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Chapter 1

It had been an impossibly long day. Nine difficult patients in a
row, followed by three crew members who stopped me in the hall on my
way to my quarters, to bend my ear some more. The problems ranged
everywhere from a painful divorce to the death of a loved one to
Wesley's struggles with his mother. To top it all off, I wasn't in
the best of moods myself, so I doubt I was of much help to anyone.
As soon as the door to my quarters closed behind me, sufficiently
cutting me off from the varied troubles aboard the ship, I released a
sigh of relief. My head was pounding with fatigue and my nerves were
on edge. I felt…

I don't know how I felt… Anxious, jumpy, irritated… I suppose
described it best. I didn't want to sit still, but neither did I
desire any further stimulation, especially from people who needed

I began to undress, looking forward to a hot bath and maybe a glass
of wine to calm my system.

"Computer, dispatches," I said out of habit on my way to the
bedroom. I didn't realize that I really didn't want to hear the
dispatches until it was too late.

"A research inquiry from the Manitoba Journal of Interplanetary
Psychology and three communiqués from your mother," droned the
mechanical voice that sounded just a bit too much like mother.

*Three? Damn!* My forehead sank to the wall in annoyance. *This
had better be important.* Aloud, I grumbled, "Transfer my mother's
letters to the view screen," grateful that the computer didn't have
any feelings that I could hurt with my harsh tone.

I sank down into the seat at my desk, painfully aware of how
uncomfortable I was in my uniform, but worried that the messages
might be too important to let go until later. Most likely, Mother
was overreacting to something minor again, but three communiqués in
one day was unusual, even for her. :) I tapped a button and quickly
skipped past the research inquiry and went straight to my mother's
first letter.

As I began to read, I felt a sudden stirring at my inner core. It
was like the fluttering of butterfly wings tickling my stomach and
womb. I tightened my crossed legs against the sensation until it
gradually faded away. An unbidden thought fluttered with equal
intensity through my consciousness a moment later. It was Will. He
was aroused. As usual. I shook my head to dispel the image of his
intense blue eyes staring wantonly at his latest conquest.

*Not fair. Why couldn't his latest conquest be me? Wait… did I
just think that? What is wrong with you, Troi?*

There was only one thing I could do to equalize the situation. "And
computer, I'd like a real chocolate sundae."

"Define `real' in context please."

"Real! Not one of your perfectly synthesized, ingeniously enhanced
imitations. I want real chocolate ice cream, real whipped cream…"

"This unit is programmed to provide sources of nutritional value.
Your request does not fall within current guidelines."

I sighed in frustration. It had to be real, but I had no idea how to
explain what "real" was to a machine. "Listen, computer…"

"Picard to Counselor Troi." The captain's hail startled me out of
the fruitless fight I was about to partake in with a body-less voice.

"Now what?" I wanted to scream. Instead, I keyed my insignia and
took a deep breath. "Yes, Captain?"

"The pleasure of your company is requested, Counselor. We're having
an impromptu reception for the arriving delegates."

*Please no! Anything but a crowd of people!* "Captain, I'm not
really dressed for a reception." *Please PLEASE let me off the hook!*

"Oh, just throw on any old thing. We're about to get our first look
at the wormhole!" He insisted, as I knew he would.

"Of course, Captain. I'm on my way. Troi out." *No hot fudge
sundae, no hot bath, no wine or relaxation for me,* I
despaired. "God forbid I should miss the first look at the

I didn't even bother to straighten my hair or make-up as I dragged
myself back out the door.


Will Riker was kind enough to greet me at the entrance to Ten
Forward. I was surprised to see him, as I figured he would be deep
in the throws of passion by then. Few of the women he chose to
pursue ever turned him down. I scanned the room as Will offered his
arm to me, and spotted the woman in question immediately. She was on
the arm of another man. An intriguing man at that. A startlingly

handsome, confident delegate. I wanted to laugh out loud.

*Lost this one, did you, Will?* Luckily, he couldn't pick up my

"May I escort you in, Ms. Troi?" His words and gestures were gallant
indeed. He had been practicing to impress someone else. Oh, well.

"Just tell me there's some chocolate here," I begged with a slight
groan. That would be the one thing that would make this situation
bearable after the day I had just experienced.

He only smiled at me.

"Ah, Counselor Troi." Picard greeted in full cheer as I
approached. "Allow me to do the introductions… Premier Bhavani of
the Barzan," he gestured to an elderly woman, powerful both in
stature and psyche. Beneath her nose a strange breathing device
generated a constant flow of steam. I wasn't sure if the machine was
commonly used by the citizens of her planet, or if she suffered a
medical condition. It was hardly important enough to ask.

*Time to be the perfect dignitary myself.* "Your discovery has
certainly produced a great deal of excitement, Premier," I said in my
most proper voice. The captain's pleasure at my well-trained
diplomacy filtered through my mind. It brought a satisfied smile to
my lips. He was truly glad to have me there. I took comfort in his
silent praise. It was nice to be respected.

"Hopefully it will also produce a new era of prosperity for my
people," Bhavani responded sternly, the epitome of the perfect leader.

"We'll see to that," the Federation dignitary chimed in, his clever
dark eyes flashing with ambition.

"You know Mr. Mendoza, the Federation negotiator," the captain said
with a nod to the dark complexioned man.

I vaguely remembered him from another conference years before. I
gave him a curt nod and turned my eyes to the next delegate being

"One of the Federation's worthy competitors in the bidding, Leyor of
the Caldonians," Picard continued as I strained my neck to meet the
eyes of by far the tallest person in the room.

Leyor bowed politely to me. "Madame."

If the Caldonian said anything else after that, I didn't hear it
because an instant later, my psyche was suddenly flooded with a
sensual warmth that I was completely unprepared for. My eyes shot
automatically to Will, though the energy didn't feel at all like
his. It wasn't him. He was across the room, discussing the wormhole
with Geordi. Then who…?

"And I am Devinoni Ral," a compelling voice rose from seemingly
nowhere. The source of the words quickly stepped out from behind the
enormous Caldonian. It was the other negotiator with the female
ornament on his arm. At a closer look he wasn't as handsome as he
had seemed from the far side of the room. He had rather small,
pinched features, thin lips, pale white skin and slicked-back hair.
He wasn't tall and broad shouldered like Will was. He stood at a
modest height, but there was an obvious boldness to his bearing.
Regardless of his appearance, his sea green eyes held me prisoner, no
matter how hard I tried to look away. And his seductive, if not sly
smile sent a rush of heat to my cheeks, my knees nearly buckling in a
wave of unexpected weakness.

*Did he just say something? Oh yes! Devinoni Ral. I'm supposed to
introduce myself now.* "Ship's Counselor, Deanna Troi," I managed,
trying to steady my breath and my voice.

Devinoni glanced down at his trophy, at last breaking the spell his
eyes had cast on me. "My traveling companion, Rojay," he announced,
but the bored woman didn't respond, and I hardly cared.

Mr. Mendoza spoke up then. "Ral is the best hired gun in the

That little tidbit of information intrigued me. "Hired gun?"

"My good friend Mendoza means that I am a negotiator who serves a
variety of clients. On this occasion, I represent the Chrysalians,"
Devinoni explained, sounding very much like an annoying salesman.

*So why am I responding to him this way?* I wondered in mild alarm.
I turned toward the viewport before he could meet my eyes again as
Bhavani announced that it was time for the wormhole to appear.

It was a spectacular sight, I must admit. Massive swirling colors
opening upon a black vortex. A deep inviting well in the star
studded pool of space.

A shiver raced down my spine as the wormhole began to transform
before my eyes to something far more familiar and intimate. It was a
female organ spread wide, pulsating with inner and outer light; an
ancient core of power that eagerly awaited penetration...

*What the hell?* I couldn't believe the thoughts going through my
own mind. It just wasn't like me to be so distracted. I chanced a
glance over at Ral and found his eyes drinking in my form. He
captured and held my gaze again. More feelings of sensuality swept
through me with the force of a tide. He certainly was unguarded when
it came to his private thoughts... and desires.

How long had it been since the last time I had…? Whether it was his
silent question or my own, I cut it off mid-stream.

I couldn't recollect the answer at the moment anyway.

All I knew was that if Mr. Ral truly meant business, I was a goner.


Chapter 2

That night was one of the strangest I've had.

I finally did get my bubble bath. And it was better than I thought
it would be. I made the water several degrees hotter than usual and
closed my eyes in languid pleasure as the heat kissed and bit
tantalizingly at my skin. It wasn't until I was buried neck deep in
water that I realized I had forgotten the wine. Oh well. It wasn't
worth the trouble of getting out again.

Devinoni Ral. His foresty eyes swam through my misted thoughts.
What was it about him that captivated me? I had seen and clearly
sensed his attraction to me at the gathering, which was surprising
considering the elegant companion strapped to his arm, but that
didn't explain my ridiculous response. It wasn't the first time a
man had looked at me that way either, but it was the first time I had
ever gone weak in the knees and red in the cheeks over it. Were the
sensations that I felt around him my own, or was he projecting his
emotions onto me somehow? Or was it a combination of both? I
couldn't sort it all out no matter how hard I tried, so I let his
image drift from the center of my thoughts.

I casually stretched out my senses to filter through the rest of the
ship, just to be sure all was well. Will would call me a mother hen
for doing so, but I found that I never slept soundly unless I did a
quick sweep first.

The captain. Engaged in a calm mental activity of some sort. He was
reading, I'd have bet my life on it. Something old and cherished.
Something that carried him away to another time and place.

Beverly. Up late working in the lab. Her mind spinning busily as it
tried to piece together an intriguing puzzle.

Wesley. Frustrated still with his mother. Planning a rebellion of
sorts. Well, as much as a clean-cut conservative genius completely-
devoted-to-his-mother could rebel. It brought a smile to my lips.
He would win his independence soon. He'd find his own way.
Geordi and Chief O'Brien in Engineering about to retire for the day,
laughing at a joke. Most likely something Data had said without
meaning to be funny, as usual. I couldn't sense Data at all, but he
had such a strong emotional affect on others around him that it was
easy to pinpoint his location, as long as he wasn't alone. He had a
way of making people reexamine every little action they took or every
little feeling they had, analyzing it from his mechanical
perspective. Being around Data made a person look at himself
critically from the outside of his body, and evaluate the meaning of
existence many times over again in a given day. It was amazing how
many people one android had affected so deeply. He was the exact
opposite of me in most respects, yet he had long ago managed to carve
out a large place for himself in my heart.

Worf. I knew what Worf was doing. I could hear it faintly echoing
through the walls. Klingon Opera. Such horrendous stuff! It
sounded like nothing but discord and noise to me. But it moved him.
It boiled in his blood and wrapped itself around his soul. It was
the heart of his people. Poor Worf. How badly he needed to connect
with his people. Sometimes I wondered how he could stand living on
the Enterprise, so isolated. At times his longing for home was a
distraction to me, so powerful was the emotion.

Will. Engaged in some kind of game on the holodeck. Probably pool.
Whatever it was, it required slow, practiced movements of his body
and he was confident in his skills. It made him feel connected to
Earth and to his own masculinity. Years before, he had programmed
the holodeck to make this favorite bar of his exactly right. From
the smoke-filled air to the jazz music in the background, to the
smell of musk and old wood. It was a complete sensory experience for
him, one that he revisited at least once a week. His mind was a bit
foggy from the synthohol - at least it wasn't real alcohol this time,
but who needed clarity of thought when he was in this element?

I stretched my senses further, to all those who I didn't work closely
with, and found nothing amiss. Most were sleeping, including
Devinoni Ral, who was in a deep state of peace. All was well. I
sighed with satisfaction, yawned, and removed myself from the tub.
It was definitely time for bed.

After tending to my teeth, and brushing my hair, I donned my favorite
nightgown, a satiny pink number, got into bed, and fell promptly
asleep. It was what happened in my dreams that night which was so

I knew, in the way you can only know something while dreaming, that I
was younger. Before my time at the Academy, before my relationship
with Will. I could feel my own innocence, floating and fragile as a
soap bubble. It was hard to see exactly where I was at first. Then
the fog seemed to clear and I found myself back on Betazed. I was
standing on a hillside that was covered in yellow long grass, the
blades humming musically in the mild breeze. I put my hand above my
eyes to shield them from the sun as I viewed the city of my childhood
in the distance. It glistened, clean and white in the daylight, as
did the pure white, flowing dress that I wore. I inhaled the
fragrant autumn air and sighed with contentment. It was a perfect

"Deanna!" A voice called to me from the distance. It was
mother. "Deanna!" No, now it was my father – a voice I had been
longing to hear again, but not in this way. Not crying out a
warning. I started to run toward the urgent voices, down the hill
and through the field. On and on I ran, but the city never grew any
closer and the voices remained always just out of reach. I tripped
over a rock and fell…and fell…and fell. Soon I lost consciousness as
I drifted ever downward into an endless black void.

I never landed. The scene just suddenly changed and I was in my old
bedroom at mother's house, sleeping in between silky cream sheets. I
was safe here. Safe and warm and very comfortable.

Then a gust of wind blew open the window by my bed, and I awoke with
a start. Sitting straight up, I watched as the long translucent
curtains covering my window billowed in the torrent like ghosts. A
man appeared there in the opening, his tall form illuminated from
behind by moonlight I knew who he was, yet couldn't identify him by
name. I knew him by his presence only, which hungered for mine. He
slowly approached the bed, this faceless, nameless man, and lowered
himself to me in the dark.

His foreign yet familiar lips sought mine in a demanding kiss, and I
didn't resist. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him to
me. His slender body moved to cover mine, pressing me deep into the
mattress, as his hands went to caress my hair, my face, my neck and
sides. His mouth continued its ravishment of mine, his breath
scentless and airy, and I remained perfectly still, wondering why he
was there and what he intended to do next. The pressure of his lips
was real, and seductive, but the emotion behind this action was
missing. There was no feeling of romantic love. Only an all-
consuming need… as if he wanted to devour me alive.

Then he shimmered in a cascade of light and transformed into a giant
python, its narrow head bobbing and weaving before my eyes.
Simultaneously, the bed sheets rippled beneath me, shifting,
changing, melting until at last they became a dark crimson color.
The color of blood. The serpent slithered up between my breasts,
which were now bare, and wove its way around my neck, its long tail
wrapping about my naked waist until it held me prisoner in its tight
embrace. I wasn't afraid of this snake, though. I knew that if I
didn't resist it, it wouldn't harm me. In fact, it worshipped me.
It was there to give praise to its goddess. Me. I was the holy
vessel of power that it sought. It would merge with me to become my
partner in protecting a sacred core of energy. Then I, in turn,
would consume the serpent and become the creature myself….

"It is oh-seven-hundred hours. Repeat. It is oh-seven-hundred
hours." The computer woke me what seemed like minutes after I had
fallen asleep. "It is oh-seven-hundred hours. Repeat…"

"Acknowledged," I groaned to stop the alarm. My hand went to cover
my face as I shook my head to dispel the bizarre feeling of the
dream. How could it be morning already? I had just gone to sleep!
I sat on my bed in disbelief for a time thinking about the snake. I
couldn't understand why I hadn't been screaming in terror in the
dream, with my typical fear of snakes. I didn't have ophidiophobia
per se, but the slithery creatures certainly didn't appeal to me. I
shuddered in revoltion at the memory of being wrapped up in its long
muscular body. Okay, time to think about something else. I tried to
focus on the other imagery, such as the beautiful autumn field, as I
reluctantly dragged myself out of the covers.

As I made my way toward the bathroom, portions of the dream continued
to swirl through my mind. I was usually quite good at dream
analysis, but I couldn't figure out the meaning of this one. The
emotions and sensations of its realness faded quickly and I was now
able to give it a good cold analysis. There was the classic snake
image, which meant many things – healing, betrayal, entrapment,
sexuality… There was the red sheets… loss of innocence? Death?
Maturity? Voices in the distance… something I needed to listen to,
but what? Falling… loss of control? Power and worship… that one was
way beyond my comprehension.

It'd have to give it more thought as the day went on. Maybe log it
in my journal for further analysis later. As it was, I had another
full schedule of clients to look forward to that day, so I had to
clear my head and get back to work. Life went on.

I ordered some strong coffee from the replicator and swiftly
dressed. All the while, the dream that had been so tangible an hour
before, slowly faded into the nether region of my consciousness,
replaced by a sense of calm knowing. This was going to be a good

I downed my coffee and a Picard-style croissant, fixed my hair and
make-up until I was satisfied with my appearance, and strolled out
the door to my office.


The first three patients went by quickly, their problems relatively
simple compared to the ones from the day before. The fourth
cancelled, so I had an hour to myself. *What to do? What to do?* I
eyed the computer screen on the table before me. *I know!
* "Computer," An embarrassed smile edged across my lips. "Show me
the file on delegate Devinoni Ral."

A relatively handsome picture of the delegate appeared on the screen
as the mechanical voice narrated. "Devinoni Ral, human, age 41, born
Brussels, European Alliance, relocated at age 19 to Hurkos Three, a
non-aligned planet…"

The entry chime rang and my heart leaped into my throat. It was
him! I could sense him standing on the other side of the door,
brimming with confidence. I quickly pressed the pause button and
cleared my throat. "Come in."

The door opened and he stepped in. He flashed me a lopsided grin and
a whole swarm of butterflies fluttered in my stomach.

"Should I call for an appointment?" he asked, pretending he didn't
know that my patient had cancelled. I could sense that this was a
piece of information that he had gone to great lengths to discover.

"No," I laughed faintly. "I was just looking over some personnel
files." *At least that's not a total lie! Better get him off the
screen before he sees!* I pressed the computer's off button with as
casual a motion as I could manage.

Another sly grin from Ral as he approached my chair. "Too bad. I
had hoped you might be thinking about me."

Gods, he was bold! I struggled not to blush, but I only had so much
control over my body's functions. *I'm not going to give in to him,*
I determined, my teeth clenched behind closed lips.

Aloud, I responded, "I thought you'd be deep into negotiations by
now." *Good, change the topic, Troi!*

"In recess. I never play the opening rounds anyway.
Inconsequential." He was slowly circling my chair like a hawk
getting ready to dive at his prey.

I held my tongue, allowing him to set the pace of this discussion.
Maybe if he said enough, I would discover his weakness and gain some
measure of advantage over him. What was it about this man that made
me feel so helpless?

He paused in his circling and gazed down into my eyes. "Besides,
there are more interesting things to negotiate on this ship. Like
dinner tonight?"

*Damn! I need another way to side step this… Oh, I know!* "What
about your traveling companion?" It was a reasonable question.

He wasn't even phased. "My traveling companion is… traveling," he
made a small gesture with his hand outward. "I sent her home."

"Why?" I braced myself for the answer.

"You know why." He resumed his circling.

*I'm in trouble!*

Lowering my eyes to the carpet, I searched for something to say that
would divert the attention from myself again. "Weren't you getting
along?" It was the best I could manage, given the mushy state my
mind had disintegrated to. He was mostly behind me now and I
couldn't see his reaction, but I could feel his sarcasm before it
reached his mouth.

"Don't do that."

"What?" I wanted to look at him, but it would have been awkward for
me to turn in my chair, so I stared straight ahead, silently cursing
him for having the upper hand yet again.

"Don't do `Counselor' Troi."

Flustered, I had no immediate comeback. What exactly did that
mean? "Was I?" It was a lame response, but all I could pull
together at a second's notice.

"Yes, you were." Suddenly he was crouching next to me, his warm
breath tickling my ear. And I still couldn't see his face. "When
you leave this office, who are you?" he whispered seductively. A
wave of sensuality traveled along his words and wormed its way
through my meager defenses.

I was stunned into silence. No one had ever asked me that question
before and I had no practiced answer. The butterflies beat their
wings ever harder to match my rising heart rate, and a rush of heat
prickled my cheeks. Now I was glad he couldn't directly see my face

"Oh, so that's how it is," he persisted, "You never do. You never do
leave the office." He reached a hand up to my headband and raked it
backwards through my hair as he removed it.

This was definitely overstepping his boundaries. "What are you…?" I
began to protest.

"Shhhhhh…." He cut me off, the force of his determination
overwhelming my reasoning.

His plunged his fingers into my hair and reveled there. I could feel
his excitement building as he stoked my freed hair down my back and
slid some errant tendrils aside from my cheek. His roving hand found
my neck and lingered there, responding with interest to the goose
bumps that rose under his touch.

*He shouldn't be doing this… I shouldn't let him…* I scolded myself,
but it felt so good to be touched. I closed my eyes, trying
desperately to regain my composure. It really had been way too
long. My mother would have been horrified if she knew how long it
had been.

At last finding a small measure of strength, I reached up and drew
his hand away from my hair. I held on and turned in my chair so I
could meet his eyes. I had planned to say something… anything to get
on top of the situation, but his gaze, filled with longing, bore
deeply into my mind, distracting my thoughts, and the words just
wouldn't come.

He took my face between both of his hands and my breath caught in my
throat, thinking he was going to kiss me. "Dinner at eight?" he
muttered just inches from my lips.

Then before I could answer, before I could object or make any further
excuses, he was gone, the door swooshing closed behind him.

*Oh gods!* I let my head drop into my hands and emitted a loud
moan. How could I have been so weak? He wasn't my type at all, yet
I was powerless to resist him!

*I should call him right now and tell him not to bother coming by my
quarters at eight o'clock because I won't be there.*

My hand rose to tap my commbadge, then froze as the door chimed. It
was my next patient. I would just have to contact Devinoni Ral later
and put him in his place. The man was way too self assured and
arrogant. *We'll see just how badly he wants this date,* I
challenged myself as I answered the door.


Chapter 3

Another long day finally came to an end. I closed the door after the
last patient had left and gathered my files. It was 1800 hours and I
still hadn't contacted Ral to cancel our date. I could have done
it during lunch, but I was distracted by other pressing matters;
including the need to research the latest therapy for holo-addiction
– a growing trend among the ship-bound members of Starfleet. One of
my patients was suffering from a particularly bad case of this
disorder, which was hard for me to fathom. The people generated by
the holodeck, while seeming real to the physical senses, had no
emotional awareness, and were therefore hollow inside. Why so many
of the males, in particular, were content to lose themselves in these
depthless facades was beyond me.

I had actually been curious enough to try it once, at Will's
urging. He thought I needed a holiday by myself, so he convinced me
to visit his holodeck Risa program. It hadn't even occurred to him
that I would want the pleasure of his company along with the program,
as he slipped me the secret code with a sly grin and sauntered away.
At the time, I was too frustrated with his lack of sensitivity to
chase after him. Of course, there was also my curiosity – which has
always gotten the better of me. What would a program of Will Riker's
be like without Will in it? It might give me valuable insight into
his psyche…

…I have to admit the setting appeared quite inviting. He hadn't left
out a single detail. Sparkling beach at midnight, cloudless, star-
filled summer sky, a romantic couple strolling along the beach in the
distance… There was even a handsome stranger lying on a towel,
wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit and a suggestive smile,
just waiting for me. Too bad the stranger wasn't Will himself…

As I approached the holo-man I reminded myself that he was a program
created by the very person I wanted to get closer to. Maybe
Will's true desires would be revealed if I conversed with the

Well, at least I had been right about that much. When the man
decided that three whole minutes of conversation was more than
sufficient to get me "in the mood," and then abruptly attempted to
remove my clothes, I realized there was nothing whatsoever new to
learn about Will Riker, and had left the holodeck without looking

"Deck eight," I said to the computer as the turbo lift door
closed behind me, bringing my mind back to reality as only cold metal
can. The day was over, but what about the night?

The lift came to a stop and the sliding door revealed an empty
hallway, to my great relief. I had a good deal to sort out in my
mind and would have appeared terribly distracted to anyone who wanted
some off-the-cuff advice.

I strolled past Will's room on the way to my own, then stopped
short. My hand rose to clutch my chest as a tidal wave of emotion
suddenly crashed over me. A cascade of intense pleasure, wave after
wave of it, followed by a warm, drifting bliss. My other hand found
the wall behind me and gripped it for support. Apparently Will was
paying his respects to the traveling companion before she embarked on
her journey.

*Damn him!*

Gasping for breath, I lunged into my quarters and locked the door
behind me. I paced back and forth in the living room, arms crossed
over my chest, my body aching with agitation. It just wasn't
fair! Why was it so easy for him to find pleasure in perfect
strangers? Even lifeless ones on the holodeck? And why did I feel
the need to connect spiritually with a person before I could
experience the slightest touch of intimacy? His way was so
convenient and carefree. My way offered nothing but loneliness.

Devinoni Ral flashed through my mind just then and I paused in my
steps. *Yes, he's a complete stranger; an arrogant, pushy one at
that, but I feel an ineffable connection to him… maybe it's

Another vortex of pleasure traveled from Will's consciousness
into mine and my hands clenched into fists, nails cutting painfully
into my palms. *That does it.* I gritted my teeth in silent
determination and I made my way to the closet to choose a dress.
*This date is on. I just hope Devinoni Ral is ready for what he's
getting into.*


Eight o'clock came quickly, and the door chimed – right on
time. I took several deep breaths to gather myself before
answering. I could sense Devinoni on the other side of the wall,
buzzing with anticipation, radiating confidence in every direction.
If only I felt the same way. At last I found the courage to open the

Our eyes met and he didn't hesitate to smile his approval of my
chosen attire. I was wearing the full-length, shoulder-less blue
dress, my hair left long and unadorned.

"Much better," he said in a voice laced with conceit, but I didn't
miss the way his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. Or the
way his chest rose and fell rapidly, betraying his breathlessness. I
had surprised him with my appearance. Good.

"Thank you," I replied, genuinely flattered. "Come in for a drink?"

I moved aside and he entered. As he passed, an electric current
raced between us, and I shivered involuntarily. Even his scent was
alluring – masculine, but subtle, with a hint of the ocean. What
was this? A chemical response? A spiritual connection? Whatever
its cause, the feeling was tangible and unmistakable. I wanted him.
I truly desired to seduce this complete stranger. Will would have
been proud. Then again… maybe not…

Ral's eyes wandered about my quarters, partly as a welcome
distraction; he had felt the magnetic force between us too, and
partly in judgment – always trying to get the upper hand. "Ah…
Federation décor," he commented with open sarcasm.

I smiled and bit back the urge to banter on his level. "Not your

"Conformity is not my style."

That wasn't fair. I wasn't exactly a conformist either, but it
wasn't worth an argument, not in my current state of mind. I
approached the food dispenser and he followed. "What would you

He stepped closer to me, pinning me with those compelling eyes of his
again. Then he leaned down and gently captured my lips with his. It
caught me off guard, though it wasn't unpleasant. In fact, his lips
were soft and warm, his breath matching my own enough that it had no
scent, and the electric current returned, snaking its way through my
body and mind. Did he feel it too? I was too dazed to tell.

He pulled back then and searched my face for a reaction. My response
was clear, and he grinned. "I'd even like another," he said huskily,
his pupils dilated.

As he came at me for a second taste, I abruptly turned away. I
didn't know why, exactly, except I had a sudden rush of fear that
shook me to my very bones. I took a deep breath and tried to reign
in my senses. I didn't like feeling out of control.

"There she is again…Counselor Troi."

"I'm not!" I cut him off in irritation. *Courage, Troi!* "Computer,
champagne," I ordered with returning authority. I was going to
seduce him tonight, not the other way around.

"For two," he added.

Two glasses of champagne materialized on the replicator pad and we
each took one. I had a sudden urge to down my entire portion, but
that would have immediately given away how nervous I was, so I
settled for a sip. I turned casually away from him, and tried to
plan my next move.

His eyes bore into the back of my head like two small drills.
"Am I moving too fast for you?" Despite the intensity of his gaze,
the question was soft, tentative.

Was that a touch of vulnerability in his voice? It rapidly melted my
fears away. I sighed and shook my head. "No, I'm moving too fast
for me," I admitted. He wanted honesty, and I was happy to oblige.

"Mmmm…" he rumbled sensually. "I like that better…"

I met his eyes full on now, compelled to tell him everything. "I
haven't been able to stop thinking about you all day." It was true.

I set my glass on the table and slowly approached him, reveling in
the way his hungry eyes lingered on my bare neck and shoulders, then
traveled to my mouth, now just inches from his. He set his own glass
down a second before I kissed him.

This time I took control of the kiss. I parted my lips and drank in
his essence, molding my body to fit the contours of his. He
stiffened a moment in shock, then relaxed against me, his hands
coming up to stroke my back. Everywhere he touched, my skin
responded as if it had never experienced feeling before. Every nerve
ending sang with new life. I gently bit his lower lip and was
gratified to feel him shudder this time.

He pulled back and gazed into my eyes. Was I coming on too strong
for him now? "You must have had a nice day," he quipped, his hands
cupping my face, thumbs circling my cheeks.

I had to smirk at the feelings I sensed in him. He was overwhelmed.
Beginning to lose himself, but it didn't frighten him. He relished
the sensation. "Anticipation is fun," I responded, tilting my
head up to kiss him again.

This one was longer, deeper, raging with passion. My shields lowered
of their own accord as I opened myself to him. Now I was as easily
swept away as he. It was almost too much to bear.

At last I released his heated lips to catch my breath. I had to give
us both one last out. "We'll be late for dinner."

His voice thick with lust, he assured, "Very late." Then he picked
me up in his arms with surprising ease and headed toward the



The room was dim. Soft lights cascading on honey-toned flesh. I
watched the curve of her spine, the seductive dip above her buttocks,
the muscles rippling under her skin. It was bliss. Too bad it all
had to end.

"Are you sure you have to leave already?" I asked. Rojay, looked
back at me from where she was sitting on the edge of the bed. A
seductive smile played across her full lips.

"Yes, Will, my transport ship leaves in thirty minutes. This will be
the last one until the negations are over," she said. She stood
gracefully from the bed, the sheet that was previously covering the
lower half of her body slid away, revealing a perfectly curved
backside. "I need a shower," she tossed over her shoulder.

I leaned back on my pillow with a sigh, somewhere between contentment
and disappointment. The afternoon had been perfect, I'd just gotten
off duty when the chime rang and there she stood. What was it Ral
had called her? His traveling companion. Well she would have made a
trip anywhere a hell of a lot more fun. Rojay. Even her name was
exotic, adding some much-needed excitement to the day-to-day

I heard the shower turn on, the hum of the ship underneath that. My
body was satisfied, floating in the after effects of sex, wanting to
sleep. My mind shifted, replaying the images and sensations of being
with Rojay. I forced myself to remember every detail, every touch.
It was the only way to keep the emptiness at bay. It was like so
many other times in my life, the moments of silence after sleeping
with someone. Sometimes it was awkward, the women would know that it
was nothing more then a fling and would not know how to say goodbye
cleanly. Sometimes they were like Rojay. They knew the game; they
played it well, no awkward good-byes for women like that.

I'd gotten good over the years at finding the women who believed in
the phrase "no strings attached." I could spot them in a crowded
room, hone in on them like a torpedo. The ones who wanted fun, a
break from the norm, or maybe they were more like me, looking for
something to fill that hole they carried around inside them. I never

As I lay there in my bed, breathing deeply the smell of Rojay's
perfume and musk, I could feel that hole growing. It always seemed
like an un-crossable chasm in moments like this, when my physical
needs were satisfied, but not much else.

I know what Deanna would say if she knew about these moments; well
perhaps not say, she'd want me to figure it out on my own, but she'd
think it all right. She'd think I was using sex to replace the love
I missed as a child, using those other women as a replacement for my
mother. Yep, Freud would have had a field day with me. Of course, I
don't really believe that. Maybe it's partially true, but maybe some
people are just born searching for something elusive, something that
tickles at the back of their mind, but they could never articulate
it. Maybe it's love, acceptance, or security, I don't know. Maybe
it's all those things.

I heard the shower shut off. Rojay was humming softly, a soothing
song that sounded almost like a lullaby. She came into the room,
completely naked, with a towel twisted around her hair. I had to
smile at that, I only knew one other woman so completely comfortable
with nudity, but I didn't want to think about that.

"Nice shower?" I asked.

"Very nice. If this place weren't so boring I might stick around
just for the great amenities."

"Maybe you should stay. You could spend some time on the holodeck.
I've got some great Risa programs. Just like being there."

"I'm sure they are." She cocked her eyebrow at me. She knew exactly
what my Risa programs were. "But I think I'd prefer the real thing.
I hate curling my toes into fake beach sand."

I wasn't too surprised, or all that disappointed. But, there was one
thing that bothered me. Less then twenty-four hours ago, Rojay had
completely ignored my advances, but this afternoon she'd shown up at
my door more than willing. Maybe it was my ego, or as Deanna might
my say, my need for validation.

"Do you mind if I ask what changed your mind?" I had meant to ask
earlier, but it's hard to form questions with someone else's tongue
in your mouth.

She frowned, slipped into her vellum thin dress, and sat back down on
the edge of the bed. "Devinoni had other things on his mind, so I
decided a trip to Risa would be in order."

I reached up and traced the outline of her collarbone with my finger,
delighting in the goose bumps that formed on her skin. "Well, I can
definitely see how you might prove a distraction. I guess some men
can't mix business and pleasure."

She chuckled a throaty little laugh that I imagine had stirred many
men into a tizzy; it was no less effective on me. "Devinoni knows
how to mix business and pleasure. Trust me." She stood abruptly
from the bed and began looking for her missing shoes. "Besides, his
mind wasn't on business anyway. He had another kind of conquest in
mind." Maybe it was my imagination, but I detected a trace of hurt
in her voice.

"Oh, really."

"Yes, that counselor of yours. What was her name? Diana or

"Deanna." I winced at the sound of disbelief and borderline shock in
my voice. I sounded like a snubbed lover. Maybe, in some ways, I
was. Though neither of us rubbed our relationships in the other's
face, living on a ship together made it hard to avoid sometimes.
Deanna was a good sport about it, sometimes too good of a sport. If
I ever needed proof that she didn't feel for me what she used to, it
was in her reactions to the other women I dated. She hardly seemed
to notice.

I shook the jealous thoughts away. Hell, I'd just had an afternoon
of fabulous sex with a beautiful, alluring woman who actually wanted
me. The last person I should have been thinking about was Deanna.

"Ral's wasting his time." Deanna liked a confident man, that was for
sure, but the little I'd seen of Ral had shown he was more than just
confident. He was down-right arrogant. Deanna preferred men with a
good balance of confidence and humility… a good sense of humor,
intelligent, charming. Kind of like me. "He's not Deanna's type," I
said, sure of the verdict I had just passed.

Rojay's laughter filled the room. "Oh, Devinoni Ral is everybody's
type. He makes sure of that." Something about the way she said it,
the hard look in her eyes coupled with that velvety laugh, made me

I covered my discomfort by standing up and reaching for my uniform.

"What are you doing?"

"I thought I'd walk you to the transporter room." I slipped one leg
into my pants, but the hesitant look on her face stopped me.

"Look William, this was fun, but I hate goodbyes and promises to keep
in touch. We both know we won't do that. So let's so let's not
pretend we will." She gathered up the last of her belongings, gave
me an almost sisterly peck on the check, and walked out of the room.

I can only imagine the expression on my face. Rarely had a woman
ever been so blunt. Most preferred to keep up the pretense of
friendship at least, but not Rojay. I shrugged it off. Honesty was
the best policy, right?

I looked at the chrono. Six o'clock, and I didn't have to be on duty
until tomorrow morning.

What to do? I could always hang out in my quarters.

I looked around my sparse room. My eyes fell on my trombone, that
was always good for a couple hours of entertainment, but I wasn't in
the mood to play. I could read. There was the book Capitan Picard
gave me. But reading a long story about a war that happened two
hundred years before I was born did not sound appealing.

I contemplated contacting Deanna, but then thought better of it. If
Rojay was right, Deanna might be busy. That realization didn't set
well with me. I tried to shake the feeling off. So what if she
might have a date? It's not like I had a monopoly on her time.

I settled on a quick shower and a trip to Ten-Forward. Always
someone to talk to there. Maybe Deanna would show up and we could
share a laugh over the egomaniac, Ral's, attempts to get her into


To say my trip to Ten-Forward was not what I had expected would be an
understatement. I spent the majority of the evening listening to
Data and Geordi talk about their mission into the wormhole that would
take place in the morning. While I certainly found the wormhole
interesting, I didn't necessarily want to hear Data's theories about
the space-time continuum, or Geordi going over specs for the shuttle
craft they were going to use. But there wasn't really anyone else to
talk to. The only people in Ten-Forward were on dates, using the
breathtaking beauty of the wormhole as a backdrop for a romantic

I kept one eye firmly planted on the door the whole time. Hoping,
almost praying, for Deanna to walk through it. The urge to see her
was strong. For some reason, she always took the edge off of that
restless, lonely feeling. Her mere presence was comforting.

I was just about to make my third attempt at turning Data and
Geordi's conversation around to something a little more entertaining,
when I felt It. What that `It' was, I don't even have the words
for. It felt like invisible fingers massaging the back of my brain,
causing goose bumps, and the fine hairs on my neck to stand up. The
sensation was surreal, yet familiar. Like deja-vu magnified by

"Commander, are you all right?" Geordi asked. His question shook me
away from analyzing the feeling, and pushed it back to the far
reaches of my mind.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just got a little dizzy there for a second."

"Perhaps you should go see Dr. Crusher," Data offered. The mere
thought of Beverly's poking and prodding caused me to wince.

"I don't think so. Every time I get near that woman she tries to put
me in one of those ridiculous sickbay smocks," I joked. "I'm just
tired. Maybe I'll turn in for the night."

"Okay, but if it gets worse you should really go see the doctor,"
Geordi said. "Besides, I think she likes putting you in those

I laughed half-heartedly at his joke, said goodnight, and left Ten-
Forward. The sensation was still there as I stepped onto the
turbolift, but distant, like voices coming from another room. "Deck

As the lift approached my deck the sensation increased. It wasn't
over powering, or even unpleasant. Quite the contrary. It was
almost pleasurable. That was, until the feeling began to focus into
something I could name, and its source abruptly emerged.

A wave of euphoric pleasure hit me, staggering for a moment, then
gentle, like the tide lapping against the shore, and I suddenly knew
what was so familiar about the sensation.

It was Deanna.

That link forged almost five years ago, a link rarely used since
then, was springing into life at the most inopportune time
imaginable. Right when she was obviously in the middle of being
seduced by none other Devonian Ral. The thought made my stomach turn
a little. Not only did I feel like a voyeur, but I was unwittingly
receiving her emotional backwash.

The turbolift doors opened, and I stepped out hesitantly. The
trickle through my mind was getting so strong, I almost expected to
see them right there, going at it in the hallway. That did not make
for a pretty mental picture.

I walked into my quarters as quickly as I could, trying not to look
at Deanna's closed door. As soon as the door shut behind me, the
smell of Rojay's perfume smacked me in the face. Just a few hours
ago the scent had been alluring, now it made me shudder with
distaste. I started ripping the sheets off the bed and throwing in
them the recycler, hoping to rid the room of the smell, and keep my
mind off of what Deanna was doing.

As I threw the last of the sheets and blankets into the chute, a
thought struck me. Was she doing this on purpose? Playing some kind
of sick game? Surely not. I knew her better then that. She would
be horrified if I told her about it. Apologetic even. It was a huge
taboo on Betazed to link to someone else's mind without permission.

Besides that, I had always suspected that she didn't have as much
control over our shared link as she would have liked me to believe.
I discovered that bit of information after Tasha died, when the guilt
over her death had made Deanna so distraught she'd inadvertently
linked with me. That was the only time in the three years that we'd
served together that it had happened. Usually she kept it under
tight control. At least on her end. I suppose I was a little easier
for her to read. After all, she was the empath.

I stopped shoving sheets into the laundry chute. I could feel my
eyes get bigger.

Oh, God! If I could feel this much from her, what would she have
sensed from me when I was with others? I groaned. She feels
everything, especially if she isn't blocking it out. My face grew
hot just thinking about it.

How did that make her feel? Why didn't she ever tell me? Without
even thinking, I retrieved my stash of whiskey and rocks glass from
the cabinet, poured myself a hefty dose, and downed it in one
swallow. The warmth hit my stomach and spread across my chest,
helping to ease the tension that was growing there.

*Okay, maybe she didn't always feel it. Maybe the only reason I'm
sensing anything from her now is because I was thinking about her
just before it happened,* I rationalized. That sounded believable.
I poured another drink and settled on the couch, trying to remember
all the things Deanna had taught me about blocking telepathy.
Obviously if we were going to continue to serve together, I had to
find a way to block my mind off from hers.

I sat there practicing the techniques she'd taught me, until the
alien emotions slowed to a trickle, then stopped all together. I
felt better after that. More in control. I was gratified to
discover that I could turn the link off if it ever happened again. I
slipped into sleep easily after that, content with the knowledge that
Ral would only be on the ship for a few more days, and then
everything could go back to normal.

I didn't know how wrong I was.



You knew this was coming, right? This section warrants an NC-17
rating. Sorry! We didn't mean to make it so graphic, but that's how
it turned out. It's necessary to the story, but not to the overall
plot. If you're sensitive to such things, PLEASE SKIP THIS SECTION!
You'll still get a full plot without it.

Consider yourselves fairly warned!


Consciousness returned slowly and painfully. First there was the
disorientation; that hazy state where one can't clearly distinguish
reality from dream. Then, as my eyes fluttered open, they were met
with a dim light that cast a grayish hue on everything in the room.
Soon color came into focus with startling abruptness, mainly the
muted purple that illuminated the back wall of the living room next
door. It took me a moment to realize where I was. My quarters. My
warm, safe bed.

I stretched my arms up and groaned as nearly all of the muscles from
wrist to waist protested the movement. Turning onto my side, I
realized that I was sore in places I didn't even know existed. The
sheets were cool against my bare skin and I became acutely aware of
every inch of my body at once. It was strange to be lying naked in
bed. I usually wore a nightgown. How long had it been since I had
slept this way?

Ral! With sudden realization, I sat up and scanned the bed, then the
room beyond. He was gone. My eyes caught something bright red on
the pillow next to me. I reached down and picked it up. It was a
long stem crimson rose. Perfect! I grinned as I fingered the
delicate, cool petals and brought it to my nose to inhale its
sweetness. With a contented sigh, I allowed my body to sink back
onto the bed. It was my day off, so I didn't have anywhere to go.

I was glad he was gone when I woke up. It gave me time to process
all that had happened the night before. Could he possibly know me
well enough already to understand my need for solitude after such a
major turn of events? Or did he need the time away himself? Was he
that much like me?

Given my aches and pains, and the feeling of fulfillment that
suffused my inner depths, it had to have been one hell of a night. I
did my best to relax and allow the memories to flow back into my
mind, but the recollections came in broken bits and pieces. Why
couldn't I relive the entire night sequentially from beginning to
end? I puzzled over this a moment, then gave up and allowed myself
to dwell on the broken imagery and accompanying sensations without
the use of my logical mind. It was actually a welcome change.

I could still feel them…the warm hands that had removed my clothes
with expertise, massaging their way down my ribs, my sides, my belly
as they went. The hot mouth that sucked, licked and bit at my
tingling, awakening skin. The weight of the slender but muscular
form that came down upon mine, his mysterious eyes gazing into the
depths of my soul with unbridled intensity…

My stomach growled. Loudly. I had skipped dinner the night before…
well, except for the strawberries, that is. That particular memory
followed me as I raised the lights a notch, slipped on a robe, and
headed toward the kitchen. I placed the rose in a slim vase on the
table and headed to the replicator.

"Computer, two shiiva eggs, scrambled, brushti toast and kazan juice,
no ice." Then with a smug grin to myself, "And computer, hot
chocolate…with marshmallows… and a small bowl of strawberries." I
guess I was really hungry.

…Strawberries…Shortly after he had removed my clothes and caressed me
to a heightened state of throbbing need, he rose, stripped his own
clothes, and then promptly left my bedroom. I stared after his
retreating form in bewilderment. He was gone for several moments, at
last returning with a bowl of strawberries, a tiny pitcher of
steaming chocolate syrup and a long strip of black cloth.

He placed the tray of strawberries and chocolate on the bed. Leaning
in close to me, he whispered, "Do you trust me?" His breath tickled
my ear, and I shivered involuntarily.

His voice was soft, husky. Something alluring, maybe even dangerous
lived in that voice, in his question. Tingles of anticipation raced
up my spine, even as my logical mind formed a protest.

He must have seen the hesitation in my eyes. Before I could respond,
he kissed me, his tongue taking up residence where my protest used to
be. It was a forceful, powerful kiss that ended abruptly, leaving my
breath hitched in my throat.

"Trust me, Deanna." Was there a pleading note in his voice? I
couldn't tell; my empathic powers were too confused. But his eyes
were so imploring. Still I hesitated. "Just let it go. Stop
thinking all the time. Stop trying to be in control of every single
moment of your life." Then he whispered into our next kiss, "Just

Without another word he pulled back, reached for the black cloth, and
snapped it open with a flourish of his wrist. A seductive grin
curling the edge of his lips, he moved quickly, with the grace of
someone comfortable in his body, and put the black cloth over my
eyes. Instantly my body tensed as I realized what he
wanted. "No..."

But he cut me off with a gentle hushing noise. "Trust me."

I willed the muscles in my back and neck to relax, and took a deep
breath. I stretched out my senses and thoroughly scanned his mental
state and intentions. All I found was innocent pleasure, fascination
with my responses, and admiration. The rest was my own insecurities
reflected back toward me. He was right. I did try to control
everything in my life. It was time to let go and trust a little. He
meant no harm. He wanted me to experience something new - something
beyond logic or rationalization. Something exciting and

As I allowed him to tie the band around the back of my head, my world
was reduced to sensations, the feel of the cool silk cloth against my
face, the smooth sheets under my body. I could hear his breath, deep
and even, feel his weight shift the mattress on the bed…

Coming back to the present, I found myself staring at an empty plate
with bewilderment. I had finished breakfast without realizing it.
Shrugging, I cleared the table and headed for the shower with great
anticipation of immersing myself in hot water.

Stepping into the water shower was always exhilarating at first. My
cold feet prickled painfully in protest to the heat, then settled
into the sensation as circulation gradually returned.

… Ral spoke very little once the blindfold was in place. He brought
a ripe strawberry toward me, allowed it to linger under my nose so I
could enjoy its fruity scent, then traced the outline of my lips with
it, teasing me before offering me a taste. He lowered his lips to
kiss away the juice that collected at the edge of my mouth, careful
not to touch me anywhere else, much as I was desperate for him to do

"Have you ever tried Avaran chocolate?" He asked suddenly, his voice
quietly seductive.

I shook my head. It was chocolate. What more needed to be said?

"This chocolate is unlike anything you've ever tasted." He dipped a
finger in the syrup and brought it to my mouth. I accepted his
finger onto my tongue and closed my lips around it, sucking
sensuously. We let out a groan simultaneously - for different
reasons. His for what I did with my tongue, and mine because I
couldn't believe the taste that filled my senses. The chocolate
evaporated the moment it touched the wetness of my mouth, turning
immediately to a vapor that floated languidly down my throat and
heated the back of my nose. It emitted a warmth that could only be
attributed to a form of alcohol. The scent and flavor of chocolate
was so pure and rich that I momentarily forgot about everything else
but the sweet essence that saturated my senses…

As the stream of water from the shower trickled down my shoulders and
breasts, I closed my eyes and imagined it was still the thick, warm
Avaran syrup sliding down my body.

… He started with an agonizingly slow drizzle across my abdomen, then
licked it off before it evaporated from the heat of my skin. Next
came a small drop at the peak of each breast. He hesitated before I
felt anything more. I could sense him watching me, and an intense
hunger rose within him.

"My god, you're exquisite, Deanna," he breathed just before his lips
made contact with my breast. I moaned in pleasure as he suckled,
wanting to pull him down to me with crushing force, but every time I
reached up for him, he moved back just a bit, giving me a clear
signal that I wasn't to touch him just yet.

I had to keep my body from squirming beneath him as my desire
mounted. His lips moved from one breast to the other, then up to my
neck, where he bit and sucked at the pulsing nerve bundle on the
side. And still he kept his body just out of my reach. No part of
him touched me except for his mouth. It was exquisite torture. I
could hardly breathe. My heart pounded against my chest, blood
racing through my veins. The lack of sight only served to heighten
my awareness of my body and every minute sensation it experienced.

Next, his lips made a slow, agonizing path back down my chest and
abdomen. With a gentle motion he parted my legs further and soon he
was dripping syrup onto the inside of my thighs. Embarrassed by my
own response, I thought *finally!* but he wouldn't touch me in the
place that ached the most. He just kept toying with me, licking and
kissing until I thought I might explode.

All of a sudden he stopped completely. I couldn't figure out what he
was doing. All I could discern was a shifting on the bed and a sense
that he was hovering right above me. He leaned down and whispered in
my ear, "Do you want me to keep going?"

I was entirely at his bidding now. Just a big pile of goo. My body
was screaming through every nerve ending for release. I emitted an
incomprehensible sound in my throat, way past the ability to form
words at that point.

"Tell me what you want," he insisted, and I felt him lean down to
blow warm air into crevasse between my legs.

I gasped and my hips rose of their own accord to the sensation. He
opened the folds with his fingers and took a long, slow lick from
bottom to top, as more of a tease than anything else, and I cried out
despite myself.

Maybe it was my pride. The complete lack of control. I don't know.
But I resisted the idea of begging for the release he was offering,
even though my body betrayed me with every movement. I couldn't
allow him to have that level of control over me. I wouldn't say it.
I bit my lower lip and waited to see what he would do.

Something changed in him at that moment. He slipped and let his
guard down. He hadn't meant to, but it was too late. His wave of
emotion surprised us both, but affected him more than it did me.
This wasn't a game anymore. He wanted me. He NEEDED me. With that,
he sank down, his weight deliciously heavy and real, and plunged in.
He buried himself as deep as he could go and I reveled at the feeling
of him inside of me. My entire body arched toward him with
desperation as he stroked hard and fast. Within minutes we had
reached the crest together, and with one deep final thrust, we were
riding wave after wave of pleasure…

Feeling my fingers beginning to prune, I turned off the shower and
leaned my head against the transparent door. He had awoken something
in me that had lain dormant for a very long time, and I wanted more.

I got dressed and took care of all the details associated with my
appearance. I had to do something to take my mind off Ral for a
little while, so I asked the computer to play my favorite music. I
hummed along with the singer, as I picked up the data pad on the end
table in the living room. Stretching out luxuriously on the couch, I
tapped the button that would reopen the book I was in the middle of
reading. It was a fantastic tale of a far away place – an ancient
time on Earth when magical beings ruled and humans were scarce.

…Three times he brought me to the height of pleasure during the
night. Three times we climaxed together as one, and each time was
completely different. A completely new experience. At last spent,
and barely able to move, we slept in each other's arms…

*Damn!* I couldn't concentrate on the novel. What to do then?
Holodeck? No, too artificial. Arboretum? Yes, that sounded better.

I put the pad back on the end table and swiftly exited my quarters to
have a nice long walk in the arboretum.



The next couple of days were a whirlwind of activity. There were
social events involving the wormhole, difficulties to solve with the
Ferengi, and a sudden mysterious illness suffered by Mendoza. When
he contracted an unknown bacteria, the entire ship was put on alert
and my services were needed in order to ensure no one panicked, and
all reported in for decontamination. I hardly had a moment to think
about Ral, though he sent me two bouquets of flowers and a bottle of
very expensive Ascention perfume. It was a kind I seldom wore due to
its rarity, but a definite favorite. How did he know? He was
possibly the most thoughtful man I had ever encountered. And I
couldn't wait to see him again. Luckily I didn't have to
wait long. We had a date scheduled for a holodeck adventure that night. First
it would be dinner at a famous Betazed restaurant, then a walk
through the art museum, and finally a lazy evening on the beach under
a full moon.

He arrived at my door right on time with a box of chocolates tucked
under one arm and a single red rose in his proffered hand. He looked
irresistible with his hair left natural to fall carelessly over his
forehead, and his boyish grin. I couldn't help but throw my arms
around his neck and kiss him in the middle of the doorway, regardless
of who saw us.

This time it was his turn to claim that we would be late for dinner
as he clasped my hand and led me down the corridor toward the turbo
lift. The door opened and we stepped in, moving to the side of the
ensign who shared the lift. Ral gazed down at me and a lopsided grin
curled the edge of his lip. I pulled my eyes from his and tried to
focus on the door, and on my breathing. Slow and steady. I was
excited for our date but I didn't want it to be obvious… to
him or anyone else.

Then his hand discreetly moved to make contact with mine in the tiny
space between us. His fingers lightly touched the back of my hand,
tickled a moment, then inched their way around the side until they
settled on my palm, stroking sensuously. I shivered despite myself.
How could I become so aroused by a simple touch on my hand? Yet the
way his fingers explored the creases of my palm, carefully tracing
the lines, and circled the edges where the skin was most sensitive,
made my heart race and my nerves tingle.

Would the ensign ever get off? Was he going to follow us all the way
to the holodeck?

Then the contact ceased, only to be replaced by a far more intimate
touch. His wandering fingers moved along my outer thigh, tickling
their way slowly around to my backside. He lightly stroked through
the thin fabric of the red dress I wore, cupping each cheek with a
squeeze, then traveled down to the sensitive crevasse between. A
flash of heat reddened my cheeks. My knees grew week. So much so
that I was tempted to lean against him for support. But I kept my
body erect and professional. The ensign couldn't see anything
that was happening. His eyes remained on the door. And Ral's
movements were silent – completely undetectable. Now if I could just keep
myself from making a sound. It was so hard! I bit my lower lip.

At last the lift came to a stop and the ensign stepped out. The door
closed and there was movement again as we continued on toward deck
twenty-nine, the only holodeck we could book at such late notice.
Ral turned toward me just after the door closed and slid his arms
around my waist, crushing me against him. I responded by reaching
for his face with both hands and pulling him down to meet my hungry
lips. I couldn't get enough of him. His smell, his lean hard
body pressed against mine, his piercing eyes, the way his tongue expertly
explored the inner reaches of my mouth. And there was something
else. Something unfathomable. An energy of sorts – an aura that
encased us, bonded us to each other whenever we touched. The feeling
was… addicting, romantic, sexual, irresistible…

I had to have him right then. "Computer, halt," I commanded,
my hands sliding up under his shirt to stroke the fine hairs on his
chest. As my lips found his again, he took charge, stepping between
my legs and forcing me back. Almost rough in his urgency, he thrust
me up against the rear turbo lift wall, and I gasped in excitement as
his hot mouth came down to bite my neck, his hand reaching under my
thigh to pull my leg around him. I moved to unfasten his pants as
his hand slipped under the edge of my rather skimpy satin underwear
and took a firm hold.

Soon, with his pants pooling at his ankles, and my torn lingerie cast
aside on the floor next to him, he was taking me with intense,
unbridled passion. It was the most risqué thing I had ever done,
but he brought on a sort of madness in me that I couldn't seem to
control. My eyes fell closed and I tilted my head up, my body
completely drowning in feeling. Then, grasping his shoulders, I
cried out in ecstasy as we climaxed together.

We floated down as one, panting and laughing. He clung to me a while
longer, his damp hair sticking to his forehead, making him appear far
younger than he was, and I reveled in his closeness. A strong
feeling of warmth and comfort suffused his mind and I welcomed the
reception of his emotions into my consciousness. He was perfectly
content. Could have stayed there, with me wrapped around him like a
cocoon, forever. He sighed, and relaxed against me.

I smiled.

At last, he disengaged in slow motion, gave me a final lingering
kiss, then bent down to pull up his pants. Once dressed, he bent
down again to snatch up my underwear, quickly slipping the torn
garment into his pocket. "These won't be of any further use
to anyone," he smirked. "Computer, resume." Taking my hand
in his and meeting my eyes, he added quietly, "I have a fun night planned.
Don't want to delay it much longer."

* * *

Two days after Rojay left, the emptiness inside me had not eased.
Usually I could fill that hole with my friends, or my work, but not
this time. The loneliness sat in my gut like a coiled snake, hot,
heavy, and promising no relief. Mendoza's sudden illness gave me
something new to fill that hole. The negotiations for the wormhole.

I felt out of my element the first morning at the negotiation table.
The nervousness and unease focused me though, as it always did. The
rush of something new, of taking a gamble, and the prospect of
outmaneuvering my opponents thrilled through me, easing the
awkwardness. And Ral, despite himself, helped too.

He approached me before the meeting began. He was smiling. Hell,
the man was almost glowing. He looked like someone who was having
great sex and wanted to proclaim it to the entire universe. I had a
sudden vision of punching that smirk off his face, but better
judgment prevailed. I just mimicked his cocky grin and braced myself
for the river of bullshit that flowed out of the man's mouth.

"Commander, I appreciate what a difficult position this is for
you. If you don't understand something, I hope you won't be embarrassed to
ask me," he said. While his voice oozed support, I could see the
challenge in his eyes. This guy was good, but I was better.

"I think I have an idea what the rules are." I swallowed my
sarcastic remarks, and tried to picture what Picard would do, when in
truth I wanted to think more like Worf. A Klingon could disembowel
an opponent without a second though; in fact, it would be the
honorable thing to do. *God, some days I wish I was Klingon.*

"That's what makes it so interesting, the rules of the game
change to fit the moment." He thought he had me there. He was wrong. If
there was one thing I understood, it was changing rules and
uncertainty. It was the norm in my line of work.

"In that regard, it's not unlike commanding a starship, Mister
Ral." Victory. The mousy gleam in his eyes faded somewhat after that. He
wouldn't unsettle me as easily as he'd hoped. Though I
didn't let him know it, he'd just given me the ticket to easing my anxiety.
Negotiation wasn't much different from a poker game, just like
Mendoza said, and I played a cosmic game of poker every time the
*Enterprise* faced down the Romulans, Ferengi, or any other race bent
on our destruction. This *was* my element, and I'd be damned if
I let Ral beat me at my own game.

The rest of the day went smoothly after that, though Ral tried his
best to unnerve me. The Ferengi made an appearance, which didn't
help my mood any. Never sit down-wind from a Ferengi; my new motto
in life. By the end of the meeting I'd had my fill of Ral's
cockiness, and Goss' body odor; I couldn't decide who
repulsed me more.

Ral. Definitely Ral.

I tried to tell myself it was because I didn't trust his
intentions toward Deanna. Rojay said he made sure he was what every woman
wanted, a statement that rang through my mind every time I looked at

However, if I was being honest, maybe it was more then just that.
Sometimes I looked at him and saw the man I might have been, the man
I almost was. Someone concerned only with the hunt, the thrill of
capturing a woman's attention, and the ultimate conquest.
Conquest may seem like an archaic word, from a time when women were not as
appreciated as they are today, but it fit. Ral was a hunter, Deanna
his prey, and there was a time in my life, a time I'm not
terribly proud of, when I was no better than him.

Of course, I only thought about this stuff at night, when the
darkness of space echoed the darkness of my thoughts. Since Ral had
wormed his way into Deanna's bed, my nights were a living hell
anyway. Thankfully, the link between Deanna and I didn't flare
back up again, but I spent the nights lying stiffly in my bed waiting for
it to happen. I practiced blocking her, strengthening the walls
between us, all the while wondering if there would ever be a time
when we could tear them down. I felt like I was in mourning for
something, something I didn't even know was dead until it was too
late. These thoughts spun through my head until I eventually drifted
off into a restless sleep.

But I didn't let it show. I hauled myself out of bed every
morning ready for battle. I pushed my doubt, and that trace of self-loathing
so far down, not even Deanna could feel it. It was something I had
become good at, hiding things from her.

I finished up at the negotiations table, gave my report to the
captain, and started on my weekly tour of the major departments that
kept the ship running. I could have just read their reports and been
done with it, but I preferred the face to face meeting; it allowed me
to really get a feel for the inner workings of the ship, even though
I dreaded it. Some might find a trip to stellar cartography
rejuvenating, but not me. All I wanted to do was make it back to my
quarters, take a hot shower, and slide between cool sheets. But at
the same time, I dreaded the solitude and empty silence, fearful of
the thoughts that plagued me at night.

I finished my tour of deck thirty-seven, environmental support and
waste management, and breathed a sigh of relief when I stepped onto
the lift. Whoever said being second in command of the Enterprise
would be thrilling had obviously never had a conversation with the
Enterprise's head of waste management.

The lift dropped me off on deck twenty-nine, my last stop for the
night. Then I could…well, I didn't really know what I would

Sit in my quarters and feel sorry for myself.

*Come on, Riker, snap out of it. There are women on this ship that
fall all over themselves when you walk into a room. Surely Will
"The Thrill" Riker can find something to entertain him.*

My meeting with the environmental support specialists lasted all of
five minutes. Those guys are so quite you'd hardily even know
they're down there. On my way back to the lift I passed three
small holodecks that took up the rest of deck twenty-nine. There was a
perfect way to spend an evening. I could call up my good-old
reliable Risa program, drink something fruity with an umbrella in it,
and reacquaint myself with that blonde in the red bikini.

I was already feeling the sand between my toes, and smooth skin under
my fingers by the time I got back to the lift. I figured I could get
to my quarters, change into something more comfortable, and be back
down there in ten minutes flat. Surely I could still find at least
one holodeck open.

I stopped short of ramming my head into the door when the lift
didn't open for me. "Damn," I said. Since deck twenty-nine
didn't see as much traffic as the other decks, the lifts weren't always right
there when you wanted them. I pushed the control panel that notified the
computer that I was waiting, and sat back on my heels, letting my
mind drift back to Risa for a moment. It was at least five minutes
before I realized I was still waiting.

"So help me Geordi, if you're re-polarizing something, or
hotwiring the lifts to the warp engines to increase efficiency, I'll
personally have you swabbing out the bathrooms." It took me two seconds to
realize that Geordi wasn't even on the ship, a moment to realize
I'd said that out loud, and another second to make sure no one overheard
my little rant before I started smacking the control panel again.

Just as I was about to contact engineering, a shiver ran up my spine
and vertigo slammed into my stomach. I recovered quickly, but a
groan left my lips as I realized what it was. Deanna. Again. And
it was getting stronger. I could feel the dreaded invisible fingers
tickling the back of my skull, my breath quickened, and my skin
started to tingle.

I took a cleansing breath and threw up the walls I'd been
practicing for the last few days, praying it would work against such a strong
tide of emotion. Before the last barrier went into place, and the
sensation trickled to a stop, I caught one fleeting emotion that
twisted into my chest like a knife. She was happy.

For some reason I couldn't even fathom, a man who had more in
common with a Ferengi than with any human I'd ever met, made her happy.
Down right euphoric, in fact. Nausea was all I could feel now.

I didn't have time to think about it before I heard the hiss that
accompanied the lift gliding into place. *Oh, God, please don't
let it be her. Please.* True to form, God ignored me.

The door slid open, and there was Deanna, smoothing her hair back
into place with one hand and readjusting the way her dress sat on her
hips with the other. Ral stood beside her, wearing a Cheshire cat
grin that was about to split his face wide open, if I didn't do
it for him.

Deanna looked up and noticed me standing there. The awkward
situation was almost worth it to see the various emotions play across
her face. First surprise, then the blush of embarrassment, and
finally her "Daughter of the Fifth House" mask. She dropped
her hands to her side, threw her shoulders back, and looked me squarely
in the eyes.


"Counselor." Two could play at that game.

"Lovely evening," she said, stupidly commenting on the
non-existent weather in her flustered state.

"Oh yes, and I've had ample time to enjoy it, waiting for the
lift like I was." Checkmate. I got her to blush again. I stepped
out of the doorway and gestured down the hall with a grand
flourish. "Please don't let me keep you from your lovely

Deanna threw me a look that reminded me so much of her mother I had
to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. Then she
summoned all her regal bearing and sauntered out of the lift and down
the hall. Ral's grin grew to comic proportions. He shrugged, and
trailed behind her like a love sick puppy.

I followed their progress until they disappeared around a corner, and
finally let out the breath I was holding. Whatever small amount of
humor there might have been in the situation was gone. I
couldn't take much more of this.

The lift was waiting patiently for me to board, I eyed the unassuming
interior with a touch of distaste, but didn't have much choice in
the matter. It wasn't until the doors started to close that I
realized I could have waited for another lift.

In that tiny enclosed space Deanna's scent was overpowering,
sweet and thick, like the smell of the jungle after the rains. It was like
being trapped in my own personal hell. My mind started running away
with me.

Did she make the same sounds with him that she did with me? Did she
like to be touched in the same way, the same places? Did she cup his
face in her hands when she kissed him like she did mine? Was he
better? Yes, a stupid question to even think about, but I
couldn't help it. No, I wouldn't think about it. What Deanna and I had
was special, and no matter who was in her life, that would never change.
I knew that.

I shook off the thoughts, and concentrated on the door. Suddenly the
idea of Geordi increasing the lift's speed didn't sound like
such a bad idea. This was turning into the longest turbo lift ride of my
life. I took a deep breath to calm myself. That was a huge
mistake. Every inhale caused that unique perfume that was Deanna to
cling to me. And without any warning a long repressed memory jumped
into the forefront of my mind, in vivid color.

Deanna laying beside me on the jungle floor, a piece of vine tangled
in her hair. She was running her fingers thorough my chest hair
unaware of the effect she was causing in other areas of my body.
"So where do we go from here?" I could still recall the uncertain
tremble in her voice when she asked that, the way her eyes glowed in
the dim light, the rise and fall of her breasts. And her scent,
mingling with the smell of jungle flowers. To this day the smell of
tropical flowers reminds me of making love to Deanna. The silky
warmth of her skin, full ripeness of her breasts, the moistness…

*Oh God, I have got to get off this lift!* It was too much. Every
nerve in my body was responding to her scent. My muscles were tense,
my teeth clamped together. I was suddenly overcome with the desire
to find Deanna Troi, throw her on the nearest available surface, and
make love to her until she completely forgot that Ral existed.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the lift stopped. I had
to control my urge to bolt out of the damn thing. Instead, I took
one last deep breath and slowly exited. Thankfully, no one was in
the corridor, and I made it to my quarters without having to fake

The door slid shut behind me, and I sighed. For some crazy reason I
could still smell her, like she was haunting me. I forgot all about
my plans for a holodeck excursion. I needed a shower. A really
long, really cold shower.


Chapter 6

I was floating in a dreamy netherworld of quiet contentment. Nothing
existed there but the color pink and the two gentle hands that
massaged sweet scented oil into every inch of my body. Goddess, he
was good with his hands!

The first hour had gone by without a word between us. Just the warm
oil, the knowing hands, and the muscles that sang in ecstasy from
neck to feet. No words were necessary. As he kept working well into
the second hour, I wondered when he would finally tire and want his
turn. At the moment, NEVER was my hope. I doubted I could move
anyway. I was nothing but a pool of tranquility melting into the

At last, the touch that soothed away my aches and cares ceased and I
thought he was done. I wanted to lie there and bask in the
sensations of my tingling nerve endings, my muscles humming with
life, but unfortunately, I had to use the bathroom.

"Where are you going?" He asked, as I rolled reluctantly off
of the bed with a groan and wormed my way into my nightgown.

I looked down at him and saw that he was in the middle of squeezing
more oil into his hand. "I'm sorry. I thought you were done!"

"Hardly!" he grinned deviously.

My knees went weak again. *How does he do it?* I mused in genuine
awe. "You're amazing!" I returned his smile. "I'll be right back."

When I emerged from the bathroom and sank again to the bedside, I had
to ask, "What did you leave out? I swear you got every inch of
me! It must be your turn by now."

"I missed your left foot. Can't you tell? You were walking
lopsided all the way to the bathroom!"

"I was…?" I caught his joking smirk and laughed. Come
to think of it, I did feel a little unbalanced. "Well, we certainly
can't have that." I scooted to the middle of the bed and proffered the
shamefully deprived appendage. Releasing a deep breath, I slipped
easily back into my liquid euphoria as his hands went to work.

"I was just thinking…" he said sometime later.

"Mmmm?" was all I could manage as a response.

"Maybe I could stretch out these negotiations for a few extra
days. Would you like that?"


He leaned in closer to my face. I could feel his breath tickling my
cheeks and I opened my eyes to gaze up at him. He took my hand in
his and started massaging the fingers. He had already done my hands,
so this was a bonus.

I sighed. "Devinoni Ral… Who are you?"

"What do your Betazoid senses tell you about me?"

"Not very much." I had to smile as I admitted, "My human
physical response must be blocking them out."

"Good," he responded a bit too smugly. What wasn't he
telling me?

My brow knitted in concentration as I tried to gently probe for more
information. How did he block me so easily? "It's never
happened before," I said, truly confused by my own response to him.

"I rather like it that I'm more difficult to read than your
other men."

"There aren't any others… currently."

"How about Commander Riker?"

I froze, my stomach clenching in agitation. What did Will say to
him? I sat up, now fully awake. "Who have you been talking

"No one!" he cut me off, his hands coming up defensively.
"I just sensed something when I saw the two of you together."

My shoulders fell in relief. If Will had said something to Devinoni
about our history, I would have had to hunt him down and personally
strangle the life out of him. "Will Riker and I are good friends.
Nothing more."

"Uh huh," he emitted knowingly.

Damn it! Why did Will always have to come up when I was trying to
make some progress in my love life? I highly doubted that I was the
focus of his discussions with his numerous flings.

I met Devinoni's playful eyes and decided to let it go then and
there. So what if he knew? Smiling, I pushed him down on his back
and straddled his waist. I reached for the oil and began to rub some
into his chest. "It was once a little more than that," I said,
hoping that this simple remark would satisfy his curiosity and we
could then talk about something else.

"Mmmmm-hmmm." Again that smug sound that made it seem like
he knew everything… about everything.

"And how come we're talking about me and not you?" I
raised an eyebrow accusingly.

He sighed, his hands coming up to stroke my arms. "Don't you
have enough people telling you about their lives? Who counsels the

I shook my head. He wasn't going to get off that easily.
"Uh-uh, I want to know about you now."

"I'm what you see right now. No games, no strategies. Just
me wanting to run away with you. And knowing that if I ever asked you,
you'd never leave this damned ship."

Wanting to run away with ME? Did he actually say that? The words
resounded through my mind, echoing like a cry through the layers of a
deep canyon. For a moment I saw myself easily packing my bags and
leaving with him. But only for a moment. I didn't say anything.

How could I respond? Life was such a complicated thing.

After a long pause - our eyes locked and measuring one another - I
felt my throat catch with a sudden wash of strong emotion. The
Enterprise… the universe disappeared. All that existed was Ral.
He need me. But it was more than that. Was it love?

At last I found the words to express the emotion I was experiencing
just then. "When I first saw you, I felt as if I had been
waiting for you. I've been trying to understand why or how that's

"Does it matter?"

I had to shake my head. At that moment nothing mattered but my
feelings for him.

"It will when I tell you. But you must promise never to tell
anyone else."

So there was something… a secret he was holding back. I knew it!

Please, Dieties, don't let it be anything horrible! I braced
myself for his next words. "What?"

He swallowed hard and I watched his Adam's apple bob up and down
as he gathered the courage to say it. "I am partly Betazoid too.
My mother was half. I am one quarter."

This information came as a complete surprise. How could I have
missed it? "You're empathic?"

"The only one of five children." He was talking faster now,
over the worst of his confession. "I must admit I was never as
comfortable sensing emotion as you seem to be."

My first thought was, *Whew! Is that all? That's actually a
good thing. It means we can understand each other on a deeper level. It
explains this strong connection I've felt with him since we first

But something nagged at the back of my mind. Something just
wasn't right. A mystery was still left unsolved. It was so nebulous that I
couldn't even call forth a question to ask. So I went for the
obvious. "That's why you left Earth?"

"I've learned to live with it, use it… as you have. But
still, it isolates us, doesn't it?" I nodded in whole-hearted
agreement as he continued, "I thought it would always be that way for me. I had
tucked my heart away…didn't need it. Didn't want it. At
the negotiating table it can be fatal to have a heart." He paused
and swallowed again. This was hard for him. Then he pressed on with
welling emotion, "But I never realized how much I needed mine
until I looked at you."

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes at his open expression of love.
It was silly. It was too soon. Our feelings couldn't be this
strong for each other already. It took months with Will, and he was my
Imzadi. Was it possible to have two Imzadis? Did it matter? As I
gazed down into those calm sea-green eyes, I saw that all of his
earlier pretense of self- assured conceit had drifted away, like mist
parting to reveal a blunt mountain top. He was completely exposed
now. Vulnerable. Silently pleading with me not to hurt him. And
how could I hurt him? He made me feel alive again.

I shushed my tangential thoughts and stretched myself out on top of
him. I needed to be as close to him as possible at that moment. It
felt so good to lay my head on the soft spot between his shoulder and
chest and settle into the protective circle of his arms as he
embraced me. This was where I belonged. Whatever happened in my
life from this point on, he would have to be a part of it.


I was terribly late. Again. Luckily Beverly had the patience of a
saint. By the time I reached the gym, she was well into warm-up
exercises without me.

"Sorry!" I said, dashing in the door and tossing my bundle of
clothes and towel off to the side. I shook my arms out and fell in next to

I could sense her amusement long before the words reached her
mouth. "You're unusually `limber' this morning,"
she commented dryly. Not exactly a subtle hint.

I had to smile. "Limber" was the right word indeed.
"I'll say." She turned her head to the side while stretching her arms high in the
air, her eyes briefly meeting mine in question.

"Devinoni Ral," I answered easily, joining in the exercise.
I was so caught up in my feelings for him, I didn't care who knew the
truth. She wasn't surprised to hear the name. It must have been obvious.

When Bev didn't respond, I continued, "It's ridiculous.
And wonderful! I feel completely out of control. Happy.
Terrified…" Gods, it felt good to talk about this to someone. I didn't
realize how much I had been holding inside. "There's nothing
rational about this."

We sank to the floor, facing each other, our legs split, feet
touching, and grasped hands. We pulled each other back and forth to
stretch our backs, shoulders, arms, and legs all at once.

"Who needs rational when your toes curl up?" She smirked.


"I'm afraid I'm going to lose myself. I can't get
enough of him." I could still clearly feel his hands all over me, massaging my flesh to
a state of pure ecstasy. "Is it possible to fall in love in one

"I did."

"It was like this for you and Jack?"

"No, it was another fellow." A dreamy, distant look came
over her eyes. "Fell in love in a day. It lasted a week…" She
pulled me closer to her for emphasis, "But what a week!" I smiled,
amused, as she released my hands and we both bent down toward our right legs.
She continued, "Then I met Jack. Took months to figure it out
with him."

But that was the relationship that lasted. The one that took a long
time to form. It had a foundation. Substance. My heart sank a bit
at the sudden realization that this could be just a strong case of
infatuation. I didn't want it to be that… though if it was,
it would certainly make things easier in the end. The end. How would all
this end?

I took a deep breath to center myself, and realizing that Beverly was
waiting for me to respond, said, "Maybe I should slow down…
catch my breath, not let this thing get out of control."

We both sat up straight then, our eyes meeting, and we shared a
knowing smile. The same word came to our lips instantaneously, as
often happened with us. "Nah." We shook our heads with the
word, then sank down again to stretch toward the opposite leg.

I was happy. Nothing else really mattered at this point. If there
was one thing Ral had taught me in the short time we had been
together, it was to live for the moment. I had a tendency to
overanalyze everything. It was liberating to take all those logical
thoughts and thrust them aside. I could deal with them some other

"What about Will?" She asked suddenly as we turned onto our
sides, facing each other, and began leg lifts.

Here we go again. "What about Will?" I retorted more sharply
than I meant.

"Well, I don't know. How is he responding to this new
relationship of yours? And how do you feel about Will now?"

I glared at her. "Beverly, Will has nothing to do with any of
this. We've been good friends for years. Nothing more."

"Uh huh," she muttered skeptically.

"What? He doesn't get a say in this. Especially after all
the relationships he's had since I've known him."

"That may be true, but your feelings for him…"

"Are completely platonic, I assure you," I finished for her.

"Uh huh."

"Will you stop that? What do you know about this that I

Beverly smiled mischievously. It was irritating. "I know that
he's your Imzadi, and whether or not you care to admit it to yourself, you
do still have feelings for him."

I rolled my eyes. "Well, thank you very much for that insight,
counselor. Same time next week?"

"My office," Beverly nodded, looking completely serious, but
her edgy humor seeped through loud and clear.

We turned around and worked on the other leg in silence for a few
moments. "Will slept with Rojay," I blurted out before I
could stop myself.

"The traveling companion?" Beverly gasped in shock.

I nodded.

"Well, he certainly didn't waste any time, did he?"

"My point exactly. He has his life and I have mine."

"Uh huh…"

I sighed loudly in frustration. What did she want me to say? That I
still loved Will? I did. That much would always be true. But it
wasn't a romantic feeling anymore. It had settled to a
comfortable friendship that was very satisfying to us both.

"If you're just friends, why do you get so defensive every
time someone brings up his name?" Bev asked, as if she had heard
every thought.

"I don't…" I was about to defend myself yet again.
Maybe she was right. "Okay, point taken. What should I do about it?"

"I don't know. Have a good time with Ral and forget the

"And so we come full circle."

"Check mate. Gotcha."

"You know, I could be asking you the same questions about your
feelings for Jean-Luc."

"Oh please don't!" she begged with a half smile.

I grinned deviously and nodded my head. One of these days I would
get her talk to me about that whole mess. But now apparently
wasn't the time.

We completed the rest of our workout in companionable silence, each
of us lost in her own thoughts.

"Meet for lunch later?" Beverly suggested as she dried
herself with a towel.

"You're on."

"Ten Forward?"


"See you then!" And she headed out the door.

I stayed for a while longer and did a full cardiac workout on the
equipment. I needed to work some things out in my mind and the
exercise helped to clear my head.

Dinner with Devinoni… I wanted to make the meal special this
night, but cooking wasn't my forte. I could pour through the recipes
available in the replicator and choose some foods that would go well
together. I could light candles, get a bottle of wine, wear my
newest dress. No… that would be too formal for his tastes. He
preferred it when I wore nothing at all. Or at least clothes that
were easily removed. I had no problem with that. It would be casual
then, candle lit and sexy. I could hardly wait to make the
preparations. This night would be perfect.



An urgent meeting was called that afternoon in the Observation Lounge
and I ended up having to cancel my lunch with Beverly. When I
entered the room, I immediately noticed the silent tension that hung
thickly in the air. Most of it emanated from Will, who was leaning
back in his chair, arms crossed over chest, lips sealed tight in an
angry line. Our eyes met for a moment and I gave him a questioning
look, but he pulled his gaze away, instead focusing on the captain,
who looked less than pleased himself.

Worf entered the room just behind me, and the captain wasted no time
getting started once we had all found our seats. I sat directly
across from Will at the large conference table. I'm not sure
why. I guess I wanted him to know that no matter how angry he was, he
couldn't intimidate me. We had danced around each other in our
struggle to gain the upper hand since Devinoni Ral came aboard the
Enterprise, and I was determined not to let him win.

"Well, now that we are all present, I must inform you that the
Caldonian bid for the wormhole has been absorbed by the Chrysalians.
This does not bode well for the Federation's position,"
Picard said with a scowl. "Number One, any idea how this came about?"

Will shook his head in a gesture of frustration. "It took us all
by surprise. All I know is, something about this doesn't set right
with me. Maybe Ral had some inside information, or he's just

I stiffened at hearing this, partly because of Will's menacing
tone when referring to the man I was involved with, and partly because he
was right. Ral did have powers that no one else knew about but me.
But did he use them in this underhanded way? I couldn't believe
that possibility, so I dismissed it from my mind.

The captain didn't dismiss it so easily, however. "Do you
believe Mr. Ral might have acted unethically?"

"I don't know. He absorbed the Caldonian bid before they
announced they were withdrawing. Whatever happened went on behind closed
doors. Who's to say if Ral acted ethically or not? I can't
help thinking that he said something to them, maybe something just south
of the truth that spooked them."

"Should I collect Mr. Ral for interrogation, Sir?" Worf
growled, just trying to be helpful.

I almost laughed out loud.

I sensed that Picard nearly did the same. "No, Mr. Worf. We
have no proof that any wrongdoing occurred here. Perhaps Ral was simply in
the right place at the right time. He's a savvy negotiator. We
knew at our first meeting that we would have to be on our guard against
him." Picard glanced at me just then, which couldn't have
been timed any worse. All eyes followed his and came to rest on me.

"Counselor, do you sense any foul play at work here?"

I swallowed and clenched my hands at my sides. It was my own fault.
I had put myself in this awkward position. Will's eyes in
particular bore a hole through my skull as I tried to look anywhere but at him.
Was there any foul play in the works? I wondered, then scolded
myself again for doubting him. Of course there wasn't. Yes, he
was empathic, but he surely didn't misuse his powers that way. Or
did he? Confusion, concern, and agitation all vied for dominance at
once. I could think of no other answer at the time but, "If
there is, I don't sense it, Sir." It was the truth.

The truth. That was something I would insist on hearing from Ral
himself at dinner that night.

Will shot me a measuring glare again. It made me want to dash from
my seat and bolt out the door. And, once the captain dismissed us,
that was exactly what I did.


I watched her jump up from her chair like a rabbit running before the
hounds. Well, if she thought she could avoid me like that, she would
see what a hound I could be. I was up and after her before I really
had time to think. Luckily, Picard was talking to Worf about
something and neither seemed to notice my hasty exit.

Deanna could move quickly when the need arose, and apparently, she
was in a hell of a hurry to get somewhere. I all but ran to catch
her in the back corridor that led to the turbolift.

"Deanna, we need to talk."

"Do we really?" She barely slowed her stride. Her hands
were balled into fists, never a good sign when she reached that stage of anger.
She glared at me for a moment out of the corner of her eye and it
suddenly hit me. She was mad, not at Ral, as I might have hoped, but
at me. All that pent up frustration etched in the lines in her body
was aimed at yours truly.

"Yes, we do." I gently but firmly grabbed her wrist and
pulled her into the small windowless room off the corridor that served as an
extra office for visiting delegates.


The room Will pulled me into was rarely used, and bare of anything
but a desk and a couple of chairs. I felt confined, trapped almost.
Will's anger and hurt were flowing off him in hot waves. Under
normal circumstances, I might have tried to comfort him, soothe that
hostility, but these were not normal circumstances. He was accusing
Ral of acting unethically, all but calling him a liar and a cheat;
even insinuating that I might somehow be involved in this imaginary
deception. I was personally insulted, and I refused to believe any
of it. I had to make him see that Ral wasn't the vile man Will
thought he was.

"You've been avoiding me ever since our little *run-in*
outside the turbolift," Will said. I should have expected he would bring
that up. He couldn't just let something like that drop without
getting a nasty remark in. "And I want to know why," he commanded, as
if I was some first year cadet he could order around.

"I haven't been avoiding you. I've just had better
things to do than put up with your accusations and pettiness." I winced at the
defensiveness in my voice.


"Oh, I bet you've had better things to do." I regretted
it as soon as the words left my mouth. That seems to be the norm for me. Say
stupid things first, regret later. But I wasn't going to back
down. I had to make her see that Ral was a user and a manipulator. Her
face reddened, and her body went rigid. At least I'd gotten
through to her. One point in my favor.

"Like you haven't been busy yourself lately," Deanna shot
back with equal intensity. There was more than a hint of accusation to her
voice. "And, what gives you the right to pry into my private
life?" She added with venom.

"Your *private life.* Oh, that's rich! It stopped being
private the minute you two stepped foot on the turbolift." I took a moment
of satisfaction at her reaction. A twisted feeling of victory. She
glared at me, too tongue-tied to speak.


My anger was getting the better of me, but I was beyond caring. Will
wasn't done pressing his advantage, and I was too upset to even
respond. He took my moment of silence to dig the knife in further.
"What's the matter with you lately? You've been acting like some kind of
horny teenager. What happened to all that `the mental outweighs
the physical' psychobabble you used to spew at me? Doesn't hold
much weight now, does it? This slimy snake comes along and you just toss
those principles out like yesterday's laundry." He waved his
arm about for emphasis.

At last I rediscovered my voice. "And you haven't been acting
like a teenager yourself? Look at this posturing! What in the name of the
deities are you doing?"

He took a step closer to me. I could feel his ire mingling with my
own, one feeding off the other. I backed away a step, unsure of what
he was about to do. I could sense that he was getting ready to blow
– maybe hit something. I knew he wouldn't hit me, but I worried
that he might hit the wall and hurt his hand. Still, I couldn't bring
myself to say anything to prevent it. That would display too much
weakness. His words had cut me deeply. What was he insinuating,
that I had laid aside my professionalism to help Ral win the
negations? How could he think that of me?

"Devinoni Ral is an intelligent businessman, nothing more. He
outsmarted you, and there's nothing wrong with that, other than
your bruised ego! I accepted happiness from him, and there's nothing
wrong with that either. Ral makes me feel loved, something I
haven't felt in a very long time!" The last remark came out bitingly
sharp, but I didn't care.


Loved! He made her feel loved! I wanted to hit something. Or throw
something. Or grab her in my arms and devour her beautiful trembling
lips. Her eyes grew wide with… what was it? Fury? No, more
like fear. Of me? Did she think I could possibly hurt her? I stepped
back from her then, my anger quickly dissipating.

After a moment of silence, I had to force myself to look at her. She
was shaking, her hands still balled into fists at her side. Her eyes
crackled with anger, an emotion I'd rarely seen in her. I'd
driven her to this. But there was more to it than that. She acted as if I
was accusing her of something, and for the life of me, I couldn't
figure out what. I intentionally lowered my voice, trying to dispel the hostility that
hung like a living animal between us. "Ral lives for the bluff,
for the thrill of winning the pot. I doubt he even knows what ethics
are. He's playing you, Deanna. Just like he played the


I sighed, too tired to fight with him anymore. My knees started to
shake, the adrenaline was wearing off, and my body felt spent in its
wake. "I'm a Starfleet Officer, not a naïve child, Will.
I can figure this out for myself."

I turned to leave, but before opening the door, I stopped and looked
back at him. He was standing by the chair, his hand gripping the
high back, as if for support. I couldn't get past my own
confusion and exhausted frustration to read his emotions. I didn't really
want to anyway.

"By the way, Will. You should be the last person making
judgments about other people's ethics." I couldn't resist getting
the last line in. He'd been doing it to me for as long as I'd known


"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I knew she was
coming in for the last jab. It's what I would have done in her place.

I thought she was going to leave, but apparently there was more fight
left in her as she faced me head-on. "Is it *ethical* for you to
act like the unofficial welcoming committee to every half-dressed,
interstellar bimbo that comes aboard this ship? How many times have
your hormone-driven decisions put you in a compromising

Rojay. She knew about Rojay. The guilt that flooded through me was
closely followed by a second wave of anger. I hated it when she
turned the tables like that. This wasn't about me. This was
about Ral. But she wasn't done.

"Maybe it's time you stopped looking at everyone else's
faults and paid a little attention to your own."

I could feel the muscles in my jaw working overtime, and a dull
throbbing starting in the back of my skull. This time I was the one
who didn't have a comeback. "I think this conversation is
over, before we both say something we'll regret… If we haven't

I forced myself to turn away from her, before I broke under her
gaze. I didn't know if I wanted to scream and rant at her, or
break down and apologize. She had the most annoying habit of taking simple
anger and turning it into something else entirely. Finally, the
silence overwhelming, I chanced a look back. All I saw was the
office door closing behind her.


He didn't follow me. Just about the only thing that went right
that day. I hurried to my quarters, my head crammed with conflicting
thoughts, my heart aching with a jumble of feelings.

If Devinoni Ral was using his empathic powers inappropriately, I
didn't know how I would handle it. I trusted him. I wanted to
trust him. Already a tiny feeling nagged at the back of my mind – a
feeling that Will was right. As obnoxious as his behavior was, he
could very well have been right about Ral. I shook my head and
pushed the unwanted possibility aside. Besides, if he was
manipulating others, I could help him to see the error of his ways,
and if he really cared about me, it would never happen again. He
would be a changed man thanks to my guidance, and then we could start
our relationship over again with no doubts, no secrets between us.


Dinner was laid out perfectly. Candles lit, lights dim, the music
low and soft, and the sheer white nightgown that I wore, his
favorite. Too bad I wasn't in much of a romantic mood.

Ral entered my quarters nearly half an hour later than
promised. "My, don't you look delicious?" he commented
with that annoying lopsided grin of his, as the door slid closed behind him.
He took me in his arms and moaned as he kissed me, "Mmmmm…
Betazoid cuisine. My favorite."

I had to smile. Though the dinner was mainly Betazed foods, of
course he meant me.

My feelings were up and down like a roller coaster. When he was
late, I felt a growing agitation, my mind spinning on all the
possibilities, of course dwelling on the worst of them. Now that he
was kissing me with such open affection, all my cares quickly drifted
away. Nothing but a distant memory. But then he released me to
approach the table with appreciation, and my stomach tightened

"Sorry I'm late," he said. "Negotiations ran

Taking a deep breath and forcing my stomach to relax, I
responded, "It's alright. Why don't you go change and
I'll reheat dinner."

"Thanks," he said, heading toward the bedroom. He liked to
wear his lounging gown when relaxing in my quarters.

He had certainly made himself at home in my room. I had encouraged
it at first. Now I was wondering if I had made a mistake allowing
him to get so close so fast.

"Better?" I asked as he sat at the table and I set his
steaming plate before him.

"Much," he smiled warmly. "How was your day?"

"Interesting," I said without emotion.

"Interesting how?"

"Well, I had a meeting with the command crew. Everyone's
talking about how you absorbed the Caldonian bid today."

"It was there for the taking," he shrugged, "so I took
it." He dove into his food and ate hungrily. I had no appetite, so I only nibbled
to be polite.

"Commander Riker didn't know how you managed it," I
half-smiled to lighten the statement. Still testing the waters.

"Let me tell you something," he said around a mouthful of
dinner. "Will Riker's good…" he swallowed. "…the
most dangerous man in the room to me. He has every instinct of a fine negotiator."

"But he doesn't have an edge… your edge." It had to
come out sooner or later. I felt that sooner would be best. This uncertainty was
causing my stomach to churn.

His eyebrows shot up into his forehead as he swallowed another
mouthful. "OUR edge. You make it sound unethical!"

"Isn't it?"

He granted me a condescending smile. "Deanna, it's just

There was silence for a moment while I contemplated those simple
words and he continued to eat. Was I making too big an issue of
this? Maybe, and then again… maybe not. "Why haven't
you told anyone that you're an empath?" I ventured. Now I was
entering dangerous territory, and I knew it.

His expression just then revealed more than his emotional state did.
He really didn't want to get into this with me. Too bad.

"I find it makes people uncomfortable," he responded after a
pause. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and picked up his wine glass.

Time to dive in all the way. "I think you don't tell them so
you can gain an advantage."

Again that lopsided smirk traveled slowly across his thin
lips. "Well, I used it to gain an advantage with you. You
didn't seem to mind." He took a casual sip of wine, completely ignoring
that my mouth had just fallen open in shock.

Used it on ME? How could I mind when I didn't even know? I
glared at him hotly. Suspicion, mistrust and anger all bubbling into a
deadly poison just under the surface.

"Look, the point of negotiating is to take advantage. I
don't know what the other side is offering, and they don't know what I'm
offering. So we dance around each other until someone wins. I never
cry foul when I lose."

"But you're reading their emotional states, their inner
selves, and using that to manipulate them!" I burst out with unexpected
vehemence, realizing that I was referring to myself as much as anyone

"Well, people have been doing that for thousands of years, just
by listening carefully, by watching body language. I just happen to be
better at it." I had to admit he was right about that. Reading
body language was a tactic many people had expertise in, empathic or not.
I was just about to give in on that account when he added, "You
do it."

I bristled. "I do it to help my crew, not outmaneuver them!"

Lifting my wine glass, I added, "And I don't hide the fact
that I'm an empath." I took a defiant drink, mostly to calm my nerves.

"Oh, so you announce it to every alien culture you encounter? Or
do you use it to give your side an advantage? Do you tell the Romulan
in the ship about to attack that you can feel that he's bluffing,
or do you just tell it to your captain?"

Shocked again at his insensitivity, I argued, "That's
different. That's a matter of protection."

"That's right. Your protection… your crew… your
edge. Now, it's a matter of life and death when you take the advantage. Me, I deal in
property, in exchange." He spread his hands out innocently.
"Nobody gets hurt." He waited for that comment to make an impact on me,
which took about a second, then went in for the kill. "Which of
us would you say has the greater problem of ethics?"

He rose from the table with a polite "Excuse me," and left me
alone to contemplate his words. I did contemplate them… for hours.
Long after he had slipped back into his clothes and left my quarters with
a lame excuse that he had to be up early the next morning. Long
after I had disposed of the plates of half-eaten food and cleared the
table. Long after I had blown out the candles and slipped between my
cool bed sheets. Long into the night as I stared at the ceiling,
unable to sleep.

The questions whirled endlessly around in my head. Did my job
require me to be unethical? Because I worked with humans and other
non-telepathic races, was it unethical for me to use my powers in
their presence?

And what had changed about Devinoni Ral the moment I brought up the
subject of his ethics? He had become defensive, which was typical
and understandable. But something else had changed as well. I
struggled to put my finger on it, but it was so subtle, it alluded me
at first. All I could make sense of was that when I thought about
him, saw his face in my mind, it no longer held any feeling for me.
It was empty. No… HE was empty…

*THAT'S IT!* I shot straight up in the bed as the realization
hit me full force. He had been manipulating my feelings for him all along!
He had learned how to use his empathic powers to give a woman exactly
what she wanted. To wrap her up in a spell of romantic bliss and
leave her senseless…unable to see him for what he truly was. And
I had fallen for it just like the next brainless bimbo! It wasn't
until I had made him angry that he could no longer put energy into
the façade.

"The son of a bitch used me!" I exclaimed aloud, my hands
grasping the blanket below me, squeezing tight. I wanted to scream, but the
breath hitched in my throat. A strangled sob escaped my lips
instead. How could I have been so stupid? So vulnerable? Damn!
Why did Will have to be right?

Well, Mr. Ral wasn't going to get away with it. I wasn't
sure how I was going to put a stop to his manipulations, but I would find a
way. He wouldn't succeed in his goal to win the wormhole, not if
he wasn't playing fair… I would see to that. And he would never
have the pleasure of my intimacy again. It was over!


Chapter 8 - Finale

"He makes me feel loved." Those were Deanna's words. Ral made her
feel loved. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I'd spent the
last few hours since our argument trying to figure that out. Did it
mean she loved him, or that he loved her? Was it just something to
say to get a rise out of me? All these questions kept floating
around my head, and I only knew one thing for sure. Soon the
negotiations would be over, Ral would get the hell off my ship, and
the Enterprise could go back to the normal routine of being shot at
by malevolent aliens, and taunted by Q. Normalcy would be grand.

I still could not shake the feeling that Ral had masterminded the
whole Caldonian withdrawal somehow; I knew it as surely as I knew you
could never leave a Klingon and Romulan alone in a room, unless you
wanted to clean a lot of blood off the floor. I did my best to push
this aside, it didn't matter how Ral had pulled it off; in the end it
was done, and the Trillium 323 was his to bargain with as he
pleased. But my unease was growing, not so much about the
negotiations, but about Deanna.

Part of me wanted to shake her until she finally saw the truth, Ral
was going to hurt her in the end. But she wasn't hearing the truth.
She thought Ral walked on water, and that I was being a self-
absorbed, jealous fool. I know exactly what Deanna's advice would be
in this situation… well, if she was in the mood to hand me advice at
all, that is. She'd give me her patented, "It's perfectly normal to
feel a little jealousy when someone you've loved enters a new
relationship." Oh, but I could hear it so perfectly, see the
understanding sympathy in her eyes. God, that woman was infuriating

It was more than simple jealousy, wasn't it?

In truth, I didn't have the answer to that question. I was jealous,
not because Ral had Deanna, but because he might keep her. Because
he was seeing a side of her that few got to witness, a side I'd once
thought I had sole rights to. It's ridiculous to think you own a
piece of someone else's personality, I know that, but all the same, I
couldn't shake the feeling. She was acting like a love struck
teenager, and it wasn't directed toward me. I know it sounds
childish, and more than a little self-centered of me, but there it
was, the cold hard truth.

The worst part was, I couldn't figure out just what was so appealing
about him. Sure he had that whole mysterious, rogue thing going for
him. Hell, I'd played that card myself a time or two. Surely,
Deanna could see through that, though. She certainly saw through me
as if I was made of glass. Maybe he had some quality I just couldn't
see, some hidden charm or charisma.

I was driving myself crazy trying to figure it out. And to top it
all off, I couldn't stop thinking about that moment, after catching
her and Ral in the lift, the way her scent still lingered after she'd
left. Days later, it still haunted me. I could smell her perfume on
the bridge, in the corridors, even in engineering, which was baffling
because Deanna never went to engineering. I once read somewhere that
scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, that just a wiff of a
smell can bring back a whole flood of memories. I didn't really give
it much thought then, but now I had reason to curse it. I found old
memories, things I'd tucked away for years, surfacing for a little
fresh air.

Finally, unable to stand the thoughts and memories chasing through my
head, I decided to take a trip to Ten Forward and see if the sounds
of a crowded room, coupled with a little work, couldn't take my mind
off the whole damn thing.

As soon as I stepped into Ten Forward, I caught sight of Ral,
chatting with the Ferengi delegate, Goss. Even though Ral's back
faced me, he must have known someone was looking at him. He turned
at the waist and nodded a greeting, a cocky smile splitting his
face. I nodded back, not wanting him to see the depths of my
disdain, and headed to a seat with my back turned to him, hoping he'd
get the subtle hint and leave me alone.

I ordered a drink from the cute brunette waitress, spent a moment
trying to remember her name, and then gave up. I hardly had the
energy to hit on her anyway. I tried to read the reports that I'd
brought with me, but I kept losing focus. Questions continued to
float around my head like space debris.

Why did I dislike Ral so much? Did he stand for some part of myself
I didn't like? Why did Deanna seem to care for him? Why did I feel
threatened by that? And when in God's name did I start analyzing
every single feeling that popped into existence? When I was young, I
never wasted my time thinking about my feelings. I just felt them.
At what point in my life did I become a man of thought instead of a
man of action?

Deanna. Of course.

The thought made me smile a little. It was frustrating to be second-
guessing my motives, but Deanna would think it was a healthy step on
what she liked to call my `journey through life'. Just the phrase
made me wince, but I suppose she was right.

I heard footsteps coming up from behind me, and instantly knew it was
Ral, hoping to catch me off guard.

"May I join you, commander?"

I swallowed the `hell no' that was forming in my mouth, and gestured
toward the seat next to me.

"Bought out the Ferengi yet, Ral?"

"Think I should try?" he asked as he took his chair. He was poised
as always, smooth to the point of being greasy. But something in his
eyes, some glint of discomfort made me want to keep him talking.

"No, but I think you will. One way or another, it will come down to
you and me." That familiar wolf-in-sheep's-clothing smile appeared
on his face. I'd learned in the last few days what that smile meant,
he wasn't here to chitchat with me - he was here on business.

"You know, you're very good at this. Better than you realize." A
stupider man might think he was trying to pay me a compliment. I am
not a stupid man.

"I hope I'm better then you realize, Ral," I said as I took a sip of
my drink. The cockiness came as second nature to me, it was easier
than breathing.

Ral gave me a look, one of those `I'm about to give you a little
advice since you're new at this' kind of looks. "The last mile of
the marathon is always the toughest. That's when the winners are
willing to take the big risks. Are you ready to do that?"

So, he wanted to goad me. Perhaps get me so worked up that I'd let
my emotions get in the way of the negotiations. "We'll see, won't
we?" was all I said. He was starting to annoy me already, and he'd
only just begun.

"Well, let's see right now. I'm prepared to reach a firm agreement
with Bhavani before we learn the results of your probe's expedition.
Are you?" he asked. I paused. Too long of a pause, in fact. He
knew the Federation would never go for that, knew my hands were tied
by protocol. "Mmmm, that would not be looked upon favorably by the
Federation, I'd imagine. See, you have to be willing to take that
last step alone, or the game isn't worth playing."

How many times had I thought or said similar things? Even if I
didn't want to admit it, Ral and I were a lot alike. In my youth, I
might have agreed with him, but I knew better now. The victory was
so much better if you had someone to share that last step with.

"Your point of view, not mine," I said.

"Oh, I see that, Commander, otherwise you wouldn't be second in
command of this starship." The ass, like he was the first man who
tried to crawl under my skin by mocking my command position. He
obviously had no idea what it was like to work with a man as
honorable as Jean-Luc Picard. "You know, I feel responsible for you
in a way…related."

And here it comes, the moment we've all been waiting for, when he
plays his last and final card. Deanna.

"Deanna. We both love Deanna. In different ways, of course."

He was really starting to piss me off. "I'll remove that burden of
responsibility right now. My relationship with Deanna stands very
well on its own, without any help from you." I might have stood up
to leave right then, but something more was coming. I could feel
it. My gut was telling me to stick this conversation out.

"Of course it does. She's an extraordinary woman. Lovely,
brilliant, very passionate." Ral leaned closer, as if about to share
a secret. I looked into his eyes, and saw something there…
hesitation, nervousness. Something was bothering him, and I was
willing to place bets that it wasn't all about the wormhole. "And
she could have been yours, Will," Ral continued. "But you just
didn't do enough to keep her. And now, I'm here, and I'm going to
take her too."

I looked at him, really looked at him as if seeing him for the first
time. My father always used to say you could never con a con man.
Well, the same holds true for men like me and Ral. As much as he
might try to use Deanna against me, he could never pull the wool over
my eyes, because I'd once been where he was. In just that instant, I
saw myself in him more clearly than ever before, and for the first
time I didn't shrink away from it. Deanna had done the same thing to
him that she'd done to me all those years ago. Swept into his life
and shook up his very notions about who he was and what he wanted.
Attacking me like this served two purposes, it rattled me, and helped
him feel- out the competition as he saw it. In his own twisted way,
he just wanted to know if I still loved her.

All this struck me as terribly ironic, and I smiled. "You know, I
think this is the first bad play I've seen you make," I said. He
turned away from me, no longer interested in making eye contact. "If
you can bring happiness into Deanna's life, nothing would please me
more." I surprised myself with the sincerity in my voice. It was
true in a way. If Deanna could find a man who gave her everything
she ever wanted in a relationship I'd be happy for her. I'd probably
die a lonely old man, but I'd be happy that she was happy. From the
expression on his face I could tell I had the advantage, so of course
I pressed it. "You're not really such a bad sort, Ral. You just
don't have any values, beyond the value of today's bid, that is.
Deanna is just the woman to give some meaning to your sorry
existence, if you're smart enough to take it. I doubt you are."

I picked up my glass and offered it up in a toast. "To the last
mile." I downed the drink, feeling confident that Ral would be
taking that last mile alone.


When the captain called me to the Bridge for an urgent matter, I knew
this was it. It had something to do with Devinoni Ral and his
underhanded tactics, I could sense it. He was going to be sorry that
he had ever considered tampering with my psyche.

I fixed my hair, smoothed the sides of my blue dress, and made my way
to the Bridge with all due haste, as the inevitable yellow alert
claxon began to sound.

Will exited the Observation Lounge at the same moment that I stepped
out of the turbolift onto the Bridge. His agitation was palpable as
he made his way down the ramp in just a few short strides.

Captain Picard was standing at full alert, arguing with the Ferengi
Goss on the viewscreen. "You must know we will not allow you to do
this, Goss."

"If the Ferengi cannot have the wormhole, no one will," the weasel-
like alien threatened in a tone that was less than convincing.

Picard signaled Worf to mute the viewscreen, then turned to the rest
of us. "Can he possibly believe that a missile will have any
destructive effect on a wormhole?"

It wasn't just the ridiculousness of Goss' threat that furthered my
hunch that Devinoni Ral had something to do with this. I knew he was
desperate to make a deal with Bhavani and had already tried
everything else.

Will added, "One of those missiles would have a destructive effect if
it exploded near our shuttle." He took another step forward and
signaled Worf to resume voice contact. "Goss, don't you realize that
we both have shuttle craft in there?"

"Casualties of war, commander. My men are prepared to die. Are

Enough of this! I couldn't prove at that point that Devinoni had a
hand in this conflict, but I could certainly put a quick end to Goss'
façade. "Captain…" I shot Picard a meaningful look and he knew just
what to do.

"Viewscreen off," he commanded Worf, his eyes still on me in silent

I stood from my chair for emphasis. "He's lying. I'm almost certain
of it. He doesn't mean what he says."

Standing just behind Picard, Will demanded, "Why? What is he doing
it for, then?"

At that moment Bhavani and Ral entered the Bridge. I tried to read
Devinoni but he was actively blocking me. This really stirred my
ire. Now I was certain more than ever that he had arranged this
whole scene with Goss to manipulate the negotiations.

I wanted to tell everyone right then what was happening, but
something inside told me to wait for just the right moment. A moment
that would maximize Ral's embarrassment.

"Captain, I believe I'm in a better position to settle this with
DaiMon Goss than you are," the sly negotiator, who would never touch
me again, said calmly, and with complete assurance. "May I address

Picard motioned for him to come forward, and he confronted the alien
on the screen directly. "DaiMon Goss, this is Devinoni Ral."

"I have nothing to say to you, Ral," Goss snorted with a melodramatic
roll of his eyes.

"Then just listen. The planet Barzan has reached an agreement with
the Chrysalians for long-term control of the wormhole. On behalf of
the Chrysalians, I am prepared to offer the Ferengi free access to
the wormhole in perpetuity."

Will's eyes grew wide in surprise and he turned to look at Bhavani
for confirmation. She gave a short nod. His internal anger shot out
in every direction at once. It nearly blew me over in its force. It
was taking every last ounce of control the well-trained Federation
commander had not to throw Ral to the ground and beat him senseless.

*Don't worry, Will,* I thought with satisfaction. *He's going down
right now.*

Goss replied casually, "I have your word on this?"

"My word, sir, in return for some Ferengi convoy privileges to be
negotiated in good faith."

"This is an acceptable offer." Anyone who knew Ferengis would have
caught Goss' lie right then. He didn't try to haggle for a single
extra privilege or payment. He took the deal as it was offered
without a challenge.

Worf's voice broke in, "Ferengi vessel has shut down forward missile

"Stand down yellow alert," the captain ordered.

Bhavani came forward then. "Commander Riker, I'm sorry you had to
learn about my decision this way. You represented the Federation
well. But I have come to believe that the Chrysalians' neutrality
and tradition of peace is more desirable to my planet."

*And just when Ral thinks he's won, I go in for the kill.* "Excuse
me, Premier. There is something you should know," I jumped in, my
heart racing with nervous excitement at what I was about to do.

Ral flashed me a worried look, his shields still holding strong, as I
moved to stand before him. "I'm sorry, was there something you
wanted to say?"

He cleared his throat, his skin paling just a couple of shades. "No,
not at all…"

"I sensed you were suddenly uncomfortable," I pressed on quickly,
refusing to give him a way out.

"Well, after all, this was a tense situation," he tried an innocent
smile that fell pathetically flat.

"But that's what's so odd about it. It wasn't tense at all. I
sensed no tension from you or Goss.

On the viewscreen, Goss jerked in alarm. "I was tense! I was ready
to blow it up! I strongly protest!"

"Off screen," Picard commanded, and Goss promptly disappeared.

I took the moment of highest drama to reveal the rest. "It's almost
as though you both were performing a scene for all of us."

Ral swallowed hard, glaring deeply into my eyes. *What are you doing?
* His thought seeped out at me, his mental voice saddened with
betrayal. "Excuse me, captain, I think there's a slight conflict of
interest here," he said aloud, his gaze still fixed on mine.

I broke the visual contact and addressed the captain, "I agree
entirely. Devinoni asked me not to tell anyone he has empathic
powers, which he uses to manipulate competitors in a negotiation…" I
took pleasure at the shocked reactions of everyone in the
room. "Certainly that put me in a conflict of interest, which I hope
I have now resolved." Then turning my attention to Bhavani, I added
for final impact, "Premier, I believe Ral has used your fear of
continuing aggression between the Federation and its enemies to
undermine our position. I also believe this incident was staged by
Ral and Goss to provide you with a reason to decide in favor of the

I squared my shoulders with confidence in my decision and pivoted to
face Ral head on. He stared into my eyes for a long time and I didn't
turn away or back down. Then he bowed his head just enough that I
would be the only one who caught the gesture. As if we had just been
sparring and I won the match. Touche. His lip curled up in a
surrendering half-smile.

It wasn't the reaction I was expecting. I thought he would be
angry. That he would curse me for the damage I had just done to his
reputation, possibly his career. But instead, he lowered his blocks
and allowed me to feel his admiration of me. That I could stick so
closely to my own values amazed and intrigued him. The emotions he
sent my way were warm and loving, even needful. Instead of feeling
victorious over my win, my heart sank and I wanted to weep.

"Captain…" Wesley's young voice interrupted the silent communication
flowing between us.

"Shuttle Nine to Enterprise… Shuttle Nine to Enterprise…" Geordi's
voice came over the speaker.

"Onscreen," Picard said.

To the communal relief of all on the Bridge, Geordi and Data's
shuttle appeared out of nowhere in the blackness of space. "This is
Shuttle Nine, reporting back… barely."

Picard's heart leaped with joy over the return of his valuable
officers, but there wasn't a single member of his crew who could have
detected it except me. "And the Ferengi pod?" he asked.

"They're trapped on the other side, Sir, in the Delta quadrant. We
tried to warn them, but they wouldn't follow us."


"Captain, this end of the wormhole is currently stable, but the other
end apparently shifts position periodically. The Barzan probe had no
way to recognize this. Eventually, both sides will be unstable,"
Data explained precisely.

"It's a dry well, Captain, worthless," Geordi added, much to the
obvious disappointment of Bhavani.

Picard gave a short nod. "Acknowledged, Shuttle Nine. Main Shuttle
Bay, prepare for final approach."

"Captain," Worf interjected. "Captain DaiMon Goss is demanding to
know where his men are."

"Advise him to set his coordinates for the Delta Quadrant,
Lieutenant… He might run into them in eighty years or so."

Will came up behind Devinoni, all prepared to rub his face in his
loss. I could feel how much control it was taking for him not to
laugh out loud. He proffered his hand. "Mr. Ral, I congratulate you
on winning the rights to the Barzan Wormhole…"

"I take the risks, Commander, and I stand by my agreements," he said
with a slight shrug. All in a day's work.


Deanna gave Ral one last look, somewhere between full-blown rage and
utter confusion, then turned on her heel and stomped off. I wanted
to follow her, to congratulate her, tell her how proud of her I was.
But my praise, and respect would sound hollow in light of the way she
had to feel. I knew she would need some space to sort everything
out. Besides, Ral was standing there, staring after Deanna. I felt
a twinge of satisfaction at the look on his face, the blatant need,
the guilt, and more than a hint of self-disgust. I knew Deanna would
never approve of my gloating. Somewhere in the years since I first
met her, she'd became my moral yard stick.

I remembered what I'd told Ral in Ten Forward. `Deanna is just the
woman to give some meaning to your sorry existence, if you're smart
enough to take it. I doubt you are.'

The words were out of my mouth before I had time to think. "Looks
like you weren't smart enough to take it, Ral." He looked at me, as
if just noticing I was there. I could see him struggling through his
thoughts, and it took him a second to figure out what I was referring
too. I watched as his face softened into that familiar smug
expression, but it seemed forced, like a man holding on to the last
scrap of dignity he has.

"Oh, I don't know about that, commander. I have one more card to
play." His smile widened into his familiar cocky grin. "The game's
not over yet." I couldn't believe it. After all that had happened,
Ral still had hope. He all but winked at me before turning around
and walking up the ramp to the turbolift, leaving me there to think
about his last words, with a growing sense of dread settling in my


I left the Bridge soon after that, in a hurry to return to my
quarters to sort out the torrent of emotions vying for dominance
inside me.

They had watched me go, the two of them, each coping with complex
feelings of his own. All I wanted at that moment was to be left

Sinking slowly to my couch with one leg tucked beneath me, I leaned
on my elbow and stared out the window at a colorful nebula in the
distance - just a tiny smudge of purple and pink, like a fuzzy ball
of lint from a sweater. So simple from a distant glance, a little
swatch of color; yet when in the midst of it, so complex - a
tremendous whirlpool of conflicting gasses and debris.

The conflict inside of me seemed unsolvable. I wanted to hate
Devinoni Ral for what he did. Manipulating a Betazoid's psyche was
just one step up from rape. It was detestable. Yet when I cornered
him on the Bridge, he surrendered with dignity, even with respect to
my own duty to betray him. When his eyes met mine and his shields
came down, the emotions that traveled easily across our connection
melted my ice-cold anger to a pool of warm, placid water. Will had
been right about him. His intentions weren't honorable, but what
Will didn't understand was that Devinoni Ral truly cared for me. The
raw emotion I sensed was unmistakable. He hadn't meant to hurt me.

Tears of loss rose quickly to the surface and toppled down my
cheeks. I had thought I was in love with him. I had thought my days
of lonely longing were over. But I didn't love him. I loved the
idea of being in love again. That youthful feeling of wild abandon…
of giving myself to someone who reciprocated my feelings with equal
intensity. Of waking up in someone's arms, and sharing a connection
of mind, spirit and body.

I sighed and impatiently wiped away the streams of self-pity that
dampened my dress. Maybe I wasn't meant to find happiness in this
way. Maybe the deities had other plans for me. It was possible that
because my father abandoned me in death, I could only love men who
left or betrayed me. I had treated this syndrome before in a few of
my patients. Could I be one of them? Would I even recognize love if
it was standing right in front of me?

The door chimed then and I realized that over an hour had passed
since I had left the Bridge. A quick scan of the person behind the
door revealed an openly regretful Devinoni Ral. I wiped the
remaining moisture from my cheeks, straightened my dress and pressed
the button. The door opened and there he was, his eyes meeting mine
almost pleadingly.

"Come in," I said, stepping aside so he could enter. He moved in
past me and the door swooshed closed behind him. "When do you
leave?" I asked before he had turned back toward me.

"Soon," he replied, his gaze traveling to my lips. "I've…been
recalled by the Chrysalians…explanations demanded and so forth.

"I'm sorry," I said. And I genuinely was. Sorry for a lot of things.

He shrugged. "I've done alright for them over the years…they know
the stakes. It'll be fine."

Fine. Was he fine? Would I ever be fine?

A long silence followed where our eyes communicated volumes. Then he
said, "I had to do it, Troi. Bhavani was ready to go with the
Federation. I could sense it. I had used all the cards in the
deck. I had to change the rules."

"You must have known that I couldn't allow you to do that."

That half-smile again. "My human physical response must have blocked
out my Betazoid senses."

I didn't share his smile. I couldn't.

"In a way, I'm glad you did it," he continued. "It made me take a
hard look at who I am. I don't like what I see."

He moved toward me and I held my ground. His typical arrogant stride
and confident posturing gone, replaced by a man who looked as lost as
he was frail. "Deanna, I once asked you to run away with me. I'm
asking you again. I need you. You could help me change." His hands
came up to cup my face on both sides with a loving reverence. "You
could be my conscience," he whispered on my lips as he kissed me. I
allowed it, though I had promised myself that he would never touch me
again. I didn't pull back because I wanted to be sure that my
feelings for him were truly gone…so that I wouldn't miss him when he
left. My own shields were well in place against any manipulation he
might try, so there was little risk.

The kiss had no effect. No weakening knees, no sense of connection…
nothing. I was relieved. "I already have a job as counselor," I
said coldly, for cold was exactly what I felt inside.

Obviously disappointed, he dropped his hands and hung his head. At
last he made his way for the door and didn't look back as it closed
behind him. It was over.


Epilogue: 24 hours later…

It was late in the evening and I was just about ready to change my
clothes and turn in for the night when my door chimed.

"Come in," I called on my way to the replicator to dispose of my
teacup. I didn't bother to raise the lights. I preferred the semi-
darkness. It calmed me.

It was Will. I knew it, of course, long before he entered my
quarters, which surprisingly took more than a few seconds.

The door slid open but no one stepped in immediately. I watched from
the darkness of the kitchen as he poked his head in first, searching
in the dark. When he spotted me, his head disappeared and he stepped
cautiously into my quarters.

"Am I disturbing you?" He inquired softly.

"No," I said.

He waited for more, but I wasn't in the mood to say much.

Breaking the silence at last, he ventured, "Well… I was just checking
to see how you're doing." His nervous swallow was obvious, even from
the kitchen.

"How am I doing? Hmmm… good question." I sighed and crossed my arms
over my chest. I paced toward the window and looked out at the
stars. Will's reflection revealed that he had taken a few steps
forward, but then stopped. Unsure of what to do with his hands, he
locked them in front of him, then behind, then left them to hang at
his sides.

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" I didn't bother to disguise my angry tone. I was
angry. Not just at him, though he had certainly played a role.

He shrugged, emitting an unsure grunt at the back of his
throat. "For… not trusting your judgment."

I felt completely drained. Exhausted to my core, and more than a
little embarrassed. A long silence passed before I admitted, "I
don't know what I was doing, Will."

He let out the breath he had been holding, a bit too loudly. "He
manipulated you like he did the negotiations. It's not your fault."

"It was just as much my fault as it was his. I welcomed it… even
enjoyed it. Allowed it to taint my vision. I didn't know who he
was… I hardly knew who I was."

"I hardly knew who you were," he agreed before he realized just what
he was saying. I could sense him silently kicking himself for the
comment, then doing his best to back-pedal. "I mean…"

"I know what you mean," I cut him off mercifully. "I'm sorry if I
hurt you." My eyes were still fixed on the elegant simplicity of the
star field outside my window.

"You're not infallible, Deanna. No one is." He slowly approached me,
his hand coming down to rest on my shoulder.

I nodded. If I had spoken at that moment it would have come out as a
defeated sob.

A long silence ensued as body language spoke more than words. When I
didn't pull away from his touch, he took it as an invitation to slide
his hands down my arms and wrap them around my middle. He gently
pulled me back and I rested my head gratefully against his chest. I
reveled in the comfort and support, the familiarity of his clean,
masculine scent.

My hands came down to rest on his forearms, an acknowledgment of the
strength of our friendship, and I allowed my anger at him to
dissipate. It was hardly significant next to the enormity of my
mistake with Ral.

Will's breath was warm on my bare skin. I was wearing a black,
shoulder-less top and mid-length skirt, light and flowing,
comfortable for my off hours.

After a while, his mouth came down to kiss my cheek. Tingles, then
goose bumps rose along my skin as his kiss lingered. Pulling slowly
away from my cheek, his lips moved lower to my neck, right over that
extra sensitive bundle of nerves. I closed my eyes.

"You know there are other, much more safe ways to lose yourself," he
murmured seductively next to my ear.

My hand instinctively rose to touch his face. Then I pulled it back
and gently pushed off of his chest. I turned around to face
him. "Will, what are you doing?"

He didn't answer. His strikingly blue eyes pierced the darkness of
the room, of my soul. At last he sighed in frustration and stepped
back. I could feel him trying to calm down, his hand coming up to
rub his face in irritation. Not at me, but at himself for acting

"I wasn't thinking straight. I'm sorry," he said at last.

I had to smile. "You know, you haven't been jealous of someone else
I've dated in a very long time. It was endearing in a way."

"I wasn't jealous. I just knew he was a snake and I was worried
about you."

"Don't evade the truth."

Reluctantly, he admitted, "Okay, I guess I was a little jealous."


"Because he really got under your skin. He had you believing you
were in love with him."

"Maybe I was."

"You and I both know that's not true."

I nodded.

He smiled with relief, and I sighed, letting it all roll off.
Straightening with renewed confidence, he gallantly offered his
arm. "Would you care for a walk in the arboretum, Ms. Troi? I'll be
a good boy, I promise."

"When have you ever been a good boy, Commander Riker?" I quipped as I
took a hold of his proffered elbow.

"I'd hate to think I'm losing my touch." His smile broadened as he
led me toward the door.

One thing in the jumble of my recent life was clear. Will was there
for me, unconditionally. I was in no hurry to sort out the nature of
our relationship. It was there, and it always would be. Our bond
was powerful, and if it ever got `recharged' in an intimate way, it
would be all encompassing, overwhelming, forever. Forever was a big
commitment. It could wait.