The Mark of Cain
Character codes: R, T, Tom, Crew
Lieutenant William Thomas Riker stared at the tricorder in dull-eyed resignation. It happened as he knew it would: the radiation spikes leveled slowly back to normal, and what he'd given up for lost was salvaged yet again by the legendary Commander William Riker.
The caverns of Nirvalla IV lay around them, silent witness to his humiliation.
"Next time," Commander Riker advised, threading his way back through the snarl of wiring and bent girders, "Don't give up so easily."
From another, it might have been offered as, and taken as, advice. But from him, it was nothing more than what it was: Censure. Disapproval. Disdain.
Lieutentant Riker stiffened as his commanding officer shouldered past him to take the point. The casual usurption of authority was a deliberate slap in the face. Resentment flared in his chest, in his heart.
Commander Riker knew nothing of these caverns -- less than nothing. Even eight years ago, when he'd been on Narvalla IV, it was for less than a day, and all of it spent topside.
Yet, with a blind confidence honed by the sucesses of a life led throughout his counterpart's internment, he made himself king and ruler of this place, as he had of their shared destiny. Stepping forward with devine conviction into the cavernous bowels of hell where he had not lived like a rat in a mausoleum for nearly a decade, he sought to arrogate a place that had never known the shining presence of Commander William T. Riker; that had never known the glory of the pentupally decorated hero of Wolf 359.
This place knew only Lieutenant William Thomas Riker: Survivor of Nirvala IV, waiter in the darkness for rescue that never came.
Lover of a woman who had already gone on.
After a handful of heartbeats filled with nothing more than bitter nothing, Lieutenant Riker turned to follow the commander's confident lead.
The bridge spanning the bottomless chasm seemed stable, but it was not. A caroded joint snapped and the structure buckled. Commander Riker was past the point of danger when it happened, but Lieutenant Riker was not. Metal vanished beneath the lieutenant's boots. He grabbed instinctively for whatever lay near, catching a handhold as much by luck as by skill.
His fall jerked itself painfully short. Tom, as he'd begun to think of himself, clung to the precipice while aluminum girding pendulumed through the whispering void that yawed below. Sectionals broke free. They clanged metally in the darkness, logging the endless decent until distance muted their racuous cries to nothing.
Commander Riker was quick. Reversing directions, he threw himself flat on the remnants of the bridge, spreadeagle to disperse his weight evenly.
It was a tactic they'd both learned more than twenty years ago, when Joey Kovic vanished in the blink of an eye through the thaw-weakened ice of cutter's pond. They'd been a hero for that: the talk of Valdez for weeks.
As the commander's fingers sank into his wrist like talons, Tom Riker wondered if the other man remembered that spring as clearly as he did.
"Grab on!" the commander shouted, his face contorted with strain. "Come on! Climb! Come on!"
Giving orders again. Always giving orders.
Rage bubbled in Tom Riker's veins. His fingers cramping with the effort of merely maintaining his tenuous grip, he glared into the eyes of his would-be benefactor and found himself filled with mindless fury at the other man's intention.
William T. Riker, hero of Nirvala IV, of the Borg encounter, of a hundred other excursions in the vast wonder of space would be the hero yet again. He'd no doubt grown beyond the memory of childhood bravery. Grown beyond the front page spread in the Valdez Gazette, beyond the tearful hugs of Joey's mother, beyond the feirce itching that writhed beneath a fiberglass cast.
Spurred to motion by a cloying rush of hatred for the man who would save him, Tom Riker struggled against the weight of his own doom. The fingers he'd wedged desparately between metal bars found handholds on the commander's arm, and then his uniform. He began to climb the living ladder of Will Riker's body, suddenly determined not to die after waiting so long to live.
"I'm being pulled in," the commander shouted.
Tom Riker froze. Staring into his own eyes set in the face of another man, he saw familiar emotions -- fear, anger, regret. He saw both of their deaths, and he saw Deanna Troi alone.
And in the breadth of a single fragmented moment, he saw the man he would have become.
Commander William T. Riker.
Suddenly, it was as it had been that spring day in Valdez. Life and death meant nothing in the face of right and wrong. He was going to die, but it no longer mattered. Staring into his own eyes, he knew which of them should survive: which of them had to. He could almost feel the ice water closing over his face as Joey panicked, dragging him in even as he pulled the younger boy out.
Life and death: right and wrong. Destiny.
It was a simple decision.
"Let go!" Tom shouted. "One of us has to get out of here!" He laxed his hand, preparing to release a life he no longer owned.
To Tom's surprise, Commander Riker's familiar features twisted with disdain. He read cowardice into the necessity of self-sacrifice; weakness in his willingness to die that one of them might live.
"Climb!" the first officer raged. "Climb, damn you! Climb!"
Tom began once again to climb. As he scrambled over the commander's out-of-balance body to safety, he understood what he should have understood from the beginning.
Will and Tom Riker were no longer the same man.
Will Riker was not what Tom Riker had been, but rather what he had hoped one day to be. His rank was earned, not given; his authority real, not perceived. He'd evolved into the embodiment of William Thomas Riker's destiny and it fit like shoe leather worn to the foot.
He was what Tom Riker could now never be.
He was Commander William T. Riker.
The knowledge burned like acid as Tom cleared the tremulous bridge and scrambled to solid ground. He lay still in the bitter dregs of shattered hopes and dreams, breathing heavily.
Behind him, Commander Riker twisted cautiously on the unsteady bridge. He was nearly clear of danger when Tom stirred, when he extended a hand. The commander accepted the offer as an anchor to pull himself to his feet.
There was a moment, only a split second perhaps, when the commander's weight hung from the end of Tom's arm. Well braced on the solid lip of the precipice, the momentary drag was nothing for Tom Riker to bear.
Will Riker realized the mistake before Tom did. His eyes flashed with incredulity, and then disbelief as the hand gripped to his once again laxed. His mouth opened as if to protest, but there was no time for accusation, no time for recrimination. There was no time at all except the time it took for one man to stare into the eyes of another.
And then, without a sound, Commander William T. Riker tumbled gracelessly into the void and vanished.
"There was nothing I could do," Tom Riker murmurred dully.
His mind was as blank as his eyes, as his expression. Troi watched from Chief Saveii's side, trying to hide her own emotions, as Beverly Crusher stepped to the transporter pad and ran a tricorder over the newly-materialized Lieutenant's slumped frame.
"Nothing I could do," he repeated bleakly. His eyes shifted from Crusher's to Troi's. "He just slipped from my fingers ..."
"Your wrist is broken," Crusher told him in her quiet doctor's voice. "I want you to come with me to Sickbay."
"There was nothing I could do," he repeated.
Crusher cupped his elbow supportively as her eyes cast themselves to the floor in an effort to stem tears welling behind a medical calm facade.
"Step down, Lieutenant."
He passed within centemeters of Troi as they left transporter room three. His shock-dull eyes lifted, met hers.
"No one blames you," Troi assured him, touching his arm gently as he passed.
"Nothing I could do," Tom Riker's voice echoed, little more than a whisper.
The memorial service was dull with pain. It was small, intimate, only his closest friends clustered in the holodeck to listen to the cicadas sing in the brisk summer air of Curtis Creek. There would be another of course, back at Starfleet Headquarters as befitting an officer and occassional hero of Will Riker's stature. But for now, those most affected by his loss gathered where he'd expressed a desire that they gather, to remember him as he'd expressed a desire to be remembered.
He left no message for them to ponder. No closing words, no final thoughts, no last goodbyes. Instead, he left a tumbling brook that bore the destinctive tang of spawning salmon and a wide open expanse of azure sky that stretched over them like a benediction.
"It's beautiful here," Tom Riker whispered to Troi. "Exactly like I remember it."
"He worked for years, perfecting it." She clung tighter to his large hand, letting him take on more of the burden of her weight. "He came here to fish. And to think."
One by one, the silent mourners came to peace with their memories and left. Troi was the last. Tom Riker waited at her side until she was ready to return to the corridors of the USS Enterprise. They walked in silence to her quarters.
"You be all right?" he asked when they were standing outside her door.
Troi blinked back tears. "No," she whispered.
He lifted one hand, traced it gently down the side of her face. "I'm so sorry, Imzadi."
"It wasn't your fault."
"I had him. He was in my hand, and I let go." His fingers clenched to a fist and dropped to his side. His eyes were black with agony.
"You did everything you could."
"It wasn't enough."
Troi reached out and took his hands in hers. She held them tightly, drawing them to her where she could feel the pressure of his knuckles against her breast. Her lips dropped to her own hand, but her tears fell to his. "Sometimes it isn't enough," she murmurred. She stared at his hands for some time. When he shifted slightly, she pulled them tighter, held them closer.
"Stay with me," she whispered suddenly.
Tom Riker leaned forward, placing his lips to the crown of her bowed head. "Of course."
He woke, dully aware that he wasn't dead. It was an odd sensation, one he attributed initially to denial. He was dead, he had to be dead. He remembered the fall, and he remembered the shatter of imact.
But he wasn't dead.
He was in too much pain to be dead.
Slowly, Will Riker shifted. He gasped, sickened by the grind of bones on bones. Vertigo swashed through his senses. His mind reeled in his skull. He would have passed out if not for the stroke of cool air whispering up from below to touch his face like the fingers of an attentive woman.
He lay still and waited, the metal tang of blood salty in his mouth.
It was dark, but not black. He realized his eyes were open only when the far wall of the pit began to define itself in the subtle shades of grey that exist between dusk and dark. The subfused light that reached this far into the chasm from the illumi-torches above, did so feebly and reached no farther. Perhaps ten meters away, maybe twenty, shadows played patterns on striated stone. Below him stretched only endless black, hollow with the sound of a far-away subterrainian stream.
The thin ledge on which he lay was little more than the size of his body. It was luck and only luck that ended his plunge ten meters from where it began, rather than a hundred, or a thousand.
Damndable bad luck.
Riker lay crumpled on his side and remembered. He remembered the look in his own eyes as the hand in his loosened, and then released him to the lethal embrace of gravity. He remembered the echo of his own voice as it followed him into the darkness, reaching him a breath after he slammed crippling against the slight ledge and a breath before the merciful blanket of unconsciousness smothered the agony ballooning in his splintered body.
"I'm sorry," he'd said.
Will Riker laughed. The rush of air through his chest warbled the balance of his thoughts, tipped them. Without arguement or struggle, he slipped back into the dim grey shroud of unconsciousness from which he'd only minutes before emerged.
Troi woke, shrieking.
She was shrieking when she realized he was holding her: shrieking in agony, sitting bolt upright in bed, his arms enfolding her as he tried to soothe the nightmare away.
The familiarity of his smell, of his presence did more to calm her than his words. For a moment, the texture of his bare skin beneath her face, beneath her hands was enough. Her screams ceased abruptly. She trembled in his arms as he stroked her hair and spoke to her in tones unfamiliarly gentle to the aggressively commanding or brightly humorous frames of reference to which he was familiar.
"Will," she breathed.
"Shhhh, Imzadi." Tom Riker tightened his arms around her. "Sshhhh. It's alright. I'm here."
She collapsed against him, and he eased her back to the bed. For some time, they lay still, neither moving, neither speaking.
"I still ..." she started finally. Her voice broke, and she stopped, crying quietly in the lee of his chest.
"Still what?" he questioned gently when she was again breathing against him, rather than crying.
"I still feel him," Troi whispered. She trembled in his arms, her bare flesh prickling with small bumps. "In my mind."
Tom stroked her shoulder. He kissed it gently, and then brushed her hair aside to follow the graceful arc of her throat with his lips. "It was a dream, Imzadi," he whispered against her skin. "A dream."
"No," she breathed. "It was real. So real."
Tom shifted slightly. She lay as much beneath him now as beside him, and he eased the press of his weight against her until the trembling stilled. "He's gone," he told her, lips still flush against her throat.
Troi's hand's tightened into his back. "I felt him."
Tom's head snapped up. He stared down at her, eyes alive with intensity. "You felt me," he said finally.
For a moment, Troi returned the gaze. "Imzadi," she breathed, her eyes filled with tears.
"Imzadi," Tom Riker returned, shifting the remainder of his weight into her as she bent to receive it.
Jean-Luc Picard was staring out the huge, ovoid window that predominated the port observation deck when Beverly found him. He was standing as one might expect him to stand, with the stiff-backed posture of a man always in command, even when he was not.
"Jean-Luc?" she called quietly, not sure he'd heard the quiet neumonic hiss of the doors opening.
Though he didn't answer, neither did he rebuff her. In actuality, he did nothing at all. His body as ridgid and as without motion as it had been since she entered the room, he merely stared out the portal at the glittering mantle of space that lay like black velvet and diamonds.
Crusher took his silence as invitation and crossed the room to join him.
"He was worried about the dangers inherent to Lieutenant Riker's plan," Picard announced after an interminably long silence. "I dismissed them as if there were inconsequential."
"And now you're paying penance?" she asked quietly.
Picard turned his eyes on her. They were not blank, as she expected. They were raw, and burned with unshed tears. In them, lay more emotion than she had ever seen. More than when they retrieved him from the Borg. More than when he was returned by the Cardassians.
"It was an ill-advised decision," Picard said, his voice perfectly neutral. "The database was not worth his life."
"Every mission is a gamble of sorts," she returned. "Will Riker enjoyed the game. It would have been bored him had there been no stakes."
Picard's eyes turned back to the refuge of space. "It was not a game, Beverly."
"He gave up his life saving another. That's how he'd have wanted to go."
"Will Riker," Picard murmured. "Gone, and yet ... still among us." His gaze turned again to the woman at his side. "Why does it feel so wrong?"
She had no answer for him, so she offered none. They stood in silence, neither sure what the other was thinking.
"Where is he now?" Picard asked finally.
Picard nodded and turned back to the stars. It was logical that Troi and Riker should find each other now. It was perhaps even, in it's own way, poetic.
But though he tried to find solace in such thoughts, tried to find reason in that which had no reason, there was nothing but emptiness to be found in the random scatter of stars and in the vacuum of his own chest.
Will Riker didn't know how long he'd been awake, or how long he'd been asleep before coming awake. He knew only that time was passing and no one had come for him. The darkness remained constant, as did the cool breeze from the depths of the chasm.
And in his heart, he knew they weren't coming.
He wondered how the Lieutenant put it to them. Did he paint it a tragic accident or stupidity on the part of a man who should have known better. Did he tell them he was sorry, or did he merely insist that it wasn't his fault?
Whatever he told them, he must have been convincing. No one came looking. No one tried to retrieve the body.
And they wouldn't be coming now. However long he'd been down here, it was long enough. The transport windows were closed for the season. It would be another eight years before Nirvala IV swung close enough to it's sun again to dephase the distortion field.
Riker closed his eyes to the darkness.
Perhaps it was justice, in a way. He'd cheated fate eight years ago, and fate -- being fate and thusly bitter and vengeful and unmerciful -- had dealt the hand to another in his stead.
Now it was his turn. His turn to play the cards as dealt with no margin for bluff of for strategem or for even an old-fashioned ace up the sleeve. Riker's mouth turned in wry amusement, his lips cracking with the effort. Wasn't it just his luck to be holding a dead man's hand when the game came down to win or lose.
She lay enfolded by him, his smell and his taste and the warmth of his flesh overpowering her senses. For a moment, she could forget everything except the fact that her imzadi was not dead, but rather holding her and making love to her and breathing in sycronization with her.
"I love you, Deanna," Tom Riker murmurred into the darkness.
She snuggled deeper into his embrace. "And I love you, Will."
His body tensed beside her. She felt rage and betrayal swell inside him, and then fade away as if it had never been.
"Will?" she whispered.
He didn't answer for a moment. When he did, his voice was carefully structured to neutrality. "I thought I would go by Thomas."
"Thomas?" she repeated. The name lay bitter on her tounge. Will had never liked his middle name. He had, on more than one occassion, lied to the casual inquisitor about what it actually was.
"Tom," he agreed. "It would ... simplify things, don't you think?"
She didn't answer.
"Or perhaps," he said quietly. "Clarify them."
"So I know who you're talking to." There was a beat of silence, and another flash of resentment that washed him -- and consequently her -- like acid on copper. "Who you're sleeping with," he finished finally.
They lay together in the darkness, the silent room heavy with tension.
"I'm sorry," Tom said finally. "This isn't the time."
"No," she agreed, her voice quiet with pain. "It isn't."
The call button to Picard's ready room sounded quietly, but it flinched him violently from his thoughts none the less. Focussing slowly, he reaching down to instinctively smooth the line of his uniform. Then, straightened into what he considered his command posture, he put on what he considered his command facade.
The door opened to Geordi LaForge and Worf. They were not who he expected, and they entered the ready room like two boys facing the principal after an ill-concieved prank that had turned out badly.
"Please," Picard guestured to the chairs across from his desk.
It was LaForge who broached the silence when they were seated. "Sir, we'd like ...." The request stumbled suddenly and lost itself somewhere in the room. LaForge's visor swung away, more evasive than a normal man's gaze could ever be.
"Like ...?" Picard prompted after a long moment.
Worf answered before LaForge could restructure his thoughts. "Requesting permission to assemble an away team," the Klingon rumbled, his voice lower and coarser than normal.
Picard stiffened with surprise. "An away team?" he repeated.
"To retrieve Commander Riker's body," Worf concluded gruffly.
Picard's eyes clouded. He glanced to his hands, and then back at the security chief who appeared to be standing at full attention despite the fact that he was in actuallity sitting in a quite comfortable chair.
"I take it you have come up with a solution to the distortion field?"
"Data and I worked out something on paper that should mimic the solar distruption closly enough to achieve one more transport window in the next six hours," LaForge answered. "It ought to work. Or at least, it might work. If it does, it'll give us fifteen to twenty minutes to locate him and bring him back."
"Is it dangerous?"
Worf pounced on the question like a cat on a rat. "An honorable death deserves an honorable ritual of passing. It would be negligent of us, as his friends, to make no attempt to afford Commander Riker a warrior's funeral."
"Is it dangerous?" Picard repeated.
"It isn't one hundred percent safe," LaForge returned grimly. "But if we manage to open the window, it will be as stable as the original was."
Picard considered it.
"We all grieve for Commander Riker's loss," he said after a beat. "And though I, too, regret that we have no body to return to Earth for proper internment, I cannot justify further risk of life ...."
Worf lurched forward in his chair. His dark eyes were so full of rage that, to someone who knew the volitle Klingon's stringent honor code less intimately, it might have appeared the security chief intended to strike him.
Worf teetered on the edge of his chair for a moment and then thrust to his feet. "We have no proof," he announced as if fighting his own toungue to form the words. "That Commander Riker is dead. We have nothing but Lieutenant Riker's word."
The security chief's supposition and it's implications stunned Picard. He stared at Worf, dumbfounded.
"You're saying ..." he started finally.
LaForge rose to join Worf. "We're not trying to say anything, Captain," he interjected quickly. "We just want to be sure."
"Lieutenant Riker was very specific," Picard answered after a long minute.
"Lieutenant Riker faced a life no longer his own," Worf countered grimly. "On more than one occassion, he expressed resentment that it was Commander Riker, and not himself, who escaped Nirvala IV eight years ago."
"We're not trying to imply anything, sir," LaForge qualified again, almost before Worf was finished speaking. "We just want to be sure."
Picard faced the two men silently, and then slowly nodded. "Very well," he agreed, standing. "I will accompany you."
"Sir --" Worf started.
"Something, Mister Worf?" Picard interrupted sharply. His eyes were pure challenge.
For a moment, Worf didn't continue. when he did, the inflection of his protest had changed. "I think it prudent to keep our intentions restricted to those directly involved."
"Agreed," Picard answered. "We wouldn't want to raise
questions where questions should not be raised."
LaForge managed the unmanageable. Using deflector arrays and signal boosters and pure engineering inginuity, he managed to open a forth window in Narvala IV's distortion field. Worf and Picard and Crusher materialized at the mouth of the subterainian caverns even as Tom Riker was sharing dinner with Deanna Troi.
She hadn't eaten much. She was picking at the food as if it weren't worth eating even though he'd spent the better part of the afternoon preparing it in the old-fashioned way.
"You used to like my cooking," he remarked gently.
Troi glanced up. She offered an appologetic smile and shrugged. "I'm sorry. I'm not very hungry."
"That's all right. It didn't have enough garlic in it anyway." He rose and began to gather plates.
"It was delicious," she countered, almost using a name, but avoiding the necessity at the last moment. "Just the right amount of garlic."
"Too much salt, then." He smiled at her as he retrieved her nearly-full plate and scrapped it en mass down the disintegrator.
Troi returned the smile, watching him work. "You're fishing for compliments, Commander."
Tom Riker poured them wine from the flask of real stuff he'd charmed out of Guinan and crossed his quarters with the delicate crystal goblets blanced between his fingers. "Am I using the right bait?" he asked, extending her glass.
"Did I bite?" she countered coyly, rising to accept the deep blood-colored wine.
"Not yet." He touched his goblet to hers with a tiny clink. "But I'm still hoping. To you." His eyes searched hers. "To us."
Troi nodded and tasted the rim of the glass. "Excellent year," she commented.
"To much garlic," he countered. "And it's Lieutenant. Why don't we sit down?" He gestured to the couch and stepped away.
"Lieutenant?" she repeated, holding her ground.
"You called me Commander. It's Lieutenant." He shrugged and guestured again to the couch near which he was now standing. "But who knows, maybe in a couple of years ..."
Troi's eyes darkened as she crossed to his side. "I'm sorry, Imzadi."
"'t's all right."
Her hand on his arm interupted his intention to take a seat. "It isn't," she corrected firmly. "I'm sorry, Tom."
He studied her hand for some time. "I never stopped loving you, you know?" he said finally. "Not once. All those days. All those hours. I lived them one by one because of you."
Her fingers left his sleeve, found his face. She turned his eyes into hers with pressure so light it barely indented his flesh. "So long alone."
"I wasn't alone. Never alone." He kissed her gently. Experimentally. "I was with you. Every minute, every second." He kissed her again. "Always with you."
"Imzadi," she whispered.
"Imazadi," he returned.
"Imzadi," Riker murmurred in the darkness. The pain was constant now. It pulsed through him with every beat of his heart. He didn't have the strength to force his eyes open. He didn't have the will to put faces with the voices that floated in his head.
"Relax, Will. Don't try to move."
He remembered Beverly Crusher's hands flat on his belly, her hair framed gold-red against the backdrop of a glowing starfield in his viewing window as she whispered Odan's name over and over against his ear. He remembered her eyes, but he couldn't remember the line of her jaw.
"Beverly," he muttered.
"Don't move, Number One," the captain demanded sternly. His voice seemed an eternity away. It echoed oddly, almost hollow in it timbre. "You are on a very narrow ledge. If you move, you will fall."
"Fall," Riker repeated. "Fall ..."
A void of pressure ballooned in his chest. Nothingness around him: above and below and to every side. Only darkness, eternal darkness; and then shattering pain.
Riker forced his eyes open. Light lay over him like swadling clothing. It bathed him in glowing white but did nothing to warm the chill deadness of his flesh.
"He is awake," Worf's voice rumbled beyond the light. The gutteral sylables fell like stones. They echoed off the steep, striated walls around him. For the first time, Riker realized the words were not in his head.
"Worf?" he whispered through blood-cracked lips. Squinting into the light, he struggled against the density of air on his flesh in a vain effort to rise. Pain swarmed his body. It raced his extremities to puddle in the cavities of his chest and belly. "Worf?" he repeated louder, more desparately.
"I am here, Commander," Worf's rumbling voice assured him from the darkness.
"Just a moment more, Number One," Picard added. "Geordi nearly has a lock on your locator beacon."
Riker blinked. His fingers flexed, and touched metal. A transporter beacon. It lay at the end of a long line of rope that rose into the glare of light like Jack's beanstalk rose into the clouds of the giant kingdom.
"Captain?" Riker whispered, tasting blood in the effort.
"A moment more, Number One. A moment more."
Warmth enveloped him suddenly like the flood of water in a Risan Turkish bath. It flowed through his pain and became a part of him. He began to tingle, and the light glaring his eyes disintegrated to nothing.
For what seemed a lifetime, he was nowhere and was nothing. Then slowly, sensation solidified once again around him. Pain flared brilliant and searing as the tingling warmth bled away. Cold metal kissed his throat, hissing almost instant relief down the line of his spine.
A room that was little more than motion and lights and sound focussed slowly to Sickbay. Beverly Crusher had a dozen machines hovering in place around him and a dozen more waiting in the wings. Picard and Worf and Alyssa Ogawa stood half a pace away.
"Will?" Crusher was demanding. "Can you hear me, Will?"
Riker smiled slowly. Though he'd always suspected that heavan might well resemble the Enterprise; and hell, the Hood; Sickbay was not part of what he's envisioned as the fields of eternity. Ten Forward, perhaps; or the port observation deck with its stunning panoramic view; but not sickbay and not pain and not Beverly Crusher looking as if she'd spent the better part of an hour in a mud bath with Lwaxanna Troi.
His eyes shifted to Picard and drew the older man an instinctive step closer.
"Number One?" Picard inquired, his usually resonant voice pinched with concern.
Riker blinked at the pain and confusinon and the weakness washing through him in waves. When his eyes opened again, Picard was closer, one hand tense on the edge of the biobed. Crusher was donning red surgical scrubs, as was Alyssa, and Worf had retreated to guard the bay door.
"What took you so long?" he managed coarsely.
The tension in Picard's features eased. He opened his mouth to respond, but the words were slurred and garbled to Riker's ears. They made no sense. Smiling, Picard stepped back, straightening as he went.
Fear slashed Will Riker to the bone. He tried to rise and follow the captain's retreat, but he couldn't move.
"It's all right, Will. Just relax."
Riker blinked. Beverly Crusher in red scrubs. It was a familiar image, one he'd seen a dozen times, usually from this same vantage. Fear bled slowly away. The remnants of determination shredded to acquiescence; and as she swung the surgical life-support console in place, he slid into the well-worn haven of darkened nothingness.
"I disagree," Worf argued grimly. "As Chief of Security, I recommend that the Lieutenant be confined to the brigg until Commander Riker is sufficiently recovered to bring charges against him."
Picard sighed and leaned back in his chair. Worf had taken to referring to Tom Riker by nothing other than his rank. Lieutenant, he said, lacing the designation with palpable scorn each time it spat from his lips. It was, no doubt, the Klingon's way of discommendating a man he considered a coward and a traitor. And though Picard understood the sentiment and its basis, he was not entirely convinced it was justified.
Too many questions remained.
Too many doubts and the far-reaching shadows they cast.
The briefing room seemed disproportionately large with only the four of them gathered around an ovoid table meant for much larger meetings. That they confined the news of Riker's resurection, as it were, to only those directly involved and the handful of engineering and medical personell periferrary to the operation was unprecedented but necessary. And until they reached a decision as to how to handle Lieutenant Tom Riker and his possible attempted murder of a superior officer, it would remain so.
Thus far, LaForge and Crusher weren't saying much. They sat in silent attentiveness -- LaForge polarized slightly to Worf, and Crusher, slightly to himself -- while he and the Klingon security chief predominated the discussion by each taking a point of view on the recent transpiration of events that diametrically opposed the other.
"If indeed there are any charges to be brought," Picard reminded the angry Klingon finally. "Which we won't know until we hear Commander Riker's side of the story."
"It's pretty obvious, isn't it?" LaForge asked quietly. "The bridge went down and he used it to cover his tracks when he shoved Riker off the edge."
"Or," Crusher spoke up, "It happened exactly as Tom said it did, only Will was lucky and hit a ledge on the way down."
"Something of which Tom Riker might well have been unaware," Picard added.
"It was not difficult to locate Commander Riker," Worf pointed out. "Once we knew to look."
"With a functioning tricorder," Crusher countered. "Tom's was damaged by the radiation flux they encoutered earlier, and he lost his light when the bridge collapsed. It was a logical to assume Will died in the fall. It would have been unrealistically optomistic to presume otherwise."
"Commander Riker did not die in the fall," Worf retorted. "He was left to die by a member of the away team."
"He told us Riker was dead," LaForge agreed. "Not that he might be dead. That he was dead."
"There was a stress fracture in Tom's wrist when we retrieved him. As far as I can tell, it was caused by trying to hold on to something too heavy to hold on to."
Picard folded his hands on the table and studied each of his officers in turn.
"The Lieutenant is a threat to the safety of this vessel," Worf announced when the captain's eyes met his. "And to the safety of her crew."
"Counsellor Troi seems to believe him," Picard responded quietly.
"A doctor does not treat her own child," Worf pointed out grimly. "Or her mate."
Picard's gaze moved to LaForge. "Geordi?" he prompted.
"I don't know," the engineer muttered. "In my gut, I'm with Worf. I think he saw an opportunity to get back what he lost, and he took it." LaForge's smooth features flexed with uncertainty. "But I'm not sure. I mean ... I've known Riker a long time. I met him shortly after Narvala IV, when he was promoted to the Hood. The man I knew then wasn't that different from the man I know now. Younger, sure. More agressive, more driven, a little hotter tempered, I suppose. But he wouldn't have murdered anyone. Not for any reason. I'm sure of that." He glanced around at his companions. "So if Tom Riker is what Will was eight years ago, I can't see that he would either. Even if it seems that way."
"Tom Riker isn't what Will was eight years ago," Crusher said quietly. "Eight years ago, Tom Riker was what Will was. Now he's a man with the same past and the same fundamental moral code; but he's also a man who spent eight years alone, with little or no hope of rescue. For all practical purposes, he was intered in solatary confinement all that time. I've known men to crack in less than a week under similar circumstances. That Will survived at all is a miracle. That he survived without dementia of one form or another is ludicrous."
Crusher paused for a moment, gauging their reactions. While it was obvious that the concept she proposed wasn't entirely new to their frame of thinking, it was equally clear that neither had any of them considered it extensively.
"Try to remember," she went on, "that Tom wasn't as lucky as Captain Scott. He wasn't suspended in a transporter matrix, wasn't frozen in time. He lived every day, every hour, every minute; and he lived them utterly alone. They passed like jail time, filled with the drive to survive but without any hope of rescue. He aged with every sunset but never had a chance to see the sun rise the next morning. He had to know every day lessened his chances of getting his own command, that every day was one more that Deanna might find someone else, might get married, might have a child. One by one, his dreams withered and died. The life he planned for, the life he worked for and studied for and deserved passed him by day after day; and he was powerless to do anything at all but survive it." Crusher shook her head. "Tom isn't what he was when the Ptotemkin left him on Narvala IV any more than Will is. Perhaps even less."
Picard waited until she was well finished before speaking. "Do you believe him capable of murder?" he asked quietly.
"I believe we're all capable of murder under the wrong set of circumstances," Crusher answered. "But that doesn't mean he did anything wrong. It doesn't mean that whatever happened down on Nirvala IV isn't exactly what he claims it was: an accident." She glanced to Worf, and then back at Picard. "Only Will Riker can tell us differently," she finished quietly, "so until he does, I think we owe it to them both to give Tom the benefit of the doubt. I think he's been through enough for one lifetime."
Picard nodded. "I agree." He fixed his gaze directly on Worf. "If Tom Riker is a danger to this crew," he noted grimly, "then he is a latent danger with no reason to manifest if unprovoked. Until we have a full report from Commander Riker concerning the events on Nirvala IV, there will be no action taken against Lieutenant Riker. In addition, Will's survival is to be kept in the strictest of confidences. I expect you to impress upon the affected members of your staff the imparative of this necessity without divulging specifics pertaining to its infrastructure that might reflect in any way on Lieutenant Riker."
"What about Deanna?" Crusher asked quietly.
Picard shook his head. "She's too close to the Lieutenant. It would be impossible for her not to alter her behavior in an appreciable manner were she to discover Will is alive." He glanced around the table. "Anything else?"
"Request permission to post a guard on Commander Riker," Worf suggested immediately. Since the implamentation of such a mandate fell well within the parameters of his position as security chief, the question was more one of boundary definition concerning authority in Riker's defense than of actual permission.
"Permission granted to maintain the guard already posted on Commander Riker," Picard returned fastidiously, "as well as to institute any further protective measures you may feel warranted in order to properly perserve the First Officer's safety."
Worf nodded sharply. It was as much acknowledgement of the captain's expression of faith in his discretionary judgement as the Klingon would ever show.
"Very well then," Picard allowed. He pushed to his feet and
tugged the line of his uniform straight with a single decisive
guesture. "Doctor, I believe you have a patient to heal. And
gentlemen, we most certainly have a ship to run."
Troi found herself suddenly, jarringly awake. For several moments, she lay utterly still, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. Her pulse hammered in her skull, a thunder of sound so consuming she could hear nothing through it. Her breaths came in tiny, convulsive spasms.
Slowly, grudgingly, the terror subsided. Her breathing slowed, her heartbeat eased. Will's -- Tom'squiet snoring punctured the wall of sound. It was a comfort in the darkness, as was the casual drape of his muscular arm over her waist.
But something was wrong. She wasn't sure what, but something.
"Imzadi?" she whispered in the darkness.
Tom shifted. He muttered unintelligibly and settled back in place.
Troi rose from the bed they shared and dressed in darkness. She moved among the surroundings with an ease born of familiarity, negotiating the distance between bed and door without so much as a sound.
Though day and night were moot concepts in the never-ending void of deep space, they couldn't be considered such to the internal clocks of most Humans. Consequently, even though a full third of the ship's compliment was on duty now, during what was commonly referred to as the graveyard shift, the rest were sleeping and the corridors were virtually devoid of life.
Troi strode through them with a velocity unfamiliar to her normal grace. Each step followed the last more quickly until she was nearly running. Dark ringlets of loose hair nesting about her pale features shifted lively in the slight breeze of her passing.
Sickbay opened with a pnemonic swish that echoed the depths of Troi's soul. She was through the main bay and accessing the wallpad to the critical care ward before the med-tech on duty glanced up from the book he was reading.
A security team stopped her at the arched entranceway. Evan Jaxx and Coral Bayne blockaded the entrance as the door opened. Jaxx's hand wrapped itself around her biceps and he stepped her back across the threshold with a deceptive ease that almost appeared gentle. Coral stayed behind to close the door from inside. The door hissed shut, but not before Troi saw the darkened form that lay on the farthest biobed and the colorful array of lit monitors above it.
"Let me go," Troi murmurred, her eyes fixed on the bay door as if they could still see inside.
Jaxx took his hand off her arm, but didn't back away. "Limited access, Counselor," he announced calmly. "Captain's orders."
"He's alive," Troi breathed. Her eyes focused sharply. They swung up to meet Jaxx's. "He's alive, isn't he?" she demanded.
"You'll have to speak to the Captain, Counselor."
"Will's alive," Troi repeated numbly.
Jaxx's eyes flicked past Troi to something across the medical bay. He nodded slightly and then stepped to one side. Troi turned instinctively. Beverly Crusher was standing in the doorway of her office. She looked tired.
"Go on in."
Troi stared at her friend for several heartbeats of silence. "He's alive?" she whispered finally. It was once again a question.
"He's alive," Crusher agreed.
Without another word, Deanna Troi turned and pressed the acess code
to the critical care ward.
He wasn't sure how, but he'd somehow managed to survive. The smells around him were familiar. Sickbay. Medicine, anesthesia, sterile metal. And Deanna. She'd been there most of the night. She was there now, her tiny hand nestled in his larger, lax one. He squeezed, just to let her know he was awake.
Too tired to open his eyes, he squeezed again instead.
"Will? Can you hear me, Will?"
He squeezed a third time and felt her other hand on his face as reward. She stroked the line of his beard, her fingers trembling with emotion.
"Open your eyes, Will," she pleaded quietly. "Look at me. Open your eyes so I can look at you."
He would have liked to oblige, but he was just too tired. Too damned tired.
"Don't push him, Deanna," Beverly's voice muttered. "Let him come up in his own time."
Her hand loosened itself in his grip. He felt her letting go. Terror whipsnaked his body. Rage and fear and pain. His eyes flew open, and he tried to sit up. His hand clenched desparately to hers.
Monitors began to squeal in alarm. His panic was mirrored in Troi's eyes. Crusher's panic was her own.
"No," he whispered. "Deanna, no."
The both of them were pressing him back to the biobed. Crusher forced a hypospray against his throat and fired it, spitting an icy jet of sedation deep into his system. Muscles clenched in fear uncoiled like spent springs. His hand would have dropped from hers had she no longer been holding it.
"No," he breathed again. "Don't let go, Imzadi. Don't let go."
She didn't let go, but he fell none-the-less. His eyes filled with black haze, and he spiraled out of contorl until he was no longer certain of his body's relationship to the space around it. Up was down and down was up and left and right held no meaning. Air breathed past his face. The sound of running water filled his ears.
He waited, sick with disbelief, for the crippling shatter of impact that never came.
"He's alive?!?" Tom Riker jolted out of his chair, his feet hitting the deck as if magnatized. "Alive?!?"
Troi reached out instinctively to touch him, but he seemed oblivious to the contact. His eyes bored into Picard's, disbelieving. Then slowly, Tom Riker smiled.
"I'll be damned," he breathed. And then he laughed. "I'll be damned!" He thrust into motion, pacing his quarters like a caged tiger. "He's a lucky son of a bitch, isn't he?"
His laughter rolled off the walls, rich and deep and sincere. When he threw himself in a chair, it was with relief inarguable in its authenticity.
"How?" he demanded, grinning at the captain like an idiot.
"When he fell," Picard answered quietly. "He hit a ledge. Ten, perhaps fifteen meters down the cliff face."
"Son of a bitch," Tom swore. He ran a hand through his hair and then across the ruff of his beard. "How'd you find him? I thought the transport win ..."
Tom Riker's expression froze suddenly. A hundred emotions flashed through his eyes. A thousand, a hundred thousand. He looked to Picard then, his eyes stark with stun.
"You didn't believe me," he said quietly.
For a long moment, silence permiated the room. It resounded deafeningly off the walls, accusations of voiceless shouts.
"You didn't believe me," he whispered again.
"We found a way to open a new transport window," Picard stated quietly. "We returned to Narvala IV to reclaim Commander Riker's body, nothing more."
"But Commander Riker was not dead," Worf added coldly, speaking for the first time.
"I didn't know," Riker murmurred. He pushed out of the chair and began to pace. "I didn't know," he repeated almost angrily. "Do you think I would have left him if I'd known? You think I'd leave him to what he left ..." Tom's voice broke off short. He stared at the wall in front of him, stunned to silent disbelief at his own words.
"To what he left you?" Troi finished gently.
Tom spun on her. He stared across the small cabin at the calm counselor, suddenly unaware or uncaring of the others in the room.
"Do you blame him for what happened to you, Tom?" she asked. Her voice didn't condemn him. It didn't pass judgement. It merely asked.
"Yes," he whispered.
"What happened on Nirvala IV?"
"He fell." Tom spoke directly to her, and only to her. "It was an accident. I had him, and then I didn't." His hand closed and then opened again as if to illustrate the words. "I don't know what happened. He slipped through my fingers. He slipped, Deanna. It was an accident." His hand closed and opened again. "I let him go. I didn't mean to, but I let him go."
His gaze swung to Worf, and then Picard.
"I let him go," he repeated.
"Imzadi." Troi reached out and touched his hands. She drew his eyes and held them. "I believe you, Imzadi," she whispered. "I know you're telling me the truth."
"It was an accident," he repeated. "I didn't mean to let him fall."
Troi moved closer, still holding his hands. "We had to ask," she said quietly.
For a long moment, he stared at the dark glint of quiet faith in her gaze. "If it had been me who fell," he muttered finally, his eyes betrayed to the blue depths of his soul. "Would you have asked him?"
"What happened down there, Number One?" Picard asked quietly. "What happened on Nirvalla IV?"
Riker's eyes flicked to Troi. "What did he tell you?"
Surprise etched itself into the councelor's delicate features. "He said it was an accident," she answered after a momentary hesitataion. "He said you saved his life, pulled him to safety; but he couldn't hold on when you lost your balance and fell."
"He said I fell?"
Troi frowned, as did Picard. "Yes," she allowed quietly. "That's what he said."
"And you believe him?"
Troi straightened from her lean against the bulkhead. "Shouldn't I?"
Riker lifted an eyebrow in an abbreviated facial shrug. "You're the empath," he noted calmly. "Was he lying?"
Troi moved to Riker's elevated biobed and assumed a precarious perch on the edge. She stared down at the first officer for several moments before choosing a response. "Is this a game, Will? Some kind of trick question?"
"It's not a trick question, it's just a question. Was he lying when he said it was an accident? Pure and simple, Counselor. Yes or no."
"No," she answered surely, staring into his eyes. "He wasn't lying. When Tom said it was an accident, he believed it was an accident. Or at least, he believed it to the best of my ability to read him."
This time it was Riker who stretched the silence to breaking. "Then it must have been an accident," he allowed finally.
"You say that like you don't believe it, Number One," Picard observed.
"I'm not entirely sure what to believe, sir. But I trust Deanna's emapathic skills. And she reads me like a book, so I don't see why it would be any different with him. After all, we're cut from the same bolt of cloth -- literally and figuratively."
"You were there, Number One," Picard prodded.
"Things aren't always what they seem at the time," Riker returned.
"And what did they seem?"
"They seemed ..." Riker's expression flickered. "I'm not sure. I don't know for sure that I remember."
"What do you remember?"
"I remember falling. I remember hitting. I remember waiting. I remember being rescued."
"Do you remember him pushing you?"
"He didn't push me."
"Then it was an accident."
Riker avoided Troi's gaze as he faced the captain's question. "Yes," he agreed finally. "It was an accident."
"You're certain," Picard pressed.
"Quite certain," Riker lied.
"The Ghandi," Troi murmurred. She touched Tom's face, her hand lingering on his cheek.
"It's quite an opportunity. A chance for me to get back in the swing of things." He shot her a one-cornered grin. "Captain Picard pulled a number of strings to secure me the berth."
"You deserve it," she responded. "You're a fine officer, and an even finer man."
"A little rough around the edges," he admitted.
"The best diamonds always are," she countered.
Tom watched her for a moment, his eyes growing pensive. "In six months," he ventured carefully. "I'll be eligible to bring family aboard. If you and I ..." he let the offer dangle.
Troi smiled a sad smile. "I don't know, Tom. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up my life here."
Tom sighed. He shrugged and forced a smile that was only marginally constructed. "Think about it," he muttered. "I've waited this long. I can wait a few months longer."
"I'll think about it," she promised.
"And think about me," he added.
Troi stepped closer, running both hands up his chest and around his neck. "I'll think about you," she vowed seriously. "I'll think about you often."
"And I, about you," he returned, bending to her lips. When he pulled back, there were tears in his eyes.
"The Ghandi," Troi whispered, her voice breaking.
"It's quite an opportunity," he returned.
Will Riker was waiting for him in transporter room three. The commander still stood stiffly and was dressed in off-duty blues; but other than that and the slightly sallow caste to his complection, he appeared fully recovered.
"Commander," Tom Riker greeted, taking great care to edge the defensive inflection from his tone. "I'm glad to see you up and about."
"There was something I wanted you to have," Will returned. He reached behind the transporter console and produced a long leather case of familiar proportions.
Tom's eyes lit with recognition, and then with disbelief.
"I figured everything I have is yours, too, in a way," Will demured, handing the case over. "I know this isn't much, but I though it might mean something to you. I know it does to me."
Tom set the case on the console and opened it eagerly. His hand caressed the polished trombone inside like a man stroking a woman. His fingers found favored crevases as they lifted the slide and tested it for grip.
"It does," he said suddenly. "It means a lot." He returned the bone to its velvet bedding and clicked the case closed. "Thank you, Commander."
"Will," Riker corrected. He offered his hand.
Tom hesitated for less than a fraction of a second before he accepted the guesture. "Will," he agreed.
"Good luck, Will."
Tom smiled. "Tom," he said firmly. And then he shrugged. "It seemed simpler than living down the reputation that preceeds you."
Will Riker smiled and stepped back.
Hefting the the trombone from the transporter console, Tom Riker strode to the elevated padd. He had one boot on the platform when he turned. He started at Will for a long moment, and then glanced to the transporter chief.
"Can you give us a minute?"
Savaii glanced to the first officer, and Riker agreed with a slight nod. Shrugging indifferently, the chief left both versions of the same man alone together. For some time, neither of them spoke.
"On Nirvala IV," Tom ventured finally. "What really happened?"
"You were there," Will returned. "You tell me."
Tom set the trombone on the padd and descended once again to face the mirror reflection of himself.
"The bridge gave out," he said slowly. "I caught one of the sectionals. You pulled me to safety."
"That's the way I remember it."
"You were on the edge. The bridge was swaying."
Will Riker nodded.
"I held out my hand. You took it." Tom Riker was staring into his own eyes. He tried to read them, tried to know their secrets, but the poker face Will Riker perfected was much better than the one he practiced in the mirror each morning.
"You fell," he said finally. "I had you, and then I didn't. You slipped through my fingers and fell."
Will Riker didn't respond.
"It was an accident," Tom said.
Still, Will didn't answer.
"Wasn't it?" Tom asked quietly.
"You were there," Will returned finally.
"I was there. But ..." Tom's features twisted. "I don't remember it clearly. I remember Joey Kovic. I remember him dragging me in after I pulled him out. I remember the current dragging me to the middle of the pond and dad chopping me out with his ice ax."
Will frowned. "That was more than twenty years ago," he said after a moment.
"Do you remember it?" Tom demanded quietly. "Do you remember Joey's mom hugging you thirty-seven times during the awards ceremony? Do you remember the full page article they ran in the Valdez Gazette where they said you were a hero squared because you'd saved lives before?"
Riker smiled. "They forgot to mention that the other life I saved was Sandra Nesbit's pet rat."
"Her fat white rat that you gave mouth-to-mouth resucitation after drowning it trying to demonstrate proper swirly technique to her brothers?"
"How was I supposed to know rats couldn't hold their breath?"
"You do remember it," Tom breathed.
"Of course I remember it. Dad grounded me -- us -- for a month. They didn't print that in the paper either, just like they didn't print the fact that he made us buy him a new ice ax with our allowance because he'd dulled the edge chopping us out."
Tom studied the other man intently. "I didn't think you'd remember it," he said after a long moment. "I thought you'd be beyond it by now."
"We're not as different as you think."
"We are different," Tom corrected. "We are." He didn't say anything more for almost a minute. "I let you go, didn't I?" he asked finally. "I let you fall."
Will Riker met the other man's eyes. "It was an accident. I lost my balance."
"You slipped through my fingers because I opened my hand." His hand closed and opened. "I let you go."
"It was an accident," Will repeated firmly.
"I don't remember --"
"I was there," Will interrupted. "I know."
Tom tried again to read his eyes, and again he failed.
"Good luck on the Ghandi," Will said abruptly. "She's a good ship. You'll make a good navigator."
Tom watched him for a moment longer. "I have a lot of catching up to do," he said finally. He extended a hand as if unsure it was the right thing to offer.
Will accepted the guesture without hesitation. "I have faith in you," he said quietly. "After all, you have good genes."
For a moment, they stood that way, frozen in the moment like a man and his image in a mirror.
"And Rikers never quit," Will added, grinning. "And they never loose." He released Tom's hand, letting their grips fall apart. "Remember that. Dad would expect you to."
"Screw dad," Tom retorted automatically.
Will laughed. "I'll tell him you haven't changed."
"I have changed," Tom corrected quietly. "We both have."
"Yes," Will agreed. "For better or worse, we have."
Tom climbed to the transporter pad and offered a light salute to the man who had been him. Will returned it and stepped behind the transporter console.
"Be careful which buttons you push, Commander," Tom advised, grinning suddenly. "I'd hate to have three of us running about."
Will Riker laughed. "God forbid," he agreed, setting the coordinates and powering the console up. "There aren't enough names for that."
The man on the transporter pad began to glitter. He took on a translucense indicative of the first phases of transport.
"Or enough women," Tom Riker added slyly; and then he disappeared.
They sat alone in her quarters, sharing Saurian brandy and one another's company.
"So," Will asked. "Are you going to take me up on my offer?"
"Which offer is that, Commander?"
"The one to marry me and make babies on the Ghandi."
"I believe that was Tom's offer," she retorted coyly.
"I can go by Tom, if you prefer."
"A Tom Riker by any other name is not a Will Riker," she quipped.
Riker smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Were we really that different?"
Troi met his eyes. "Night and day," she answered, suddenly pensive. "Night and day."
For a moment, they shared a companionable silence.
"In what ways?" he asked suddenly.
Troi forced herself to brighten. "In a multitude of ways," she answered.
"Well ..." she seemed to think about it for a moment, "For one thing, he was devastatingly romantic. He sent me on a poetry and chocolate scavenger hunt, and he gave me an Alturian orchid."
"Surface manifestations of low self esteme," Riker scoffed. "I've never needed to bribe my women to come to me. They usually just follow me home."
"And he kisses better than you do," Troi added blithely
Riker snorted. "How do you know?" he demanded. "I've had plenty of practice since we last gave that a go around."
"One hears tales," Troi assured him.
"Oh one does, does one?"
She fixed him with a pretty smile. "You're the one who wanted to know," she reminded him.
"And I still want to know," Riker agreed. "What else does he do better than me?"
"Well. He gives really good ... backrubs."
Riker laughed. "That isn't what I thought you were going to say."
"And what did you think I was going to say, Commander?"
Riker shook his head. "I don't know exactly, but I thought it would have more to do with putting in kinks than with working them out."
Troi smiled. "You'd be amazed where a good backrub will get you these days."
Riker finished his brandy and set the gobelt aside. "Bones getting old and tired, Counselor?" he teased.
"No older than yours, Commander."
"But significantly less battered," he observed, pushing stiffly to his feet. "Speaking of which, I believe its past my bed time. So unless you're up to giving an old frayed space dog like myself a good long massage with those exotic Betazoid body oils I seem to recall you favoring, I think I'll just be toddling along."
She stood as he did, moving closer to rest one hand on his arm. "When I thought you were dead --"
"Oh, son of a bitch," Riker interrupted.
Troi blinked, suprised. "What?" she asked, trying to find some explanation in his expression.
"You played the memorial, didn't you," he demanded.
"The Curtis Creek Funeral Program."
Troi frowned. "Yes. We thought you were --"
"Yeah. Dead. I know. But I wasn't." He shook his head. "And now, when I actually do kick off, everyone will have already seen the presentation." He sighed. "Guess I'll have to come up with something different. There's nothing worse than a re-run funeral. Nothing."
He caught her gaze and sank into it for a moment.
"It was effective though, don't you think? Just the creek and the sky and the crickets?" He leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "Good night, Counselor. Sweet dreams."
"Will ..." Again, her hand caught his arm, stopping the retreat. Her fingers tightened into his sleeve, her eyes tightened into his soul.
"Yes?" he prompted when she didn't speak.
"Why did you lie to the Captain?"
It wasn't the question he'd expected. The humor in his eyes darkened. The glint of devilment faded to soberiety as she confronted him face-to-face with the subject he'd diligently avoided all evening.
"Lie?" he repeated carefully.
"In sickbay. You told him what happened on Narvala IV was an accident."
"It was an accident," Riker muttered, his gaze flicking away.
Troi reached up and laid a hand on his face. "You said it yourself, Will," she murmurred. "I read you like a book."
"You're saying it wasn't an accident?"
Troi held his gaze. "I'm saying you don't think it was an accident." She let her hand drop away. "So why did you lie to the Captain?"
"I said it was an accident because I wasn't sure enough that it wasn't to ruin a man's life over it."
"You're lying now," she returned quietly. "You're sure. There isn't a doubt anywhere in you."
"You can be a very frustrating woman to hold a conversation with, Deanna," he informed her.
"And you can be a very frustrating man, Will Riker. Tell me the truth. Why don't you think it was an accident?"
Riker hesitated for a moment, and then told her what she wanted to know.
"It wasn't an accident," he said grimly. "I was looking into his eyes when he let go of my hand. I saw it before it happened, and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it."
"He let you fall intentionally."
"He dropped me. He opened his hand and let me fall."
"Intentionally," Troi repeated.
"As cold flat intentional as it gets," Riker verified.
"He tried to kill you, and you let him go."
"Yes. I let him go."
"Why not?" Riker muttered, turning away.
"That's not an answer," she said quietly.
Riker sighed and shook his head. He stared out the portal over her bed, taking refuge from her gaze in the sanctuary of a passing starscape.
"I figured he'd suffered enough," he said finally. "He lost his life, his commission, his ... love. In a way, I took them from him. Everything he worked for, I have: his job, his possessions, his past, his family. I'm the reason no one ever went looking for him on Naraval IV. I even screwed up the one true love of his life. To me, he's a reflection of what I was. To him, I'm ... I'm the enemy."
He turned back to her, met her gaze. "Do you think it didn't occur to me to drop him when I had the chance?" he asked quietly.
"But you didn't, Will."
"If he'd taken as much from me as I've taken from him, do you think I wouldn't have?"
"No," Troi said quietly, surely. "You wouldn't have."
"Eight years is a long time, Deanna. A long time to live day by day on the fragile hope that one day will bring rescue. And then to have that day come, and find another man living your life ..." He shook his head.
"It's your life, too, Will. You have a right to it. You've worked as hard for it as he did. Harder in many ways. Tom never faced the Borg. He never agonized over Yuta, or played poker with Romulans, using entire races to ante up and planets as chips."
"I know it's mine, and I'll live it. But Tom doesn't have that option. Right or wrong, it was taken from him. I took it from him the day I left Narvala IV and he stayed behind."
"That doesn't justify murder."
"He didn't murder me."
"He made a mistake. For one split second, he splintered under pressure and did something he couldn't take back. His mind cracked. I've been there, Imzadi. I know that place. It isn't a haven of choice, a den of sanity where choices are made to the beat of rational drummers. It's chaos. It's too much and not enough and everything and nothing at all mixed into one. What happened happened so fast it slid through his perception of reality. Ice on glass. He doesn't remember it. He couldn't live with it if he did.
"How do you know?"
"Because he's me, and I couldn't live with it."
Troi watched him for some time before she spoke again. "You're a forgiving man, Will Riker," she said finally.
Riker shook the sentiment off. "He's suffered enough. It was time to start building a new life, not paying for the sins of the old."
"So you got him a commission on the Ghandi."
"Actually, the captain arranged that."
"But you suggested it. Captain Picard told me."
Riker shrugged. "It seemed like a good opportunity. A chance for him to get back in the swing of things."
Troi laughed. "That's what Tom said. Word for word, exactly what he said."
Riker grinned. "Great minds think alike."
"Why the Ghandi?"
"It was available."
"There were three other postings of equal rank available as well." She smiled into the surprise that flickered in his expression. "Captain PIcard told me that, too."
"He's not much on confidentiality, is he?"
"He said you chose the Ghandi for a reason, but he wouldn't tell me what it was."
"But he's very good at half-confidentialities," Riker grumbled.
"Why, Will? Why the Ghandi?"
Riker shifted uncomfortably. "I know the CMO on the Ghandi," he admitted finally. "Clay Walker. We went through the academy together."
"And?" Troi prompted.
"And he mentioned that the ship's counselor would be retiring next Februrary."
Troi stared at him in dead stun.
"He said that when the job opened up, you'd be his first choice, if you were interested." Riker avoided her eyes. "I thought you might be."
"What about the Enterprise? What about you?"
"I didn't make any promises. I just opened a door. It's there if you want to step through it."
"I can't make that kind of decision right now."
"You don't have to. Not until February. That eleven months from now. Even you can make up your mind by then."
"What about you? I thought you and Tom ..."
"This isn't about me or Tom. It's about you. I'm your best friend, Deanna. I want to see you happy." He shrugged slightly. "And if Tom Riker's the guy to make you happy, then I'll rue the day I missed that Risa rendevous for the rest of my life, but at least you'll be happy. That's what counts in the long run. At least, what counts to me."
"And if I decide to stay with the Enterprise?"
Riker flashed her a vibrant grin. "Then I get to keep you all to myself."
Troi shook her head fondly. "There are times, Will Riker," she told him in mock exasperation, "that I truly love you."
"And the rest of the time?" he prompted playfully.
Deanna Troi rose to the tips of her toes and kissed him tenderly on the lips. While the caress lacked a certain fire to it's passion, it was more than just the friendly press of flesh to flesh they normally shared.
"Those are the times," she whispered near his ear. "When I could marry you and make babies on the Enterprise."
Riker hooked his fingers in her jaw and drew her back to him when she started to pull away. "I'll consider it, Counselor," he muttered, his kiss as intense as hers was gentle. "I will definitely consider it."