The chime rang. Still, he waited a few seconds before looking up. Briefly he contemplated forgetting the matter at hand altogether. Then he glanced back at the viewer on his desk, studying it intently. The personnel-chart had not changed since the last time he looked at it. Something needed to be done. Quickly, before he lost the nerve.
The signal sounded again, a few seconds later, and he realized he had been lost in thought. Once more he considered the idea of dismissing the case, but he assured himself of the fact there wasn't any other way to deal with this.
"Come," he said, ordering the doors to open.
"Captain," Will Riker said, a little bothered with the delay. "You wanted to see me?". He stood in front of the doorway to the ready room, unsure whether to enter or not.
"Yes," Picard replied. He forced himself to put on the stoic appearance of a man who has come to agreement with his decision. He couldn't feel more unlike it. He pushed a button, blanking the viewscreen. "Come in, Will. We need to talk."
* * *
Time passed. The two barely exchanged a look during the minutes that followed after Will had sat down. Picard started to toy with the viewer again, calling up all sorts of reports and schematics which he hardly seemed to notice were there. Will Riker, uneasily shifting his weight in the chair from left to right and back, repeatedly tried to get his captain's attention with a cough or movement. It did not help, Picard ignored him completely. It looked like he had forgotten there was even another person in the room with him. Then, finally, Riker broke the nerve-wrecking silence himself.
"You *did* request me to come in here, did you not sir?"
Picard took a deep breath. "Yes, I suppose I did. I think there is some- thing we should discuss."
"Of course, sir. What is it?"
"Your performance, commander Riker."
"Sir?" Will said, perplexed. "What brought this up?"
"I believe that it is my right, if not my duty to notice and report any changes in the effectiveness of the members of my crew. And your work has been ... careless, to say the least. I have been looking over these reports, and they tell me the same thing. Ever since .... "
Jean-Luc stopped for a moment, unsure how to proceed. This was the point where everything, if he handled it wrong, could turn into a complete disaster.
"Ever since when, captain?" Riker asked him.
"Ever since ... ," he started again. "You know, Will. It's not my habit to interfere in the personal lives of my crew, but ... this time ... . Your mind just isn't where it is supposed to be."
Will didn't understand. "Could you elaborate on that, sir?"
"Damn it, Will," Picard said, shouting almost, and he rose from his seat, "do you need me to spell it out to you? You have been obsessing yourself with her these last few weeks. While it's far from perfect to have my first officer infatuated with the ship's counselor, it is next to impossible to live with when you start hitting on her while on the bridge. God, man, you have to work with her every day. What do you think you are you doing?"
"... Deanna?" Will said, more to himself than to Picard.
"Yes, Deanna! That romance between the two is clouding your judgement, and that judgement almost cost us the ship last week. If it hadn't been for Data's quick assessment of the situation, a rescue team could have carried home what would've been left of the saucer in a hand basket."
"There is no romance between us, captain." Riker commented, but with a voice that carried more than a hint of regret.
"That's hardly because you didn't try, now is it?" Picard started to regain a little of his previous, unruffled posture.
"But even your love- stricken actions of late concerning her I could tolerate, commander. My real troubles start when you start endangering those around you, when your infatuation makes you forget where your priorities lie. When you start showing off. *That* is where I draw the line.
Will couldn't think of anything to say. He just sat there, looking at the man he had come to know as a friend these last years as he was being hauled over the coals by his captain. He remembered the incident Picard referred to.
"Ohh, I've read the reports, commander," Picard continued. "That manoeuvre at Trokana IX was a bad command decision, pure and simple. And a potentially fatal one at that."
"Captain, my idea was to move to ..."
"*NO*, commander!" Picard barked, enraged. "Your idea was to rush into an insecure area without thinking, disregarding the safety of everyone you brought along into that hell-hole with you. As well as the ones you left behind. You want to play the knight in shining armor, saving the day? Well, *NOT* with my ship and crew you don't!"
* * *
Will recalled the events at Trokana perfectly. Or so he had thought before this meeting. With Picard off to a seminar, he had been in command of the Enterprise when that distress call came from near the ninth planet. The Trokana system, close to the Romulan neutral zone, had always been a topic of conversation whenever political delegations met. It was rich in ore, and its strategic position was second to none. A Romulan attack was the first thing that sprung to mind when a vessel near the planet transmitted that call for help.
Because of the uncertain odds Will had ordered a separation, taking only Data and a handful of bridge officers with him to the battle section. And with Worf left in command of the saucer module -moving on in a slowly dissipating warpfield once left without nacelles and core- Will had taken the stardrive to the hazard zone at high warp. Where he discovered that the aggressors were not Romulan, like he had expected, but mere scavengers. Pirates, though still heavily armed.
There had been a short exchange of fire between the stardrive and the group of attackers, after which the last ones broke off their strike and retreated in several directions. That was when Will had taken it upon himself to pursue the one ship that had managed to stay away from the actual fighting. That ship, he gathered, would almost certainly carry the leader. And for a short moment he forgot about the others vessels. A lapse that almost cost him the lives of his friends.
It was Data who had alerted him on both the pirate's hit-and-run tactics and the direction in which two of the scavenger ships had fled. A course that would alow them to intercept with the saucer section.
He had made it back in time, pushing the stardrive beyond its limits, but it would have been only seconds before the saucer's shields would have fully collapsed.
As he remembered the event. Will wondered if his actions had been really thought-out. Was Picard right, and had he acted carelessly? Had he been trying to ... 'impress' her, by going in alone? Or by following the one he only supposed had been the group's leader?
Damn. He wasn't sure of anything now.
* * *
Picard breathed once and let go of some of the tension that had been building up inside him. "I know this conversation comes as a shock, Will, and I know you are a fine officer. One of the best I've ever had.
"... 'had'?" Will asked, almost afraid of the response he could expect.
"Have." Picard corrected himself. "Don't you start packing just yet, commander." He turned his back to Will, rubbing his chin. "On the other hand, come to think of it, perhaps that's not such a bad idea."
"I don't ... quite follow, sir. Do you wish for my resignation?"
Jean-Luc spun back, a half-smile on his face that had managed to break through the mask. "No. But I think some time off should be just the thing my first officer needs to get his head back on straight. Being away from all this," and Picard waved his hand, "and more specifically *her* could prove to be a good change. It would give you a chance to re-prioritize things, see matters in their proper perspective."
"Captain!" Will countered, "I'd rather stay and try ... "
Picard lifted his hand. "This is an unofficial offer, commander. You are not obliged to take it. But," he proceeded, "as your friend, not your captain, I would urge you to consider it carefully before you declined. It could have some ... serious repercussions. Especially since you are up for command-review in several weeks.
Riker blinked at that bit of inside information. Jean-Luc merely walked to the replicator and ordered a cup of tea, ignoring his commander's surprise about an upcoming review. "Now, if you would be off on a much deserved vacation, at your captain's advice, it shouldn't have to be too difficult for me to put off that evaluation until, let's say, late this year? When things have 'blown over' so to speak."
"I had no idea that the matter was taken so seriously by Starfleet," Will said and shifted his weight again. He was increasingly becoming more uncomfortable in that chair. "I mean, it probably wasn't the most perfect response to the problem, I realize now, but this?. It all sounds so ... extreme, considering ..."
"Most people think that way, in your position." Picard picked up the cup and sipped from it. "I know this comes down hard on you, Will, but it's for the best. A little time out of circulation is the fastest way to put this all behind you. I would prefer it if you could stay on the Enterprise, I would. More than anything. But while you're like this, when your prime concern isn't the safety of this crew anymore, ... I can't allow someone's personal feelings to cloud his judgement, to interfere with ship's business."
"Is this to be an official reprimand, sir?" Will asked and rose from the seat.
The captain placed the cup on the desk and waited a while before replying to that one question he had expected.
"No!" he said. "Not if you take my advice and ... disappear for while. I think I can persuade the review-board to shuffle their agenda a little. There shouldn't be any problems then."
"Then I guess that settles it," Will conceded, reluctantly, "I will take that leave."
"Fine. I made some ... preliminary inquiries, and there will be an opportunity
to disembark at our next stop," Picard said. He extended his right hand
to Will. "There should be ample chances to find passage to elsewhere after
Riker took the offered hand. "Who else knows of this ... arrangement?"
"No-one. I thought it best to keep this between the two of us."
"Thank you, sir. For everything." And with those last words Will turned and headed quickly for the exit.
Jean-Luc wasn't sure whether his first officer had meant it or not, but at least he had been able to convince the man of the importance of leaving for a while. He watched the commander pass through the ready-room doors as his hands took the teacup. He drank some more, but the drink tasted bitter now. Perhaps of guilt?
Sitting behind his desk, he called up the charts again. It assured him he had made the right decision. But that didn't make it any easier to live with.
* * *
The door chimed again. His next appointment. Perhaps, after his dealings with Will, this one would be different.
Yet, deep in his heart, he knew it wouldn't be. Jean-Luc recalled reading the reports on the Trokana event. They had painted him some daring and brilliant battle tactics, executed beautifully by *all* the members of his bridge-staff. Beautiful, even commendation-material, had it not been for that single glitch. One glitch that, Picard thought, could have easily happened to him under the same circumstances.
And then, in the end, no real damage was done. Everything had turned out fine. It should not have been be enough to almost destroy a man's career. Someone's self-esteem. Teamwork was what being in Starfleet was about, complementing each other. Will's lapsing hadn't been *that* serious.
And as for the command-review board ... Jean-Luc had hated to resort to that lie most of all.
"Come!" he mumbled to the person waiting outside. Damn it, why couldn't there be another way?
The doors opened. "You wished to see me, captain?" a voice said.
Picard heard the question but he didn't acknowledge it. Again, he had focused all his thoughts on the viewscreen in a desperate attempt not to think of the task he had set himself.
Pulled back to reality, Picard looked up and switched the screen off. "Yes,
lieutenant. Come in. We need to talk."
The man entered the room and sat down in the same seat that had just been vacated by the commander. "Is there a problem, sir?" he asked.
The captain sighed deeply, then gave Worf a harsh look. "I am afraid that there is, lieutenant." Picard averted his eyes, quickly glancing at the darkened screen on his desk before he rose from his seat. "I'd like you to recall that saucer-maneuvre you ordered last week. It seems to me, after reading the reports, that your mind was on something else besides the task of commanding your section ... "
Jean-Luc talked to Worf who already began to feel ill at ease in the chair, awkwardly small for a man of his size. Somehow the warrior's instincts tried to tell him he was in trouble. But he didn't fully realize where it was coming from yet.
Even with the viewscreen off, Picard could still see the chart in his mind. The personnel-chart he had been studying on for the last few weeks. The image threw him off, and for a moment he didn't know what to do next. He stepped away from his desk.
'Just a little while longer,' Jean-Luc mused, ignoring the Klingon and his twitching. He walked to the window, his back turned to Worf, and watched the stars as they hurried by. The smallest of smirks appeared on his face. Oh, he *did* know what to do next.
'Yes. Soon they'll both be gone, my love,' he thought and pictured Deanna's face smiling back at him through the darkness, 'and then I will have you all to myself.'
- THE END -