This story is written as a sequel to "One Blue Rexa and Four Diamonds," which is listed in the AOL Star Trek fiction archives simply as STORY ST-TNG, with an upload date of 7/09/95. While this can be read alone, it would make more sense after reading the first story. If you can't find a copy, e-mail me at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll provide it. Any comments may be sent to either address.
Since I began the first story, bits and pieces of the rumored plot of the next ST-TNG movie have appeared on the net. Obviously, this story doesn't follow that plot line. But since I deeply dislike most of what is rumored to be in the next film, I'll rely on fans who understand Trek better, evidently, than the powers that be, to guide me along. To all of you who have offered words of encouragement or asked for a sequel, here it is.
One Blue Rexa, Continued
by SJ McHale
Deanna Troi reasoned from the doorway that she could cross her entire guest cabin in 15 steps or less. She even counted as she walked across the tiny living area to the closet by the bed. Fourteen. Missed it by one.
Well, at least she had a bed and a private room. Much of the Enterprise crew slept on cots in makeshift quarters and cargo bays. Until the USS Farragut reached Starbase 133, everyone was making sacrifices. Everyone except Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his first officer, Commander William Riker. They had the two VIP quarters which, granted, didn't offer the luxury they had been accustomed to on the Enterprise, but still provided more than one tiny room.
It had taken more than 14 steps to catch Will at his bedroom door the night before. As Deanna's thoughts drifted back to the previous night, she began to feel weak in the knees. With only minutes of reflection -- most of them while she was running through the corridor -- she had set aside years of caution to return to the arms her Imzadi. Now, dropping onto the edge of her bed, she wondered if she had made the right decision.
She loved Will, of that she was certain. And she knew he was capable of loving her with an intensity she would never feel from anyone else. When he had fallen for her on Betazed, she had been both thrilled and overwhelmed by the depth of his emotions. So much so that she was willing to leave college without graduating to meet him six weeks later on Risa for the beginning of a lifetime together.
When their plans fell through, she wondered if she would ever get over him. While she didn't agree with Will's assessment that she had been punishing him these many years, she knew she had built inner walls to protect herself from the emotional turmoil he caused in her. How else could she have survived those first few months on the Enterprise when the tension between them was constantly tearing at her? Had they resumed their affair in the beginning, she would never have earned the crew's respect. She would simply have been the first officer's lover who also happened to be the ship's counselor. And Will had also made it clear that being married would interfere with his plans to captain his own ship.
As the years passed, and neither seemed willing to pressure the other for more, they settled for being friends. There had been times when it seemed they might rekindle the spark. They had enjoyed relaxing shore leaves together, including one on Betazed that might have led to romance if a stupid Ferengi hadn't kidnapped them. And even casual kisses after evenings together had occasionally made her long for what they'd once had. Time and again, however, those thoughts had given way to her practical side or to her anger at Will's roving eye. How many times had an uninvited, lusting female made her feel like a third wheel by joining them at a table in Ten Forward?
"Stop it," she whispered aloud. It was time to leave those old hurts behind and start over with Will. They had wasted too much time already. Her eyes fell on the digital clock above her dresser. "Speaking of time . . ." In ten minutes her next appointment would be at the door, so Deanna hurriedly changed from the jumpsuit she had worn for an afternoon of poker with her friends, to a uniform. A few minutes of sorting through old jewelry turned up a chain that was suitable to slip through the ring Will had given her. She was just fixing the clasp behind her neck when the door chime sounded.
"Come in!" Deanna hoped he voice sounded welcoming. She could think of many things she would rather be doing at the moment than working.
The door opened to reveal Alexander, Worf's young son. That he was upset when he stormed over to her was obvious. "Father said you aren't with us anymore."
Deanna sat at the small table by the bed and motioned for Alexander to sit in the other chair. "What did your Father tell you?"
"That you went back to Commander Riker. I thought you loved us."
"I do love you, Alexander."
"Then why are you going to spend your leave with Commander Riker and not us?"
"I can't really explain that to you. Besides, we aren't sure we're going to get leave. We could all be reassigned as soon as we reach Starbase 133."
"You mean I'll never see you again?"
"I'm sure Captain Picard will do all he can to keep us together. But it will be several months before another ship is ready. Starfleet may need our help in other places until then."
Alexander's brow furrowed. "Are you going to marry him?"
"Then you'll have children of your own and you won't need me anymore." He jumped to his feet and started toward the door. "I won't need you, either."
"Alexander, wait!" Deanna grabbed his hand and forced him to face her. "I will always need you. You're very special to me."
He pulled his arm free. "I have to go."
"Can we still be friends?"
Alexander started to say something else, then was obviously relieved when the door chime sounded.
He nearly ran into Lt. Evelyn Marjola as she entered. "Is he okay?"
"He's a little upset."
"Oh, yeah. I heard you dumped his father."
Deanna looked stricken. "Word certainly travels fast."
"Lt. Commander Worf's mood when he called a totally unnecessary security briefing spoke volumes."
Although she wanted to be angry, Deanna found herself smiling. Evelyn was one of her favorite people. A petite blonde married to one of the tallest men on the Enterprise, she viewed that and most situations in life with a delightful sense of humor. "What else have you heard?"
"That you and randy Riker are hot and heavy again."
"I'm sorry. Commander Riker. What we meant was -- "
"I know what you meant." Deanna laughed. "Accurate, if disrespectful."
"I'm sure you'll tame him."
Deanna elected to change the subject. "You and Lt. Marjola seem to manage marriage and careers."
"We decided a long time ago to (a) never compete, (b) to follow whomever got promoted first, and (c) that I look the best in a uniform." She curtsied before sitting down.
"So, what do you want to talk about?" Deanna asked.
Evelyn's smile disappeared. "When the Enterprise was going down, I crawled under a table, shrieked like a banshee, and covered my head with a cushion. It was not a pretty sight."
* * * * * *
Commander William Riker's footsteps were light as he patrolled the corridors of the Farragut. He smiled at faces he recognized and nodded politely at those he didn't. Being on this ship even a short time had made him appreciate -- and miss -- the majesty of the Enterprise.
He had heard rumors about the ships Starfleet was building at Utopia Planitia. Larger, faster, higher tech. No doubt, there would be greater emphasis on weapons if fears of war were running as rampart as he had heard. A few days ago, he would have foamed at the mouth for a chance to command one. Now, though, he had other reasons to enjoy life, regardless of what happened in his career. Still, if the opportunity came... His grin was fixed by the time he exited the turbolift near his quarters. It weakened only when he saw Worf.
"Commander," Worf said with a formal nod.
"I am making security rounds."
"Good. Don't let me get in your way." Will tried to step around the large Klingon, but his path was blocked.
"Commander, you and I must talk through this if we are going to continue to serve together," Worf said.
"My quarters?" Will fell into step behind Worf, passing him only when they reached his cabin. When the doors opened, Will gestured for Worf to go ahead. He half expected a hand to grasp his throat, but Worf surprised him by going to a chair and sitting down.
"I do not have to tell you of my feelings for Deanna," Worf began.
"No, Worf, I know how you feel about her." Will sat across from him. "And you know how I've always felt."
"I asked if you cared before I began seeing her."
"As I recall, you were pretty vague about the object of your affections. If you had asked permission to sleep with Deanna, I might have belted you."
"I treated her with respect. That is more than she received from you."
"What happened between Deanna and me is history. What's going to happen is, well, our business."
"If you were a Klingon, I would challenge you to fight for her," Worf said, standing. There was no anger in his voice. He was merely stating a fact.
Will also stood, stepping very close to Worf. "If it's important to you, Worf, forget rank and take your best shot."
The doors opened and Deanna hurried in. "I had a feeling this was going on." She pushed Will aside and stepped between them. "This is absolute nonsense."
"She does not understand honor," Worf said to Will. "When a warrior's female is stolen--"
"I told you, Worf, I don't belong to anyone." Deanna glared first at Will, then at Worf. "If you don't behave, I'll call security on you both."
Worf exhaled loudly and stepped back. His eyes were harsh, but not threatening when he finally looked at Deanna. "I was not going to kill him."
"I don't want him bruised, either. You're supposed to be friends."
Will tugged at Deanna's arm. "Deanna, I don't need you to fight for me."
She turned toward him slowly. "It's my job, as ship's counselor, to advise crew members against acts of irrational behavior. If the two of you start taking punches, one or both of you is going to get hurt. I like you both just the way you are, with all parts intact."
Worf was mortified. "You would hide behind a woman?"
Will smiled, the last thing either of them expected. "What was that about respect for the lady's feelings, Worf? If Deanna wants a peaceful solution to this, we should give it to her."
The Klingon scowled at them both, wondering, as he often did, why he subjected himself to the silliness of humans. "For Deanna, I will refrain from giving you what you deserve." He straightened to his full height, nodded at them, and walked out the door without looking back.
Deanna gripped Will's upper arm and squeezed tightly until Worf was gone. "I can't believe you were going to fight him."
"I wasn't," Will said, massaging the imprint he was sure her fingers had left. "I offered him a chance to forget rank and punch me. You know he has to preserve his honor."
"But you're one of Worf's closest friends."
"Which is probably the only reason he didn't' break my neck." Will fell backwards on the couch. "Did you come here solely to save my hide?"
Deanna started to continue the argument, then thought better of it. She had already set her sights on a new injustice. "You have a couch. I have a bed, a tiny round table, and two very hard chairs. Do you know how difficult it is to counsel people on hard, straight chairs?"
"So, move your office here." He patted the cushion next to him. When Deanna sat down, he slipped his arm around her waste and pulled her closer. "What's mine is yours, Counselor."
She looked at the expanse around here. "It's tempting. What would you do all day?"
"Wander the corridors, perch in the Starboard Lounge, pull unnecessary inspections, catch up on gossip, finish the isolation protocol -- I'll manage." He kissed her above the ear. "As far as I'm concerned, you can move everything here."
"That wouldn't go over well. The ship's counselor sharing quarters with the first officer?"
"Deanna, no one will care."
"The captain might." Deanna moved to the front edge of the couch so she could turn to face him. "We could always trade. I will confess to coveting your bathtub."
He appeared to pout for several seconds, then smiled. "Do I still get to sleep here?"
"I think that can be arranged."
"May I scrub your back while you bathe?"
"Don't count on it. I don't just bathe, Will. For me, soaking in a tub is an experience to be savored. The warm water, the right mix of oils and relaxing scents, subdued lighting and . . . you wouldn't understand." Deanna patted his knee. "I have two more appointments today, then we'll swap access codes."
"Dinner here at 1900 hours?"
"What do you have in mind?"
Will stood with her, taking her arm as he escorted her to the door. "What was it the Zeltran poet said? 'A few stars, a little wine, and sweet seduction is mine.'"
Deanna left, shaking her head. Will couldn't see her smile, but he knew it was there.
* * * * * *
Dr. Beverly Crusher was sharing an office with the Farragut's chief medical officer, Dr. Kristophe Davis. That was no problem, even though the office was less than half the size hers had been on the Enterprise. Most of the injured Enterprise crew members had been released from Sickbay, so there was little for her to do. After the poker game, she had returned to Sickbay to update her records and to see if Davis had any publications she hadn't read.
Finding none in the computer, she called up the Enterprise roster to determine if any of her crew had failed to report back for follow-up to injuries. She was all the way to the R's, when she noticed Will had not let her recheck the minor head injury he had received when the Enterprise crashed. "This should be fun." Beverly tapped her comm badge. "Dr. Beverly Crusher to Commander William Riker. Please report to Sickbay."
Several minutes later, Will entered the patient area. When Beverly realized he had no idea where to go, she stood waved at him from her temporary headquarters.
Will smiled a "no thanks" at a nurse who asked if she could help him and hurried to Beverly's office. "Did you want to see me, Doctor?" he asked from the doorway.
"I haven't signed off on your head injury," she said, motioning for him to sit down.
"It's fine." Will eased into a chair in front of the desk. There was barely enough room for his legs, so he turned the chair sideways.
"No pain, dizziness, periods of blackout?" she asked with professional concern.
"No on all counts."
"No loss of concentration?"
Will started to answer, then noticed her smile. "Confidentially, Doctor?"
"I may find it difficult to remain on my feet during the next few days. What would you prescribe?'
"Bed rest, of course. Therapeutic massage is also appropriate. I'd recommend you see Counselor Troi for that. She's very well versed." Beverly chuckled and turned off the computer. "I gather all is well between the two of you."
"Were we that obvious at the poker game?"
"You were. Have you seen Worf?"
"A little while ago. Deanna protected me from him."
"Be glad. Worf is still very much a Klingon, Will."
"I'll make sure Worf's sense of honor is upheld, but I'll also do whatever it takes to hang on to Deanna. I'm not going to mess things up this time."
"I'm behind you all the way. I can't say I've ever approved of her relationship with Worf."
"Glad to hear it."
"Don't get me wrong. Deanna's my friend, and if she was happy with Worf that was fine with me. But over the years, I've seen a lot of crossbreeding among species that simply don't belong together. There has been a misconception that if we are biologically capable of mating, we're also compatible. Klingons and humans have produced healthy offspring. But some have congenital heart defects. Eight-chambered and four-chambered hearts are just too different."
"There have also been skeletal and brain abnormalities. The latter was my main concern with Worf and Deanna. I really don't know what would happen to the child of a half-human/half-Betazoid and a Klingon. In all honesty, I think I would have advised against it. Handicapped Klingon children don't live very long."
"I'm afraid my reasons for disapproving were more basic. For me, it wasn't so much that Worf is a Klingon, although I did have a hard time accepting that Deanna would want to be with someone so . . . different. I called her aristocratic once. She didn't appreciate it, but she's always struck me as being exactly that. Worf is anything but."
"I know this is prying, but what were the other reasons?"
Will shrugged. "There's just something about losing the woman you love to a friend."
"It's called a bruised ego. It's the one thing males of all species have in common."
Will smiled at Beverly's good natured ribbing. "I guess I always believed Deanna and I would find our way back to each other. When strangers came along, I didn't worry because I knew her commitment to the Enterprise would keep her from leaving with them. It even kept her from running off with Tom." His face darkened in thought. "I don't know, maybe I expected everyone on our crew to consider her off limits. When she fell for Worf, I realized for the first time that I might finally lose her."
"Did you feel Worf was messing where he didn't belong?"
"The funny thing is, he asked for my permission. I just didn't know it at the time." Will shook his head, fumbling for words. "I guess I'd gotten used to Deanna's being there for me. A dinner date, shore leave companion, best friend, guinea pig for my latest recipe . . . whatever. While it wasn't all that I might have hoped for, there was still the sense of the two of us. When she started seeing Worf, I lost all of those. Her evenings were occupied with him, and I sure as hell couldn't ask a friend's lover to spend a week with me on Nirvana 12."
"I sound awfully selfish, don't I?"
"You sound like a man who has done a lot of soul searching. Want some advice?"
"When Deanna and I talked last night, I got the impression she's still a little unsure about her feelings for you. I don't pretend to know what happened between the two of you after that -- other than the obvious -- but my advice to you would be to go easy, or you might send her right back to Worf."
Will winced. "I gave her an ultimatum. Take me back, dump Worf, or I transfer."
"You're still here, so I guess she agreed."
"Not without reservation. Look, I know you're right. But Deanna says it has to be all or nothing between us, and when I tell her I'm willing to go for it all, she tells me there's no reason to hurry. I don't want to have an affair with her. Those end too easily."
"What do you want? To own her? Claim her from Worf? Beat your chest and shout 'She's mine!'?"
"All of the above. Years ago, I asked her to marry me. As far as I'm concerned, the question was never off the table. Even if I've done a rotten job of showing it."
"Then hang in there, but do it with love and patience. Going from being Worf's lover to your fiancee again in a matter of hours is bound to be unnerving for her. She spent too many years fighting her feelings for you to be instantly comfortable with them again."
"I'll try. I'm not a particularly patient man."
"Yes, you are."
"This is totally off the subject, but you mentioned children. Assuming she'd want them, would that be a problem for Deanna and me?"
"I don't see why. Betazoids are very similar to humans in terms of physiology. There are some differences in brain structure and function, but nothing significant. When a Klingon is added to the mix, however, all bets are off."
"Did you discuss that with Deanna?"
"I tried. She reminded me that I had once fallen in love with a parasite and said she'd let me know if children ever became an issue."
"That wasn't fair of her. Odan was usually in a humanoid host."
Beverly blushed slightly, remembering the night she had shared with Odan while he occupied Will's body. "I've never asked you this -- I've never had the courage -- but do you remember very much about hosting Odan?"
He thought a moment. "The best way I know to describe it, is to compare it to those moments when you're half asleep. You're vaguely aware of what's going on around you, but you can't quite focus on anything. Does that make sense?"
"I know what you mean."
"Well, that's the way it was for me." He walked around the desk and knelt by her chair, his eyes were warm and caring when he said, "Look, I know what you're asking. You want to know if I was aware of things when you were being intimate with Odan. Right?"
She nodded, whispering, "Were you?"
"I knew it was happening, Beverly, but I wasn't a part of it. Even if I could have been, I would never have taken advantage of you like that. In every way that matters, you were alone with the man you loved. Understood?"
Beverly leaned forward and hugged him. "I'm very glad you're staying, Will Riker. I'd miss you."
"You, too." He kissed her cheek as he stood. "Thanks for listening."
"What are friends for?" Beverly watched him leave, tried very hard not to wonder how different her life might be if Will could have been a permanent host for Odan, then turned on the computer to refocus her mind.
* * * * *
Will stopped by a computer terminal to check reservations for the holodeck. Seeing that nothing was available for hours, he decided to return to his cabin and pack his travel bag for the move to Deanna's cabin. Not that he would be taking much. A couple of uniforms and a few personal things should do it. He didn't plan of spending any real time there unless Deanna insisted on privacy, or he needed time to be alone with his thoughts.
That was the one aspect of being with Deanna again that worried him. He had played games with most of the women he had known. That was impossible with Deanna. She knew when he was lying, when he was teasing, when he was angry . . . Will sighed loudly, so much so that he earned startled looks from two female officers who passed him in the corridor. He let his appreciative gaze follow them, but stopped short of turning around. Those days were over, he realized, sadly at first, then with a deepening realization that it was okay. He didn't need them anymore. By the time he reached the VIP quarters, he was humming to himself as he planned what he hoped would be a very special evening.
* * * * *
Beverly was beginning a check of crew members whose last names began with "T" when Deanna appeared at the door. "If you're looking for Will, you just missed him," she said without looking up.
"Actually, I was wondering if we could talk."
"Have a seat."
Deanna sagged in the chair. "Did Will say anything about us?"
"Just that he wasn't going to mess things up this time."
"He didn't tell you we're trading cabins so I have more room to counsel crew members?"
"Didn't mention it." Beverly smiled. "Are you trading cabins or access codes?"
"You don't expect him to sleep in your shoe box, do you?"
"No, but I don't think it would be in the best interest of the crew for me to move in with him, either. I used to believe we shouldn't even be more than friends as long as we served on the same ship."
Beverly looked at her friend for several seconds before speaking. "I've used those same arguments to keep Jean-Luc at arm's length. They're sound and practical -- and sometimes I hate myself for them." She began to raise and lower the computer screen, suddenly wanting something to do with her hands. "I rationalize that the captain and the chief medical officer cannot have an affair. It would be harmful to crew morale for the two people with so much power over so many lives to become involved. I also argue that giving into my other feelings for Jean-Luc would damage our working relationship. Familiar?"
"I've been there."
"I also worry that Jack will always be a source of uneasiness for us. And I don't want that in a relationship. Lord knows, we all bring enough emotional baggage into an affair. Imagine having a dead husband/best friend lurking in the shadows."
"Have you shared your concerns with the Captain?"
"Not really." Beverly frowned. "Deanna, I would never ask you to reveal any personal information that Jean-Luc has confided in you. But, do you know how he feels about me? Have you ever sensed any special feelings?"
"He's generally very closed emotionally, and I make it a point not to pry. Do you want to know what I think?"
"No. Yes, tell me."
"What I usually sense when he's around you is warmth and wistfulness. I think he loves you, but like you he worries that once you cross the line of friendship you'll lose something. And there's also what you said you told him about being afraid to explore your feelings. From what I know of him, and of men in general, I'd say he's waiting for you to make the next move."
"What do you sense from Will?"
"Will is different. He's very open and I've had to build walls of my own to keep from being bombarded by his emotions. The walls kept me from being hurt during the many times he was interested in someone else--"
"And they kept you from sensing his pain when you were looking elsewhere?"
"I suppose. One of the things that both attracts and frightens me where Will is concerned, is that when he loves, it's with, to use a well worn phrase, every fiber of his being. It can be a little overwhelming."
"How many wives come to you for counseling because their husbands ignore them?"
"Too many to count."
"Then be grateful to have a man who is capable of loving you so completely. Was last night incredible?"
"Last night was . . ." her voice trailed into a deep breath. "Incredible sounds about right."
"Better than being with Worf?"
"Different." Deanna blushed. "Worf never shared my appreciation for variety."
"And Will does?"
"Who do you think taught me?" She laughed at Beverly's raised brow and at the memory of a private moment with Worf. "I shouldn't tell you this--"
"Yes, you should."
"Promise not to laugh?"
"I'll do no such thing."
"All right. I remember once I tried . . . something Worf didn't approve of. He practically threw me out of the bed, saying in that deep voice of his, 'Such a position is fine for the old and infirmed, but not for a male in his prime.' I could have strangled him."
By now, both women were laughing, more at Deanna's failed attempt to mimic Worf than at the incident she had shared.
"Surely all Klingon men don't feel that way."
"I would hope not. You know how rigid Worf can be about things."
"I could just see my medical log entry," Beverly said. "Death by strangulation. Cause: sex-crazed Betazoid female went berserk." In a more conspiratorial tone, she asked, "Do Klingon men really growl when they're aroused?"
Deanna nodded through a wave of laughter. "I did break him of biting, though." She wiped at the tears in her eyes. "Oh, this is so unfair." An attempt to resume a straight face resulted in, "Did you know mother still calls him Woof?"
"She must have heard him growl," Beverly sputtered, trying to laugh more quietly since the Farragut's medical team was beginning to offer nervous glances in their direction. "Glass walls," she said and even that struck her funny.
Deanna didn't respond until her laughter was under control. "I haven't laughed like this in ages."
"Enterprise men all over this ship are probably punching things right now to release tension. Women are laughing and crying . . . " Beverly shrugged. " . . . and punching things. In your case, you haven't laughed like this because you haven't been this happy."
"I am that."
"You're where you belong, you know."
"I hope so." Deanna's serious mood returned almost instantly. "Since the board of inquiry cleared Will, I'm looking at our time on the Farragut as, well, play time. No ship, few worries. When I finish my crisis appointments tomorrow, we'll have most of our trip to Starbase 133 to . . . rediscover each other."
"Stop, you're making me jealous."
"But what happens when we get another ship and our work becomes all encompassing again? I'm afraid the old arguments will begin to ring true."
"Only if you let them." Beverly slumped in her chair. "I'm one to give advice, aren't I?"
"Actually, you're probably the only one who understands." Deanna glanced at the clock behind Beverly's head. "I'd better go. I'm having dinner with Will at 1900 hours."
"Play time, huh? What I couldn't do with that."
"As a counselor, I'd highly recommend it." Deanna's smile grew wicked. "Computer, where is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise?"
The computer responded, "Captain Jean-Luc Picard is in VIP quarters 8-C."
"Good night. I'll try not to listen through the walls."
"You have a vicious streak, Counselor Troi."
Deanna shrugged. "Sex-crazed Betazoid women are like that."
* * * * * *
Deanna accepted the synthaholic wine from Will. "And what did you do today, Commander?" she asked, appraising the dinner he had designed.
Will laughed. "Since I last saw you? I talked to Data about the isolation protocol, got Beverly's seal of approval on my head, and caught up on Starfleet gossip. This ship's been a lot of places lately."
"Learn anything interesting?"
His smile faded. "Our encounter with the Duras sisters may not have been an isolated incident. There have been several border skirmishes between Starfleet and renegade Klingons who are worried about the Dominion. Evidently, it's serious enough to concern the top brass."
"Does Worf know?"
"I'm sure he'll hear about it. I also found out this ship is going into spacedock for a major overhaul of its weapons system. In fact, there's going to be a fleetwide upgrade of combat readiness."
"Not for a handful of Klingons." His expression answered her. "The Borg."
"So it seems."
"And the potential end to life as we know it."
"I don't think we'll let that happen." Will gestured at her plate. "On a lighter note, how's your dinner?"
"You haven't lost your gourmet touch."
"I had to program my recipes into the ship's replicator. I'd almost forgotten some of them -- it's been a while since I had an opportunity to cook for such a lovely companion."
"I don't believe that. Half the women on the Enterprise held some claim on you."
"They did not."
"They call you randy Riker."
"So I've heard, but my reputation far exceeds the facts." He could tell from her expression she was trying to determine his honesty. "Deanna, as first officer I make a lot of personnel decisions. I have to be very careful not to do anything that remotely resembles favoritism or that could lead to charges of sexual harassment. Most of the time, other than dinners in Ten Forward, an occasional hike in the holodeck, or a lot of harmless flirting, very little happened. I had to pick and choose lovers carefully, believe me. Why do you think I enjoyed it so much when the Enterprise played host to female guests?"
She studied his face for several moments. "You're telling the truth."
"Don't sound so surprised." Will refilled their glasses. "Look, I've had my share of women. I've been smitten, bitten and painfully rejected. Off the Enterprise, I've done things I should probably be ashamed of. I imagine we both have. But--"
"I can count my serious relationships on one hand. You'd need Monarch's Binary System to keep track of yours."
"Maybe so." His smile returned. "But as you once said, only one woman has ever touched my soul."
"And I expect everyone else to keep their hands off of it."
Their conversation throughout dinner continued to be light and seemed to flow easily. At one point, Will reached across the table and took both of Deanna's hands in his. "It's back, isn't it?"
"The comfort level. It feels . . . right. I don't know how to explain it, really."
Deanna laced her fingers through his. "It's being Imzadi. Over time, as we grow closer, you and I will become very much the way our hands are now -- our hearts and minds intertwined, always touching. It's very special and intimate, but it can also be a little frightening."
"I'm not worried."
"You can honestly say you have no doubts?"
"Making it all work. Our life together, our careers. We've said for years we couldn't combine them."
"We aren't kids anymore, Deanna. I think we can balance our need for each other and all that Starfleet demands." He was silent for a moment, as though lost in thought. "Years ago, I told your mother I was afraid I couldn't make you happy. I'd be taking you away from everything you knew to live in cramped quarters on a starship, and we'd have very little time to spend together."
"What did she say?"
"That, if we love enough, everything will find its place." He leaned forward and brought her hands to his lips. "I wasn't capable then of placing that much faith in love. I think -- no, I know -- I am now. It's worth a try, don't you think?"
"That's what I keep telling myself."
"Good. Can I get you anything else?"
A slow smile crossed her face. "Do you know what I'd love to do now?"
"Can't wait to hear it."
"Make friends with your bathtub. And don't tell me it's too soon after eating."
Will immediately stifled a protest. "I wasn't going to say a word." He stood and pulled her to her feet. "Enjoy yourself. I'll add Data's suggestions to the isolation protocol."
Deanna kissed his cheek as she walked around him. After she retrieved a small bag she had dropped onto the couch, she disappeared into the bedroom.
A perplexed Will grabbed a PADD and went to work. This wasn't exactly how he had planned their evening, but he understood. Deanna needed time to get accustomed to their renewed relationship and he wanted to give it to her. By the time he finished entering Data's ideas, however, 25 minutes had passed and so had much of his patience. "Sure I can't scrub your back?" he called.
"I'll be out in a minute."
"Can I help you dry off?"
"You may bring me a towel. There aren't any in here."
Will found a large bath sheet in the cabinet and carried it to the bathroom door. Deanna was submerged to her chin, her eyes closed, and her hair pulled on top of her head. "Your towel."
She opened her eyes halfway. "Set it on the floor by the tub."
Will did as he was told, taking as long as possible to complete the task. Pale blue bubbles provided a noisy blanket over the bath water, but he could see enough of Deanna's outline to assemble the rest from memory. "Find everything you need?" he asked, kneeling by the bathtub.
Deanna's eyes closed again. "I brought everything with me."
"It takes just the right mix."
Before Will could respond, a voice came over the intercom. "This is Lt. Devro in communications. I have an incoming message from Betazed for Counselor Deanna Troi."
"Put it through," she sighed. "Will?"
"I'll get it." He took a last look at Deanna's lounging form, then went to the living area and turned on the viewer. A few seconds later, Luxwana Troi's face appeared. Her annoyance at seeing him was evident. "Mrs. Troi," he said politely.
"Hello, William. I told him I wanted Deanna. Is something wrong?"
"She's on her way. How have you been?"
"Hysterical. Is Deanna all right?"
Will was relieved to feel Deanna's hand on his back. "She looks fine to me," he said quickly. He wasted no time getting out of the way. In fact, this seemed like a wonderful time to hide in the bedroom.
Deanna sat in front of the screen. "Hello, Mother."
"Deanna, thank God you're all right."
"I'm fine. You look upset."
"I look upset, she says. I was at one of those boring official meetings about some silly creatures called Borg, and all anyone wanted to talk about was 'too bad about the Enterprise' and 'has anyone heard if there were survivors.' Of course I'm upset! Next time your ship crashes, please don't make me hear it from strangers!"
"I'm sorry, Mother. I was going to contact you when we got to Starbase 133. I honestly didn't think you'd find out so soon."
Luxwana frowned. "What is that you're wearing?"
"A man's bathrobe?"
"Don't tell me Woof has become that civilized."
"It's Will's, Mother."
Luxwana's eyes grew large. "Will's, did you say?"
"Yes. These are his quarters. We're together. And the answers to the rest of your questions are probably 'yes' or 'give us time.' I'll explain when I see you." Deanna had watched her mother's expression change from anger to relief, then to surprise. Now she seemed positively joyful.
"You and William. That's wonderful, dear. I'm so glad you finally came to your senses."
"I'm sure you are."
"You can tell me all about it when I get to Starbase 133."
"Mother, you don't have to come. We won't be there very long."
"Where will you be?"
"I don't know. We're hoping for an extended leave, but I'm not going to hold my breath. As soon as we receive our orders, I'll let you know. I promise."
Luxwana didn't appear convinced. "All right, Little One. If you insist. My love to Will."
"I'll tell him. Good-bye, Mother." She smiled until the "End Transmission" screen appeared, then mentally screamed. Her mood brightened, though, when she found a dozing Will lying on his side, on the bed.
Deanna turned down the lights and eased next to him, choosing to watch him sleep rather than wake him. Beverly was right -- this was where she belonged. Surely they could at least try to make it work this time. When she could stand it no longer, she kissed him gently.
Will's eyes remained closed, but he said, "Promise me something."
"You'll never miss an opportunity to wake me like that."
"Let's hope we've plenty of them."
He blinked at her. "What do you mean?"
"There was a meeting on Betazed about the Borg. What do you think is going to happen?"
"If history repeats itself, there will be another Enterprise and we'll serve together on it. If we fight the Borg, we'll either live or die together."
"That isn't reassuring."
Will smiled and pulled her into his arms. "We've been lucky, you know," he said softly. "Think how many times we've been to the brink of war. If it isn't the Borg, it could be any one of a dozen enemies of the Federation. I'm not sure which worries me more, the Borg or the opportunists who may decide to battle us for what's left after the Borg has cleared a path."
"What if we don't get to serve together? We could be assigned to different ships."
"All the more reason to be together while we can." He kissed her gently.
"You don't understand. I asked . . . all right, I begged you to stay with me because I couldn't bear the thought of never seeing you again. Even though we weren't as close as we could have been -- as most Imzadi are -- I was terrified by the emptiness I felt at the thought of losing you. The closer you and I become, even in just the time we have on the Farragut, the more difficult it will be to say good-bye. I haven't forgotten how horrible I felt when we didn't meet on Risa. I'm not sure I want to go through that again."
"What are you suggesting we do? Forget last night and go back to the way things were? Deanna, what was in your bath water?"
"I just want you to understand what's at stake for me in this -- what I meant when I said it has to be all or nothing for us."
"I do understand. Don't you think I was miserable after I left you on Betazed? Remembering how much it hurt to lose you was the only thing that kept me from dragging you to my quarters the moment I saw you on the Enterprise. You don't know how many times over the years I've considered saying 'to hell with it ' and tossing you over my shoulder to carry you away for fun and games."
Smiling, she slid her arms around his neck. "I've had those fantasies a few times myself."
Will tightened his embrace. "Deanna, I can't predict the future. And I'd rather not spend the rest of my life apologizing for the past."
"I don't expect you to."
"Then can't we forget about everything else and just enjoy each other?"
"That's what I want to do. It just think it will be easier if we're on the same ship."
Will studied her face, wondering what he could say to ease her worries. "We have no control over Starfleet, but I know one way to make separation less likely."
"We could get married. For all their faults, Starfleet does a pretty good job of keeping spouses together."
"You said you wouldn't rush me."
"I won't. But you and I both know, if we aren't married when we reach Starbase 133, we could very easily spend the next six months -- or longer -- on opposite sides of space."
"That would mean getting married within the next two weeks."
"Can you think of a better time? Our friends are here. We'd have time for a honeymoon." Seeing the questions in her eyes, Will rolled over onto his back and glared at the ceiling. "All right, Deanna, tell me what you want."
"You're getting angry."
"I'm getting dizzy. You asked for a commitment. I'm offering marriage and that isn't enough. What do I have to do, bite your cheek and growl in your ear?"
Deanna sat up, turning her back to Will. "That was uncalled for, William Riker."
"I'm sorry." Will ran his hand up her back. When she didn't turn around, he sat up and leaned over so that his shoulder was behind hers. "Look, I don't know what it is with us. When I'm with you, I starting thinking marriage. Before, it scared the hell out of me. Now I can't imagine anything else."
"That doesn't give you the right to insult Worf."
Will moved until he was facing her on the bed. "I know. I can't help it, Deanna. I still get a little crazy when I think about your being with him like this."
"Then stop thinking about it, because I wouldn't take anything for the time he and I had together."
His hands slid up her shoulders. "All I'm asking . . ." Will caught the remains of anger flashing in her eyes and lowered his gaze. Taking her hands carefully into his, he ran his thumb over the ring he had given her and said, "Okay, Worf is a closed subject."
"You won't harp on it anymore?"
"No. Speaking of harping, how's your mother?"
Deanna smiled, visibly relaxing. "She sends her love."
"She's okay about you and me?"
"That makes two of us." Will kissed her once, then twice, relieved when she started to respond.
"It makes three of us." She initiated the next kiss and allowed Will to guide her onto her back. When his lips moved across her cheek, she whispered, "Why are you still wearing your uniform?"
"I can remedy that."
* * * * *
What began late the next morning as a working lunch in the Starboard Lounge ended in a poker game with Will, Worf and Geordi joining Data in his quarters. The typical banter was replaced by solemn exchanges of gossip about Starfleet's plans to be ready if and when the Borg returned to Federation space. Geordi eyed Will and Worf, wishing he had Data's ability to ignore the obvious tension between them and wondering why Worf had agreed to join them.
"Data, you'll be glad to know the Captain accepted our new isolation protocol without recommendation," Will said. "He's going to submit it to Admiral Adams for consideration."
"She seemed fair minded," Geordi said.
"She also seemed certain we will be going to war with the Borg," Data added, dealing.
"I'm hoping that our encounter with Hugh has changed the Borg mindset," Geordi said. "If more of them think as individuals, assimilation might not hold the same attraction."
"Do you think they will convert Galaxy class ships or spend their resources on battle cruisers?" Worf asked.
"You mean a quick strike force?" Will shrugged. "If the Borg ships we've faced are typical, it will probably take a combination. Small, fast cruisers to distract them while larger ships have time to inflict serious damage."
Worf nodded. "Considering what one Borg ship did to a fleet of Starfleet's best ships, it may take a massive, singular strike to stop an invasion."
"I keep hearing rumors about a new class of Starfleet ship," Geordi said. "It's supposed to be awesome."
"I've heard them, too," Will said. "Ships that almost dwarf the Enterprise. I imagine they'll be able to take on a few Borg ships."
"It is not known whether the Borg have a massive fleet or a limited number of exceptionally powerful ships," Data offered. "As a collective, it is doubtful they would choose to spread themselves over great distances. Unfortunately, our intelligence has been sporadic on the Borg or their intentions."
Will said. "We've proven we can stop them, so if they come after us again, they'll redouble their efforts."
"So will we," Worf said. "If the Borg present such a threat, the Klingon Empire will enter the fray, as will many others."
Will and Data exchanged glances. "You haven't heard then." Will shifted uncomfortably. "Data, tell Worf what you've learned."
* * * * *
Deanna nodded at Ensign Taij as he entered her office area. "Have a seat and we'll begin," she said with as much professional warmth as she could muster. Taij was a Neader, one of the newer races in the Federation. He was nearly seven feet tall and covered with a light golden hair that resembled fur. His yellow eyes were enhanced by the golden shoulders of the science uniform he wore. If asked to describe him, Deanna would have said he looked very much like Data's cat without a tail. She glanced at his hands, relieved to see his claws had been trimmed to the length of normal fingernails.
"What's going to happen to us when we get to Starbase 133?" he asked, sitting on the edge of a chair. He sat as a humanoid, but his legs were longer than she would have expected and had to be wrapped around the sides of the chair. He struck her as being ready to leap.
Deanna sat on the couch opposite him. "I don't know, but I'm sure our orders will be waiting for us."
"I'm the first Neader to complete Starfleet Academy. Being on the Enterprise meant a great deal to me."
"The Enterprise was a special ship. But a lot of new ships are being built. I'm sure they'll find one for you."
"You don't understand." Taij sprang to his feet and began to pace. "I have to have the best. If I don't, they will insist I return to Nead and be labeled a failure. I don't want to do that."
Deanna watched him. He was walking in an upright position, but she had the feeling he would be more comfortable on all-fours. "Have you talked to the Captain?"
"He doesn't care. He wasn't even on the Enterprise when it crashed." His voice was developing a frantic quality that Deanna found unnerving. "If he had been, maybe we would have made it."
"No, if the Captain hadn't stopped Dr. Soran, we'd all be dead right now."
"Better to die like that, than a slow death of humiliation."
Deanna stood. "I can understand why you're upset."
"Really? How could you possibly understand?" He stepped closer and glared down at her. "On my world, females don't pretend to know so much. They wouldn't dream of taking the helm in the midst of a battle."
Deanna rose to her full height, which was still barely to his chest. "In case you didn't hear, we were nearly defeated by two Klingon females." She motioned toward the chair. "Please sit down. This isn't accomplishing anything."
"I can't talk to a female." Taij turned his back on her. "It simply isn't done."
"I don't know very much about the social structure of your society, Ensign, but on this crew everyone is afforded respect based on rank, not on whether we're male or female."
"If you were a Neader bitch, I'd--"
"I think we'd better end our session. The Farragut crew has a male psychologist. If you'd prefer, I can ask him to see you."
Deanna expected Taij's cooperation. Angry patients were common, but most followed her orders while they were in counseling sessions. The last thing she expected was to feel the back of his wide, powerful hand strike the side of her head. She reeled, trying to catch herself on the coffee table. His next blow was to the back of her head, driving her face first to the floor. Deanna struggled to her knees and crawled away from him. Her hand was on almost on her comm badge when he grabbed her by the waste with one arm. His larger hand pushed hers aside and tore the badge from her uniform. "No!" he snarled, throwing the badge onto the couch.
"Stop it!" Deanna screamed. She lunged to her feet and spun to her right, freeing herself from his grasp. He leaped toward her, but she managed to side step him. "Why are you doing this?"
He backhanded her across the face, sending her backward. Deanna reached out at the couch, trying to break her fall and to grab her comm badge. She was aware of her head striking the coffee table, but of nothing else. If the Neader was going to kill her, she could do nothing to stop him. Blackness came so quickly she didn't have time to call out to Will in voice or mind.
* * * * * *
"I cannot believe the Klingon Empire would allow continued violations of our treaty with the Federation," Worf argued.
"We only know what we've heard, Worf," Will said. "I'm sure it won't amount to much."
Data looked puzzled. "Then why are the top brass so concerned, Commander?"
"Anything that makes them late for lunch sets them off," Geordi responded. "They're probably moving their little toy ships around on a holomap to figure out the best solution."
"Which will be impractical at best," Will said.
"There has been resentment among some of my people," Worf conceded. "Many felt we gave too much to the Federation when we signed the treaty."
"As I recall, the Klingon Empire initiated peace out of necessity," Geordi said.
"Some would rather have died in combat than submit to the will of a weaker race," Worf explained.
"A lot did die," Will said, "on both sides." He looked at his long since forgotten cards. "We've had our share of battles over the years. Few have accomplished very much. The last one sure as hell didn't. Look . . ."
Had he not hesitated, he might not have heard Deanna's voice. "Troi to Commander William Riker. Will, help me!"
Will gestured for everyone to be quiet. "Deanna? What's wrong?"
"Help me!" This time it was barely a whisper, but they heard something crash in the background.
"Deanna!" When there was no response, Will and Worf jumped to their feet. Will tapped his badge as he broke for the door. "Sickbay, we need an Enterprise emergency medical team in cabin 8-D."
Worf added, "Enterprise Security, cabin 8-D, stat."
The four raced into a turbolift. "Deck 8, priority one," Will ordered as the doors closed.
When they reached 8-D, they found two security officers wrestling Taij to the floor amidst broken furniture. The others went to assist the guards, while Will called Deanna's name. It took him a second to find where she was lying on the floor between the coffee table and the couch. He rushed to her, shoving the table aside so he could kneel by her. "Deanna?"
Her eyes were closed. A small trickle of blood was evident on the side of her face, but there was no sign of other injuries. Her comm badge was clutched tightly in her hand. "Imzadi," Will whispered, cupping his hands around hers. He wanted to pull her onto his lap, but he was afraid to move her until he knew how badly she was hurt.
Worf knelt momentarily beside them. "Is she all right?"
"I don't know," Will said, beginning to feel cold inside, as though her warmth was fading from him. "She can't wait for medics." He lifted Deanna into his arms and stood. Worf touched his badge. "Transporter Room, emergency beam to sickbay!"
"Belay that!" Beverly shouted from the door "Put her on the couch."
Will eased her onto her back, then moved so the medical team could go to work. He watched Beverly wave the scanner over Deanna's face, heard the hypo spray, and waited as they did for a response. When he felt a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see Worf standing next to him. "She will be all right," Worf said quietly.
"What happened?" Geordi asked, joining them. "Taij sure trashed the place."
"When Ensign Taij regains his faculties, I have no doubt he will tell us," Worf said. He gestured to the security officers who now had the slightly stunned Neader in restraints. "Take him to the brig."
Geordi and Data accompanied the guards in case Taij tried to get away. It was doubtful two officers would be enough to stop a determined Neader.
"Beverly?" Will asked, stepping around to the foot of the couch so he could see what was going on.
"She must have struck her head," Beverly said. "I'd guess on the edge of that table." She took a second hypospray and pressed it against Deanna's neck. As though on cue, Deanna opened her eyes. "Don't try to sit up," Beverly said firmly. She ran the scanner around Deanna's head, smiled, and slipped her hand behind Deanna's neck. "Okay. But slowly."
Deanna allowed Beverly to help her into a sitting position. "I'm fine. How did you know to come?"
When everyone stepped back, Will took the opportunity to sit next to Deanna. "You called for help."
"Did I? I don't remember." She looked at the comm badge in her hand, then gave it to Will.
"What do you remember?" Worf asked, stepping through the medical team to sit on the table in front of Deanna.
"Ensign Taij was upset about losing the Enterprise. I tried to reassure him and he hit me." She frowned. "Professionally, I'd say it was delayed stress syndrome. Personally, I think he hit me because I'm a woman and I dared to disagree with him."
"He will be charged," Worf assured her. He put his hand on Deanna's. "You were lucky. Neaders are natural killers. They have no place on a starship," he said, directing the latter to Will.
Will nodded in agreement. He, Worf and Picard had protested Taij's assignment to the Enterprise, fearing he was too aggressive to be confined with other species for extended periods of time. Starfleet had disagreed and overruled them, tying the Captain's hands.
Worf watched as Deanna rested her head on Will's shoulder and asked to lie down for a while. He slowly released her hand, and stood. "I will see that Taij does not harm you again." With a nod at Beverly, and a long look at Will and Deanna, he left.
"I'd feel better if you'd come to Sickbay so I can keep an eye on you," Beverly urged.
Deanna thought of Will and Worf hovering around her medical bed. "No, you wouldn't. Will can watch me here."
Beverly hesitated, then dismissed the medical team. After one more round with the scanner, she said, "All right, Deanna, stretch out and relax. Will, I want you to keep a close watch on her. If she sleeps, wake her every now and then and make sure she's coherent."
"She's never coherent when she first wakes up," Will teased, though he placed a protective arm around her shoulders. Deanna responded by burying her face in his chest.
"I'll check back later. For now, I'll be in Sickbay if you need anything," she smiled to reassure Will and started to leave.
"Beverly wait," Deanna called. "Is there anything I should know about last night?"
Beverly wasn't sure whether she turned ashen or crimson. "We'll talk later," she said and quickly left the room.
"What was that all about?" Will asked, confused.
"Girl talk." Deanna shoved him onto his back and climbed on top of him. "You can wake me more easily this way."
Will happily dropped her badge onto the floor and tightened his arms around her. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Mmh-hmh. Did you come in with Worf?"
"Yes. And Data and Geordi. We were playing poker."
"All of you?"
"We behaved." He kissed Deanna on the top of her head, careful not to press against the side that struck the table. "Worf and I were friends for a long time. I think we can get there again."
"I hope so." She adjusted her weight until she found a more comfortable position, ignoring Will's grunts when she pressed against his abdomen. "Taij was my last crisis appointment. Barring an emergency, and except for a few regulars I have to see over the next few days, I'm free until we reach Starbase 133."
Will's head was tilted backward by the way Deanna's pressed against his chin, but he wasn't about to protest. "Any plans?"
"I found out something interesting today."
"There's a chaplain on Starbase 133. He's a Betazoid."
"A chaplain? There aren't many of those around. Civilian or Starfleet?"
"Starfleet, so don't start worrying about your pecks."
"My pecks are fine. It's sharing your assets with the rest of the crew that concerns me."
"You're too stuffy, Commander. Mother warned me about men like you."
"All right, forget you and me. Do you really want to carry in your mind images of a naked Captain, Data, Geordi . . .?"
"Don't say it."
"I wasn't going to mention Worf."
"Then I won't mention Beverly."
Will would not be drawn into that conversation. "Why is it, every time we start talking about marriage we end up fighting?"
"We aren't fighting." She raised up on her elbows so she could look at his face. "Let's see if the Captain can find out how long we'll be on Starbase 133. If we're going to be separated, I'd rather be married by a Betazoid chaplain than by the Captain of the Farragut."
"I'll settle for nothing less than your finest dress uniform." Deanna lowered her head and closed her eyes. "Do you need to be somewhere?"
"You must have been losing at poker."
* * * * * *
When Will awoke three hours later, he was numb everywhere Deanna had an elbow, knee or other bone pressed against him. He was also vaguely aware of someone standing by the couch.
"It's just me. You didn't answer your door, so Worf let me in," Beverly said quietly. "How is she?"
Will nudged Deanna, earning a protesting elbow in his chest. "Deanna?"
She slowly opened her eyes and looked at Beverly. "If you knew what I was dreaming, you would have let me sleep."
"Are you all right?" Beverly asked, running her medical scanner the length of Deanna's head and shoulders.
Deanna pushed against Will to sit up, balancing on the edge of the couch. "Other than a pounding headache, I'm fine." She felt the hypospray against her neck.
"That's better, thank you." Carefully, with Will's and Beverly's help, she stood up.
Will stayed in a sitting position, not quite ready to stand. He had no choice, however, when the intercom sounded. "Lt. Commander Worf to Commander Riker."
"Commander, I think you had better come to the brig."
"On my way." Will held onto the back of the couch while he tested his legs. "Are you sure you'll be all right?" he asked Deanna.
"I was going to ask you the same thing," Deanna answered.
Will squeezed her shoulder and left.
Beverly waited until they were alone, ordered Deanna to sit back down, then pulled a chair near the couch. "What were you dreaming?"
"Tell me about last night. Did you visit the Captain?"
"I invited him to dinner. He suggested we meet in his cabin. We enjoyed a quiet meal, a long conversation, and nothing more."
"I wrangled an invitation to accompany him to France, if there's time to go. He wasn't in a particularly approachable mood. He had just found out that as of 0900 hours today, the Enterprise crew was to be officially disbanded, although the command structure from our ship is to remain intact to avoid adding an extra burden to Farragut officers."
"What does that mean?"
"I didn't understand it, either. Basically, it means Jean-Luc no longer has a say in what happens to any of us. As the captain of the Enterprise, he could pressure Starfleet on our behalf, formally protest any crew changes he opposed, and cite mitigating circumstances to delay or prevent a transfer."
"And he doesn't have that authority now?"
"No. Starfleet can begin snatching our crew members away, without waiting until we get to Starbase 133, and he can't stop them."
"Starfleet wouldn't have bothered to make the change if they weren't up to something."
"That's what he thinks, too. As of last night, he hadn't been able to find out anything. He was going to spend this morning calling in favors and skirting the edges of protocol to see what he could find out. Until he's officially given command of the next ship there isn't much he can do, but he plans to start hounding the brass to make sure he has the same senior staff on the next Enterprise."
"Will there be one?"
"He's trying to find that out also."
"Do you think he'll get another ship or be promoted? He could be bumped up to commodore, or even to admiral. He's certainly deserving."
"I think so, too. He said James Kirk advised him against accepting a promotion if it takes him away from a ship. I'm not sure what Jean-Luc will do, but right now he sounds determined to remain a captain."
"If he's promoted, I don't think Will would enjoy being someone else's first officer on a new Enterprise."
"I have a feeling that if Jean-Luc is promoted -- no matter what was said at the hearing - Will would be offered his own ship as soon as one's available. The slap on the wrist was just a formality, Deanna. You know that. Will's record is outstanding."
"For his sake, I hope you're right. I just hope we get a few weeks leave."
"For a honeymoon?"
"That's already started. I want at least have a day or two on Starbase 133."
"There's a Betazoid chaplain there. We've decided to get married if it looks as though we're going to be separated."
"Don't even think about separation. Now, tell me about your dream."
Deanna frowned thoughtfully. "It was odd, actually. Do you remember telling me about a vacation you had before you met Jack? You had a brief, but wonderful, affair with someone you met there."
"I remember the vacation, so I probably told you about it." Beverly squirmed in her chair. "You were sleeping in Will's arms and dreaming about an old love affair of mine? Why?"
"I have no idea. Do you know you I dreamed your affair was with?"
"I'm afraid to ask."
"A very young, very handsome Jean-Luc Picard."
Beverly blanched. "Deanna."
"Am I right?"
"Jean-Luc and I met when Jack introduced us."
"So you've both always said. I think you're hiding something."
Beverly answered her with a glaring eyes and the slightest hint of a smile.
* * * * * *
Will found an angry Worf and two red-faced Enterprise security guards when he arrived at the brig. "What can I do for you, Worf?" he asked, looking from one guard to the other. He recognized them as Shelia Soloniuk and Franklin Connor, but didn't really know either of them. Worf had requested they be assigned to his security team and Will had complied. He trusted Worf's judgment, so he seldom interviewed anyone if they had Worf's approval.
"Ensign Taij is dead," Worf announced.
"Dead? What happened to him?" Will was asking Worf, though he was watching the guards for a reaction.
Speaking for his officers, Worf said, "He repeatedly threw himself against the force field. Fearing injury, Lt. Soloniuk turned off the field. They were going to try manual restraints. Taij lunged at them and was shot by a phaser on maximum stun. He died instantly."
"On stun?" Will asked. "That mammoth?"
"Dr. Selar has taken the body for an autopsy, but he believes it was the repeated bursts of energy from the force field combined with the phaser blast," Worf explained. "It may have stopped his heart."
"Commander, may I say something?" Soloniuk asked. At Will's nod, she said, "He kept telling us to kill him and be done with it. He didn't want to be returned to Nead."
"You think he used the two of you to commit suicide?"
"Yes, sir," Connor said.
Will looked to Soloniuk, who agreed. After studying their faces for a moment, he said, "All right. They'll be an inquiry, but we'll take your observations into consideration when we file a report."
Worf dismissed the two officers before asking, "How is Deanna?"
"She's okay. Beverly's with her now." They began walking toward the turbolift. "Worf, thanks for your help in our . . . in Deanna's cabin."
Worf nodded. "Deanna will always be very special to me, Commander."
Will understood the implied threat. "I won't hurt her this time, Worf."
"I would take it very personally if you did." He followed Will into the lift. "Deck Eight." There were a few moments of awkward silence, broken by Worf's admission, "You have a right to know, I had hoped to have a future with her."
"Deanna brings those urges out in a man, doesn't she? I suppose you should know, I've asked her to marry me."
"Has she accepted?"
"Yes, though I can't say she shares my enthusiasm."
Worf smiled at Will's confession. "She is very . . . independent. It can be exasperating at times."
"True, but she's worth it."
"On that we will agree. Computer, pause turbolift." Worf looked directly into Will's eyes. "I will honor Deanna's wishes, and her choice. But I will not abandon her as a friend. If she needs me, for any reason, I will be there for her. Even if that should place you and I in direct conflict."
Will nodded. "I'd expect nothing less of you, Worf. Computer, resume." Will stepped off the turbolift when they reached Deck Eight, waiting for Worf to follow. When Worf remained behind, he motioned toward his cabin. "I'm sure she'd like to thank you."
Worf had just stepped off the turbolift when Picard's voice filled the corridor. "Enterprise senior staff, please report to Conference Room B, Deck Six."
Beverly and Deanna immediately joined them in the corridor. "What do you suppose he wants?" Will asked no one in particular."
"I'd guess he has our orders," Beverly said, sounding none too happy.
* * * * * *
Picard busied himself with the computer while he waited for his staff to get settled around the large conference table. "I'm sure you're all wondering why you're here," he began. "I've received word that as of 0900 hours today, the crew of 1701-D has been formally disbanded. Our command structure is still in place. To do otherwise would be unfair to the Farragut executive staff."
"Have you found out what's in store for us?" Beverly asked amidst the groans of protest.
"Most of you will receive new orders upon our arrival at Starbase 133. I have already filed an official request to have all of you assigned to my next command, if there is one, but very little can be done until I'm officially given a new ship. Right now, it appears I may be given 1701-E, a ship that has yet to be named. The target date for senior officers reporting to that ship for training is six months from tomorrow."
"Starfleet has never shown a lot of imagination," Geordi said. "Anyone want to bet it won't be called the Enterprise?"
"That would be my guess also," Picard said, smiling. "It's taken quite a bit of wrangling, but I've managed to learn where everyone in this room is being sent. I assumed you'd like to know so you can plan accordingly."
"Let's have it," Will said, feeling Deanna's eyes boring into him.
"All but two of you will receive at least 60 days of leave. For some, that can be taken immediately. For others, it will have to wait." Picard decided to go clockwise from the far end of the table. "Geordi, you and Data are to report in 90 days to Utopia Planitia, to begin inservice on the new engine designs and computer systems of 1701-E. Somehow, I don't think you'll be displeased by that."
"Two months leave and a new engine room? I couldn't be happier," Geordi said. "Data?"
"Nor could I," Data said. "Sixty days will give me time to fine tune my emotional responses. I have read a great deal about the advancements in engine design. I believe it will be . . . exciting."
"Worf," Picard continued, "We will rendezvous with a ship in four days that will take you to Starfleet's regional headquarters on Starbase 87. From there, it's likely you'll be sent to DS9. I'm sure by now you've heard about the tension the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant is causing between Klingons and Starfleet. Your expertise is needed in developing an appropriate plan of action. Whether or not you'll have time for leave will depend on the seriousness of this matter."
"Yes, sir," Worf said without changing his expression. "At least that will give me time to make arrangements for Alexander to be taken to my parents' home on Earth."
Picard swiveled his chair to his immediate right. "Beverly, you and I have been ordered to report to Starfleet Command, to attend briefings on the Borg. Your treatment of Hugh is the only known medical contact with that species, so they want you to share your knowledge of Borg physiology. I suppose they'll want to know everything I learned while I was part of the Borg collective."
"When do the briefings begin?" Beverly asked.
"Next week, but we won't be arriving until at least the halfway point," Picard said. "They could last a couple of months. Then, after an appropriate leave -- and after I take care of some unfinished business in France-- I hope we're on our way to Utopia where we'll have a new ship to learn."
"Sounds like fun," Beverly said, her expression one of obvious playfulness.
Picard smiled not at her words, but at what he saw in her eyes. Turning to his left to address Will, he noticed Deanna was smiling at Beverly in a way that indicated she had more than understood the meaning behind their nonverbal exchange. "Commander, I don't think you're going to like this."
"Why am I not surprised?" Will moaned.
"I called this meeting now because a runabout is waiting to take you to New Atwood Starbase above Stanas Five. You're to command the Delta Project, which involves a new type of battle cruiser. If there is a war, some larger ships will be equipped with these high speed, heavily armed fighters. From what I understand, they're smaller in size, but similar in design, to a runabout."
"What do you mean by waiting?" Will and Deanna asked.
"Off the port," Picard said simply.
"Why me? Why the rush?" Will asked.
"I wasn't privy to a lengthy explanation, Number One," Picard said. "Your skills as a pilot are needed. From what I was told, your training will last approximately six weeks, then you'll spend six to eight weeks training both pilots and first officers from whose ships the new fighters will be deployed."
"It will take more than three weeks to get to Stanas Five. If I spend fourteen weeks there, then have to report to Utopia Planitia by the target date, I'll have less than two weeks leave." Will shook his head in disgust. "I have a feeling more than a reprimand was placed in my records."
"That was my thought, too," Picard said, "but Admiral Nokia insisted your orders are based on merit, not as any form of punishment."
"That just leaves me," Deanna said, making no attempt to hide her anger and disappointment in Will's orders.
"I think you've fared much better, Counselor," Picard said. "Over the next few months, Betazed will play host to several conferences on the Borg and other potential threats to the stability of the Federation. You will attend the conferences, assist in determining the feelings -- and the commitment -- of our allies in the event of full scale confrontation, and prepare a detailed report for Starfleet Command."
"Sounds like a working leave," Geordi said.
"Fine with me. I'd just as soon keep busy," Deanna said, her eyes fixed on the table.
"I'll bet you anything, despite all their briefings, their conferences and whatever new weapons they deploy, when we do encounter the Borg again Starfleet brass will be caught napping," Will said.
"And we'll be on our own." Picard nodded. "I fully agree."
"Worf, why not let Alexander travel with the Captain and me?" Beverly offered. "Your parents can meet us in San Francisco."
"That would be most kind of you, Doctor," Worf said. "I am sure Alexander will appreciate that as much as I do."
"Any other comments questions, pleas for mercy?" Picard asked.
"Don't get me started," Will mumbled. "When do I leave?" He read the Captain's face. "Forget it, I'm already packed."
"Well, then." Picard stood and held out his hand to his first officer. "Take care of yourself, Will. I'm sure we'll meet again in six months."
It was several moments before Will got to his feet to accept the handshake. "Let's hope so. Good-bye, sir." One by one, he shook their hands, feeling especially touched by Beverly's embrace and kiss on the cheek. Worf surprised him, not by promising to see that Ensign Taij's death received the proper response, but by offering his hand in a friendly farewell. At the door, Will waited for Deanna to join him for their last walk back to cabin 8-D.
"I thought we'd covered all the possibilities. This is the last thing I expected," he said when they were alone in the turbolift.
"Don't say anything, Will. Just . . . don't."
As soon as they were in their cabin, he pulled her into an embrace. "Nothing will change. I promise."
"I've heard that before," she argued, but when he kissed her, her anger turned to a desperate need to hold him. "I can't bear this," she whispered against his lips. "How are we supposed to make two days last for months?"
Their kiss continued until neither could remain standing without breaking the embrace. "Deanna, I'll meet you on Betazed, even if I have to go AWOL."
"If I didn't feel so horrible, I'd laugh at the irony of it."
"What do you mean?"
"We've come full circle. Before, you left me on Betazed and promised we'd meet again. Now, you're going away, promising to meet me on Betazed."
Will's response was interrupted by a voice on the intercom. "Lt. Kemra to Commander William Riker."
"Sir, I've been informed you have your orders. We have a 20-minute window before the Farragut enters an area plagued by magnetic hot spots. I'd like to be clear by then."
"Ten minutes, Lieutenant. Riker out." He took Deanna's face in his hands and tried his best to smile down at her. "How's your head?"
"My head is fine. Don't ask me about my heart," Deanna said, not caring that tears were streaming down her face. She leaned into his arms again. "Imzadi."
Will was trying not to cry with her, but finding it increasingly difficult. He had never held anyone as tightly as he embraced her in that moment. "I'll contact you as soon as I can."
"I hate this."
"So do I." He released her and went for his bag.
Deanna stayed by the door, not daring to follow him into the bedroom. His travel bag, packed for the move from his quarters to Deanna's, was still lying on the bed. "Do you have everything?" she asked when he returned
"Just what I was going to move to the other cabin. Can you look after the rest?"
She nodded. "I'll walk you to the transporter room."
"Are you sure you want to?"
"We'll have that much more time together." After several kisses that, at any other time would have led to wonderful things, Deanna pushed him away and stepped to the door to open it. Will pulled the bag's strap over his shoulder and followed. During the walk, she removed the gold chain from her neck, freed the ring and handed it to Will. "Please. We've talked about marriage, but you've never really asked me."
Will pulled her against the wall, out of the way of traffic. "Wait." Just to his right was a small storage area that had been turned into temporary quarters for an ensign he barely knew. Will opened the door and smiled at the young man reading on the cot. "I need your room, Ensign."
"Take a walk. Come back in five minutes and you can move your things to cabin 7-G. Access code Alpha Charley Baker one five two."
"Thank you, sir." The ensign leaped to his feet and quickly sidestepped Will, wanting to put distance between them before the commander changed his mind.
Will motioned for Deanna to join him and waited until the door had closed behind them, then led her to the crumpled cot. When she was sitting, he dropped his travel bag to the floor and knelt in front of her. With as large, albeit shaky, smile he said, "When I asked a jeweler to design an engagement ring for you, I told him I wanted it to have a beautiful, exotic stone in the middle. I didn't care what it was, as long as it was the most beautiful jewel he could find in my price range. Around that, I wanted four diamonds -- the common, yet traditional, stones of Earth. That ring would symbolize the two of us and all of my feelings for you. It would show how I wanted you to be the center of my life, where I could surround you with my love and always protect and cherish you." He hesitated when his voice broke.
"That's very sweet."
"I think you know how much I love you . . . how sorry I am for the times I've hurt you. I thought there'd be time to make it up to you, but I guess it's going to have to wait. I promise you, when this madness ends, you will be the center of all that matters to me. Imzadi, will you marry me?"
Deanna realized she was both laughing and crying as she kissed him. "As soon as you get to Betazed."
"Then I'll be there, one way or another."
Slowly, she draped her arms over his shoulders and pressed her forehead against the top of his head. "Promise you'll be careful at New Atwood?"
Will raised his face to meet her gaze. "Oh, those eyes." Grimacing at the reality before them, he stood and caught her hands to pull her to her feet. "I don't suppose I could interest you in stealing the runabout and going AWOL with me? We could change our names, have a little plastic surgery, and wait tables on Risa for the rest of our lives."
"Don't tempt me." She stopped him at the door and kissed him.
Will hugged her again. "Anything you'd like to know before I leave?" he asked as he ushered her back into the corridor.
"Why did Worf call you to the brig?"
"Connor and Soloniuk shot Taij with a phaser on maximum stun after he had repeatedly thrown himself against the force field. The combination of the two proved lethal. They seem to think he used them to commit suicide."
"I'll talk to them about it."
"When will you get to Betazed?"
"I should be there by the time you get to New Atwood."
Will put his arm around her waist as they walked. "I don't know if they'll let me contact you directly or if I'll have to record messages for censorship, but I'll keep in touch." He tugged her so that she bumped against him. "Believe me, I learned my lesson last time. No more sporadic love notes."
The transporter room was smaller than what they were accustomed to on the Enterprise. Will tossed his travel bag onto the platform, then reached for Deanna.
"Lt. Kemra to Commander Riker," came a disembodied voice. "We're--"
"On my way, Lieutenant." Will pulled Deanna to him.
"He sounds impatient," she said with her lips against his chest.
"He can wait." With Deanna in his arms for what he knew could be the last time for months, Will said, "This isn't good-bye."
"This isn't fair. I love you."
Will kissed her quickly and pulled away, walking backward to the platform. "Say hello to your mother for me." His smile was forced, the smile of a first officer, and she knew it was for the benefit of the transporter chief.
"I will." Deanna closed her eyes, opting to say her final good-bye in the privacy of Will's mind.
When he understood the depth of the love and longing she was placing there, his eyes filled with tears. He wanted to tell her everything he was feeling, but all he could manage aloud was "Same here." Her smile, and the last brushes of her mind in his, told him everything was all right. She knew all that he couldn't say.
Will finally nodded at the transporter chief. "Energize."
Deanna stayed until the last glimmer of the transporter beam faded. She was unaware that anyone had entered the area until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Figured you could use a friend," Beverly said.
Wiping at her cheeks, Deanna nodded. "So much for play time."
"Sometimes life stinks, doesn't it? Can I treat you to a double chocolate fudge sundae?"
"Lead the way."
* * * * * *
Will knew that Lt. Kemra was talking to him, but he hadn't heard a word. Finally, he looked at his flight companion and smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid I'm not going to be much company, Lieutenant."
"I gathered you were having trouble leaving. Wife?"
"As soon as I finish this mission. What is Starfleet getting me into? Do you know anything about the Delta Project?"
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"You're walking into a mess. You're taking the place of Commander Barbagallo who was killed in a crash. I was on my way to pick up Commander Hibbs on
Madrona, but since you were suddenly available and closer, they diverted me to the Farragut."
"What's the hurry?"
"There's a lot of controversy about these fighters. Commander Barbagallo's wasn't the first to break apart."
"I thought I'm supposed to be a training officer, not a test pilot."
"Maybe they'll have the bugs worked out by the time we get there."
"And if they don't?"
"Be ready to kiss your tail good-bye, sir."
* * * * * *
Four days later, Deanna stood in the same transporter room, this time waiting with Alexander for Worf to finish giving orders to his security staff. "I do not like leaving this way," he said as he approached them.
"I'll be all right, Father." Alexander stood erect, his arms straight at his side. "I'm sure I'll have a good time on Earth."
"You must promise to listen to Deanna while you are on the Farragut and to behave as the Captain tells you on the way to Earth."
Worf turned to Deanna. "I will miss you."
"You, too. Good luck," she said hugging him, then immediately stepping back. "And don't worry about Alexander. He'll be fine." Deanna put her arm around Alexander's shoulders. "Won't you?"
His only answer was an nod.
"If it is safe, Alexander, I will send for you." Worf looked around, as public displays of affection made him uncomfortable. However, when he bent over, he hugged Alexander tightly. "I will see you soon."
Deanna knew Alexander would never press his father, so she said, "His bag is packed. There are other children on DS9."
Worf glared at her for a moment. When he looked down at Alexander, however, he was smiling. "Hurry for it. I will wait."
Alexander hugged Deanna and ran from the transporter room.
"You know he won't be happy without you."
"I only want his safety."
Deanna understood Worf's concern. Although Worf still honored and followed most Klingon traditions, because of his affiliation with Starfleet and a misguided resentment for his father, many Klingons harbored ill will toward him. And she didn't doubt for a moment that some Starfleet personnel looked upon him with suspicion. If open conflict began, she was concerned that Worf would be an instant target of both sides.
After Will's departure for New Atwood, Worf had sought Deanna out for a long talk about what they had meant to each other and of the friendship he hoped they would always share. Deanna knew it was difficult for Worf to talk about his feelings, and the fact that he was willing to discuss them so honestly them with her had only deepened her love for him. At first, instead of justifying her return to Will, she found herself telling Worf all of the reasons she had loved him. They would never be lovers again, but his place in her heart was special and permanent. She hoped he would always regard her with a similar fondness.
But Worf could not understand how her feelings could change so quickly. How could she go from his arms to Will's on what appeared to Worf to be a thoughtless whim? How could she so quickly agree to marry a man she had sworn she no longer loved in that manner?
No matter how hard Deanna had tried to explain the concept of Imzadi, she wasn't sure Worf would ever comprehend all of her reasons for returning to Will. Trying to describe how being true Imzadi was much more precious than being lovers or friends had gotten her nowhere.
Still, she knew Worf believed that friendship was never to be taken lightly, and he offered that to her again without demands or animosity. She could only hope he would offer the same to Will once they were reunited. Deep in her heart, she believed Will had been one of Worf's closest friends for too many years for their rift to be permanent.
Alexander, bag in hand, raced past them to the transporter pad. Smiling, Worf joined him.
"Take care of yourselves," Deanna called as Worf signaled the transporter chief to energize.
Worf nodded, Alexander waived, and they disappeared.
* * * * * *
With so many ships waiting at Starbase 133 to take Enterprise crew members to parts unknown, there was only time to brief good-byes and promises to stay in touch. Deanna felt lost when she boarded a runabout that would take her and several ambassadors to Betazed. She decided, since her orders didn't officially begin until she arrived on Betazed, she would keep to herself during the trip. How else could she sulk about Starfleet's callous regard for her feelings?
Some of the ambassadors had other ideas, however, and sought out her company. A few wanted to find out what she knew about the conference. Others were hoping her empathic abilities would provide them with insight into the minds of their colleagues and competitors.
By the time she reached her mother's home she felt emotionally and mentally worn to a frazzle. Still, instead of the tug of war she expected to have with Luxwana, she was surprised to realize how much she enjoyed her mother's company. There was a new understanding between them. Luxwana listened with a sympathetic ear to Deanna's complaints about being separated from Will, and Deanna actually appreciated Luxwana's memories and advice about marriage.
The first recorded message from Will arrived two weeks after her arrival on Betazed. She immediately noticed how tired he looked. Other messages arrived in the weeks that followed, showing a thinner, haggard Will. Though each message was brief, obviously the victim of extensive editing, she could at least see that he was whole and know that he missed her. There was also an edge of anger in his eyes that Deanna found disconcerting. But each message ended with a promise to see her soon and pledges of love, so she saved them and watched them in their order of arrival whenever she had the time.
For a working leave, time was a precious commodity during the five-day conference sessions each week. She wasn't surprised that so many races feared the Borg, but she was disturbed that most planned to rely on Starfleet to save their planets from destruction if the Borg invaded. Others had already accepted that they would be destroyed or assimilated. At those sessions, she could only shake her head and wonder how their feelings could actually be the same as the words they were saying.
* * * * * *
In the Delta simulator, Will felt the exhilaration that always accompanied piloting a cruiser. Just you and the controls, instant response to the slightest move of your hand. It had been a long time since he had flown something like this. Even though the new fighters were larger, the simulator's response was amazing and simple to master.
With the required 100 hours of simulator flight time logged, Will felt more than ready to take a real fighter into space. He was soaring flawlessly around the spacedock when he became aware of the vibration. When he tried to roll the fighter in a combat maneuver, he had to fight a starboard shift to maintain any degree of control. Three unplanned rolls later, he finally had command of the ship. "Something isn't right," he shouted into the audio panel.
"Bring it in Commander," came the voice of Commodore Rheinhold. Will would have plenty of questions for the ranking project officer when he landed in the fighter bay.
* * * * * *
Deanna stared at the red light by the digital camera in front of her. "Hello, Will. We're finally reaching the last few weeks of the conference. I hope so, anyway. I'm getting to the point where I can't stand anyone with the title of ambassador. Except for Mother, of course. We're getting along surprisingly well. Frightening, isn't it?
"I've heard some non-invitees are raising a stink and demanding they be allowed to attend. If that happens, this nonsense could go on for another month or longer. They've certainly proven your assessment that, if the Borg attacks, the brass will be caught with their pants down. I can hear them now, asking, 'What's a Borg?'"
She smiled, hoping she didn't come across as depressed as she felt. "Mother would like to make our wedding the social event of the year, but I think I've convinced her that a small, private ceremony in the garden would be better for us. She has also insisted on the traditional lack of clothing. I told her you and I will be dressed and she'd feel pretty silly being the only naked person there. I think she's coming around. We'll talk about it when I see you. I haven't received orders to go anywhere after the conference. If I do, I'll get word to you as fast as I can. In the meantime, be careful, Imzadi. I love you. Bye for now."
* * * * * *
Will eased Delta Cruiser 23 to the point and opened a channel. "All right, ladies and gentlemen. We're going to try a simple combat maneuver. Just follow my lead."
There was a slight vibration when he dropped the starboard side to roll, but he had learned how to compensate. Maintenance crews had worked around the clock to repair some of the cruisers' shortcomings, but Will still felt uneasy flying this tight. He was impressed by the ability of the pilots to follow his lead, changing directions, rolling, firing at targets as they appeared. They had endured a lot of frightening moments in their cruisers, but none had hesitated to follow orders or to make the most of their situation.
Thirty minutes later, his hands tired of gripping the controls, Will signaled an end to the training mission. "Good shooting. Ninety-eight percent strikes. First drink's on me. Let's take them in."
Will listened to the radio exchanges of praise and friendly insults, laughing at the nicknames they had bestowed upon each other. There was so much chatter he almost missed a warning to veer starboard. He was aware of the impact on his port side, but knew nothing else until he materialized in the transporter room.
The expression on the transporter tech was one of absolute terror. "I could only get one of you, sir. It happened too fast."
Will quickly stepped from the platform. "How many were lost?"
"That makes four since my arrival and five before I got here."
By the time Will made a slow walk to his office, the survivors of the training flight were right behind him. He gestured for them to follow him in. There was barely room for them in the cramped office, and, as other flight teams joined them, several pilots were pressed against his desk. "We lost two good pilots, Commander. It could have been any of us," a Lt. Johnson said.
"I know." Will eyed Johnson's angry face. How old was this man, he wondered? Twenty-one? His strength and demeanor gave the impression he was older, but Will vaguely remembered reading over his service record. Twenty-one, and already a sacrificial lamb for Starfleet.
"Well, that's it, Commander," Johnson added. "We aren't flying these killers anymore."
"How many of you agree with the lieutenant?" Will asked, trying to massage feeling into the back of his neck. One by one, they raised their hands and he could see the challenge in their eyes. "Fine. Go to your quarters. I'll see what I can do with the commodore."
In the beginning, Will had resented the arrival of Commodore Rheinhold. The only saving grace of this assignment was the opportunity to add "base commander" to his service record. The commodore was part of an investigative team trying to determine how Commander Barbagallo had been killed. As soon as it became obvious that he and the others were victims of Starfleet's shortsightedness, the team disbanded without finalizing a report. Only Rheinhold remained behind, with orders to keep the Delta Project going.
Will mulled over his situation until he had a plan, then went to Commodore Rheinhold's office. The short, stocky officer glared at Will over a stack of metal crates. "What do you need, Commander?"
"Do you know what happened out there?"
"Word travels fast around here. Two pilots, two cruisers. Notify their families."
"I was just paid a visit by the rest of my pilots, Commodore. They aren't going out again."
"We'll see about that."
"What will it take to pull the plug on this mess?"
"Fat chance of that happening."
"Permission to speak frankly?"
"Denying it probably won't stop you." Rheinhold sat behind his desk and motioned for Will to sit across from him. Will, however, chose to remain standing. "This is a fiasco, and you know it. These fighters aren't combat ready. They're deathtraps. I won't order another pilot to leave spacedock."
"You don't have a choice, Riker. I'm giving the order. I want formation flying at 1400 hours."
Will stroked his beard and smiled down at the commodore. "I've been dodging media requests for information about the accidents we've been having. If some disgruntled pilots decide to blow the whistle, I can't stop them. I probably wouldn't, even if I could." Will leaned forward and rested his palms on Rheinhold's desk. "If you want everyone to know you're over ruling me and sending men and women to their deaths, it's fine with me."
"Do you know how expensive these ships are?"
"No. And, frankly, I don't care. They're a good idea, but they're flawed. You have combat pilots and first officers who are supposed to lead squadrons into battle with ships they can't even control. Find one man or woman who is willing to continue this project and I'll shut up and follow orders. I'm betting you can't."
"Do you really think they'd blow the whistle?"
"What do they have to lose? If they don't, they're as good as dead."
Rheinhold swiveled his chair sideways. For several moments, he neither looked at Will nor otherwise moved a muscle. His vehemence when he suddenly kicked at a crate sent the chair rolling away from him so that the only way he could keep from falling was to spring to his feet. "Damn! I've known from day one these fighters were useless. I doubt if they could even be converted into safe runabouts. Do you know what's in these crates? The personal property of dead pilots that I have to send to their survivors with a formal letter of how they died in an act of heroic service to Starfleet."
"For God's sake, Commodore, put an end to this! I don't have the authority. You do."
"I can only make recommendations, Riker. I suppose I could arrange for everyone here to be reassigned and try to get test pilots brought in. At least they know they're risking their asses, and they're paid bloody well to do it."
"Sounds reasonable to me."
"If I get them out of here, do you think they'll keep their mouths shut?"
"I can probably persuade them to keep quiet in exchange for immediate transfer."
"I assume you'll want something in return."
Will grinned. "Passage on the first ship to Betazed."
* * * * * *
Luxwana sighed at the sound of the door bell. "Mister Homn, would you get that? I simply must get my thoughts together before I leave for that infernal reception."
The towering man servant nodded and opened the door. He did not speak, he merely looked down at the guest.
"Hi, is Deanna around?"
Luxwana spun around. "William?"
Will eased his way around Homn until he caught sight of Luxwana. "Hello, Mrs. Troi. I was hoping I'd find Deanna."
Luxwana glided across the floor to hug him and take his arm. "Deanna should be home within the hour. It's those dreadful conferences. They should have been over long ago, but there are always a few idiots who don't know when to shut up and call it a day." She tugged him toward the stairs. "We'll just get you settled, then you can wait for Deanna. I'd wait with you, but I have to go to a reception for an Ambassador Zigwee, or something like that. I've been to so many asinine receptions lately I can't remember who we're honoring."
"Thanks for the offer, but I have a room at Starfleet housing."
"Then we'll send for your things." She patted his arm. "Don't worry, I'll arrange it. I can still pull a few strings with Starfleet. If I'd known you were coming I'd have already taken care of it. "
"My reassignment happened pretty quickly."
She escorted Will upstairs and down the hallway to a large bedroom. After spinning him around for a quick look at the room, she let go of his arm and went to the closet. "Deanna brought some of them of your things with her. The bathroom is over there. You should find everything you need. If--" Luxwana scowled at him. "Deanna's room is down the hall, next to mine, dear."
Will looked startled. "Sorry. It always takes me a while to remember you can read my mind."
"Yes, I can, dear. And even I'm ready to blush at what you've been thinking about my daughter since you entered this room."
The best he could manage was a sheepish grin. "It's been three months."
"Are you here to marry Deanna?"
"With your permission, of course."
"Then don't apologize. Besides, her thoughts of you have been worse. I'm tempted to ask if the two of you really . . . Never mind. I don't want to know." Luxwana gestured around the room one last time. "Take your time getting settled. Mr. Homn will see that dinner is prepared for you, then he'll make himself scarce. I'll see you in the morning."
Will watched her leave and exhaled for the first time since entering the room. He rummaged through the closet until he found a change of clothes, then grabbed a quick shower. He wasn't sure about staying at the Troi home, but after four weeks on a crowded runabout, he was more than ready to unwind with Deanna, even if a hovering Luxwana was part of the package.
It was nearly dark when he started downstairs, feeling much more human in a casual wrap around blue shirt and loose cotton pants. Halfway down, he saw the front door open and Deanna enter. "Mother, I'm home." Deanna started across the room, then stopped and smiled. "Will."
Deanna looked in the direction of his voice. "I was afraid to believe my senses," she said, hurrying toward the stairs.
Will met her on the bottom step and caught her in his arms, kissing her as though he could make up for months of loneliness with one kiss. "Your mother's at a reception. She insisted I stay here rather than at Starfleet housing."
"Dinner's ready. Somewhere."
"Are you hungry?"
"Neither am I." She kissed him and pushed him up the stairs. "How did you get here so soon?"
"I have new orders." Will was finding it difficult to kiss Deanna, answer her questions, and walk backward up the stairs, but she showed no signs of slowing down any of those activities and he certainly wasn't going to protest. "The Delta Project is on hold. I'm to serve as your Starfleet liaison for the remainder of the conference."
"What does that mean?" The door chime sounded, signaling that Will's answer would have to wait. "I'll get it!" Deanna called. She opened the door to a young Starfleet officer with a black travel bag. "I was ordered to bring Commander Riker's things here."
Deanna took it from him, thanked him -- and her mother -- and closed the door. "Well, since you have to go upstairs anyway, I'll just tag along." She hurried to join him. "You were explaining your new orders."
"I'm to see that Starfleet provides you with whatever you need to expedite the conference."
Deanna laughed. "What I need from you has nothing to do with Starfleet."
"Your mother said you've been having lascivious thoughts," he teased, letting her push him along again.
"Why did she tell you that?"
"While she was showing me the guest room, I guess my mind wandered to how much I've missed you and . . . well, some of the things I've been missing."
"She read your mind."
Will gave her apologetic smile. "And made sure I'm here to marry you. That's when she told me your thoughts about me had been . . ." she kissed him "even worse . . ." he kissed her "than what I was thinking about you." Will noticed he was backed up against the door of the guest room. Try as he might, he couldn't find the door release behind him while maintaining the kiss.
Deanna saved him the trouble by reaching around him and hitting the release. As the door slid open, she again began shoving him. "Mother's probably right."
"Fantasy or memory?"
"Care to share them with me?" he asked, feeling the back of his knees touch the bed.
She shoved him onto his back. "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine."
* * * * * *
The minister appeared uncomfortable in his starched robe. He eyed Will's formal dress uniform suspiciously, but smiled at Deanna's simple pale blue gown. That Luxwana was sobbing loudly and wilting in the heat under a multicolored, full-length gown with matching hat, turned his smile into a wide grin. Mr. Homn was dressed as he always dressed and saw no humor in the situation, but he readied the digital recorder without complaint.
"It is always with great pleasure that I perform this ceremony for two who are Imzadi," the minister said as Will took Deanna's arm. "The wedding you have chosen is a simple pledge of love and honor. William and Deanna, do you both promise to share your lives, to love and respect each other through all that life has to offer, now and until the end of time?"
"I do," each said, tightening his or her hold on the other's arm.
"Will you honor the commitment and sanctity of marriage, joined as one, each clinging only to the other?"
"I will," said the nervous groom.
Deanna smiled up at him. "I will."
"You may exchange your rings." He waited while they slipped the thin platinum bands into place. "Now, with the blessings of the Almighty, I pronounce that William and Deanna are husband and wife. May you know true joy in your life together."
Will took Deanna's cheeks between his hands and smiled down at her, whispering, "I love you."
Deanna said, both aloud and in his mind, "And I love you."
"Oh, kiss her for heaven's sake," Luxwana said, laughing through her tears.
'Yes, ma'am." Will kissed Deanna gently, then with passion that surprised even Luxwana. "We have a transport to catch," he said as soon as their lips parted.
"We have time to change." Deanna patted his chest. "The Janaran Falls aren't going anywhere."
Luxwana stepped between them, hugging both quickly. "Have a wonderful time. I'll see you when you get back."
"Don't forget to contact us if you hear anything from Starfleet," Deanna said.
"I'll tell Starfleet what they can do with themselves if they try to interrupt your honeymoon," Luxwana threatened.
"Suits me." Will took Deanna's elbow and led her from the garden. It took a great deal of self restraint to think about the flowers they walked past rather than allow his inner most thoughts to surface. He wasn't sure how, but he had learned to tell when Luxwana was prying and right now she may as well have been yelling at him from across the garden.
* * * * * *
Deanna could not remember a more beautiful Betazed sunset. Lying on a lounge chair, nestled in Will's arms, she felt totally at peace. It didn't matter that this was the last day of their honeymoon. When the runabout met them in the morning for a two week journey to Utopia, she would go with a full and happy heart. If life was perfect, they'd be going to their new home on the 1701-E, surely to be called the Enterprise. But if fate proved otherwise, they'd be just fine. As long as they had each other, the universe would be a wonderful place.