There was no response. Will Riker paused for another moment, stepped across the holodeck-created stream and then called again, but there was no sign of the woman running the program. Nevertheless, he knew she was here somewhere, and he was pretty sure why. Still making his way alongside the flowing water, he was caught off-guard by the accented voice behind him.
"I suppose Beverly told you her decision."
He turned around to face her; there was no one there.
Riker obediently tilted his face upward and immediately grinned. Deanna Troi was perched a good ten feet in the air, between two tree branches which were each about as thick as her waist. Her legs were pulled up in front of her, and she was in civilian clothing. She also appeared to be sulking, which made Riker grin even wider.
"She told me."
Troi made a rude noise. "It figures. You two get to swan off back to work while I get stuck with - with this." She swung one arm wide to indicate the idyllic setting.
Riker turned in a slow circle, taking in the program she was running. "It's not that bad," he answered in what he hoped was a consoling tone, but he couldn't hide his expression. Troi glared at him from her tree-seat.
"You don't have to worry. It's not you who's been put on suspended duty until you feel well enough to go back to work." Angrily, she kicked at a stone that had somehow made its way into her perch. It skittered across the bark and fell, rolling onto the turf to land with a resounding 'plop' in the stream.
Riker watched it, feeling Troi's eyes watching him. He studied the water where the pebble had entered, stalking deliberately close to it, then slowly raised an eyebrow and looked back over his shoulder.
"There was no need to get violent, you know."
"Oh, you!" Troi stood up and, purposefully he was sure, kicked a shower of small stones and bark in his direction. All of it fell short of her target, but it was enough to make him turn away for a moment. When he turned back, she was no longer there.
"Deanna!" He turned full circle, watching out for any sign of her. "Deanna, where are you?" When there was again no response, he sighed and set off up the bank for the tree she had been sitting in. As he approached, he saw the path she had taken; a route through the thin bushes that he hadn't been able to see from further down the slope. Beyond it was a lake, and above that a waterfall -
And then he realised where he was.
She didn't turn when she heard him coming. Didn't speak, didn't react at all until he sank onto the rocks beside her, staring out at the same spot in the Falls that she was. Probably seeing the same memories that she was, albeit from a very slightly different perspective.
"Hasn't changed," he said absently. Troi looked at him, bemused.
"It wouldn't. This is a program of Betazed in twenty-two fifty-seven. Janaran Falls, on the outskirts of the Jalara Jungle," she added automatically although she knew he didn't need it. He gave her an odd glance and she smiled sheepishly, looking back out to the water. "Sorry. I'm just used to explaining whenever someone finds me in here." He looked surprised.
"You use this program a lot?"
Troi smiled. "I'm surprised you've never found me running it before." She pulled her arms tighter around herself, despite the fact that the air was warm. It never got really cold on Betazed, even in the wintertime, and especially not in the Jalara Jungle. Not when they'd been there, anyhow.
"Fifty-seven." He glanced at her. "Before or after?"
Troi put her chin down on her forearm. "About a week before we were here the first time."
Riker blinked. "It's that accurate?"
"There are certain... differences... afterwards," Troi reminded him.
He had the good grace to withhold a snappy comment, confining himself to, "I guess so."
They were silent for a long while, but they still seemed to be communicating as they watched the Falls. They never really stopped doing that, he mused as he followed her gaze over the clear water. Now, for instance, he could tell something was bothering her and that it wasn't only Crusher's order for her to take time off.
"I don't understand it," Troi said quietly after a while. He didn't bother to ask what she meant. "I mean, I would if you were both taking time off as well, but why me? I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me." She turned her gaze on him, as if daring him to contradict her. Riker just smiled slightly; if he waited long enough, he knew he wouldn't have to: Deanna would do it herself.
Sure enough, after they had been watching each other for a good five minutes or more, she stood up and marched up the bank. "Computer, exit."
He followed her through the doors that appeared at the top of the steep bank, ignoring the moss-dampness on his uniform - it would be gone as soon as he was out in the corridor. She was walking fast, but he matched his stride to hers as she continued talking.
"I mean, I feel okay, I really do. I just... there's something I can't... I just want to get back to my normal life, without all of this - this mayhem that's been going on lately." The turbolift obediently snapped open in front of her and she walked in, Riker beside her. "Deck eight."
"You know," he started, but Troi just looked at him and he stopped. "Okay. Fine. Have it your way." She continued watching him, and he began to realise something was definitely wrong. "What?"
She frowned. "What are you doing here?"
Confused and a little worried, he tried to lighten the situation. "Going to deck eight?"
Troi shook her head. "No, I mean - what are you doing here? I thought you'd stayed on the holodeck."
Now he was worried, and beginning to be seriously so. Hadn't she been talking to him? Hadn't she noticed him walking alongside her? Something was going on, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
"You didn't notice me?" He managed a smile, although Troi saw right through it. "I should be hurt by that, I think." Her reaction was completely unexpected, as if a wild animal had been let loose within her.
"You should be hurt? You?! You have no idea!" Anger flared in her eyes, along with other emotions he couldn't identify before the doors opened and she all but ran out, stalking down the corridor and swinging into her quarters without a backward glance.
He waited until she was safely inside before leaving the lift; even then, he approached her door with more than a little trepidation. It was tempting just to go into his own cabin next door, but he couldn't do it: he couldn't leave Deanna like that, not without knowing what was wrong and what he could do.
Taking a deep breath, he pressed the buzzer. There was no response, but he wasn't going to be deterred. He pressed again, about to go for a third when she answered. "Go away!"
"Deanna," he pleaded.
"I don't want to talk to you!"
Riker sighed. "Maybe not, but I have to talk to you." He punched in the access code and let the door slide open. He went quickly into the darkness, letting the door close to hide them from those passing through the corridor.
Troi was curled in a chair on the far side of the room, huddled in on herself in the same way she had been on the holodeck. She turned away as he came close, hiding her face. "I said I didn't want to see you."
Riker sat down slowly, carefully, on the nearest end of the couch. "No, you said you didn't want to talk to me. We don't have to talk, but I have to be here. You know that." Still turned away, she nodded. He reached across and took her chin lightly in his hand, turning her to face him. She was trembling, and her face was wet with tears.
"Deanna..." She tried to turn away again, and he didn't stop her. She had to help herself, he knew that much, but it didn't stop it hurting. "Deanna, what's wrong? What did I say? If you just tell me-"
"Go away! I don't want you here! I don't want you here!" Sobs welled up inside her, and she wrapped her arms more tightly around herself. "Leave me alone, just leave me alone...."
She looked up in surprise and shock. "W-what?"
"I said, no. I'm not leaving you here on your own like this. Know why? Because I know, and you know, that no matter what you say you don't want to be left alone, by me or anyone else." She was perfectly still, staring past his shoulder, the tears still falling down her cheeks, but he knew she was hearing him. "Deanna, please, I can't help if you don't tell me anything - and I want to help you, I want to take care of you. Please, Imzadi. For your sake and mine, please, let me help." He dropped onto the floor beside her, taking her hands gently in his. She looked down at him, her expression desperate and - afraid?
"Deanna," he whispered softly, "it's okay. Everything's gonna be fine, I promise, just let me help you." She paused... and then it was as if a floodgate had been opened. The sobs welling up inside her spilled out and she collapsed into his arms on the floor of her quarters, sobbing desperately. Riker, for his part, had this part down pat. He pulled her close to him, cradling her against his chest; he rocked her tenderly as she cried, stroking her hair, telling her everything was fine. "Shhh, it's okay, Deanna. It's all right, just let it out. I'm here, Imzadi. I won't let anything happen to you..." It came to him with a wry flash of memory that he'd said most of these words before, in the jungle they'd sat in not half an hour previously. "Everything's over now, Deanna. You're okay, you're okay..."
"I'm not okay!" She jerked her head up, staring him in the eyes. "Can't you see, I'm not okay! Oh, Gods, Will..."
"Sshhhh..." He put a finger on her lips, curling his fingers and stroking her face reassuringly. "Listen to me. You will be fine, Imzadi. I promise."
"How can I be fine when - when I hate you!?"
The force of her words struck him like a physical blow. "You hate me?" he asked slowly, quietly, unable to keep the hurt from his voice. Fresh tears filled her eyes.
"No! I love you, Will... I - I..." she shook her head desperately, burying her head in his shoulder. "I don't want to, I can't help it, I'm so sorry..."
"Deanna," he said in the lightest tone he could manage, "you're starting to confuse me a bit here." Despite her tears, she smiled very slightly at his attempt at amusement. "Now start over and tell me again." He tried to sound objective, knowing that was what she needed right now. "You hate me."
"No!" she protested, but she couldn't look at him. He lifted her chin, unprepared for the emotions he saw in her eyes. "Yes," she admitted, so quietly he could barely hear her. "But I don't want to..."
"Well, then we have something in common," he said lightly. "I don't really want you to hate me either." He paused, lifting her face and lovingly wiping away the tears, and glanced around, gesturing to the floor. "Not very comfortable down here, is it?" He saw a flash of - something - in her face, then it was gone as he helped her up onto the couch. "I'll get us a drink, and we can talk about this without my losing all the sensation in my butt." Troi smiled again; a little wider this time. She probably saw right through his humor, he realised as he took two hot chocolates from the replicator, but at least it seemed to be getting the job done.
He approached her again with a reassuring expression, carefully holding out the drink to her. "Peace offering?"
Despite herself, Troi almost laughed - which only served to further confuse her, and him, about what she felt toward Riker. She loved him, of course she did, it would be impossible for her not to... but she couldn't help seeing him in the back of her mind, the one who was Will Riker but wasn't, not really, because Will would never do that to her...
Sensing her indecision along with the fact that she was more comfortable without having to look him in the eyes, Riker gently edged her forward and swung one leg behind her. He sat so that her back pressed against his chest, his arms wrapping around her, warming her; she was shivering, even in the temperature-controlled room. But somehow, as he held her, he knew it had nothing to do with the cold. Her hands were shaking: he set his own mug on the table and covered her hands with his, steadying her grip. He held it for her as she took a sip, then took it completely as she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" he asked gently, as lightly as he could. He didn't want to upset her even more by getting angry with her, or make her reject his help again. "Whatever it is, I must be able to help somehow."
She shook her head slightly, calmer now. "Will, I don't know if you can. It's hard enough for me to understand what's going on in my own mind - I don't think I can explain it to you."
~Then don't try, Imzadi,~ he sent to her gently. He felt her shy away from his touch for a moment, but she controlled the fear - she was afraid of him, he realised in shock - and pulled herself closer to him, holding his arms around her shoulders almost protectively.
~I'm sorry, Will, I'm so sorry,~ she whispered. He started to ask what she meant...
...and then he saw it, saw himself, standing in her quarters - what was that sound? Coins? Too outmoded... chips. Poker chips, falling, a tinkling sound as they showered from the open box in her hand. Him, then; his voice drowning out her apology, telling her to go, that he'd do it...
A goodnight kiss, that was where it had started. He'd been drinking - only synthehol, of course - and so had she, but not as much. The memories shifted: he was lowering her to the floor, his hands on her shoulders, leaning down to kiss her. "*Have you stopped thinking about us, Imzadi? Just answer that...*"
"*Imzadi, we can't. Not while we're serving on the same ship...*"
And that was where it had stopped.
But it didn't. Shock, anger, despair, disgust pervaded him. It should have stopped, now! He'd never done the things he was seeing afterwards, never hurt her the way the - the image of him was hurting her. Tears stung his eyes and he shook his head fiercely, trying to rid himself of the thoughts, the horrible images. It couldn't have been that, it couldn't have been... He'd never done that to Deanna, he couldn't do that to Deanna, he loved Deanna...
Memories false and true faded into blackness, and he felt tears of guilt and anger soaking his cheeks. Deanna was curled on the floor below him, watching him silently. He wanted to say he was sorry, to tell her it would be okay the way he had before, but he couldn't. Nothing he could think to say was good enough to heal the pain in her eyes, to take away the horror of what she'd been through.
"Deanna..." He pushed back the tears that were still threatening. "I didn't - it wasn't me, I know it wasn't. I wouldn't-" He choked on the word: Deanna pulled herself up into his embrace, hiding her tears against his shoulder. Her arms wrapped around him, as tightly protective as his were about her. He buried his face in her hair, rocking her back and forth. "I wouldn't hurt you, Deanna, you know I wouldn't hurt you," he whispered against her dark hair. "God, Imzadi, I love you more than anything..."
"I know. I know," she murmured back. As he lifted his head to look her in the eyes, and she wiped away the tears staining his face, he was no longer sure who was comforting who. "It wasn't you, Will. It was J-Jev." She paused, trying to hold onto the control she had regained, and roughly brushed at the tears in her eyes.
"Shh." He pushed her hands away, cupping her face in his palm and replacing her quick, angry touch with his own tender caress to wipe away the moisture on her cheeks. "Take your time," he said calmly, belying what he really felt. "I don't think I'm going anywhere." She smiled a little and nodded, huddling further into his arms until he thought she was about to bury herself in his chest cavity. Once comfortable she said nothing; he matched her silence with his own, his only movement one hand slowly, calmly stroking her hair.
"I love you," he said quietly after a long while.
Deanna didn't move, but her reply was equally as weighted. "Stay with me."
"Tonight?" She nodded. "All right."
There was no more conversation for hours; he didn't realise why until he felt her arms relax around him and looked down to see her eyes closed in sleep. He fought back the emotions the sight brought: yes, of course he wanted them to be lovers again - he'd never stopped wanting it, but there was more to deal with now than just his desires. Or was it just his desires that needed dealing with? He shook his head forcefully. It had not been him in the memory she had shown him, he had to remember that. It had been Jev, the Ullian, who had hurt Deanna and then left Riker to pick up the pieces. He felt a flash of hatred at the thought of the other man's name; Deanna stirred in his arms at the sensation of such a strong emotion and he quickly pushed it away. "Go back to sleep," he whispered, leaning down to kiss her forehead and murmur in her ear. "I'm staying the night, remember?"
She settled at the sound of his voice: he waited a few more moments, making sure she was still asleep, before lifting her carefully and carrying her into the bedroom. He laid her down on one side of the bed and sat lightly beside her, sliding his hand into hers as he looked around. He'd been in her bedroom numerous times, but he felt somehow different now - as if he were prying, unwelcome.
"Never, Imzadi." Her voice was gentle, but firm; he turned back to look into her eyes.
"I thought you were asleep."
"I was," she returned. "Will, you've never been unwelcome in my life, you know that." Concern filled her tone as she sat up. Riker drew his fingers across her cheek, smiling slightly.
"I know. I just thought, now..." He sighed. "I sympathise."
She frowned, confused. "With what, exactly?"
He gave her a rueful smile. "I don't know what's going on in my mind right now either." Troi smiled thinly, knowing where their conversation was heading. Riker saw it too, moving around the bed to sit next to her. He reached out and drew her into his arms again, and she came willingly.
"I'm going to cry again if we start this now," she warned him. Riker smiled and held her closer.
"Me too, probably. I'll make you a deal; you don't tell anyone I cried, and I won't spill the beans about you."
Deanna gave a watery laugh, settling her head against his chest. "Deal." He took her hand, shaking it, which made her smile. She noticed, however, that he didn't release her hand afterwards - not that she was willing to let him.
"So." He tried to put an air of finality into the word. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really," she confessed; looking down at her, he could see her already fighting tears. It had hit her hard, not only what had happened but his 'part' in it - and his reaction, he realised.
"We don't have to," he reassured gently. "If you just want me to stay tonight..." She nodded gratefully and he let her slip out of his grasp. She rose and went to the closet, pulling out a robe and nightdress to sleep in. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching her as she shook out her hair and brushed it back before changing into her robe. He turned his back as she did that part, although he could tell by her body language that she didn't mind. When had Deanna ever been shy around him? he reminded himself. They'd met in the nude, for God's sake. Which brought him to a very pertinent point;
"Mind if I go next door and grab a few things?" He rested his hands on her shoulders for a moment. "Unless you want me to sleep naked, of course." He saw that something flash through her eyes again and cursed his idiocy. "Oh, Deanna, I'm sorry... I didn't think."
"It's all right. Really." She smiled, a little too brightly. "I'll take a shower while you get your things."
"Okay." He nodded, turning to leave, and then stopped. He reached out and gently took her arm, drawing them close, and kissed her softly on the cheek. She turned her face into his, savouring the warmth and familiarity of his presence. He held her for a long moment before letting go; he glanced back as he left her quarters, but she had already disappeared hurriedly into the bathroom.
His own quarters were only next door, which equated to just around the corner by the size of the main crew cabins. It took him only a few minutes to throw what he needed into a carisak and snap it closed, slinging it over his shoulder. Striding purposefully from his bedroom to the door, he paused suddenly at a picture on a nearby shelf. It was of Deanna, much younger than she was now but just as beautiful, back when they had first met on Betazed. They had parted without truly saying goodbye, and he had realised she had wanted - needed - it to be that way when he had opened his luggage on the Potemkin. Somehow, she had managed to slip the holopic into the top of the bag, and it had been the first thing he had found when he unpacked in his new quarters. He had missed her desperately during those first months... if he was truthful with himself he had missed her all the time they had been apart, missed her even now despite the fact that she was only a room away.
With a final, tender glance at Deanna's picture, he set it back on the shelf and walked out, toward the reality of her.
He let himself into her quarters. He'd had the access code for years, she never changed it, and they hardly ever requested permission to enter each other's cabin any more. The lighting was down, and he realised she must already be in bed.
He walked into the bedroom and set his carisak down, glancing over at the bed. Deanna was, sure enough, sleeping with one hand underneath the pillow and the other under her head, in the classic pose of the sleeper. He fought down a rush of love at the picture: it had been longer than he'd realised since they'd slept together, let alone done anything else.
She stirred under his gaze and he looked away, reminding himself how sensitive she could be to his emotions. He kept himself purposefully facing away from her as he undressed and slipped into loose shorts and a t-shirt. They were comfortable to sleep in, and he wouldn't upset her by unintentionally hinting at something she didn't want.
He quickly performed the necessary ablutions in her bathroom, before returning to her side and carefully drawing back the covers so that he didn't disturb her. God knows how long it'll take her to get back to sleep if she wakes up now, he thought quietly to himself. He seemed to be successful; she moved away as he slipped under the covers, then nestled unconsciously against him as he settled himself into the sensation of sleeping with Deanna in his arms. He was so preoccupied with the strange familiarity of it that he didn't notice her eyes drift open, looking up at him without a word. Their gazes met; without thinking, unable to think, he lifted one hand and cupped her face, turning it up to his...
The kiss was soft, gentle, barely there. He expected her
to pull away; instead she drew them closer together, returning his embrace. ~Oh,
Imzadi,~ he heard in his mind. ~Please help me...~
"Well, you know what they say." Toying with a strand of dark hair that was snaking onto his pillow, Will Riker smiled tenderly and looked down at Deanna with gentle amusement and understanding. "When you fall off, you just have to get right back on again."
Troi smiled. "In other words, when something bad happens to me, I call you."
He grinned and kissed her forehead, settling back under the covers. "You did that a number of times, that I recall." Troi made a dismayed noise and made to push him out of their shared bed. He held onto her to keep from moving, pressing her up against him with his face next to hers, and kissed her.
"You're despicable," she murmured without a trace of sincerity.
"Thanks," he replied evenly. The expression on his face changed abruptly, and he gently stroked her hair as he looked up at her. "Deanna, are you okay?"
"Yes." She couldn't help but smile at his concern for her. "Better than I have been for a long while." She pressed her face into his shoulder, huddling contentedly up against him. "It's been a long fall, but I finally got back on again." The mischief in her voice made him regard her with a bemused grin: she put a finger on his lips before he could speak. "No smart comments about that turn of phrase, Will Riker."
He grinned and kissed her finger; she withdrew it and turned her face up to his, supplanting it with her lips for a long, tender kiss that lasted until he knew for a fact that his lungs were out of air. He backed off just enough to catch a breath, fingertips playing over her face.
~Love me?~ she asked with a questioning smile. He grinned.
~Was that a request?~
Troi answered his grin with her own. ~It might have been.~
~I'm ready and willing.~
She smiled and ran her fingers through his hair, tidying it loosely into his usual style. ~So am I, Imzadi.~ Leaning over, she kissed his forehead and smiled fondly down at him. ~And that's all your doing, you know.~
~I'm just glad it's no one else's,~ he answered silently as she made herself comfortable on the pillow close beside him. "I've been waiting a long time to get my chance with you again, Imzadi."
"I suppose, then," she said slowly, "we have something to thank him for." Riker didn't have to ask who 'him' was, and wouldn't have needed to even if her thoughts weren't as open to him as they were after the previous night.
"I'm still going to floor him if I ever get the chance," he assured her fiercely. "No one should be allowed to get away with what he did to you."
"And you," she reminded him. "And Beverly."
"That's different," Riker protested. Troi smiled, in full counselor mode.
"Hardly. He chose an equally horrific focal point for you, didn't he?"
He shrugged, but there was no point in hiding anything from her. She'd seen it rise to the top of his thoughts. "You're sweet to be so protective, Will."
"Isn't that what I'm here for?" He sighed as she awarded him 'the look'. "I just don't like seeing you get hurt," he confessed. "And seeing myself doing... what he did, it was..."
"Not the most pleasant experience," she finished for him, keeping her tone deliberately light."
"To say the least." He held her tight, afraid suddenly. "Deanna, you know I could never hurt you. I would never let anything happen to you, let alone do something like that myself..."
"Will." She cupped her hand against his face, her eyes meeting his. "Listen to me; I don't blame you for what's been happening to me. I know it wasn't you, that you wouldn't do anything to hurt me. You helped me, Will." The memory that surfaced was obvious to them both. "You seem to make a habit of that."
He smiled and shrugged. "Everyone has something they're good at." Deanna laughed lightly.
"I'll try not to make a habit of giving you too much work to do in future."
"Pay's good," he retorted, adding in a soft tone; "I don't mind the work, either."
Deanna smiled lovingly, gratefully. "You've done a good job," she assured him. "I can separate what Jev made me see now from what really happened - I do remember how that night actually turned out," she informed him with a smile. "Though I never told you how much I regretted it."
The wry smile that had lit his eyes before returned at that. "You know, sometimes I feel like the Universe is laughing at us. We've been given so many chances together, and somehow we always seem to make a unique mess of things every time."
Troi smiled and lifted her head to glance through the window at the stars beyond. She stared out for a long moment and then frowned, as if at an errant child, before deliberately palming the metal shutter. As she settled back down, he looked at her quizzically. She smiled and leaned in to kiss him. "If it can't see, then it can't laugh at us, can it?"
Riker pulled her close, taking her face in his hands, and kissed her thoroughly with all the passion in his heart and soul.
"I don't think it is laughing this time,