe with me." Will patted her arm in mock reassurance.

"Well, at first, all I could think of was how terribly boring she was. She had this horribly monotone voice, and never once looked up from her materials," Troi began.

"Sounds deadly."

"That's not the worst of it," Deanna responded.

"It's not?" Will's eyebrows rose in question.

"No… You know, statistics have their place in any scientific presentation. But when they make up the *bulk* of that presentation…and the speaker is taking forever reading them…in a monotone, no less…well…"

"Sounds like a great time to take a nap," Riker laughed.

"I didn't have that luxury, as I was up on the dais next to her and in front of the audience," Troi sighed.

"Poor Imzadi…," Will patted her arm in sympathy. "So what *did* you do?"

"Well, as I said, that's when I let my mind wander…And oh the places it went!"

"Care to give me a tour?" her husband inquired, focusing his blue eyes squarely on the Betazoid's fine features.

"Sure," she nodded. A devilish grin then crept across Troi's face as she began to speak. "You know how at the Academy we were trained in the use of a variety of weapons?"

"Yes," Will responded hesitantly, not sure where his wife was going.

"Well, in my mind's eye, I started using the speaker for target practice…I had her running back and forth, like in an old-time shooting gallery from 20th century Earth."

"You didn't!" Riker was genuinely shocked to hear Deanna's fantasy. He couldn't believe she could take such pleasure from highly aggressive thoughts. For while Deanna Troi could fight with the best of them if the need arose, she was one of the most non-violent people he had ever met.

The Betazoid's grin broadened. "Oh, yes I did. In fact, it was rather fun, Will." Then, in response to her husband's stunned expression, she squeezed his large hand in reassurance and added, "But no harm was done, Will…Remember what I said: these were only thoughts…I never would have acted on them."

"I see," Riker said, still amazed at the idea that his gentle wife could find enjoyment in such hostile sentiments. "Do I dare ask what else you had running through your mind while this unfortunate woman was speaking?" he then asked.

"Of course you can ask, Will," Deanna smiled. "And I don't mind telling you, although, of course, this is not for general consumption. After all, it wouldn't do for the crew to know all the private thoughts of their Ship's Counselor, would it?"

"Of course not, Counselor," Riker replied.

"Well, after I dispatched the poor woman numerous times with a phaser set on various levels, it then occurred to me that if we'd all been Betazoid at the conference, she could have been taken care of so easily."

"How do you mean?" Will asked.

"Well, can't you see it? A room full of Betazoids, with each one thinking what an awful bore this woman was…And then those thoughts get projected to the speaker. She hears in her mind a hundred voices saying what a horrible presenter she is…"

The tall man laughed heartily. "That is so mean, Deanna!"

"Isn't it?" Troi joined in her husband's merriment. "And so aggressive of me…Even bitchy…But it was such an entertaining thought at the time!" Then, still smiling, she looked her spouse in the eye and added, "But again, Will, it was just a thought, and one you know I wouldn't act on. Even if I could, I would never actually project such thoughts onto someone else - nor encourage anyone else to do so."

The two officers lapsed into a pleasant though expectant silence. They stared once again at the willow's delicate branches dancing gently in the artificial breeze. And in the silence that reigned, the Counselor sensed that her companion seemed far calmer now.
Troi wondered if she had gotten him to the point where he might talk about what had been bothering him. She might just be able to get him to do so if she presented her inquiry as a continuation of the theme of private fantasies such as the ones she'd just shared. She decided to try.

"I could see you were pretty surprised by some of the fantasies I just spoke of," Deanna began.

"Yeah, I guess I was," Riker agreed.

"But you know that I felt it was okay to share them, because you and I both know I would not act on them…" Troi drew in a breath, then continued. "Oh, I was pretty involved in that target practice scene…And I sure did enjoy blasting her atoms all over the room, which I know is very aggressive of me…" She chuckled once again.

Then the sound of her spouse's surprised intake of breath drew her gaze back to his concerned face. She took his hand once again in hers. "Will, Imzadi, everyone has all sorts of thoughts and feelings, as surely as one breathes. What distinguishes the average person from the criminal or the insane is the degree to which he or she acts on them. As I said before - and as you well know - I would never do such a thing. And why? Because although those feelings are in me, I choose not to have them be an active part of me. Nonviolence is important to me, and so I *act* accordingly."

Riker stroked his beard as he contemplated his wife's words. They made such sense to him. She had just told him some pretty amazing private thoughts. Indeed, truth be told, he was shocked by the naked aggression she had shared. Clearly, there was a part of her that was highly belligerent. But he knew with absolute certainty that she would indeed never act on such impulses.

Could it be the same for him and his feelings towards Yarden Orth? And what of them? He had made no more sense of them in the time his wife had been back from the conference than when the provocative Betazoid was aboard. Could she help him understand them?

His musings were interrupted by his spouse's gentle voice. "I just shared with you, Will. Did you have anything you wanted to share with me?"

The tall man's heart began to pound nervously. Again, his innards clenched in anxiety. Waves of guilt began to radiate off of him once more. And in his mind, all he could focus on were those fantasies about the Betazoid scholar and his personal and sexual self-doubts.

Should he finally tell her? He so much wanted to be unburdened of them. He was tired of having to keep a barrier up to shield his thoughts from his wife. Still, despite her reassuring words, would she still judge him amiss if he expressed his troubling erotic feelings and questions?

Will looked into the depths of his Imzadi's dark eyes and saw nothing but genuine concern. In his being, he sensed only her assurance and acceptance. And in that moment, he knew that now was the time to finally unload his burden. Drawing in a deep breath to steady himself, he began to speak.

"Before you left, Deanna, you told me that Yarden Orth was a very interesting fellow."

Troi nodded. "Yes, I did."

"But you neglected to mention one fact about him," Will continued. Tension began to creep back into his voice.

"Oh really? And what fact was that?"

"That he is gay."

Deanna apprehended instantly that this was at the heart of her spouse's disquiet. And she knew that he desperately needed to rid himself of it in order to regain his equanimity. So she focused on helping him open up further.

"And what difference would that have made if I had told you?"

"Maybe to avoid the feelings I had when he did tell me," Riker replied in a tight, almost angry voice. And as soon as those words left his lips, he asked himself why he was angry. And why with her?

"And what feelings were those?" Troi pressed, already aware of what those feelings had to be. And in that moment, she saw that Will was finally ready to share what had been eating away at his core ever since she returned from the conference.

The tall captain looked away from his companion's face. A slight blush crept across his bearded features as he answered, "Erotic ones…"

"About whom, Will?" Deanna realized that her husband letting his feelings out only a millimeter at a time. With an inward sigh, she steeled herself; if that's the only way he could do it, then she would wait patiently for him to get it all out as slowly as he chose.

"Yarden Orth." Will's voice was now barely audible, as if he were a chastised child. Guilt washed off of him in waves.

"I see," Troi commented in a professional manner, steadying herself internally against the powerful ripples of self-reproach emanating from her companion. "And why does that trouble you?"

"Why does that trouble me?" Riker nearly roared. He slammed his fist onto his knee. And as if someone had pulled a cork out of a bottle, Will's pent up distress finally came pouring out of him. "Why does that trouble me? Why shouldn't it? I'm married…to a woman…and I'm having thoughts about someone else…erotic thoughts…I'm getting erections over a man, for god's sake, Deanna…jacking off even…"

He couldn't stop. With the force of something kept back too long, his words spilled from his mouth. "I've never looked at another man that way before in my life…Never…I was always 'Will the Thrill", the guy with an eye for the ladies…And speaking of ladies…I'm married, damn it….I shouldn't even be thinking of someone else, *any one else*, that way. Period. I caused you enough pain with that sort of behavior in the past…And now, here I am, even though I'm married to my soul mate, the moment you're gone, here I am lusting after someone else…Shit, Deanna, it's like I can't stay loyal to you, even after all this time…"

Deanna took both of Will's hands into her own. Looking into his tortured blue eyes, she asserted firmly, "Will, I don't doubt your loyalty to me or to our marriage, for even one moment."

He stared at her in disbelief, a dense cloud of self-doubt and loathing wrapping itself around him. "You can't be serious. After what I just told you?"

"Oh, I am completely serious, Will," Troi rejoined, still being buffeted by her spouse's turbulent emotions. "And very much *because* of what you just told me."

The tall man shook his head. "I don't understand…"

"Will, the very fact that you are battling with yourself so powerfully tells me how strongly committed you are to me and to us," Deanna explained in a gentle voice. Squeezing his hands for emphasis, she continued, "If you weren't committed to me, you would not feel so conflicted."

"But what of my wandering thoughts?" Riker asked, not yet ready to cease his self-flagellation.

"Remember what I said a few moments ago, Will," Troi replied. Her husband's eyes widened in question. Patting his hand, she explained, "Our brains are wired for ideation, just as surely as they are for regulating our bodies. And just as our hearts beat consistently without conscious effort, our minds generate thoughts, dreams and ideas automatically. Sometimes, those thoughts or dreams have a specific source or association and sometimes they don't. But thoughts are just events in our minds, Will - nothing more. What makes them good or bad is what we do with them."

"But I…," Will began to object.

Deanna cut him off. "Did you propose having a relationship with him, Will?"

"Of course not!" Riker snorted.

"So what you had were some uninvited fantasies and erotic thoughts about another person."

"That's putting it mildly," Will grumbled.

Deanna touched his arm tenderly. "Will, we *all* have untoward thoughts about people from time to time. That is perfectly normal. They are just some of the random events occurring in our minds. Again, what makes the difference is whether we act on those sorts of thoughts or not. You didn't."

Will sighed. "Okay, I can see that…" Then, caught in a new wave of self-loathing, he clenched his fists yet again and snarled, "But hell, those thoughts were still about a man!" Troi opened her mouth to reply, but Riker cut her off. "And it wasn't just a series of thoughts…" He slapped an angry hand against his thigh. "Damn it, Deanna, I fucking masturbated thinking about him!"

The Betazoid once again rested her hands in her lap. "And that clearly troubles you."

"You bet it does, Deanna," Will agreed in a tight voice. "And I'll bet you're going to tell me that *those* thoughts are normal too," he snarled.

Troi chose to ignore her husband's renewed anger. While she understood that it stemmed from his confusion about his feelings - something Will Riker never tolerated readily in himself - she knew that if she played to it, he would not be able to move beyond it and heal. And so she continued to speak in her most professional manner.

"Indeed they are, Will." Her words were met with his bitter laughter. "Now I *know* you're joking, Deanna."

"Will," Troi began, "all humans -- and Betazoids as well -- have behaviors and feelings that exist along a spectrum of possibilities. Sexuality is one of those spectrums. But because of that very fact, it means that most of us have a bit of that whole spectrum in us; very few are purely heterosexual or homosexual. And since most of us have at least some of that mix in us, it is perfectly normal for different parts of that mix to be expressed periodically."

Riker jerked his head up at her words. "Do you mean what I think you do?"

Deanna nodded. "Yes, Will, I mean that you, like most people, are a mixture of sexualities. In your case, heterosexuality is the dominant trend in your makeup. But you still have some homosexual impulses from time to time, because there is a homosexual component to you as well. So, it would be perfectly natural and normal for you to respond as you did."

"And you aren't bothered by the fact that I masturbated while thinking of him?" The tall man's voice had grown small, sounding like an insecure child.

"No, I am not, Will," Troi replied. "It's not unusual to have someone's image pop into mind while masturbating. And given that Yarden was dominating your thoughts at the time, it is not surprising that his face is the one you saw as you climaxed."

Will Riker let out an audible sigh of relief. He fell back against the bench as the last traces of his anxiety and anger receded from his being, leaving him exhausted. Turning his head to take in his Imzadi's face, he was filled anew with profound love and appreciation for the amazing woman sitting next to him.

Deanna smiled at him. "Better?"

"Yeah, I think so," Will whispered, reveling in the feeling of being liberated from the shackles of his self-imposed emotional torture of the last few weeks.

Troi leaned over and planted a soft kiss on her companion's bearded cheek. Riker grinned and commented, "It's all a question of choices, isn't it?'

"Yes, Imzadi, it's all about choices."

"I'm so glad I chose you," Will said as he wrapped his arm around the Betazoid's slim shoulders.

"As I am that I chose you, too, Will," Deanna beamed back. And for an untold amount of time, the two Titan officers sat in grateful silence. The gentle whisper of the swaying branches drew them further into contented serenity.

A moment later, Riker's mien changed. A hungry leer wiped away the previous moment's calm. "You know, I just had a thought, Deanna…Once of those random mind events you just spoke so eloquently about."

Troi did not miss either her husband's provocative expression or the waves of desire now emanating from him. She giggled as she waited for what she knew was coming next, for she had no doubt as to what Will's mood was now.

"Well…we *are* in this lovely, *very* secluded copse…" The tall man leaned over and kissed the edge of the Betazoid's ear. "And right now, I'm choosing to do this…" Will drew her face to his and began to nibble her lips.

"Oh, I think I like this choice of yours," Deanna murmured back against his mouth. "I hope you are planning on making more choices along these lines now…"

"I am, I am," he said, pulling her dark tresses away from her neck. "Computer, lock holodeck doors…"


THE END