Always and Forever

Irene Deitel


"Here you are, Commander," the concierge smiled as he handed Riker two keys. "Suite 604. Two bedrooms and two baths, with living room and kitchenette. We hope you enjoy your stay with us. If there is anything we can do for you or Counselor Troi, please don't hesitate to let us know. The bellman will bring up your bags right away."

Riker looked at the man carefully. (Boy was more like it, if Riker was honest with himself. The man behind the counter barely looks old enough to shave, he thought ruefully). "Thank you, Martin," Riker replied, reading the name tag pinned to the young man's chest.

Riker turned, looking for Deanna. She was gazing out the big window that provided a clear view of the ocean beyond the walls of the hotel. They were staying right on the beach, and Riker could feel her barely suppressed excitement. She had been looking forward to this trip to Pacifica for a long time, and he was glad they'd finally made it here. His memory flashed back to her last birthday, the one that had been spent in a missile silo in Montana. He'd promised her then that next year would be better. He'd promised to take her away for a weekend to celebrate.

"To Pacifica?" she inquired hopefully, playing along with his game. Pretending that he knew what he was talking about when he said everything would be fine. Ignoring the fact that there was a good chance they wouldn't survive the next few days. Ignoring the fact that there was a good chance they'd be Borg drones soon. Ignoring the fact that even if they did survive, the odds weren't great that they'd make it back to their own time.

"Pacifica, " he'd agreed, knowing how much she loved the beach and warm tropical weather. And Pacifica was about as close to paradise as one could get in the Alpha quadrant. A curious mixture of old and new. Technologically advanced in the areas of medicine, communication, and defense, they still retained some old technology similar to that of late 20th century Earth. The beaches were to die for, Troi had told him once, not long after they'd first met, when he'd said that despite all his travels, he'd never been there. So he promised her, knowing he'd say anything to wipe away the look of despair in her eyes.

"In our own time, " he'd added, sealing their bargain with a kiss.

He smiled to himself now, taking pleasure in her obvious happiness. He clamped down firmly on his own feelings of unease and discomfort. Getting through this weekend was going to be harder than he thought, he reluctantly acknowledged to himself. He didn't want Deanna to sense his true feelings, so he was keeping a tight r in on his emotions. The strain was already beginning to manifest itself in the form of a headache, just behind his eyes. He pushed the pain away, then sauntered over to where he stood.

"All set?" Riker inquired, casually draping an arm over her shoulder. "They're bringing our bags up right away, so you can hit the beach any time."

Troi turned to look up at him, her large brown eyes sparkling with anticipation. "I'm ready, let's go!"

They rode the elevator to the sixth floor in comfortable silence, in the company of the bellman and their two bags. Riker felt somewhat decadent not carrying them up himself, for they were in reality only two overnight bags, but it was part of the service of the hotel, and he was determined to avail himself of all the amenities. He was going to enjoy the weekend, even if it killed him. A distinct possibility, he thought to himself.

Using one of the keys, Riker opened the door to their accommodations, then stepped aside to allow Troi to enter first. It was her birthday weekend, and he wanted her to see it first. He followed and then the bellman came in, depositing one bag on each of the luggage racks in each bedroom.

Troi's gasp of delight was audible. "Oh, Will, it's absolutely lovely! " Riker had to admit, she was right. Geordi had been right on the mark when he'd recommended this hotel, telling him "Counselor Troi would love it." He tipped the bellman (Riker made a mental note to thank Data again for reminding him to bring real money) and walked over to join her at the window. The living room, comfortably furnished in beige leather (the same color as the sand just beyond the window), had a couch and love seat facing a stone fireplace that was obviously genuine, for use when the nights were cold. This time of year, however, air conditioning was more of a necessity than heat. The opposite wall was all windows, from floor to ceiling, that gave an unobstructed view of the beach and the ocean beyond. Sliding doors led out to a small balcony that had a table and two chairs. Perfect for breakfast. If they got up that early. Riker wouldn't have minded sleeping till noon, something he almost never got to do. But Deanna was an early riser. Which meant he would have to be, too. Whether they slept together or not.

Riker felt a slight tightening in his stomach as he thought about it.

Deanna slipped her hand into his as they stood silently, watching the waves gently roll onto the sand. She tried to sort out some of the emotions she was sensing from him. They were all jumbled together, churning like a witch's brew, and she could feel an undercurrent of uneasiness buried below the feelings of warmth and tenderness toward her. She didn't know what was causing it, but she also knew better than to push him. If something was bothering him, he would tell her in his own good time. She was very curious, however, as to why the suite had two bedrooms. They'd gone away together before, and they had always shared a bed. She wondered if his uneasiness was due to the expectation that they would sleep together. It had never been a retirement for their shore leaves, but neither of them had ever turned down the opportunity to be together.

Well, she supposed she'd find out soon enough.

"I don't know about you, but I'm putting my bathing suit on and getting out there, pronto," Troi told him.

Riker agreed, saying they had a couple of hours till dinner time.

"Last one ready pays for dinner," Troi challenged him, disappearing into the bedroom before he could even move. Riker laughed, taking his time, knowing he would end up paying anyway. If not with his credit chip, then with his soul.

Troi was waiting impatiently for him in the living room, towel in hand, and coverlet open to reveal her lime green bikini, when he finally emerged. Riker whistled appreciatively as he admired her new suit. What little there was of it, anyway.

"Is that the one?" he asked, grateful to be in trunks and not a Speedo. At least the trunks hid a multitude of sins.

"The one what?" Troi looked at him, clearly puzzled.

"The one Beverly helped you pick out. The one that should be made of gold pressed latinum, considering the amount of money you paid versus the amount of fabric." Riker, to his credit, managed to keep a straight face as he mimicked Crusher's voice perfectly, though his eyes sparkled with amusement.

Troi blushed. "You eavesdropped on our conversation!"

"Not at all. Half of Ten Forward probably heard you. You two were not whispering. One synthehol too many," he explained, watching Troi turn beet red as she recalled some of the more ribald comments she and Beverly had made during what they had thought was a private conversation. "But I'm the only one lucky enough to see you in it," he leered good-naturedly.

Troi laughed and grabbed his arm. "Lets go!"

On the beach, they found two lounge chairs near the water's edge and settled themselves on them. Riker proceeded to smooth suntan lotion over Troi's back and legs as she lay on her stomach. Her squeal of surprise as the cold lotion first hit her back gave way to sighs of pleasure as she relaxed while he massaged the lotion into her legs. Troi smiled into her towel as she realized he was enjoying it as much as she was. Then she felt the crack in his emotional barrier, and he stopped abruptly, flopping down onto the chair beside her. Despite the heat of the day, Troi felt a chill come over her. By the time she summoned the energy (and the nerve) to glance over at him, he was asleep, snoring softly, his face relaxed and free of worry lines. Troi watched the broad chest rise and fall with each breath, and she ached to reach out and touch the mat of curly hair that covered his chest and narrowed to a line that ran down to his belly and beyond. She knew it would feel soft and springy, in contrast to the roughness of his beard. But she let him sleep, knowing he was tired. Emotionally and physically.

Riker woke with a yelp as cold water dripped on him. Troi stood over him, dripping wet, hair plastered to her head, looking more like a drowned rat than the sea nymph of his dreams. She was squeezing the water out of her hair onto his chest.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," she admonished playfully.

Riker groaned and sat up, noticing that the sun was lower on the horizon than when he'd closed his eyes a few short minutes ago. "How long have I been asleep?" he asked, one hand rubbing his eyes.

"Nearly an hour. Come on," she said, tugging at his hand. "The water's great!"

"All right," he replied with a mock frown. "I'm coming." He let her drag him into the ocean. She was right. The water was delightful. Crystal clear and cool enough to be refreshing, but not cold enough to chill. They swam and played games in the surf and Riker let his worries about the weekend slip away with the tide. When they'd finally had enough, they retreated back to their loungers and watched the seagulls fish for their dinner.

"If we go up now to get ready for dinner, we can watch the sunset from our balcony," Riker spoke into the companionable silence.

"Sounds good to me," Troi agreed, gathering up her things and reaching for his hand as they walked back to the hotel. She felt a small flash of pleasure as his hand closed possessively around hers.

"Are we going to eat at the seafood restaurant that Geordi recommended?" she asked him.

"Yes. I asked the concierge to make the reservation for us. Let's just stop at the desk and check that there's no problem."

Martin had been true to his word, and they had reservations for seven-thirty. After quick showers, they met on the balcony. Riker handed Troi a small glass of wine.

"You look very pretty," he complimented her. Troi wore a sundress, an abstract print in muted blues, purples, and white. Her short stay in the sun had brought color to her face and she glowed. Her hair hung loose, still damp from the shower, and it was pulled off her face by two silver combs.

"Thank you," she replied, inordinately pleased by the simple compliment. She took the glass from him and clinked it against his in a silent toast. "You look pretty good yourself."

Riker was dressed in a blue shirt (a shade darker than his eyes ­Troi had goofed on that one), khaki chinos, and sandals. Troi grinned behind her glass and Riker caught it.

"What's so funny?"

She pointed to his feet. "I'm not going to see you in shoes at all this weekend, am I?" The first officer's preference for bare feet was no secret, and it had resulted in more than one trip to Sickbay for repair of broken toes. Beverly had even threatened to buy him a bone knitter of his own if he didn't get a night light, so he'd stop stumbling around in the dark, stubbing his toes all the time. Troi wouldn't be at all surprised if someday he showed up on the bridge in uniform and sans footwear.

Riker grinned and wiggled his toes. "Not if I can help it. Here it goes," he told her, redirecting her attention to the setting sun and a sky filled with a palette of reds, pinks, and golds.

"It's breathtaking," Troi whispered, in awe of nature's handiwork.

They sat in silence, sipping their wine, watching the colors change and darken as the sun disappeared below the horizon. When it was over and night had descended, they rose and went to dinner. The restaurant was a short walk from the hotel and they arrived in plenty of time for their reservation.

"Smells heavenly," Troi said, breathing deeply as they were escorted to their table. "What did Geordi say we should order?" she asked Riker, as he perused the menu.

"He said all the shrimp dishes were good. His personal favorite, he said, though, was the stuffed lobster."

"Is that what you're having, Imzadi?" Troi thought he flinched slightly at the endearment, but it was so subtle she wasn't sure if she imagined it. She didn't imagine, though, the solid wall in his mind. She pulled back from it as if burned. It hadn't been there earlier, and she wasn't sure when it had appeared. She only knew that its presence disturbed her. She couldn't recall him ever shutting her out quite so deliberately.

"No," he replied casually. Too casually. "I don't feel like fighting for my food. I'm going to try the salmon. I want to see how it compares to Alaskan grade." He smiled at her, but he knew she'd slammed into the barrier he'd erected to keep her out.

Troi ordered a shrimp dish, and was pleased to discover that Geordi had been correct. Riker claimed that his fish came a very close second, but nothing could really compare to native Alaskan salmon. They ate a leisurely dinner, just enjoying the fact that they could leave the Enterprise behind them, knowing they didn't have to rush anywhere, and knowing that Riker wouldn't be summoned to the bridge at a moment's notice. Troi was gratified to feel him relax more and more as the evening went on.

After dinner they walked along the boardwalk and Riker stopped occasionally to play one of the carnival games set up there. He won the dart throwing one, hitting the bullseye with a single shot. He shot a wry glance at Troi. "You can thank O'Brien for that."

"Good shot, mister!" the kid behind the counter exclaimed. "Pick a prize. Any prize."

Riker glanced at the array of stuffed animals on the shelves, then back at Troi.

"Deanna? Which one would you like?"

As Deanna chose a twelve-inch-high, light brown bear, dressed in little "first officer blue" shorts, with a red embroidered heart on its chest (because it looked sweet and gentle and cuddly, she told him), Riker had to laugh. She looked like a kid in a chocolate shop, not knowing what to pick first. He decided right then that he was glad he'd come this weekend, no matter what the personal cost might be.

They walked back to the hotel, one of Deanna's arms linked through his, the other clutching her new friend.

Troi could feel Riker become increasingly tense the closer they got to their room, though he tried very hard to hide it. When he closed the door behind them, she finally decided to ask him what was on his mind.

"Will, what's wrong?" she questioned gently.

"Nothing, Deanna. I'm fine," he lied. "Just a bit of a headache," he added truthfully. "It's been a long day, " he told her finally. "We both need a good night's rest."

Riker stepped closer to her and ran his finger along the line of her cheek. Then he bent his head and let his lips brush hers, a feather-light weight that was gone almost before it had even made an impression.

"Sleep well, Imzadi," he said as he closed the door to his room.

Troi stood there for a long moment, trying to sort through the maelstrom of his emotions, but she couldn't do it. They were so mixed up she wasn't sure if Will even knew what he was feeling.

As she changed into her nightgown, she heard him settle into his bed on the other side of the wall. Sleep didn't come quickly for him, though, as she heard him tossing and turning for quite a while before he finally settled down for good. It gave her a small measure of satisfaction to know that he was as troubled as she. Troi curled up on her side as she drifted off to sleep, clutching her sweet and gentle bear, knowing it was a poor substitute for the sweet, gentle man asleep in the next room.

	* * * * *

The morning sun came streaming through the windows, waking Troi with more efficiency than any alarm ever could. If only she could bottle it and take it home with her! Putting on her robe, she came out of her bedroom to find Riker on the telephone. He was already dressed in shorts, polo shirt, and the inevitable sandals.

"That's great!" he exclaimed. "Thank you very much!" He hung up and smiled at Troi standing in the doorway.

"I did it," he told her, very pleased with himself and not bothering to hide it.

"Did what?" He seemed genuinely happy, and Troi was grateful for the change in his mood.

"We have a reservation for dinner at Luigi's tonight. Seven o'clock."

"No! Really?!" Troi couldn't contain her excitement. She ran over and hugged him. She felt his fractional hesitation before he responded in kind. After a moment she stepped back. "There's just one problem, Will. I don't have anything to wear."

The age-old lament of women everywhere was, in this case, true. Luigi's was the most exclusive, expensive, and sought after restaurant on the whole planet, and the dress code was formal. Getting a reservation was next to impossible. People usually waited a year or more for a table.

"How did you do it?" She asked, putting aside her clothing dilemma for the moment.

"Never mind. " A slight flush spread across his cheeks and Troi realized he was acutely embarrassed.

"Tell me," she urged him. "It's my birthday today. You have to do what I want."

"Oh, yeah?" Riker's eyebrows lifted in disbelief. "Who made up this rule?" he asked, pouring her a cup of coffee and handing it to her.

"Thanks. I did," she told him. "Come on, tell me," she wheedled in her best four-year-old whine. It had always worked on her father, and Riker proceeded to prove that she hadn't lost her touch.

"Well, I mentioned to Martin–the guy behind the desk," he added response to her quizzical look, "that today was your birthday and I wanted to take you someplace nice, and I knew that Luigi's was a lost cause. He said he'd work on it. That was him on the commlink just now. It turns out that Luigi– that's really the owner's name–has family on Earth. When he heard my name, he recognized it. Because of the Borg business. Martin said that he said that there would always be a table available for the ‘savior of mankind.' Jeez," he added under his breath.

Troi knew that Riker was uncomfortable with mantles like "savior of mankind" and "the man who beat the Borg." There were other terms, but they all boiled down to one thing. His ingenuity and daring had saved humanity, whether he liked to admit it or not. His protestations that he hadn't done it alone only served to enhance his mystique. It was not something people were likely to forget anytime soon.

"Well, anyway," he said, seeing the happiness in her eyes, "I won't look a gift horse in the mouth. So I guess we have to go shopping." The word was torn from his lips and he suppressed a shudder. The "S" word struck terror in his heart as well as in his wallet.

Troi smiled. He really was a dear man. "I promise not to take too long in the stores. Let me jump in the shower and get dressed. I'll be ready in half an hour."

"What about breakfast?"

"I'm too excited to eat." She brushed his lips with hers and then ran off to get ready.

Twenty-nine minutes later, Troi, dressed as casually as Riker, in shorts, tank top and sandals, came out, and then they were in the elevator, on their way. Riker stopped at the desk to confer with Martin, who now wore a look of hero worship, having realized exactly who this guest was. Riker rejoined Troi, taking her lightly by the elbow and steering her out the door to a waiting taxi. Holding a piece of paper in his hand, he negotiated with the driver to hire him for the morning. They settled into the air-conditioned back seat as they were driven to the first address on the list.

"Martin suggested a few places that might be appropriate," Riker told her, his arm draped casually across the seat behind her. Troi relaxed, laying her head on his shoulder.

The first place was a total washout. They walked in and turned right around again. Shop number two had some nice dresses, but nothing leaped off the rack and said "buy me" to Deanna.

The third shop was a very upscale boutique, with fancy clothes and jewelry– real, from the looks of it, Deanna surmised. The owner greeted them, introduced herself as Mrs. Roche, and took them into a private room where they could sit and view dresses that were brought to them. Troi felt as if she were in one of those trashy romance novels she and her friends had read when they were teenagers. She stole a sidelong glance at Riker and was startled to see that he appeared to be enjoying himself. After icing several dresses he didn't really care for, Riker mentioned that she needed it for dinner at Luigi's.

"Oh, monsieur," Mrs. Roche said in her best fake French accent. Troi and Riker looked at each other, laughing silently. "I know just the thing."

As she left the room, Riker burst out laughing. "Jean-Luc would have had a fit if he'd heard that," he told Troi, composing himself as quickly as possible before Mrs. Roche came back. Troi just nodded wordlessly, not trusting herself to speak. The owner returned, carrying a midnight blue chiffon dress. Troi's gasp of surprise was loud in the sudden silence. The bodice was blue, low cut but not excessively so, with spaghetti straps of the same color, with silver threads woven into it. The skirt was flared, with an uneven hem line and layers of silver and blue chiffon that created a shimmering effect, like moonlight on the ocean.

"It's beautiful," Troi breathed.

"Wow," Riker stated simply. "Try it on," he suggested.

Troi didn't need to be told twice. She stepped into the dressing room and came out a few minutes later, transformed. Riker could only stare at her. The dress fit as though it had been made for her. She looked like an angel, shimmering with each step she took.

"It's perfect," Riker said softly. Troi just stood there, looking in the mirror, soaking up his love and admiration, thinking she did look pretty damn good. And with a little makeup and a nice hairdo, she'd look knock ‘em dead great.

Mrs. Roche smiled, knowing she had made a sale. "I have the perfect accessory," she added. "One moment."

She hurried out and returned, true to her word, a moment later with a necklace that she placed around Deanna's neck. It was made of sapphires and diamonds, shaped like a vee, starting with a big sapphire in the middle, and alternating sapphires with diamonds as they got smaller, ending in a silver colored chain that she told them was white gold. It complemented the dress perfectly, and Riker knew he'd need to do some serious winning at the next few poker games to repair the damage to his credit chip.

But before he could say anything, Troi demurred. "It's magnificent, but I couldn't."

"Deanna," Riker argued. "It looks lovely. It's perfect for you!"

"No, Will. It's too much. It's enough that you're buying me the dress." Her tone brooked no argument and Riker conceded gracefully. But when she disappeared back into the dressing room to change, Riker winked at Mrs. Roche. They came to an understanding before Deanna came out, and they left with the dress carefully wrapped in a garment bag.

It was lunch time by the time they got back to the hotel, and after carefully hanging up the dress and changing into swimming apparel (Troi into a black one piece that clung in all the right places, Riker noticed, and he in blue trunks the color of the ocean, Troi noticed), they proceeded to the outdoor restaurant for a light repast.

"What are you wearing tonight, Will?" she asked, munching on her salad, (having announced that she was saving herself for dinner) as she watched him bite into his bacon cheeseburger. This was a vacation, he had declared when ordering, and he wasn't subsisting on rabbit food, he told her.

"I've rented a tuxedo. Martin is taking care of it. He's a pretty resourceful kid, " Riker murmured around his burger.

"He's no kid. He just looks that way because you're getting old," Troi teased him. His happy-go-lucky mood of the morning had vanished in the dress store, and she tried to get it back. His mood had been vacillating since they arrived, and although he had been nothing but attentive and affable and kind, she kept getting flashes of deeper, more unsettled emotions. He was like a powder keg, and she had no idea what was going to set him off.

"Keep it up, Counselor, and you'll have to find some other lackey to put suntan lotion on your back," he retorted, dipping the last of his french fries into the mound of ketchup on his plate and popping them into his mouth.

"So," he continued, after wiping the ketchup from his fingers, "what shall we do this afternoon? Lie on the beach? Or a boat ride?"

"Can we go to the water park? Please?" Troi begged in a very unladylike way.

Riker grinned, a grin that reached his eyes, and Troi felt his happy, carefree emotions slide back into place.

"Only if you promise to go down suicide run with me," he bargained.

"Oh, absolutely!" Troi's delighted grin earned her a genuine Riker laugh, and she felt herself go warm all over, and it had nothing to do with the heat of the day.

Their afternoon was the stuff memories were made of, Troi reflected as they rode in tired silence back to the hotel. She couldn't remember when she'd laughed so much, or had so much fun. They'd sailed on the lazy river, sharing an inner tube, frolicked in the wave pool, and gone down countless chutes and slides. They'd even code suicide run three times, shrieking in mock terror each time, although Troi had had to do some serious talking to get Riker to go down the third time. Only her threat to write to Worf and tell him what a coward he was had convinced him to go. The chute went almost straight down, and it was still a twenty-foot free-fall drop into the pool. After the third time down, Riker had absolutely refused to go again, claiming that the wedgie he got each time he hit the water was going to cause permanent damage to the more sensitive parts of his anatomy.

By the time they returned to the hotel, it was after four thirty. Riker declared it nap time, promising to wake Troi at six o'clock, which she claimed would be enough time for her to get ready for dinner.

Troi jumped into the shower and washed her hair, wrapping it in a towel so it would be dry by six o'clock. Then, her body wrapped in another towel, she lay down on the bed and promptly fell asleep.

The buzz of the alarm woke Riker only seconds before the bell to their suite rang. He leaped up off the bed, still in his bathing suit (he had been asleep before his head even hit the pillow) and ran to answer the door before it could ring again and wake Deanna. He opened it to find Martin standing there, his tuxedo in one hand and a small package from the Roche boutique in the other.

"Here you go, sir," Martin said, handing over the items. "Enjoy your evening, sir." He turned away before Riker could even hand him a tip.

"Thanks," Riker called to the retreating back. Then he closed the door, returning to his bedroom to hang up the suit and put the gift away. A glance at the clock told him he had enough time to take a shower before he had to wake Deanna.

Fifteen minutes later he was showered, shaved, and partly dressed, in his pants. He knocked on her door, calling her name. "Deanna?"

When he got no answer, he opened the door softly. She was sound asleep on the bed, on her side, her body curled around the teddy bear. The towel had slipped open, revealing a large expanse of leg, hip, and buttocks. Riker felt his body's immediate response, and he firmly pushed aside his traitorous thoughts. God, he would have loved to be that bear!

He crossed to the bed and sat down beside her, gently replacing the towel.

"Deanna," he called softly, resting his hand on her shoulder, not wanting to startle her.

Her eyes opened and she came instantly awake, as any good Starfleet officer would. She smiled at the tender look in his eyes, knowing he wasn't aware of how plainly his emotions showed on his face. "Is it six o'clock already?"

"Sure is," he answered, smiling back at her, thinking how beautiful she was with sleep still clouding her eyes and a slight flush in her cheeks.

Troi stretched carefully, with the grace of a cat. "Well then, you'd better vamoose so I can get ready," she told him, planting a firm kiss on his lips.

Riker vamoosed, returning to his own room to finish dressing, a task that took him a lot longer than he expected. He detested his dress uniform, but at least it didn't have a bow tie on it. It took him a good ten minutes to get the thing tied correctly, and he decided that the next time he had to wear a tux, he wouldn't. The dress uniform was looking better all the time. Once he was done, however, he had to admit to himself that he did look pretty spiffy. He settled onto the sofa in the living room, his birthday present for Deanna safely in his pocket, and waited for his date.

Precisely on time, she emerged from her bedroom, bringing him to his feet in an unconscious motion. For a moment, he simply stared, tongue-tied. His feet took on a life of their own, marching him to where she stood.

Then, simply, "Deanna, you look incredibly lovely."

Troi glowed, and it was not from the slight amount of makeup she wore. She knew he was right. She knew she looked terrific, and she felt like a princess. Her hair was piled up on her head, a few loose tendrils framing her face and hanging down the back of her neck.

"You look quite handsome yourself," she replied. "The tuxedo suits you. Even more than your dress uniform," she added, reaching out to straighten his tie. She glanced at his feet, shod in real shoes. "No sandals?" she teased gently. He eyed her wordlessly, enjoying the intimacy of the moment. "Shall we go?" she queried, unable to keep the eagerness out of her tone.

Riker smiled indulgently. "In a minute. First, I want to give you your birthday present, " he told her, reaching into his pocket.

Troi protested. "You've already given it to me. This weekend, the dress..." Her voice trailed off as he handed her the black velvet box.

"Oh, Will," she scolded, knowing what it was before she opened it. "I can't. It's too much," she told him as he reached for her hand and placed the case in it. "You shouldn't have," she reprimanded him gently, her resolve already weakening.

"I wanted to," he told her, helping her open the box, to reveal the sapphire necklace nestled in a bed of black velvet. Troi could feel his anxiety. For some reason, he needed very badly for her to accept his gift and she knew she couldn't disappoint him.

"Would you put it on for me?" She held it up for him.

"Of course." He stepped behind her, brushing aside the few tendrils of hair, as he worked the clasp. Troi felt a sudden rush of desire as his fingers burned a lath along the nape of her neck. She held her breath as his lips kissed the spot where his fingers had been.

"All done," he told her, stepping back to look at her. Troi turned to the mirror that hung on the wall between the two bedrooms.

"Oh, Will," she said again, unable to think of anything more eloquent to say. "Thank you." She turned, wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his head down to hers to kiss him. He returned the caress, but broke the contact sooner that she would have liked, reminding her of their dinner reservations. But she knew there was more to it. She had felt his reserve and restraint. For the moment, she let it pass, knowing they couldn't go on like this indefinitely, but unwilling to spoil the evening. Hand in hand, they left the suite.

The dinner was magic. Luigi's was everything Troi had heard, and more. They had been treated like royalty when they arrived, much to Riker's discomfort. After the initial hullabaloo, though, things had settled down and they were left to enjoy their evening in peace. The food was out of this world, from their appetizers to the pasta dishes they had both ordered, to the dessert. Troi had blushed when the waiters had come over to the table to sing Happy Birthday, bringing a small chocolate cake that she knew was Riker's doing. Riker's face could barely contain his grin as he watched her make a wish and blow out the candle.

They laughed, they talked, they ate and drank excellent wine (although Riker declared the list was not complete, since there was no Chateau Picard to select), and they danced. Luigi's had a small dance floor and a band playing slow, romantic music (with no trombone, much to Troi's relief). In between courses, they danced, Riker holding Troi in his arms. She had never felt more at home than she did at that moment. She felt an overwhelming love for the man who held her so gently in his arms, chin resting on her head. She knew she did not want to sleep alone tonight, but after last night she wasn't sure if her wish would come true. Well, she decided, she'd cross that bridge when she came to it.

It was nearly ten o'clock by the time they left the restaurant. They decided to walk back to the hotel, in order to work off some of the calories they'd taken in. Riker had ruefully remarked that it would take a few hours on the holodeck to work them all off. Troi could think of another activity that would help, but she kept her thoughts to herself for the time being. The night air had a chill to it and Riker slipped his jacket over Troi's shoulders. She inhaled deeply, smelling his aftershave. They strolled down the almost empty streets hand in hand, pausing every so often to look in the shop windows and to exchange a kiss. And they talked. About inconsequential things. About friends, about how much they'd gone through in the last year. About everything. Except us, Troi thought to herself during a lull in the conversation. He had closed off part of himself to firmly that she couldn't break through his barriers. She was beginning to fear that if she didn't do it soon, she might never be able to. And that scared her more than anything else ever could.

When they reached the hotel, Riker asked her if she wanted to stop in the bar for a nightcap.

"No thanks," Troi told him, deciding to take the bull by the horns. "Let's go to bed," she added, her meaning quite clear.

Riker didn't...couldn't meet her gaze. Saying nothing, he led her to the bank of elevators. He was still warring within himself. Would he–could he–should he–make love to her? It was what she wanted. God knew he wanted it too, but what would happen tomorrow?

During the ride up, he undid his tie and opened his top button. "The next time I complain about my dress uniform, remind me about this contraption," he told Troi with self-deprecating humor, attempting to lighten the suddenly oppressive silence that had blanketed them.

"Next time," echoed Troi, wondering now whether there would be a next time for them. She could feel the conflict within him and his effort to contain it. But she still didn't understand its source. She only knew it was hurting him. And her. She also knew she wasn't giving up without a fight.

There was a moment of awkwardness as they entered the suite. Riker locked the door behind them, and they stood looking at each other. Riker was the first to look away.

"It's been a long day," he remarked.

Troi wanted to scream. He'd said the same thing last night, and she knew with sudden certainty he was going to walk away from her again. Taking off his jacket and laying it over the back of the couch, she stepped in his path to prevent him from leaving.

"I'm not all that tired. And I haven't had a chance to thank you properly for a wonderful birthday," she said softly. As she stepped into him, her arms circled his waist. His head came down and his lips brushed hers. Before he could move away, Troi deepened the kiss, letting all of what she was feeling for him surface. Riker responded by putting his arms around her and drawing her tightly against him. There was no mistaking the passion in his kiss, or the arousal of his body. Troi could feel his reticence melting. Just when she thought she had broken through his reserve, he changed.

Deanna felt a chill settle around her heart as Will suddenly pulled away from their embrace. She stared into blue eyes that had darkened with passion. And pain.

"I'm sorry," he told her in a strained voice, looking away and running a trembling hand through his hair. "I can't do this. I'm sorry," he repeated, more to himself than to her.

"I don't understand," she questioned him, desperate to understand. "Can't do what?"

"I can't make love to you like this anymore, Deanna. I'm sorry," he repeated again, beginning to sound like a broken record.

"Why?" Troi's voice was barely a whisper as it worked its way around the giant lump in her throat, but it was filled with puzzlement and pain.

"It's not enough for me. I'm sorry," he told her again. The hurt look in her eyes was like a knife in his heart, and he wondered if he'd ever forgive himself for being the cause of that pain.

Troi thought she would smack him if he said he was sorry one more time. She felt her world splintering around her and marveled at how much pain one person could withstand. She tried to say it, but all that came out was "It's not good enough for you?" Her voice resonated with anger and hurt.

"Of course it's good," he snapped, suddenly angry at himself for not being able to express himself properly, and angry at her for not understanding. It was her job to understand. He sighed, shoulders slumping, letting his anger drain out of him. "Being with you is beyond wonderful," he told her, and she could see the truth of his statement in his eyes. "I just can't do this anymore," he explained, his arm sweeping the room. "I can't go away with you, where we make love, where we are in love, and then return to the Enterprise and go back to being just friends. " His hand reached out to touch her hair, but he stopped himself. His fist clenched and his hand dropped back to his side.

His voice, when he spoke again, was so filled with raw emotion that Deanna could hardly breathe from the weight of it. "I love you, Imzadi. More than anything in the world. I don't want to go back to being just friends. I want to be with you. Always and forever. I want to go to bed with you at night and wake up in the morning with you still in my arms. I want to lie awake in the middle of the night and feel your warmth next to me. I want to bring you your morning coffee in bed and watch you smile and light up my day. I want to ask you to marry me." His eyes roamed down her body and back up to meet her gaze again. "I want to watch your belly grow big with our child inside you. I want to come home after my shift and share my day with you. I want to grow old with you." He stopped, and now his hand did reach up to stroke her hair. His eyes were suspiciously bright and he tried to smile, but he couldn't quite pull it off. "I'm sorry," he told her yet again.

"Why didn't you ever tell me this before?" Troi whispered.

"I hurt you once before," he answered. "I had no right to make any demands on you. And I value our friendship too much. It's too important to me to risk losing it. Even though I want more. " He looked as if he would say more, but he only bent and kissed her gently on the lips. "I tried not to say anything. I didn't want to spoil your birthday. But I just couldn't hold it in anymore. I'm sorry, Imzadi." He turned and we it into his bedroom, closing the door gently.

Deanna stood rooted to her spot, unable to move. She was numb with shock. She lost track of the time as she tried to assimilate all he had said. His emotions had poured over her like the unending waves on the beach, and she'd had to stand there, unmoving and unyielding, in order to avoid being swept away by the torrent. She couldn't believe that he'd been in so much pain and had managed to hide it from her for so long. Everything he told her replayed in her mind, over and over. "I want to ask you to marry me... I love you, Imzadi. I want to watch your belly grow big with our child...I want to ask you to marry me." As his words penetrated the numbness that seemed to have paralyzed her, Deanna felt as if a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders as the tears rolled slowly down her cheeks. She took a deep breath to steady herself and wiped her face with the back of her hands. The next move was hers, and as she heard the shower go on in Will's bathroom, she knew what it would be.

Riker stood under the shower spray, eyes closed and forehead pressed against the cool tiles, hoping it would ease the pain that seemed to have settled permanently behind his eyes. The cold water was not doing much to cool his ardor, either. Walking away from Deanna was the hardest and most painful thing he had ever done in his life. Trying to calm himself, he began a Betazoid relaxation exercise, taking deep, slow breaths, as Deanna had taught him many years ago. He couldn't get her face out of his mind. As long as he lived, he would never forget the look of utter shock on her face as he finally told her what was really in his heart. She had stood there and not said a word. Dear God, he prayed silently, don't let this destroy our friendship. I couldn't bear it.

The door to the shower opened with a loud click, nearly giving Riker a heart attack. His eyes opened, then widened in disbelief as Troi stood there, wearing nothing but the sapphire and diamond necklace. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears, but a radiant smile lit her face. She stepped in and closed the glass door, shivering as the cold water hit her for the first time.

"Ooh! Why is the water so cold?" she demanded, reaching around him to turn up the temperature.

Riker didn't answer except to stare at her, eyebrows raised as if to say, "You're the empath. Figure it out."

"Oh," Troi remarked, figuring it out very quickly, after a fast glance at his anatomy.

Riker finally found his voice, figuring he must have dropped it on the shower floor when she came in. "Deanna, what are you doing in here?" He tried to keep the hopeful note out of his voice, but his heart rate had just doubled and his breath had to fight its way out of his lungs. A small flame of hope flickered into existence deep inside him. He didn't dare let it burn any brighter, but he couldn't bring himself to extinguish it just yet.

"Well, it's my birthday, so here I am, in my birthday suit," she quipped. Then her voice lost its teasing note.

"I believe you have a question you want to ask me," Troi told him softly, stepping closer until there was no space between them. She could feel the rapid beating of his heart and the full expression of his arousal. He turned slightly so the water fell on his back and not into her face.

"Oh, Deanna," he breathed, his joy evident on his face and in his eyes. His hands came up to cup her face. "I love you, Imzadi. I always have and I always will. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife? Will you marry me?"

The tears that Deanna had held back now slipped out and rolled down her face. Riker wiped them away gently with his thumbs as he held his breath, waiting for her response.

"I've waited ten years to hear you ask me that question, Imzadi," she told him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing herself into him. "I've never stopped loving you. Yes, I'll marry you."

He bent and kissed her with a tenderness and love she'd never felt before. His happiness and joy washed over her in a cleansing wave, and she let her mind fill his, so he could truly feel her love and joy.

Riker felt her shiver, with desire or cold he wasn't sure. He reached behind him to shut off the water and then opened the door and grabbed one of the large fluffy towels hanging on the rack. He wrapped it around her and began rubbing her arms and back to warm them. Troi reached for another one and began rubbing him down. Their motions soon turned to caresses and they both grew warm as desire coursed through them. Riker picked Troi up and carried her into the bedroom, laying her on the bed with infinite gentleness. Their passion ignited as he lay next to her and they kissed deeply. His hands roamed over every inch of her body and Deanna felt the searing heat everywhere he touched her. Her breasts ached for his mouth, and he obliged her, his lips replacing his hands as his fingers moved lower to find the heart of her desire. He knew she was more than ready for him. She pushed against his hand, desperately seeking release from the delightful torment he was inflicting on her. Her short gasps told him she was very close to the edge. Her hand closed around him and she felt him harden even more. She arched her hips, wanting him, needing him now.

"Please," she begged, her moans of pleasure urging him on. Her legs tarted for him as he moved over her and she arched even higher as he slipped inside her with loving tenderness. His lips met hers again as her hands cupped his buttocks, pulling him in closer. His breathing, ragged in her ear, came faster and faster as he thrust into her with long, deep strokes. Deanna's cry of ecstasy as she climaxed was mingled with his as they came together in a perfect marriage of hearts and souls.

Riker kissed her gently as he held her in his arms. Troi ran her hand along his face and beard, enjoying the contrast between the coarseness of his beard and the smoothness of his skin. "Imzadi," she whispered, laying her head on his chest, feeling the beating of his heart under her, steady and strong. It was as if it had been the first time for both of them, and in a way, it had been. It was the beginning of a new life together. The air-conditioned room quickly cooled their perspiration-soaked bodies, and Riker pulled the blanket up as sleep claimed them both.

	* * * * *

Riker awoke from a very pleasant dream, where Deanna was doing all sorts of delightful things to him with her tongue and lips. It only took him a fraction of a second to realize that it wasn't a dream. His laugh turned into a groan of pleasure as her lips closed over him, bringing him to the brink very quickly. He pulled her up to meet his lips, answering her questioning look with a wry, "I don't want this to be over before we've barely begun." They made slow, passionate love, taking their time to rediscover and pleasure each other, knowing they had all the time in the world.

Afterwards, they lay in each others arms, resting from their exertions.

"So, where's my coffee?" Troi teased him. "I believe you said something about bringing it every morning."

"I'm in trouble now," he replied, laughing. Riker got out of bed and rummaged in his drawer for a pair of boxer shorts. He had discovered them when they were on Earth last year, waiting for the work on the Enterprise-E to be completed. He found them very comfortable for sleeping in, and he had acquired quite a collection, ranging from silk to flannel, and stately to X-rated, courtesy of his friends.

Troi admired the view as he casually slipped them on, mentally comparing him to the dashing young lieutenant she'd fallen in love with so many years ago. He was a little more gray now (all right, a lot more), stronger, more muscular (thanks to Worf and his calisthenics programs), wiser, more open and giving, more mature, (more creative in bed), and more at ease with himself. All in all, not a bad catch, she thought, sighing contentedly as she leaned back into the pillow.

Riker caught the gleam in her eye.

"What?" he queried, not sure he wanted to know. She looked like the proverbial cat that had just devoured the poor little canary.

Troi smiled, the one that lit up his day. "Just thinking about how well you've aged."

"Aged? Like old cheese?" he asked, wrinkling his nose in distaste.

"No," she assured him. "More like fine wine."

"Really?" He favored her with a slow, sensuous smile as he planted a kiss on her lips. His own lingered and he pulled away reluctantly as the passion began to flare again. "I'd better get the coffee started, or it'll be lunch time," he said, a slight huskiness in his tone.

By the time it was done, Troi had retrieved her robe from her bedroom and joined him on the balcony. They watched the beach come alive as people ventured onto it to settle themselves for a day of sun and fun.

Riker cleared his throat a few times before he spoke. "Deanna, it's an old Earth custom for a man to give the woman who's agreed to marry him an engagement ring. Some people still observe it, but not everyone does. Umm... would you consider wearing one?"

Troi smiled at the hesitancy in his voice. This was a man who was used to command, where people followed his orders without question, and here he was, practically dithering!

"Oh, Will, of course I would. My mother wore one that had belonged to my father's mother. My dad had a very sentimental streak. I think it's a lovely custom. Besides," she said, reaching across the table to take his hand in hers, "an Earth style engagement is only fair. Especially since it'll be a Betazoid wedding." She smiled in satisfaction as Riker almost choked on his coffee. She got up to slap him on the back as he coughed and the tears ran down his face.

"Are you okay?" she queried, the concern in her voice almost, but not quite, masking the laughter.

"You enjoyed that," Riker accused her, gasping for air, his answering laugh in his eyes.

"I sure did," she laughed. What a difference a day makes, she marveled. They were both so relaxed, so open to each other. All the walls were gone.

"I was going to ask the captain to be my best man," Riker complained.

"You still can. Just don't tell him it's a Betazoid ceremony until after he accepts."

"What about Beverly? Is she going to be your maid of honor?"

"I hope so. But she won't mind about the ceremony. In fact, she'11 probably enjoy it. And I how she'll enjoy seeing the look on Jean-Luc's face when he finds out. She'll keep the secret." Troi spoke with the wisdom of knowing her best friend better than her friend knew herself.

"I never realized what a devious mind you have," Riker complimented her as she wrapped her arms around his neck from behind him and kissed him on the ear.

"You have no idea," she retorted as her fingers played with the hair on his chest. She ran her manicured nail along the line of hair that went down his belly to where it disappeared into his shorts. His sharp intake of breath told her that letting her fingers do the walking had achieved the desired effect. Seconds later they were both naked on the living room floor, their bodies meeting with a passion and urgency that surprised and excited them both, and brought them to a swift but fulfilling climax.

"At this rate, we'll never make it out that door," Riker observed dryly, his head resting on a pillow taken from the couch, as his eyes traced the patterns in the ceiling. His hand absently stroked Troi's back in the same patterns as she lay in the circle of his arms, not showing any inclination to move.

"Is there someplace we need to be?" she asked. As far as she could recall, her social calendar was remarkably under booked for the day, and she told him as much.

He picked up her left hand and showed it to her. "It's empty," he stated the obvious. "I'd like to put a ring on it before the Enterprise arrives tonight."

"Oh, good! More jewels!" Troi exclaimed delightedly.

"Mercenary little hussy," he murmured into her ear.

"Only because you're making me that way," she protested, snuggling closer to him. "What time is she arriving?" she asked on a more serious note. Troi didn't want the weekend to end. Now that they'd finally found each other for good, she wanted more time alone with him.

"She's due in around 1900 hours. That gives us the whole day."

"Okay, then," she told him, rising on one elbow. "The jewelry store first, then a whole day on the beach."

"Lazy wench," he accused, pulling her closer for a proper kiss. One kiss led to another, and another, and it was a long time later before they actually made it out of their room.

Their trip to the jeweler didn't take long, for Troi found one ring that quickly caught her eye. It was very simple, a round diamond about a carat in size, flanked by two smaller ones, set in a simple gold band. It was slim and elegant and just made for her small hands. Riker slipped it on her finger in a private booth set aside for just such occasions, telling her with words how much he loved her. Back at their room, his actions showed her.

They were gathering their things for the beach when Riker's communicator chirped. Troi's eyes closed in dismay as Riker fished it out of his pocket.

"Picard to Riker."

Riker tapped his badge. "Riker here," he acknowledged, sending Troi a resigned smile. It appeared that their brief stay in paradise was about to end.

"I hope I didn't disturb you, Number One," Picard said.

"Not at all, sir," he fibbed.

"Liar," Troi mouthed at him.

"Just wanted to let you know we're in orbit, Will," Picard told him.

"You're a bit early, sir. I'm afraid we're not quite ready to beam up yet."

"There's no need to rush, Number One. Things went very well at Epsilon Three, and we've been granted shore leave for a few days. So you can even stay a little longer, if you'd like."

"That's wonderful, sir. Deanna and I are just beginning to enjoy ourselves, now that we've had a chance to unwind," he allowed, turning away from Troi so he wouldn't laugh out loud as she rolled her eyes at his blatant understatement. "As a matter of fact, sir, " he continued as inspiration struck him with force of a phaser set on maximum stun, "why don't you and Doctor Crusher join us for dinner tonight? There's an excellent seafood restaurant right near here." Riker turned and winked at Troi, wordlessly asking for forgiveness for his next lie. "Deanna seems to be getting a little tired of my company. It would be nice to see some friends." He wondered idly, as he waited for Picard's response, how many pips he could lose for lying to a senior officer.

"Thank you, Will. We'd enjoy that very much. Say 1930 hours? The lobby of your hotel?"

"Perfect. See you then, sir. Riker out." He closed the channel before Picard could hear Troi's howls of laughter as she collapsed onto the couch.

"And you said I was devious," she admonished him. "How low do you think he'll bust you?"

"Graveyard shift for a month, if I'm lucky," he speculated, laughing with her. "Come on," he pulled her to her feet. "Let's enjoy the day. It might be my last."

	* * * * *

At precisely 1930 hours they were in the elevator on their way to the lobby.

"When are we going to tell them?" Troi asked.

"Hopefully not until we're seated at dinner," Riker responded. "Unless they notice the ring first." They had discussed leaving it in the room, but Troi had refused, saying she had waited long enough to get it, was proud to wear it and wasn't going to hide it from anybody.

"Well, they won't notice it if you're holding that hand," Troi reasoned as she moved around to stand on the other side of him, so that his right hand clasped her left one.

The elevator opened, and they stepped into the lobby, Riker scanning it quickly with practiced ease. He spotted Crusher's red hair at the same instant she spotted them.

"There they are, Jean-Luc," she nudged her companion.

Picard observed his officers as they crossed the lobby hand in hand, noticing that they seemed quite rested, tanned, and happy. Troi did not seem tired of Riker's company by any means. As a matter of fact, the loving glance she favored Riker with at that very moment seemed to discredit his claim entirely. He began to suspect a snow job and decided that it was going to be a very interesting evening.

"Will, Deanna!" Crusher greeted them enthusiastically, even as her clinical mind assessed them objectively. Something was different, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.

"Hello Beverly, Jean-Luc," Will nodded. He still felt awkward calling the captain by his first name to his face, but Picard had insisted he do so when they were off duty. Picard valued his friendship with Riker and he wanted the younger man to realize how much it meant to him. The informality of being on a first name basis was an indirect way for Picard to let Riker know his worth.

"You're both looking quite well," Picard blandly stated, putting them on notice that he was aware something was afoot.

"Thank you, sir," Troi responded smoothly, squeezing Riker's hand in silent support as she heard his unspoken message in her mind. "We're doomed, Imzadi."

"What's this we stuff?" she thought back at him. Clearly, for better or for worse was not going to include dealing with Captain Picard.

Riker's face was impassive as he firmly and insultingly blocked Troi out of his mind completely.

Crusher was still studying them with the same scrutiny she'd give a specimen under the microscope, and Riker resisted the urge to squirm.

"Shall we go?" he asked, gesturing with his left hand for them to precede him out the lobby door.

The short walk to the restaurant was spent with Crusher admiring Troi's birthday present, which Deanna had yet to remove.

"Your necklace is gorgeous, Deanna," Crusher told her.

"Thanks, Bev. It's my birthday present from Will. Wait till you see the dress that goes with it!" They giggled like schoolgirls, and Riker and Picard exchanged indulgent looks over their heads.

Their table wasn't quite ready when they arrived, so they retreated to the bar for drinks. Picard couldn't help but notice that Troi and Riker seemed to be joined at the hip this evening, and a quick glance at Crusher confirmed his suspicions. She was looking at him with the same "what's with them?" expression on her face that he knew was on his. Picard knew they'd find out sooner or later, and he was much better at the waiting game than Riker was, so he bided his time, indulging in small talk with his first officer.

When the maître d' came to get them, they carried their drinks to the table. Riker told them about Geordi's recommendations as they all studied the menus in front of them, and placed their orders. Riker passed the wine list to Picard, deferring to the expert in the group and refraining from making any remarks about Chateau Picard. Although the captain occasionally mentioned his sister-in-law, Marie, and her work in keeping the family vineyards open, the deaths of his brother and nephew were wounds that would never completely heal, and Riker would never make any comments or jokes that could cause the man beside him more pain.

Drink in hand, Picard was studying the list when Crusher's extremely loud, very unprofessional squeal of "Oh, my God!" startled him so badly, his wine spilled all over the table.

"Goodness, Beverly, what's wrong?" She'd sounded like she'd been hit with a Klingon pain stick.

"Oh, my God," she repeated in a marginally less shrill voice, reaching but to grab Deanna's hand.

Picard noticed that Riker seemed to have frozen in his seat, mouth open, the words stuck in his throat.

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked her friend, fairly dancing in her seat with excitement. Picard's gaze was drawn to the object of Crusher's attention. The significance of the diamond ring on Troi's left hand was not lost on him.

"Yes, Beverly, it is," Troi answered, her face glowing with happiness, delighted to be able to share her secret at last.

"Well, Number One," Picard said heartily, clapping the big man on the back and shaking him out of his reverie, "I guess we'll skip the wine and go straight to the champagne, hmm?"

The next several minutes were spent in congratulations, toasts, and demands for all the ‘intimate, gory details' (that request from Doctor Crusher), some of which Deanna provided, declaring the others not fit for mixed company, causing Riker to blush like a puerile adolescent. Picard's genuine happiness for his friends put Riker enough at ease so that he was able to ask the question that had been on his mind all day.

"Sir? Jean-Luc?" Riker amended. "I'd be very honored if you would consider being my best man." His hands were playing with his silverware in nervous anticipation of Picard's answer.

Picard looked at Riker, momentarily overcome with emotion. His reply was straight from the heart. "The honor is mine, Will. Nothing would please me more than to stand up with you."

"Thank you, sir. " Riker practically beamed, and Troi smiled in satisfaction. One down and one to go. She fumed to Beverly.

"Beverly?" The question was answered before it was even asked.

"Yes, I'd love to be your maid of honor," she exclaimed. "Oh, this is so exciting," she added, almost rubbing her hands together with glee. "Have you set a date yet?"

Troi and Riker exchanged glances. "Not yet," she replied cautiously. The fortuitous arrival of their appetizers forestalled any further attempts at conversation, and they all turned their attention to their food.

As the busboy cleared their empty plates, Troi stood up. "Excuse me, Will. Captain. I need to visit the powder room. Coming, Beverly?" She speared her friend with ‘the look'.

"Right behind you!" Crusher rose out of her chair with her customary grace and followed Troi to the back of the restaurant.

"Why is that always a group project?" Picard questioned his companion. He was the resident authority on women.

Riker laughed aloud. "It goes with the gender, sir. They're talking about us."

"Oh, to be a fly on that wall," Picard noted with more than a hint of humor.

Riker shifted in his seat. He had a very good idea of what Deanna was telling Beverly right at this moment, and he felt no small measure of guilt at his lack of total candor with the captain.

"You know, Will, I don't think I've ever seen you quite so at peace with yourself. Or so happy. I really am delighted for both of you. And may I also say, it's about time!"

"Thank you, sir. Your blessing means more to me than you know," Riker revealed.

The ladies resumed just as the main course was being served, and Riker could see from the gleam in Crusher's eyes and the smirk that she valiantly tried to hide as she looked at him, that Deanna had filled her in on the wedding plans. Despite Deanna's assertion that Beverly could keep a secret, he knew he would not get through the dinner unscathed, and he wondered how long she could wait before she had to let the cat out of the bag.

They talked about ship's business over their meal, with Picard filling them in on the Enterprise's relief mission to Epsilon III.

When the waiter came to take their dessert orders, Riker passed, opting for just coffee instead. Troi seconded that, and Crusher nodded her agreement as well.

"No one wants dessert?" Picard looked skeptical. "The chocolate cake looked very good," he told Troi. "I was planning on having the cheesecake, myself."

When Riker heard Picard say that, he knew his goose was cooked. Crusher would never be able to let that remark pass. He rolled his eyes heavenward and prayed for mercy.

Cheesecake, indeed! Beverly couldn't contain herself any more. "Jean-Luc, I think you'd better lay off the desserts. At least until after the wedding."

Riker groaned loudly and dropped his head into his hands. Troi put her hand on his leg, patting it gently to comfort him, while at the same time developing a sudden, all consuming interest in the restaurant's nautical decor. Only Crusher had the nerve to look Picard straight in the eye.

Picard looked at his C.M.O., who was biting her lip to keep from laughing, then at his first officer. Riker's head was still buried in his hands, his shoulders shaking with, Picard suddenly realized, silent laughter. Then he looked at Troi. His ship's counselor. His Betazoid ship's counselor.

"Oh, no," he breathed in horror, as realization suddenly dawned. "Oh, no," he lamented. "Please," he practically begged, "please tell me this isn't a Betazoid ceremony. Please."

Riker looked up at Picard, wiping the tears from his eyes and choking on his laughter. "I'm afraid so, sir," he finally managed to sputter. Crusher was laughing so hard that Riker was afraid she'd pee in her pants. Troi had better control of herself, so she just gazed at Picard with that smug, superior, know-it-all look she sometimes got that annoyed the hell out of him.

Picard glared at Riker, the only one of the three he was really able to intimidate. He'd been set up. Royally. Despite the fact that he cared deeply for both Troi and Riker, there was no way in the galaxy he would have agreed to be part of his wedding had he known that he'd have to strip naked and stand in front of a room full of people that included–oh, God– Lwaxana Troi. And now that he'd already agreed, he couldn't–and wouldn't –go back on his word. He could only hope that all eyes would be focused on the bride and groom, and not their attendants. And just where in blazes was he supposed to put the ring?

Riker met Picard's glare unflinchingly, coming to attention in the chair. He could see the smoldering anger in the older man's eyes, and he knew they'd gone too far. If looks could kill, he thought, I'd be a smear on the floor right now. He felt Troi's hand slip into his and give a gentle squeeze, in a belated show of support. He never took his eyes off Picard, looking him straight in the eye as he apologized.

"I'm very sorry, sir. I should not have asked you to be my best man without apprizing you of all the facts first. It was wrong of me." Picard was struck by the absolute sincerity of Riker's apology, and the quiet grace with which he offered it. "If you'd like to change your mind, I'll understand completely."

He continued to meet Picard's scrutiny, waiting for his sentence to be handed down.

As Picard considered the offer to decline, he recalled Riker's nervousness as he had waited for him to answer the first time. Riker had done what he did not out of malice, but because he'd been genuinely afraid that Picard would say no. And in that instant, Picard realized with complete clarity, just how much he really meant to the young man seated beside him. And how much the young man meant to him. He would not change his mind, because in his heart he knew that he wanted to stand at that altar with his friend, even if it cost him his pride. And his dignity.

He looked around the table. They were all waiting with bated breath to see what he was going to do. Well, he wasn't going to let them off the hook too easily, he decided.

He shook his head. "I won't change my mind," Picard told him in a voice colder than the glaciers on Mount McKinley. "Graveyard shift, Commander," Picard assed judgment, enunciating each word slowly and precisely, with particular emphasis on Riker's rank, as if to imply that he'd better enjoy it now, because he might not have it much longer.

Riker, to his credit, didn't even bother to protest. "How long, sir?" he simply inquired.

"Always," Picard replied in the same icy tone, although his lips twitched, so slightly that Riker wasn't sure if he had actually seen it, or only imagined it. "Forever," he added, for good measure, as a spark of humor flickered deep in hazel eyes. Riker knew he hadn't imagined that one, and the tense line of his shoulders eased slightly.

"Yes, sir," Riker acknowledged, grateful for the fact that while he might lose some sleep, at least he got to keep his pips. And the respect and friendship of the man seated next to him. "Always," he repeated. He brought Troi's hand to his lips, kissing it in a silent salute of thanks. As the smile slowly spread across his face and into his eyes, he knew that the best part of his life was yet to come. "Forever."