Title: Who Knew
Author: Jrgnfly Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: In a mirror universe they'd be mine instead of Paramount's.


"Deanna can you hear me? I need you to wake up now." When there was no response from the still sleeping Counselor, Dr. Beverly Crusher gently shook the petite Betazoid's shoulder. Nothing happened. She lifted concerned blue eyes to Commander William Riker, who was standing on the opposite side of the bed in Counselor Troi's quarters, and shook her head; puzzled. His quizzical expression matched hers. They'd been trying to wake Deanna for the last five minutes but she remained deeply asleep.

Crusher ran a final pass of her medical tricorder over Troi's still form before securing it to her side again. The readings showed that Deanna's pulse was steady and her breathing was even. Her blood pressure was a little low and she didn't have a fever. As a last resort Crusher leaned forward again and injected her patient's neck with 10 cc's of cortropine in order to revive her. Troi's eyes instantly opened, looking over the occupants of the room in confusion.

"Beverly… Will… what are you doing here?" She attempted to pull herself upright; surprised by the stars that began dancing before her eyes. She blinked rapidly and cleared her vision.

"Deanna, you've been asleep for at least twenty seven hours."

"WHAT?" Eyes wide, she searched her mind for any sense that something was wrong. She sensed Crusher's concern and felt Riker's mounting anxiety flaring like a beacon in her head. "I feel fine," she said emphatically. "When my afternoon sessions were over I planned to lay down for an hour or so before we met to go over the latest batch of crew evaluations." She looked at Will for confirmation but he just shook his head at her, worry evident on his handsome face.

"Deanna, that was Thursday. When you didn't stop by I assumed you got hung up in your office."

"You missed our appointment in the gym this morning too," Crusher added. "But when you didn't show up at the poker game we both got worried."

"Poker game? It's Friday night?" Troi's mouth gaped open. It had been 1600 hours on Thursday when she'd decided to lay down for a nap. Her day had begun with alpha shift on the bridge, followed by three counseling sessions. She'd felt a little tired, but otherwise fine all day.

"Actually it's Saturday morning now, just barely." Crusher spoke in a low, soothing tone but Troi sensed the underlying strain emanating from the Chief Medical Officer.

"That's impossible," Deanna countered, tossing back the coverlet and swinging her legs out of the bed in an attempt to stand.

"Whoa, hold on a second." Crusher held up her hand to halt her, watching the Counselor wobble on her feet.

Riker swiftly walked forward and caught her by the elbow, guiding her back to sit on the bed once more. He could clearly see the fear that leapt into her dark eyes as they both wondered why she was so shaky.

"Try to relax, Deanna. We'll figure this out." Her delicate hand was lost in Will's gentle grasp, the trembling stilled when he curled her fingers into his palm. She looked up at him with a tremulous smile, grateful as always for his strength and support.

"You're coming to Sickbay. Now don't argue with me, Deanna. It won't do any good. And Will will back me up if I need him to." She spoke firmly, effectively cutting off any protest before Deanna could voice it. She glanced at Riker, who nodded and squeezed Troi's hand reassuringly. Then she attempted a smile.

"I suggest that you cover up a bit first, though. You wouldn't want to start a riot in the corridor or anything like that. Will, hand me that robe, will you?" Crusher gestured to the pile of shimmering lavender fabric draped over a chair and Will noticed for the first time that Deanna was sitting on top of her bed dressed only in a regulation tank top and a pair of tiny black panties. The rest of her uniform was in a heap on the floor beside the bed where she'd obviously discarded it before she'd climbed into bed.

Unable to stop himself, Will's eyes flicked over her again and he silently cursed Beverly for drawing his attention to those lush curves, only minimally covered by the skimpy garments. He was sure Command hadn't meant for their standard under attire to be quite so appealing, but on Deanna Troi even a burlap sack would be sexy. Her hair curled loosely around her shoulders, her full breasts strained against the confinement of the flimsy fabric and hem of the tank top left her midriff bare above the fabric clinging lovingly to her hips.

Desire for her surged through him before he could stop it and knowing he'd been staring, Riker rapidly turned away from the sensuous vision before his eyes, reaching out to grab the robe that Beverly requested. Now was no time to be caught leering.

With the silky fabric in his hands, Will held the robe out towards Deanna. She took it from him with a smile and shrugged it on, tying the belt tightly around her slender waist.

`I don't understand this, Beverly. I feel perfectly fine."

"Whether you feel okay or not, you're still coming to Sickbay." The red-haired doctor's voice teemed with concern. "You're showing signs of severe exhaustion and I need to run more tests.

Troi tried to stand again and immediately fell back down onto the soft surface of the mattress as her legs gave out on her once more. "This is ridiculous."

Earlier thoughts banished, Will came closer and hooked an arm firmly around her waist, hoisting Deanna to her feet and pulling her small body against the solid wall of his chest. She leaned back and shut her eyes, surrounding herself in his warmth. She gathered the shreds of her strength around her.

"Okay. I'll go."

Will nodded at her encouragingly and moved towards the door, half-carrying her with him. Crusher followed right behind them, tricorder at the ready. Deanna's body sagged in weakness against his with each step they took, though she tried to hide it. Cold fear crept into his heart at her uncontrollable shaking. This wasn't normal.

Part 2

"Shore leave? That's your official remedy, Doctor?" Three hours later Troi sat up in the biobed in Sickbay and stared at her friend. She'd just finished submitting to more tests than she could count on both hands and wanted to get the diagnosis and treatment over with so she could back to her quarters. She certainly hadn't expected the words that came out of Beverly's mouth.

Crusher nodded her head and a bright smile broke over her face, replacing its previous expression of worry.

"Deanna, I've checked my records and you haven't taken leave in close to a year. You told me yourself that you've been taking on alpha and beta shifts at least twice a week for the past five months on top of a full counseling schedule. Frankly, I'm surprised you held out this long without a total collapse." She clucked her tongue, began cataloguing Troi's symptoms.

"Your blood pressure is low, you've admitted to more frequent than usual headaches. Why you haven't come to me earlier to treat them I don't want to get into right now. And", she concluded, "on top of an unintentional twenty seven hour nap, you couldn't stand on your own earlier today. The next time I might not be able to wake you up so easily. So yes, Counselor, I am ordering you to take a break!" Crusher's hands were on her hips and she fixed Troi with an icy stare for not taking better care of herself as she finished her tirade.

Troi held her hands palms up in a rare gesture of concession.

"You don't have to yell at me, Beverly. I'll take the rest of the weekend off."

Crusher continued glaring at her in dismay. "No way. You need more than…" she checked her chronometer, "forty hours. I want you off this ship for at least a week."

"A week? Beverly…"

"No argument, Deanna." Crusher's tone grew official before she fixed her thumb to a PADD on the table. "You're off duty, effective immediately. Pending a full medical evaluation upon your return to the ship. I don't care where you go or what you do as long as you get some rest. "

Troi folded her arms across her chest and stiffened her posture in response to the lecture. Somehow Crusher sounded an awful lot like her mother.


"I can look into available transports to Betazed for you, if you'd like." Now that the hard part was over with and she knew there was nothing seriously wrong with Troi that some R&R couldn't cure, Crusher's voice regained its regular pleasant intonation again.

Deanna rolled her eyes.

"I hardly think time spent with my mother qualifies under your concept of a restful time, Beverly."

"Good point." Crusher smiled. Ambassador Lwaxana Troi's nature was akin to that of a whirling dervish, not at all what her daughter needed right now. "Well, wherever you decide to go, I'm serious about you getting off the ship for a while. I know you, you won't be able to resist some sort of work or helping someone with an emergency counseling session if you stay aboard even though others are more than capable of lending a hand. I think a change of scenery would do you good."

Crusher raised a silencing finger, watching Troi's mouth begin to open. "A change of scene beyond the holodeck, Deanna."

Troi lowered her head in defeat and laughed, sending her dark curls rippling over her shoulders before she raised it again. "Sometimes I wonder which of us is the Betazoid, Doctor. I hear you. Maybe I'll go to Pacifica. It's been a while since I've been on a real beach."

"We're heading towards that part of the sector anyway. There's some sort of celestial event going on over there. Half the ship has been buzzing about it." Usually up on the latest scuttlebutt, Crusher was a bit out of the loop on this one. Troi wasn't the only one who'd been pushing herself too hard and it gave Crusher a silent reminder to schedule some time off as well as check to see who else was overdue for leave.

"The eclipsing binary, you mean? It only happens once every five years."

"You mean like my love life?" Crusher interjected wryly. "It's been forever since I've had a date."

Deanna laughed and shook her head. "You said I'm off duty so we'll have to talk about *that* when I get back. Anyway… during the eclipse the stars in the system appear to shadow each other and the view from the Callisto Cliffs on Laguna Isle is simply amazing." Troi's smile brightened at the memory.

"You've seen it?"

Deanna nodded, her lips curving further upwards.

"Twice, actually. It's truly an indescribable sight but so lovely." She stifled a yawn, unable to fully prevent the sound from escaping. "Can I go back to my quarters now?" She stared pleadingly at Crusher who sighed and shrugged her shoulders; acquiescing.

"Given your tendency to disregard my orders, I'd rather monitor you here for a while. But I know you'll hate that and probably not get any rest which totally defeats the purpose. So, go ahead. But no work, Deanna. I mean it. And if you plan to go back to sleep contact me when you wake up so I'll know whether to come crashing through your doors again."

"Thanks. I will." Troi hopped off the biobed and tossed Crusher a happy look when her legs didn't fly out from under her this time. Crusher pulled back the curtain and began escorting her towards Sickbay's exit.

"Oh, and Deanna?"

Troi turned around, looking at the CMO expectantly.

"Check in with Will when his shift is over. He was worried sick about you."

Deanna's expression grew thoughtful and she nodded once again before disappearing through the doors and into the corridor.

Part 3

Troi slowly placed a lightweight sundress into her tote bag and set it on the floor. After returning from Sickbay in the early morning she'd quickly booked a cottage on Laguna Isle for the duration of her leave before settling back to sleep for another four hour nap. Upon waking, she'd checked in with Beverly as ordered then put her mind to packing. She'd had to stop and rest three times so far having never felt so exhausted in her life! Her fatigue felt like it had come out of nowhere though in hindsight she'd recognized many signs building over the past few months. Maybe Beverly was right; she *was* long overdue for a vacation.

Padding over to the dresser in her bedroom, Troi pulled open the top drawer and took out two bathing suits, inspecting them as her door chimed.

"Come in," she said, weighing whether to bring the gold or burgundy bikini with her in addition to the black one already in her bag.

"Has Beverly finally taken my advice? She's putting a whirlpool in Sickbay?" At Riker's teasing voice Troi spun around to find him lumbering through her living room and blinked rapidly at the stars that swam before her eyes at the sudden motion. She shakily sat down on the bed and tried to clear her head. When she looked up, he was leaning against the door jamb.

"I've always prided myself on my ability to make a woman swoon but this is going too far, Deanna." He strode into the room, took the garments out of her hand and settled himself on the edge of the bed beside her. "You okay?" He asked, his joking giving way to concern again.

Deanna nodded, taking back the swim suits and setting them aside.

"Very funny, Commander. I'm sorry to disappoint you but you'll have to keep badgering Beverly. No whirlpool yet so she's sending me out on shore leave. I'll be heading to Pacifica in the morning."

"Shore leave? She threatens me with restraints whenever I'm in her Sickbay, but she's sending you to the beach? That hardly seems fair," he replied plaintively, a boyish pout on his face.

"Tough luck Commander. You don't like it, take it up with the boss." She patted his hand affectionately, a sympathetic smile on her face. She knew full well that he was covering his worry with humor, as usual.

"Thankfully it's nothing serious then. At least I can help you pack. Especially considering you didn't seem to be so steady on your feet and it's not all due to my incomparable charm." He turned on the Riker grin full blast but Troi shook her head, pretending an immunity she did not possess.

"Packing advice from `I'll just replicate it-Riker?' No thanks, Will. I can take care of it on my own." She laughed.

Riker ignored her and reached over her body to grab the discarded bathing suits. He raised an eyebrow appreciatively at the scant material in his hands as Troi watched him with an amused smile on her face. In some ways, he never changed at all.

He handed her the gold bikini. "I like this one better." Just as quickly he snatched it from her hands and replaced it with the other one. "So bring this one instead. Then again, maybe you should try them on so I can make an informed decision." He waggled his eyebrows at her and Deanna couldn't help but laugh and playfully swat at him with the suit before she rose and tossed both of them into the bag on the floor.

She headed back into the main room and Riker followed, an image of Deanna in that miniscule gold bikini darting through his mind. After briefly savoring the fantasy, he threw himself on to her couch and turned his attention back to the reality of the actual woman walking around in front of him. He gave her a once over, a lazy grin on his face as he watched her putter around her quarters barefoot and oblivious to his appraising stare.

Deanna's hair was pulled back from her delicate face and in faded black pants and an old University of Betazed tee shirt that Riker fondly remembered taking off of her a time or two when it was new, she looked about eighteen. Her face was too pale though and Riker frowned at the way she'd scared him earlier.

They'd been halfway through Poker night in his quarters when Beverly mentioned off-handedly that Deanna had missed their morning meeting in the gym and how she hoped that Counselor wasn't in the midst of another session of crisis counseling. Without knowing why, Riker's gut had tightened at her words then he'd told Crusher that Troi hadn't shown up for their usual Thursday night appointment to review crew evaluations. The lack of response from her quarters had led them to override her access code and when they found her sleeping and couldn't get her to wake up… Will didn't even want to think about it. He shuddered inwardly and started at the hand on his arm.


Lost in thought, he hadn't noticed that she'd sat down beside him.

"I thought you said you were going to help me pack." She eyed him speculatively, sensing from his agitated emotions that all was not well. Still, she'd wait him out and let him talk to her when he was ready. She was just too tired…

"You said you didn't need my help and since it's already been a long day, I thought I'd take a break." He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gently drew her against him. Troi yawned and settled a bit closer. "Especially since I seem to be boring you," he added. He leaned in to kiss the top of her head and noticed that her eyes were closed. He shifted slightly on the couch; ready, if not willing, to get up and leave her to the rest she so desperately needed. Deanna's head fell forward on to his chest, stilling his movement. She was out cold again.

Giving in to the press of her warmth against him, Riker leaned back into the arm of the couch; bringing her with him until he was stretched across its length and she was stretched out across his. It took mere minutes before he drifted off to sleep himself.

Crusher found them that way a little more than an hour later. After Troi had failed once again to answer her page, the CMO used her medical override to slip into the Counselor's quarters in order to check on her patient. Her lips curved upwards in a small smile at the sight of the diminutive Betazoid stretched across the also slumbering First Officer. With his head and feet hanging off the couch at odd angles, Crusher knew Riker was in for some sore moments when he woke up. But judging from the contented smile on his bearded face, he wouldn't mind in the least.

She chuckled to herself as she silently let herself out again and left them to their nap. Those two were only fooling themselves.

Part 4

The next morning

"Over the next few days, the Enterprise will be assisting a civilian science team on Pacifica, helping them to gather information on the binary eclipse that will be occurring six days from now." Picard looked around the Starboard Lounge at the members of his senior staff. All were present, except for Counselor Troi. Dr. Crusher had informed him that she'd barred Deanna from duty during their customary breakfast this morning. She'd already left the ship on leave.

"Commanders Riker and Data and Dr. Crusher will be beaming down to the surface shortly." Picard glanced at each of them in turn before settling his gaze on his Chief Medical Officer. "There have been reports of increasing seismic activity near the research station. So far only minor injuries have been reported."

"Sir, small tremors in the region have been indicative of larger quakes in the surrounding areas in 87.623% of the past occurrences. There appears to be a correlation between the intensity of the seismic activity and the gravitational pull from the eclipse."

"Thank you, Mr. Data. The utmost precautions will need to be taken to ensure the safety of the science team. They are collecting highly sensitive data that Starfleet Command intends to apply to upgrades in sensor technology."

Commander Riker slumped forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the glossy surface of the conference table. "When did Starfleet Command start recruiting civilians to gather intelligence for them?"

"They haven't, Number One. But this particular team has been in place on Pacifica for the past ten years, studying the energy output generated by the binary eclipse and its effect on the nearby nebula. They are considered by many to be experts in their field." Picard cleared his throat and drew the meeting to a close, then caught up with Riker on his way out of the lounge.

"Will, please hang back a moment."

Riker halted by the door and leaned against the bulkhead.


" It has come to my attention that a few members of the crew are planning on shore leave while we remain in orbit around Pacifica. Dr. Crusher has seen fit to inform me that you haven't taken more than a day or two of leave in over seven months. Therefore, once all is deemed stable on the surface you will turn the away team over to Mr. Data's command as you will be released from duty for ninety-six hours."

With that, Picard awkwardly patted the larger man's shoulder and proceeded to exit the room.

"Enjoy your time off, Will," Riker heard as he stared after him, a grin breaking broadly over his face.

An hour later Riker was headed to Transporter Room 2, ready to lead the away team to the surface. He absently rubbed at the back of his neck, alleviating the stiffness. He hadn't planned on falling asleep on Deanna's couch like that but the soft press of her body against his had been irresistible. The last time he'd felt so comfortable with her had been months ago… before he'd made an ass of himself and gone running after Soren.

He'd come close to completely messing up everything that mattered to him; his career, the Captain's trust in him, his relationship with Deanna… all were put in jeopardy when he'd convinced himself that he was in love with the J'Nai scientist. Even now, months later he still hadn't gotten over that misguided act of supreme stupidity.

Still, in her unique manner, Deanna had just smiled at him in that all knowing (if mildly irritating) manner and told him she'd always be there for him. If the situation had been reversed, Will doubted that he'd be able to be so generous and he'd felt awkward around her ever since. Now that things finally felt like they were getting back to normal, maybe he'd be able to spend some time making it up to her.

His long strides quickened as he drew nearer to approaching the archway of the transporter room. Entering through the doors and proceeding to the transporter pad to await the remaining member of the away team, Riker nodded at Chief O'Brien and greeted Beverly Crusher with a wide smile as he took his place beside her.

"You told the Captain that I need a vacation?" He half-whispered, aware of O'Brien's penchant for spreading gossip.

"Half the crew needs a vacation, Commander. Myself included." Her eyes sparkled at him mischievously. "And since you already average two days a month in my Sickbay, I'd rather you not take up residence there on a more frequent basis." At Riker's open mouth she held up her index finger to stop him from speaking. "Despite your thoughts on my evil intentions, I'd prefer to keep you out of there almost as much as you'd like to stay away."

Her defensive tone widened the smile on his face. Noting his enjoyment at her expense and the way he stiffened as he inclined his head in silent laughter, Crusher retaliated preemptively.

"Something wrong with your neck, Commander?" She asked innocently. "Old age catching up to you?"

Riker just chuckled and nodded his head at Commander Data as he joined them on the transporter pad.

"Energize, Mr. O'Brien."

As the shimmering beam overtook them, Crusher couldn't resist a parting shot.

"I could always order you to seek some attention from someone well versed in therapeutic massage, Will," she murmured under her breath, delighting in Riker's open mouth gape before they beamed to the surface.

Part 5

Deanna took a sip from her glass of iced tea and surveyed the empty expanse of sand in front of her. A little solitude really was just what the doctor ordered. And sometimes being a Daughter of the Fifth House had its advantages too, having helped her to secure the last of the five residences on the island on such short notice and without flinching at the exorbitant price. The only sounds she'd heard since settling in to her secluded cottage on the far side of the island had been the rhythmic crashing of the waves as they kissed the shoreline of her stretch of private beach and the morning songs of the indigenous seabirds.

If she closed her eyes, it almost felt like home. And after two days of doing nothing except lazing in the sun, she was feeling much more rested than she would have on Betazed with her mother. Though the water surrounding Laguna Isle was blue instead of the deep green of her home planet, it was just as warm and the golden sun shone overhead without a cloud in sight to steal its brilliance.

With the cottages spread far apart from each other, Troi hadn't seen or sensed any other inhabitants since she'd arrived. A sense of restful calm washed over her and she placed her glass down in the sand next to her lounge chair. It was impossible for her to truly fully relax aboard ship; there were over a thousand life forms living on the Enterprise and she had to work hard to block out their constant onslaught of emotions even while sleeping.

But here… she'd started to unwind as soon as she'd sunk her toes into the pure white sand and felt the warm breath of the summer breeze dance across her skin. By the time this week was over she fully expected to be sufficiently rested and ready to go back to work. She stretched her arms above her head languorously and exhaled deeply, clearing her mind completely and letting meditation lead her to a deeper state of calm.

"Commander, you should take a look at this."

Riker hoisted himself out from underneath the console he'd been repairing and ambled over to where Crusher was gesturing with her tricorder. Both officers were covered from head to toe in thick grayish brown dust, a result of the extensive they'd been doing to keep the station's equipment clear from debris.

Situated on Pacifica's eastern continent, the research station was located entirely too close to a fault line for Riker's comfort. The minor tremors they'd been briefed on had been intensifying over the past six hours, matching Data's earlier projections. During the last quake the ceiling had partially collapsed.

The five scientists in charge of the station, having had years of practice in dealing with the volatile shaking beneath their feet during an approaching eclipse had mostly shrugged it off, not allowing there to be any deterrent from their work. So far, Dr. Crusher had patched up a few scrapes and a broken wrist in the aftermath and was spending most of her time monitoring the sensor array while Riker repaired damaged equipment and Data assisted the team with some of the more technical aspects of their work.

Riker perused the latest readings on the scanner then read them again A frown appeared between his brows. It didn't look good. There had been another twelve percent increase in seismic activity since the last survey taken only two hours previously.

"I think we're going to need to clear everyone out of here for a while. If we don't my guess is you'll be treating injuries a lot more serious than some scrapes and bruises."

Crusher nodded and gestured to the head of the science team, huddled in the corner of the room in a heated discussion with his assistant. "I'll let you tell him that."

Dr. Samuel Newell, human and in his early forties was something of a genius. He was also notoriously territorial about his lab and had only begrudgingly accepted any assistance from Starfleet to begin with. During his initial introduction to the away team, he'd been condescending and dismissive.

Riker gave Crusher a wry smile and headed his way, shaking the dust from his hair.

"No, Kevin I told you three times already. There is something wrong with your data. There's no way an electromagnetic pulse can be suppressed in such a manner." Newell shook his head, stabbing a finger at the Padd in the younger man's hand.

"Gentlemen, I'm sorry to interrupt you, but due to the spike just noted by your sensors," Riker paused as the ground shook again beneath his feet, "the stability of this lab has been greatly compromised. I suggest we vacate the premises until the area settles down."

Newell shook his shaggy blond head in opposition, folding his wiry arms across his chest and drawing himself up to his full height; a good head shorter than Riker. He glared at both men standing next to him.

"That's simply out of the question, Commander. There's not nearly enough time to get all of our equipment up and running before the eclipse begins as it stands now; what you're suggesting will completely doom the project in its entirety."

"With all due respect, Doctor, if these quakes continue in their current pattern you won't have any equipment left to gather your data with. I've just spent the past four hours repairing that console over there for the third time and you have two others in similar shape. If you'll allow us to move the equipment to a different location the risks will be greatly diminished and the safety of your team … and your data can be better assured." Riker leaned his bulk against the wall, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his reddened eyes from the mineral laden dust in the air.

Newell considered the commander's words and turned towards his assistant once again. "Go log the thermal readings from the nebula. Maybe the surge is resulting in a shielding effect on the EMP."

The young scientist, no more than twenty-five, nodded his assent and scurried away. He was grateful to have escaped another dressing down from his high strung boss. It'd all be worth it once he completed his dissertation on the eclipse after spending six months with the team.

A loud rumble sounded beneath them again and Riker resisted the urge to tap his foot. Two days in, this was not at all how he'd planned to spend his time on Pacifica. Playing handyman and babysitter for a bunch of arrogant SOB's who thought of nothing except their precious research.

"Look, Doctor," he began again, only to be interrupted by the violent shaking of the ground beneath his feet. An ear-splitting crack sounded from the wall he'd been leaning on and Riker swiftly moved aside, narrowly missing a jagged pane of glass as it descended from a damaged fixture above their heads. From the corner of his eye he spotted a massive beam about to drop on top of Dr. Newell's head and Riker's reflexes quickened, instinctively shoving the smaller man out of its path. His body stiffened, vaguely registering Crusher's horrified shout of warning before he was propelled forward, collapsing into the unyielding surface of floor beneath a pile of metal and broken glass.

Part 6

"Jean-Luc, we've done everything we possibly can." Crusher raised her hands helplessly. "I've repaired all of Will's physical injuries, including three cracked ribs, a shattered femur and a punctured lung but with the damage caused by his skull fracture he may not regain consciousness."

She sipped her tea and met Picard's eyes. Only someone who knew him well could see the strain on his face. She set her glass back down and picked at the croissant in front of her. The flaky pastry dissolved into metallic dust in her mouth. She couldn't rid herself of the memory of seeing the first officer slam to the ground beneath mounds of rubble.

Picard leaned forward and placed his hand on her forearm. "Commander Riker saved Dr. Newell's life, Beverly."

"But at what cost? Will lost almost two liters of blood in the process. It took over seven hours of surgery just to begin to put him back together and he coded four times." Angry tears blurred her vision.

"I've sent Lt. Worf down to the surface along with Dr. Selar. They'll assist Data with the rest of the repairs. Have you had any luck in contacting Counselor Troi?"

Crusher shook her head, blinking the tears away. "Not yet. She hasn't been answering her comm. badge but maybe the damage from the quake reached farther than we originally thought. Still, Laguna Isle is pretty isolated. I'm tempted to send someone down there to bring her back. Deanna would never forgive herself if Will dies and she wasn't there."

Halfway to his mouth, Picard's cup jostled in his right hand at her words. All these years Will Riker the innate ability to pull through even the most unlikely odds; he'd never thought his Exec's particular brand of luck would run out. Looking across the table at the widow of the last man he'd thought that about, Picard remembered how wrong he'd been before. He cleared his throat slightly and suppressed the emotion in his words.

"Is that looking likely?"

Crusher saw through the façade and rested her left hand on top of his, still resting on her right arm.

"Frankly Jean-Luc, I'm surprised he's still with us. With the amount of trauma to Will's brain… I don't have any explanation for how he's managed to survive this long."

Dr. Beverly Crusher had solved more than a few medical mysteries in her highly decorated almost thirty year career but she'd never dealt with a case as mystifying as this one. For over thirty hours Will Riker had defied every statistic she'd ever seen regarding severe head trauma. He should have been a vegetable, not breathing on his own with a steady pulse and brain waves that were off the charts. She'd only seen something similar occur once before… and not in a human. Still, he was in a Level One coma, with no response to stimuli.

Sorting through the results of his latest round of tests, Crusher left her office and walked into the private room in Sickbay's I.C.U. The "Riker Room" it'd been dubbed last year after Will had stayed there overnight for the hundredth time since receiving his commission on the Enterprise. The monitors above his head showed no change and his normally ruddy complexion was ashen due to blood loss. She was dreading Troi's arrival, having nothing good to tell her. Still, if anyone could work a miracle, it was Deanna.

She'd seen it before; the way Riker's labored breathing after one surgery or another would even out when she'd visit him in Sickbay and how he seemed to heal faster when she was around. And with still no word from the Counselor, she'd given in to her instincts and sent Nurse Alyssa Ogawa down to Troi's cottage to bring her back to the ship and fill her in on Riker's condition.

Crusher adjusted his feeding tube slightly and checked his pulse. No change.

"Come on, Will," she said, changing the dressing on his head. "Deanna will be here any minute. How about you wake up and greet her with that smile of yours?" She watched him for a few more minutes; his only movements in the rapid rise and fall of his chest. She sighed, turned away and headed back to her office, almost crashing into an antigrav cart as she rounded the corner.

Crusher looked down at the occupant with astonished blue eyes then lifted her eyes to see Nurse Ogawa's matching look of shock.

"Dr. Crusher," she said, her beautiful almond eyes wide. "You're not going to believe this!"

Part 7

"Doctor are you certain that she is not a victim of the quake as well? An hour later Picard watched Crusher pacing the halls of Sickbay, his eyes narrowing as he tried to run through any logical explanation for the news she had just given him.

"Positive, Captain. Laguna Isle has shown no sign of the tectonic shifts occurring elsewhere on the planet. And all my scans have come back negative for injury, except for the obvious. Even her previous symptoms of exhaustion have dissipated. According to every diagnostic test I ran, most of them more than once, there is no medical explanation for this."

Picard folded his hands together on top of the CMO's desk, watching her release nervous energy by walking back in forth outside her office door, wearing an invisible path in the floor.

"Surely there has to be a reason."

"Well, I can't find one Jean-Luc. Or rather, I can't find even one, let alone two. Will's head injury should have killed him two days ago and Deanna should be up and walking around but somehow both of them are in the same unconscious state with identical respiration and brain activity. Their brain waves are the same, Jean-Luc! That's impossible due to the differences in their physiology and I wouldn't believe it if I'm not seeing it every time I go into that room." She jerked her thumb in the direction of the ICU then threw herself in to the chair opposite the Captain on the other side of her desk. "If I didn't know better…" She trailed off and bit her lip, lowering her head to the top of the desk.

"Yes? If you didn't know better, what?" Picard tried to keep the irritation from his voice. He had been hoping for answers but there were only more questions than there had been earlier. And now two of his senior officers were in Sickbay.

Crusher lifted her head from the desk and shrugged her shoulders, sending her red hair streaming down her back. "I'm not one for Betazoid mysticism, Captain. But judging from the last time she'd eaten and the state Alyssa found her in, it looks like Deanna collapsed around the time Will was struck unconscious. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say from the spikes that showed in these readings when Alyssa brought her in, wherever they are the two of them are somehow communicating.

Part 8

Will Riker blinked rapidly and rubbed the grit from his eyes, wincing at the blinding glare above. He raised a hand to his forehead, slowly adjusting to the intensity of the light. How in the blazes did he get…. wherever he was? His phaser was gone, as was his tricorder.

"Riker to Enterprise." He tapped his comm. badge once then again. "Enterprise, this is Commander Riker. Come in Enterprise." There was no answer, no static. Only empty silence and the rushing of the ocean filled his ears.

"I was at the station trying to talk some sense into that blowhard," he said aloud, spying a lone stone bench at the edge of the surf. "And then…" Nothing. Nothing but an empty stretch of beach, a bench and some dunes he saw far away in the distance.

Will walked across the sparkling sand, trying to get his bearings. Awash with shells, it seemed as though the sand shimmered for miles under his feet until it ran into the sea-green waves…. he knew this place, somehow. His mind strained to remember, but he knew this wasn't Pacifica. He sat heavily on the bench, grateful for the breeze dissipating the punishing heat of the day. The briny tang of the sea mingled with the scent of ocean lilies filled his nose, replacing the odor of acrid smoke and teasing Riker's senses and memory alike.

"How the hell did I get to the Janaran Sea?"

"I was just asking myself the same question." Troi appeared seemingly out of nowhere, looking as confused as he felt. She sat beside him on the bench and let her bare feet dangle into cool foam of the cresting waves. She sensed nothing threatening; actually she sensed nothing at all around them. "I was thinking about home but this…?" She shrugged her bare shoulders, stared into the sea. The only emotions she felt came from Riker. There was no apprehension at all from him, only bafflementS and curiosity blended with relief at seeing her.

"This isn't home. We're the only ones here." There weren't even any birds flying over head or crabs skittering through the sand. They really were the only ones around.

"Do you think this is some trick of Q's?" He asked, rising to his feet and extending a hand to help her up.

"I don't know, but somehow I don't think so, Will." She accepted his hand with a smile then gasped, noticing the deep gouges in his arm. He should have been bleeding but there was no blood in sight. Deanna looked closely at his torn, bloodstained uniform and something tingled briefly at the back of her mind.

"What *happened* to you?"

"I have no idea. But it doesn't hurt."

The sun's rays cast reddish glints on her hair as she came closer.

"I know it doesn't. I can sense that much. It looks like it should, though. Your leg is a mess too. And your face…" She ran a hand lightly over the bruises on his forehead and blackened left eye, brushing aside his already tousled hair. A residue of dark dust covered her delicate hand. "I suppose anything's an improvement there." Her concerned expression melted away; lips curving upwards in a teasing smile.

"Hey!" He stepped backwards, frowning at her words. A smile washed it away and his eyes gleamed with mischief. "Well, I know this isn't heaven at least. If it was, you'd be wearing even less." His grin widened playfully, taking in her black bikini and matching sarong.

Troi rolled her eyes at him. He always diffused a serious situation with a light-hearted jest and many officers responded well to this aspect of his command style. Right now she appreciated the levity, having no idea how or why they were here. She collapsed in the warm silver sand and let the water lap at her calves. The cooling wind blew her hair over her shoulders and she propped her elbows beneath her, looking upwards.

"I'm on vacation and I don't recall inviting you to drop by, Commander." She smiled up at him, losing herself in the deep blue pools of his eyes. "At least I was." Her voice dropped and her teeth worried at the corner of her lip. The smile faded as she stared at him for long seconds.

"What? Deanna's what's wrong?" He slid down beside her into the damp cushion of sand and placed his hands on her shoulders.

"Your injuries are fading." She raised herself up again and brought her hand back to his face. Sure enough, the split and puffy lip had fully healed and the deep purple swathes of skin had turned a sickly shade of yellow. She traced the edge of the scrape just above his bearded cheek with her index finger. When her finger slid away, the skin was whole again.

"What is this place?" He asked; flexing his leg and seeing new skin appear in place of the ragged gash that was there only minutes ago. He removed his boots and socks and tossed them aside.

"I don't know, Will. Something doesn't feel right though."

Riker took a hard look around at their surroundings. The scenic shore was too perfect a setting and almost seemed like a holodeck program. Nothing had changed in the hour or so since he'd first arrived. He turned back towards Troi and his mouth dropped open.

"Deanna… I might be healing, but you aren't."

"Will, what are you talking about?" Troi asked, puzzled. "I have nothing to heal from."

"Look down."

"Will? I don't understand." She stared at him, paralyzed by the fierce onslaught of his alarm.

"Look at your arm, Deanna." His voice shook on the last syllable and he cupped a hand behind her neck, forcing her head down.

At the sight of the growing wound on her arm, Deanna's eyes filled with tears. As she stared, the skin puckered and dark red blood spilled onto the sand. Riker immediately tore a strip of fabric from his uniform, tying it tightly around Troi's arm to staunch the flow as she sat frozen in place. He hadn't been in pain at all; why was she crying?

"This isn't possible." The color seeped out of her cheeks, bile burning the back of her throat. Recognition flashed across her face, leaving Will bewildered. He helplessly watched as bruises blossomed on her delicate skin.

"What?" Riker brought his hands to her face, wiping away tears with the tips of his thumbs and finding discolored patches in their place. She shuddered at the touch of his skin against the moisture on his face and lifted her inky eyes to his.

"Will," she whispered, beginning to shake. "I know where we are."

Part 9

Sixteen hours later Dr. Crusher had even less of a sense of what had happened to Riker and Troi. Will's brain injury was healing at a remarkably fast rate but Deanna somehow seemed to be absorbing all of Will's injuries into herself. It was as though her empathic abilities had transcended emotions and manifested themselves physically. Maybe if she were away from him, she'd heal.

"Alyssa, I think we should separate them. Help me move Counselor Troi into the next room, please. I'm afraid her condition is deteriorating."

"Right away, Doctor." Nurse Ogawa released the locking mechanism on the biobed, mindful of the wires and tubes surrounding the Counselor. Beneath the silver covering Troi's unmoving body was enveloped in bruises and her formerly steady breathing was supplemented by oxygen; echoing the injuries Commander Riker sustained in the quake over 20,000 kilometers from where she was situated at the time.

"I've never seen anything like this before," Alyssa commented, activating the stasis unit in preparation for the move. She held steady at the head of the biobed, waiting for Crusher's okay to begin transporting the patient.

Crusher began monitoring Troi's vitals. "I haven't run out of ideas yet. Let's get her settled next door before we try something else." She placed her free hand on the foot of the biobed and began pushing it slowly, maneuvering it into the corridor.

A harsh beeping sounded from behind her, shattering the rhythmic pattern of sounds from the monitor's above Riker's head. Crusher rushed towards the alarm.

"He's arresting. Alyssa, grab ten cc's of quadroline stat!" She took a hypospray from her pocket as Alyssa pushed Troi back into the room so it wasn't blocking the medicine closet. The alarm ceased.

"What did you do?" She asked Crusher, seeing the CMO with a hypo in hand, poised over the Commander's neck.

"Nothing. It stopped on its own. He's rock steady." She shot Ogawa a quizzical glance and lifted her shoulders upward. "There must be a glitch somewhere. I'll have to switch it out and run a diagnostic on this machine."

With a fleeting look at Riker, Crusher stepped back over towards Troi's biobed and slid it back through the doorway. The cacophonous wailing of the alarm started up immediately. The doctor's eyes flashed in disbelief. Instead of running back towards Riker, she cocked her head to the side and pulled the biobed further into the room. Once again the beeping stopped and Riker's heart rate settled into a normal rhythm.

Her gaze darting from Troi to Riker and back again, Ogawa's mouth opened with a distinctive pop.

"Did that just happen?" She asked, inching away instinctively.

"I think so." Crusher replied slowly, running her medical tricorder first over Riker then Troi. Both stable, for now. She pressed the biobed forward in small increments and swiftly tugged back again as the monitor's alarm sounded a third time before halting at her actions.

"How is that possible?" Ogawa asked. She couldn't believe her eyes.

Deanna had mentioned once that she and Will shared a bond of some sort but she'd never said anything about something like this.

"She's keeping his heart beating," Crusher whispered.

"Deanna? You said you know where we are?"

Riker saw Troi's lip quiver.

"We're in Asteria," she replied, struggling to recall everything she'd learned as a child.

"Where the hell is Asteria?"

Her answer didn't help him at all. He had no clue why they were here, how they'd arrived or why he hadn't felt any pain from his mysterious injuries or how they'd transferred to Deanna.

She dropped to her knees in the sand, clutching frantically at his hands. The waves crashed out to sea as the tide went in, sweeping farther away from them.

"It's not a place, not really. At least not in the way human's think of places. I don't even know how you could have gotten here…" Her eyes lost focus and Riker called her name twice, grabbing her back from wherever she had drifted off to. She met his eyes with a heartbreaking expression on her face and continued.

"You weren't far off when you were joking about heaven earlier. Asteria is a spiritual aspect. One that can only be reached when one is near death." Her voice cracked on the last word and she gripped him tighter, curling her fists deep in the hollow of his palms.

"The quake." Riker remembered now; Crusher had shouted for him to move out of the way of the collapsing beam but there hadn't been time. "I was injured in a quake at the research station on Pacifica. But that doesn't explain why you're here, Deanna. Or this."

Riker released one of her hands and brushed his finger lightly over her bruised cheek. Struck by the despair in her luminous eyes, he leaned forward without thinking and replaced his finger with his lips; dusting her skin in a gentle kiss. When he backed away her skin was smooth and clear, restored to its former radiance.

"I did this," he thought out loud. "Somehow, I brought you here."

Will broke away from her and stood, kicking at some shells with his bare feet and sending them on a zigzagging path across the sand. His insides scalded with guilt; thinking that he had somehow trapped them in this place. A large hand ran through his unruly hair, sending a shower of dust over the shoulders of his uniform and coating them in the dirt filled substance.

Troi remained huddled on the ground, trailing her fingers listlessly through the sand.

"I'm still trying to figure out how you got here, Will. You're human; it shouldn't be possible for you to experience Asteria at all." She paused; stared at her hands, delving deeper in the sand in search of something she couldn't find.

"Beverly said you were fine. Just exhausted. That wouldn't explain *this*." He gestured around them at the powerful surf pounding at the shore in front of them. "Shore leave is a far cry from being near death, Counselor." His eyes sparkled down at her as he paced in the sand. "Unless you were truly that bored."

Troi continued to look intently at the ground. "That wasn't what I meant. Maybe what I should have said was… you're here because of us… Imzadi."

A faint smile touched his lips in acknowledgment of her words and he stopped his pacing, knowing he should have thought of that as well. Still, he was pleased by it somehow. Though they rarely acknowledged the bond between them, it was never far from his mind or his soul. And it was comforting to think that even if he didn't make it out of this alive, at least he'd be able to kiss her goodbye.

Troi finally raised her head and looked at him hard, sensing the direction of his thoughts. She got to her feet and dropped gracefully onto the bench, smoothing the fabric of her skirt over her thighs, and eyed Riker speculatively as his smile intensified, growing into a full blown grin; he wasn't giving up quite yet.

Without warning he dropped to his knees before her. "Well, however we got here, I can't think of anyone I'd rather be stuck in Limbo with, Counselor." He grasped her wrists gently in his hands, sending a small tremor up her arms at the surprising heat of his touch against her skin. Will cocked his head to the side and released one of her wrists; untying the makeshift bandage he'd applied to her arm earlier. The skin was unblemished underneath the ragged strip of cloth.

"And you're healed now, too. Are we physically *here,* Deanna?" Bits of broken shells reflected the amber glow of the setting sun behind them. They certainly felt real digging into his knees.

"No. I remember that much." She leaned forward, the glow of the sun touching her skin with gold. "Asteria is on the spiritual plane. Only our souls are here now. The healing we've seen must have happened to our physical forms… wherever they are."

Will stretched out in the sand, propping himself up on an elbow, his hand beneath his head.

"I'm sure Beverly's been poking and prodding us to her heart's content." A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth again. "Now we just need to find a way out of here. A way that doesn't involve a light at the end of the tunnel."

Part 10

By the next morning, Beverly Crusher had tried everything she could think of to help them regain consciousness. She'd been able to mend all of Deanna's `echo injuries,' as she thought of them, but it hadn't caused either of them to so much as stir. The usual array of cortical stimulators and resuscitative drugs had no effect on their conditions and their brain waves still indicated coma, similar to the ones suffered in the aftermath of the Ullian attack last year. Crusher had to leave strict instructions with the entire Sickbay staff not to move either of them from the shared ICU room. Nothing she'd found leant any insight into why Commander Riker's heart stopped every time Counselor Troi was moved more than six feet from his side.

She set aside yet another useless article on humanoid traumatic brain injuries and took a final sip from her third cup of coffee. Exhaustion permeated her sore muscles; she felt completely helpless. With no other avenues left to explore, she activated the computer terminal on her desk and opened a channel to Betazed. Whatever was happening to her friends was far beyond her medical training.

Within minutes the console chirped at her and the voice of the computer announced,

<<Incoming transmission relayed.>>

The indomitable personage of Lwaxana Troi, Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Riix, Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed, came into sight. Crusher silently noted that as usual Mrs. Troi was dressed impeccably, if more than a bit garishly by human standards. Her deep metallic green gown cascaded in a billowing skirt to her feet in yards and yards of fabric in contrast to the revealing bodice, edged in silver against her ample cleavage. Her dark, wavy hair was caught under a feathery headdress of some sort and long beaded earrings brushed against her bare shoulders.

Seeing who had requested her presence, Deanna's mother greeted the Chief Medical Officer with a smile.

<<Hello, Doctor. Have you finally decided you need some advice on how to snag Jean-Luc? You could be quite a catch if you took off that hideous coat once in a while. It really hides your figure, dear.>>

Ambassador Troi's black eyes lit up with mirth; she'd been positively itching to try her hand at matchmaking those two for some time now. She knew Jean-Luc would never act on those pornographic thoughts he'd had of her in the past; the Starfleet Captain had entirely much decorum for her tastes for all his wicked thoughts.

Crusher's face flamed as red as her hair and she cleared her throat softly; thankful that the extremely skilled telepath wasn't able to read her thoughts through the thousands of light years that currently separated them.

"No, Ambassador, that's not why I contacted you. Thank you for offering though." She nearly choked on the words, knowing better than to offend Lwaxana Troi. "It's about Deanna."

Lwaxana's smile transformed into an expression of contemplative concern as the doctor relayed the events of the past few days. She didn't even attempt to interrupt and said nothing until Crusher finished speaking. Then she sighed dramatically, placed a bejeweled hand on her heart and lifted her eyes to the heavens.

<<Oh my Little One,>> she exclaimed, shaking her head. <<I warned her that sublimating their bond into this silly notion of friendship could have repercussions but she didn't listen.>>

A strange expression flitted over her features and caused her brow to wrinkle.

<<Come to think of it, she stopped listening to me the day she met William. But that's neither here nor there.>> Noticing Crusher's impatience, she waved a hand before her face, gesturing the thought away.

<<You said Deanna appeared to take on his injuries?>> Her brow furrowed deeper; concentrating.

"Yes, that's correct. I've been able to heal them and they haven't returned."

<<No, they wouldn't.>>

"I tried to move her into another room to treat her but…"

Mrs. Troi stared at Crusher, alarm growing on her face.

<<Whatever happens, don't separate them, Dr. Crusher. You'll kill them both. This fatigue you've been treating my daughter for; that has to be the reason William was able to reach out from so far away when he was injured. Her shields must be in tatters and the poor man just couldn't help himself.>>

She leaned in closer to the viewscreen. <<Human males rarely can, dear,>> she confided with a smile.

"Is there anything I can do to wake them up?" Crusher's patience was at an end. She needed to bring the Ambassador's focus back to where she needed it, instead of where it was heading once again.

Lwaxana sighed loudly again and clasped her hands together on her lap.

<<Doctor, my daughter and William are bonded together on a spiritual level that cannot be put into words… well maybe into one. They'll have to work through this on their own, obstinate as they are. There is nothing medically you can do to assist them at this time. It's a matter of the soul and perhaps one of the heart that will need to be resolved before they will wake.>>

At Crusher's bewildered look, Mrs. Troi imparted a few final words.

<<Have faith in them, Doctor. Though the deities know those two are too willful for their own good; they'll come out of this in time. At least I hope they will. Troi out.>> The federation logo appeared, filling the otherwise empty screen.

For a long time afterwards Beverly sat there, unmoving and trying to process Lwaxana's words until Ensign McKnight arrived in Sickbay with a broken left elbow, courtesy of a game of Parrises Squares that took place without the holodeck's safeties on.

Part 11

"Come swimming with me."

Troi regarded him quizzically. "You think we can swim our way out of here?" She felt his mood shift from the determined confidence she was so familiar with to a light-hearted restlessness within the space of a heartbeat.

Will lay on his back in the sand and smiled up at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling at the way she was looking at him.

"No," he answered. "But I think better when I'm doing something as opposed to just laying around. And since you're already dressed for the occasion, why not?"

She considered his words for less than a minute. Standing abruptly, Deanna flicked at the knot that held her skirt together over her bikini bottoms. To Riker's surprised delight she shimmied once, dropping the black fabric in a puddle on the sand.

"Why not…" she echoed. Her dark eyes beckoned to him; drew him in. With a coy glance over her shoulder she headed for the water without another word.

Riker scrambled off the ground, shedding his uniform and letting it fall where it would as he ran to join her in the waves.

"This was my idea. You could have waited," he complained, reaching for her shoulder before it dipped below the gentle tranquility of the sparkling surface. The water was deliciously cool and as clear as glass; deep enough to lap at his torso from his place in the silky sand.

Deanna evaded his searching hand and splashed him in the face, sending a stream of briny water straight up his nose before moving out of reach.

"Tough luck, Riker. You'll have to work harder to keep up." Like one born to the sea, she dashed under the next swell, moving fluidly under the surface and out to deeper water.

From a few yards away Riker watched her disappear beneath the glimmering waves. When she re-emerged so far away that he had to strain his eyes just to keep her in his line of sight, he laughed to himself and followed her lead. Sometimes it seemed he'd spent almost half his life chasing after that woman.

Swimming cleanly through the water, it wasn't long before he caught up with her; grabbing at her heel and tugging her completely under the waves in a single smooth motion before he rose to the surface. Exhaling the breath he'd held, Will released her foot and tread water, waiting until Deanna surfaced. She sputtered and spat salty water from her mouth; glaring at him.

"Now who's not playing fair," she coughed.

Riker laughed at her furious expression. "So you can dish it out but you can't take it, huh Counselor?" Mischief lit up his eyes and pervaded her senses.

Her anger transforming into a puckish smile and sensing his desire for further retaliation, Troi moved faster than he thought her capable of and splashed him soundly in the face again before darting away.

"Oh no you don't." He swooped forward and captured her waist, pulling her through the water and back to his side. Shaking wet hair out of his eyes, he grinned. Had it really been almost ten years since he'd been swimming with her?

Deanna shrieked with laughter and batted at him playfully. Subconsciously she recognized that the waves presently slapping at them weren't real and they should be trying harder to figure out how to get out of Asteria but right now, real or not, the solid strength of his hold on her felt entirely too good to even attempt to break away from.

She tilted her head back, her hair streaming into the water as she looked up at him. She moistened her lips with the top of her tongue, licking the salt away and Riker stared down at her, still not releasing his grasp on her waist. He knew deep down that they weren't really here, frolicking in the water like a couple of kids, but any thought beyond the curve of her parted lips was lost as he lowered his mouth to hers.

<<Imzadi>> He projected to her for the first time in ages, sliding his hands up to cup her face in his palms. Deanna's eyes slid closed, reveling in the sensation of that initial brush of his thoughts and his mouth against hers.

They kissed softly, tasting the sea as their lip met again and again, igniting memories best left forgotten. Too quickly it was over and at the absence of his mouth and hands on her skin; Deanna opened her eyes in disappointment. A soft cry of disbelief slipped from her throat and her hand flew to her mouth in shock. Will was gone… and she was alone in the water.

Part 12

"Welcome back, Commander. We've missed you around here." Riker heard the familiar female voice echo in his ears. It was so dark, why was it so dark? The sun had only been on its way to setting when he'd kissed Deanna in the water. Deanna… His unfocused eyes flew open in search of her and he winced at the irreverent glow of the lights above his head. When his vision began to clear Will was surprised to see Beverly Crusher partially leaning over him instead of his Imzadi.

"What…" he croaked hoarsely. His throat felt like it was filled with the remnants of a shuttle crash.

"Easy, Will. Don't try to speak yet. And stop trying to sit up please." The CMO approached from the left side of the biobed and Riker heard the familiar hiss of a hypospray near his ear before he could protest against the injection to his neck. Immediately some of the residual ache in his ribs abated. He blinked again; it was taking forever for his eyes to adjust to the bright lights of Sickbay and his eyes stung from the strain.

"You were injured in a quake on Pacifica, Will. Do you remember?"

Riker nodded; his expression thoughtful as he struggled to remember something else. He almost had it and his eyes narrowed as he searched his memory for something he couldn't find.

"Before you can ask, everything is fine on the surface. The tremors have calmed and Worf and Selar are assisting Data and the science team." She ran a scanner over the length of his body and hesitated over his chest and head. Then she repeated the scan again, seeing the same results.

"Amazing," she murmured mostly to herself. He was almost completely healed now, only running a slight fever. She stared at the small screen, catching movement out of the corner of her eye. "Will, stop trying to get out of bed. You were this close," she pinched her thumb and index finger together, "to death less than ten minutes ago. Your heart nearly exploded in your chest. Now sit still or I *will* restrain you," she concluded forcefully.

Riker squeezed his lids closed a final time and lowered himself to the firm surface of the biobed. His eyes opened fully and her words began to penetrate the thick fog enveloping his brain. He swallowed repeatedly, trying to moisten the lump-filled desert that was his mouth.

Crusher stopped lecturing long enough to hand him a small glass filled with cool water.

"Sip it slowly, Will. The last thing you need is to start choking now, though I'd like to wring your neck for what you've put as all through these past few days." She smirked at him. "You've got more lives than Spot."

Riker sipped obediently, grateful for the slow trickle of liquid calming the fire in his throat. Setting the cup aside, smiled at her and rasped, "Just keeping your skills sharpened, Doc."

"Oh, they're sharp enough, Commander and if you don't want to be on the other end of my scalpel anytime soon, you'll listen to me for a change." She fixed him with a menacing stare but couldn't quite hide the affectionate smile teasing the corners of her lips upwards. She'd had to put this man back together more times than Wesley had celebrated birthdays.

"For a while there, I didn't think you'd be able to pull through this time but somehow you managed once again."

"I live to surprise you, Doc."

"Apparently you do. But don't get too cocky on me now, Riker. You had help." The smile slipped from her face.

<<Help>> whispered at the edge if his mind before dissipating once again into nothingness. A flicker of confusion passed over his face and his features evened out; he must have imagined it.

"Beverly," he said; his voice almost back to normal. "Where's Deanna?" He propped his elbows underneath him, looking around the seemingly empty room. He'd taken for granted that she'd be there. She was always there to greet him with a gentle smile when he'd woken after an injury.

"Don't think about that now, Will." Crusher busied herself with adjusting the settings on her tricorder, unwilling to meet his eyes.

"Is she still on leave?" He persisted, a determined set to his jaw. She was definitely keeping something from him and he needed to know what it was. He could see it in her face and the way she was fidgeting under the heat of his gaze.

"No, she's not on leave. We tried to contact her after you'd been injured. When that didn't work, Alyssa went down to her cottage to let her know in person." Crusher released a breath and finally looked at him again. She gestured to a closed curtain on the far side of the room. "She's over there, Will. But, unlike you, she won't wake up. It's like nothing I've ever seen before. She had no visible injuries when she was brought in; her hair hadn't even been mussed." That last bit was said mostly to herself.

"What's wrong with Deanna?" His patience was at an end; she still wasn't telling him everything.

Crusher came closer and rested a soothing hand on his shoulder. "I don't know yet, Will. You've both been in a coma for four days, only you've come out from it and she hasn't. You suffered a compound skull fracture and numerous other injuries resulting from the quake. Some way, somehow… so did she.

"You said she was fine. No visible injuries." His voice was quiet; trying to take in everything Crusher was telling him.

"That's right. That's how she presented initially. Her injuries began to manifest *after* she was brought in to Sickbay."

"That's not possible."

She blew air through thinned lips. "I know it isn't. But it happened. Neither of you fully stabilized until yesterday. You've been getting consistently better, leading to your now wakeful state. Deanna hasn't been as lucky."

Part 13

"You told me that I almost died ten minutes ago. Has the definition of *stable* changed since the last time I checked?" Riker stroked his chin and took a deep breath. He could tell that Crusher was still keeping something from him. Something important.

"No, of course not. Your heart rate sped up very quickly, too quickly actually. It was almost the exact opposite from what was happening to you over the last few days. But you are fine now, Commander. I've triple checked the results." She held the scanner out for him to see.

"Frankly it looks like jibberish to me. But I feel fine. I'm going to check on Deanna. And since you say I'm okay then I guess I can leave, right?"Without waiting for an answer he pulled himself up into a seated position again, preparing to leave the bed.

"Wait, Will. I'm not sure if you'll be able to go back to your quarters yet." She placed a hand on his arm in warning and Riker worked a muscle in his jaw; exasperated.

"All right, Beverly. Are you going to keep dancing around all day or are you finally going to tell me everything?"

Crusher folded her arms defensively across her chest and relayed the series of events that had led them to this point over the past few days.

"So you see," she concluded, "I'm not sure if you'll be able to leave this room without the same thing happening to Deanna. You'd only become stable enough to contemplate moving a little while ago."

Crusher surveyed him carefully. His thoughts were tightly guarded under an inscrutable expression that left her not even the merest glimpse into what he was thinking right now. He'd listened without a single interjection until she'd stopped speaking.

"What do you suggest, Doctor?" His voice was quiet and completely flat.

"Just take it slow, Will. Any reaction would be almost instantaneous, so we'll know very soon if you'll be able to leave. None of your usual charging out of Sickbay as if there was a targ at your heels. Understand?"

"Understood." He gradually pulled himself up to a seated position and slowly got out of the bed. Without another word to Crusher he walked towards the curtained area and drew back the cloth hiding Deanna's biobed from view. The rasp of the metal rings on the pole above his head rushed through his ears. It was a sharp counterpoint to the dull thud of dread thumping in his chest.

Troi looked so peaceful. It was as though she was only sleeping and with all of his experience as a Sickbay regular, Riker could see that her vitals were stable enough for now. Conscious of Beverly hovering right beside him, Riker simply bent and kissed her forehead before turning away.

"Will?" Troi shuddered and stumbled back to shore. She was freezing now that the sun had set and the warmth of Will's presence had left her mind. The clothes he'd left on the sand had disappeared but her sarong was just where she'd left it. Carefully searching her surroundings for any explanation and rubbing at the gooseflesh on her arms, Troi saw that Riker's footprints had faded away.

Had she imagined all of it? Maybe he'd never been with her to begin with. She pressed her tongue to the top of her lip, trying to taste him. Sinking on to the bench, hollow emptiness sank its frigid teeth into her, destroying the last vestige of what had been the tiny piece of Will Riker in her soul.

Riker inched his way to the door, throwing worried glances over his shoulder. Crusher stood between him and Troi's biobed waiting for any possible change in Deanna's vitals.

No change occurred when Riker had made it all the way to the threshold of the door and relief swept over her face. She hadn't wanted to tell the Captain that his first officer wouldn't be able to leave Sickbay and return to duty even though he appeared to be in near perfect health.

Riker paused at the doorway. Every step he took away from her felt like a light year of distance. Dread pooled in his stomach.

"I think it's okay, Will. You'll be able to leave."

"Somehow," Riker thought even as he took that final step, "I shouldn't be going anywhere." Pain jolted through his head and sent him crashing to the floor on the other side of the doorway. A chill pervaded him and emptiness suddenly flooded his soul.

"Will!" Crusher dashed towards him, red hair flying over her shoulders, and knelt beside him on the ground.

"I'm okay, Beverly." He held up a hand to stop her fussing. Beads of cold sweat glistened on his face. He got to his feet and accepted her assistance. "Would you believe me if I told you I saw some sort of light streaking in front of me?"

"With you, Will, anything's possible." She guided him into a chair and scanned him from head to toe. "There's nothing wrong with your eyes, or your brain for that matter. So whatever you saw wasn't due to any lingering neurological problem. How are you feeling now?"

"Empty." He replied in a voice drained of all energy.

Crusher smiled at him reassuringly. "It has been a few days since you've had an actual meal." She patted his knee and stood.

"You're off duty for the next twenty-four hours. Your fever should have broken by then and I know you'll want to postpone your shore leave for a while. Not too long, though." She cautioned. "Since it doesn't appear to have done any harm, why don't you go back to your quarters, get something to eat and rest. I'll keep you posted on Deanna's condition."

"You're sure?"

"I never thought I'd see the day that Will Riker would have to be kicked out of Sickbay. " She made a shooing motion with her right hand and Riker got to his feet. "Now go." A troubled smile found a home on her lips. She still had no idea what had caused this or what to do for her friend. Right now all she had to rely on was the hope that Troi would wake on her own, just as Riker had.

At the door, Riker hesitated briefly again. Deanna was less than fifty feet away from him but she was … gone somehow…farther away than if she were in the Delta Quadrant.

Part 14

He'd missed something, forgotten something important. It nagged at him, forcing Riker further out of sync than he already felt. He strode aimlessly around his quarters, all too conscious of the empty cabin next door. His heart raced, feeling hyper aware and ridiculous at the same time. When Deanna was in her quarters he couldn't hear her through the sound-proofed bulkheads that separated their quarters. Even so it soothed him to know that she was close by.

Pacing in frustration, Riker paused to slam his fist into the back of the sofa. Now she was four decks away in Sickbay and he was here, feeling helpless. He detested the feeling, vitriol burning in his chest. He completed another lap around the table in the living area and muttered to himself.

"There has to be something I can do. If could just figure out what the hell it is!" He'd feared something like this from the instant he and Crusher found Troi unconscious in her quarters before the mission. She was slipping further away from him and he couldn't do anything to stop it.

"It felt like I was just talking to her but if I was knocked out for days that couldn't have happened." He rubbed a hand over his weary face. "And now I'm talking to an empty room. Deanna would have a field day with that. Deanna…" he whispered, dropping into a nearby chair. He stretched his legs and closed his eyes.


Riker bolted out of his chair, eyes wide open. He cast a searching glance around him, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.

"Computer, list all occupants of Cabin 0912, Deck Eight."

<Cabin 0912, Deck Eight is currently occupied by Riker, Commander William T. There are no other occupants at the present time."

"I could have sworn I heard something. I must be more tired than I thought if I'm talking to myself *and* hearing things that aren't there." He yawned and settled back in his chair, his eyelids growing heavier.

Accustomed to a near consuming barrage of emotions at all times, Deanna Troi never thought she could ever feel so vacant. There was nothing at all left for her to sense in Asteria now that Will had disappeared. The churning sea before her grew turbulent in the moonlight. The tide licked closer to shore sending small shells tumbling into the widening sea.

She'd forgotten what it felt like not to have him with her all the time. The normally strong sense of him that always enabled her to easily find him in a crowded room or even a small planet had vanished entirely. It was so much worse than if he'd never been a part of her soul; she wouldn't have known how much she'd lost. Her soul had shredded when he'd left her behind and she knew that she'd never be whole again.

The inky sky above was devoid of stars and carved icy tears from her eyes. The coldness of his absence in her spirit transcended all physical aches. Troi shuddered and tucked her legs up under her body to avoid the steadily rising water. He was gone from her in every way; she felt so hollow in the depths of her spirit. In a moment of unguarded anguish, her soul cried out to him a final time and a glittering light streaked across the sky; blinding her. She blinked to clear her sight and opened her eyes to find herself lying prone on a bed… with Dr. Crusher's familiar face hovering above her.

Part 15

"Commander Riker, thank you for saving my life. I realize that words can never be enough to express my sincere gratitude." Sufficiently humbled by his close call, Dr. Newell's shell of arrogance had shattered along with a great deal of his equipment in the quake that almost destroyed the lab and taken their lives. The shorter man shuffled his feet on the dusty floor and extended his hand to Riker.

Riker cleared his throat and surveyed the damage. The laboratory portion of the research station was in shambles; everywhere he looked he saw piles of debris and broken consoles. A jagged crack in the flooring exposed bundles of wiring and a thick layer of dust coated every surface. The ceiling was a mess of shattered tile and cracked glass. Riker was amazed that he'd been the only one who'd been seriously injured; everywhere he looked he saw potential hazards.

"That really isn't necessary, Doctor." Riker gave Newell's hand a firm, perfunctory shake and kept the impatience from his voice. He needed to be back with Deanna in Sickbay and not here on the surface. Unfortunately, Dr. Newell had insisted on thanking him in person and the Captain had agreed, much to Riker's dismay.

"Necessary or not, your team managed to salvage enough of our lab to allow us to complete our preliminary calculations on an extremely tight schedule in spite of the danger to themselves… yourself. Starfleet will not be disappointed with our data, Commander." Newell's eyes flicked away, his mind still computing all the remaining work he needed to accomplish prior to the eclipse. He hadn't slept in the past three days.

Seizing the opportunity, Riker smiled pleasantly. "I'm sure we won't be. Now if you'll excuse me, Sir, I need to be heading back to our ship." His index finger was already poised over his comm. badge.

"You won't be staying for the eclipse tomorrow evening? It's quite spectacular, especially for a layman like yourself."

Riker constrained a smirk and arched his brow. Perhaps not all of the scientist's arrogance had been knocked out his head after all.

"I'm afraid not. I have some personal business to attend to aboard the Enterprise."

"That's a shame. Maybe next time….. I need to check in with my assistant before he manages to blow up what's left of my lab. Thank you again, Commander." Riker quickly forgotten, Newell turned away and rushed towards the dimly lit corner of the lab where young Kevin was fiddling with an old fashioned Bunsen burner and various vials of chemicals.

Riker watched him scamper away with amusement then checked in briefly with Data before heading back to the ship.

Back aboard the Enterprise and in Sickbay, Troi's mind searched the ship for signs of familiarity. She took a deep breath and drew her empathy around her like a warming cloak, soaking in the emotions of everyone around her. With half-closed eyes she watched Crusher fuss over her with a scanner, determined to discover the cause behind her coma.

She sensed the Captain in his Ready Room, focused on reports of some kind. Guinan's contented calm washed over her from Ten Forward; Geordi's excitement in Engineering was palpable. Will was… where was Will? Deanna concentrated harder, trying to pinpoint the emotions of the one person who had always been easiest for her to sense. Nothing.

Troi gasped and drew Crusher's attention away from her vitals.

"Deanna, what's wrong?" Troi was visibly shaken; her hands pale and trembling, her eyes wide and tear-filled.

"How could you keep this from me, Beverly? Did you think I wouldn't know?"

"Know what?" Crusher was confused. She raised the scanner to Troi's head, searching for signs of delirium. The small Betazoid grabbed her wrist with surprising strength and held it tightly in her grasp.

"Why didn't you tell me that Will is dead." She choked on the words, her body rapidly going numb.

Crusher faced her with a patient expression. "Because he isn't Deanna. He's on Pacifica and he should be back within the hour. Why would you say he's dead?"

Troi strained her senses, searching for the away team on the surface. She felt small fragments of emotions from the away team and the scientists but nothing blazed brightly in her mind the way Will Riker always had. She pinned Crusher with a mistrusting glare.

"I don't believe you, Beverly." She released the doctor's arm and shrank away.

"Deanna." Crusher cocked her head. "I wouldn't lie to you about this. Why don't I contact Will so you can speak to him yourself. You don't need to wait until he gets back."

Troi shook her head vehemently. "I know what I feel, Beverly. But I can sense that you honestly think you are telling me the truth." She scooted out of the biobed, wrapped the blanker around her and headed for the door; her legs struggling to support her weight. She felt so empty.

"Deanna…" Crusher started again.

"I know you believe what you say. But you need to listen to me." Troi jabbed a thumb into her chest. "I have no sense of Will whatsoever." Her voice quaked, trying desperately to contain her tears until she was alone.

"This could be a residual effect from your coma. Both you and Will had abnormal brain activity for days," Crusher soothed, trying to rationalize Deanna's feelings.

Troi paused at the doorway. "It could be," she allowed. "But everyone else feels exactly the same as they had before I left for Laguna."

Crusher sighed and folded her arms across her chest. "I don't know what to tell you, Deanna. Frankly, there's been nothing easily explainable about either of your conditions. I don't see why it should start now."

Part 16

The distinctive sound of the transporter beam taking hold caused Crusher to stop tapping her foot restlessly against the floor. After waiting nearly ten minutes for Riker to beam back aboard ship, she was starting to wonder if she should give any credence to Deanna's words. Had something else befallen the first officer? The counselor had seemed so sure…

"Dr. Crusher? Is everything all right?"

She startled, staring blankly at the portrait of health that was Will Riker as he walked off the transporter pad and headed towards her. He felt very much alive too, she thought wildly at the solid touch of his hand on her shoulder.

"Has Deanna gotten worse?" Riker's brows knit together in worry. If that was the case why wasn't the doctor in Sickbay attending to her instead of staring at him like he was a ghost. Maybe he looked as blank as he was feeling. The odd, hollow sense he'd had in Sickbay had intensified during his time on the surface.

Crusher found her voice and began answering his rapid fire questions.

"Deanna's awake, Will and she's fine…" She said, alleviating the worst of his fears. "Except…"

"What, Beverly?"

Looking up into his earnest blue eyes, Beverly dropped her shoulders wearily and led him into the corridor. She lowered her voice and moved closer to him to avoid the ensign passing by them.

"She seems to think you're dead and no matter what I say, I can't manage to convince her otherwise."

Riker exhaled a tense breath and straightened his carriage. "That's easily fixed." He tapped his comm. badge. "Riker to Troi." He waited for an answer but none arrived. "Riker to Troi. Deanna, please respond. " He leaned against the bulkhead. "Damn it, not again."

Beverly shifted her weight from one foot to other. "Maybe she's meditating."

"Computer, give me the location of Counselor Troi" he barked, tension seeping back into his shoulders, his feet propelled towards the turbolift.

<Counselor Troi is in her quarters> came the response. Riker shot Crusher a dark glance then gestured her forward into the lift. "You let her leave Sickbay? "Deck Eight." The doors hissed closed behind him.

"She's almost as difficult as you are to treat and I had no medical reason to keep her there, Will. She's physically fit for duty."

"Obviously not mentally, if she thinks I'm dead," he shot back. He stood back as the doors slid open on Deck Eight, allowing her to exit the lift in front of him.

After three attempts at ringing Deanna's door chimes, Riker impatiently overrode the lock and called her name into the thick, humid air of her quarters. Something didn't feel right to him. She wasn't in the living area and Riker started forward until Crusher laid a hand on his arm.

"Will, the water's running. Give her a few minutes. I'm sure she's fine." As they waited, the room continued to fill with steam, billowing through the cracked door of the bedroom.

Unable to halt the sense of unease gnawing at his gut, Riker went to the door and rapped loudly on it to get Deanna's attention.

"Do you still think she's fine?" Without waiting another minute for her answer, Riker swung the door open and headed inside with Crusher silently following at his heels. Maybe she should have waited until Riker came back to the ship to release Troi to her quarters. Deanna had seemed all right to her in every way except for her certainty that Riker was dead.

Crusher's eyes widened at the sight of her friend; immediately doubting her initial assessment. She approached cautiously. The counselor looked far from fine even though it had been less than a half an hour since she'd seen her last.

Troi was huddled on the floor of the shower, hugging her knees to her chest with the water cascading over her back. Her opaque eyes stared straight ahead at the wall, unfocused. She was utterly motionless except for the tears streaming silently down her cheeks and didn't acknowledge or even seem aware of their presence. Still calling her name, Riker reacted purely on instinct. Without hesitation, he dropped to his knees and crawled into the shower behind her. She didn't react so he gathered her in his arms, drawing her nude body back against his chest; the heated pulse of the water pounding at his back.

Riker held her tightly to him, making Crusher vaguely uncomfortable. Even though there was nothing at all sexual in the embrace, the sheer intimacy of it brought color to her cheeks. He wordlessly rocked her back and forth under the spray, shaking his head and gesturing Crusher away when she came near with a medicorder in her hand. Deanna was obviously in shock; he didn't need any scan to tell them that. At the touch of his hands against her skin, Troi shuddered, closed her eyes and tucked her head under his chin.

Her stupor broken, Deanna shivered despite the hot water and began to sob audibly. His strength and alarm flowed over her, filling the void of his presence in her mind.

"You were gone… where did you go?" She wailed, the warmth of his body penetrating the icy cold she'd felt from the moment she woke up in Sickbay.

"Shhh… I'm right here. It's okay, baby, I'm right here. I promise." He rested his lips against her temple reassuringly. Brushing a few strands of her hair away he whispered soothing words to her, the rhythmic sound of the shower drowning most of them out.

Glancing up briefly to shake wet hair out of his eyes, he saw Crusher hovering in the background, not knowing what to do. She clutched her medicorder in one hand, a large lavender bath sheet in the other. She watched Riker continue to calm Troi and met his questioning nod with one of her own, dropping the towel on the corner of the pedestal sink and backing out of the bathroom; waiting for them to emerge.

Seeing Beverly leave from the corner of his eye, Will kept all of his attention on Deanna. She cried in his arms for what seemed like hours instead of the few short minutes that had actually passed since he'd entered her quarters. He stroked the edge of her face and shoulder lightly, pressed his lips to her hair and continued speaking until her rapid pulse began to slow. When Deanna quieted at last, Will pulled away in order to help her to her feet. The break in contact started a fresh round of tears and Will sank back to the floor, hugging her to him again. The same thing happened the second time he released her. Finally he folded her legs over one arm and stood, still clasping her tightly to his chest with the other. He ordered the water off, snagged the towel and wrapped it around her body, ignoring the growing puddle of water that pooled at his feet from his sodden uniform and water-logged boots.

Carrying her into the bedroom, he grabbed a soft purple robe from the back of the door and urged it on to her. Deanna's haunted eyes refused to leave his face as he wrapped the discarded towel around her hair, pulled back the coverlet and set her gently on the bed. He drew it up over her shoulders and tucked it around her body.

"Get some rest, Deanna." His voice was hoarse and he felt slightly dizzy from the lingering heat of the water.

"You were gone," she whispered again, her eyes infinite pools of sadness in her face.

"I know. But I'm here now. I'm going to have Beverly check on you. She's waiting in the other room." He caressed the softness of her cheek with his right hand. Her desolation threatened to shatter the remnants of his control. He wanted to clasp her to him forever.

Deanna nodded faintly. Will watched her eyes drift shut and her breathing become even. When he was certain she was asleep, he let his hand slip from her face with a final gentle touch.

Heading into the living area he raked a hand through his wet hair and spoke softly to an extremely anxious Dr. Crusher.

"I'm going to run next door and change." He gestured ruefully to his ruined uniform. "Deanna's fallen asleep. DO NOT, under any circumstances wake her up until I get back."

"Will, what the hell happened in there?" Crusher whispered, trying to take in the scene she'd just witnessed.

Riker's eyes flashed at her. "I don't know," he answered with a low tone. "And I don't have time to explain it to you even if I did. We'll figure it out soon enough. Something is obviously seriously wrong with her. I can't believe you sent her off the ship." This was more than simple exhaustion.

"She wasn't like that *then*." Crusher retaliated angrily. She couldn't believe he was blaming her for Deanna's condition.

"Well she lost control of her emotions every time I stopped touching her. And Deanna doesn't------"

"Lose control of her emotions," Crusher finished, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Then you'd better hurry up and get back here before she wakes up."

Riker's lips were set in a pale, grim line. "I intend to, Beverly. I told her you were going to check on her. If she wakes up and sees you instead of me, hopefully she won't panic. I don't want to go through that again." He jerked his finger in the direction of the bathroom and left a trail of wet footprints across the carpet on his way to the door.

"I'll keep her as calm as possible." She booted up the scanner and walked quietly into the bedroom.

"I hope so." The doors hissed open and he exited Troi's cabin and entered his own. A final flood of adrenaline dispersed through his system and allowed him to change and return in record time.

Part 17

Within five minutes Riker let himself back into Troi's quarters and found Crusher leaning over the bed running tests. Deanna was asleep but clearly agitated. She was whimpering piteously and shifting restlessly against the pillows, sending flashes of pain straight into Riker's chest. It hurt to see her like that be he couldn't look away.

Crusher glanced up at him and took in his still damp hair, bare feet and new pair of boots tucked under his arm before looking over the results in her hand.

"She's been like this since I came in here. I'm tempted to sedate her."

"Don't do that," he interrupted, approaching the other side of the bed. Crusher knew full well that Troi never reacted well to those types of medications; they'd most likely make her feel sick.

Beverly completed her scan and tucked the instrument into the pocket of her lab coat.

"Her pulse is erratic and I don't like the sound of her breathing. I want to take her to Sickbay."

"Don't do that either." Riker didn't lift his eyes from Troi's troubled face at Crusher's exasperated sigh.

"Will, you're tying my hands here," she replied, trying unsuccessfully to reason with him. "I know you're worried, so am I but we need to… what are you doing?" Her voice rose in surprise, seeing the strain on Troi's face melt away the instant Riker raised his hand to her forehead. The counselor settled down immediately and Riker sat on the edge of the bed, stroking his hand over her skin.

"I'm not even going to ask how you did that," Crusher remarked. She rested a hand on her hip and turned slightly towards him. "Though I could make a comment about your expert touch with women." His wounded expression stopped her cold.

"Not funny, Doc." He gazed at Troi again and continued to touch her face. "I don't know either but its working and that's enough for me right now." He dropped his boots carelessly to the floor and shifted slightly towards her, fighting the urge to pull her into his arms and hold her there. He couldn't make sense of it but the closer they were, the more the empty ache inside him abated.

As they watched in silence Deanna's breathing evened out until Beverly was satisfied enough to allow them to remain in her quarters instead of going to Sickbay, where she was sure there'd be even more questions from the staff and endless gossip for the mill if they'd seen what she had earlier.

"Will…" the doctor began hesitantly, wondering how he'd react to this latest bit of news. She hadn't had time to tell him before he'd gone back to the surface. "Deanna's mother warned me not to separate the two of you before in Sickbay. She said I'd kill you both…. But then you woke up and seemed fine so I assumed that it didn't matter because you were conscious."

Riker shot a sharp glance over his shoulder at her. "You talked to Lwaxana about this?"

Crusher nodded her head and stared at her hands. She knew he wouldn't be happy about it. "I didn't see any alternative. For some reason you were exhibiting brain waves that would normally be attributed to Betazoids instead of humans. I was hoping she'd have some insight."

Riker's expression softened into puzzlement but he simply arched a brow and allowed her to continue.

"Anyway, when I described the circumstances of your condition and Deanna's she said there was nothing medically wrong with either of you and that you'd need to work it out for yourselves. Maybe it'll make sense to you. I don't have the slightest inkling as to what she was talking about."

"Yeah, well neither do I. Maybe Deanna will when she wakes up and feels better." He gestured behind him towards the desk. "Grab that chair for me, please."

Crusher pushed it within his reach next to the bed.

"Thanks. He picked up Deanna's hand and threaded the small fingers around his, dropping his body into the chair. Thankfully, she remained peacefully asleep.

"I'm going to head back to Sickbay. There are a few other patients I need to check on. You'll be okay here?"

Riker nodded and gave a half-hearted wave with his free hand. Now that the adrenaline had faded, he was exhausted. He shut his eyes for a long moment and felt Crusher lightly touch his arm on her way out of the room. When he heard the doors hiss closed behind her, Will brought Deanna's hand to his lips and kissed each of her fingertips in turn before settling it back in his lap. Something told him it'd be a long afternoon.

Part 18

Less than an hour later Will was startled awake by the sound of Deanna crying out for him. Her eyes were scrunched shut and she was curled up on her side in a fetal position. At some point her hand had slipped from his grasp and Riker cursed under his breath. He must have drifted off in the chair beside the bed.

Deanna once again became tranquil when he touched her. Climbing onto the bed beside her, he brushed the tears away from her cheeks and waited patiently until she was staring at him with coherent eyes. Deanna silently placed a hand on top of his on top of her cheek and squeezed it lightly, raising herself by bracing upright with the other. Will's eyes were deep blue with worry, watching her carefully for any sign of continued shock.

"Hi," he whispered, helping her into a sitting position and moving to the far end of the bed.

"Hi," she responded in a soft voice. She had been so sure that he was dead but he was right there in front of her. She frowned slightly, looking at him like he was a stranger.

"Where do you keep going? You've faded away again."

He glanced at her quizzically.

"Deanna, I haven't gone anywhere. What are you talking about?"

"I can't sense you anymore."

"But this happened before a few years ago, maybe it'll pass again." He remembered all too well how bewildered she'd been and the way she she'd lashed out at him and Crusher before tendering her resignation.

Troi shook her head, dislodging the towel wrapped around her hair. She picked it up and tossed it aside.

"No, Will. It's not like that now. Everyone else, I can sense just fine. You're the only one that's missing."

"But that doesn't make any sense." He rubbed his chin, trying to add this piece to the ever-growing puzzle. "I'm here, Deanna. At least you can see that."

"I know, Will." She nodded again and pushed a hand through her tangled hair. "But you don't *feel* like you're here to me. I don't know any other way to explain it to you."

She kept her senses open and cleared her mind as much as she possibly could with all the turmoil swirling around inside her head. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and searched outward. Suddenly she was filled with his presence and sighing with relief, she opened her eyes again. Her slim hand was firmly ensconced in his.

"Better now?" Will asked, dropping her hand.

Surprise spread across her face. "It was… for a few seconds there." Her gaze drifted down to his hand then to hers and back again. With shaky fingers she touched his bearded cheek and her eyes narrowed slightly.

"That's strange."

"Your sense of me came back when you touched me," he stated, already knowing the answer.

The softness of her touch echoed on his skin even after she forced her hand away.

"Yes. How did you know?" Her confusion warred with the urge to touch him again.

"Something similar happened earlier." The top of his ears reddened at the memory. `You were in shock before… in the shower. You only came out of it when I touched you." He cleared his throat, absurdly grateful that she couldn't sense his emotions right now. He had reacted on autopilot, barging in on her like that out of fear but she might not view it the same way.

Troi's head inclined slowly, feigning a calm she didn't feel. She wanted to climb into his arms and wrap his emotions around her like the blanket she'd begun clutching at with both hands. She shivered despite the warmth of the room; envisioning a future without being able to sense Will. It wasn't like she could touch him all of the time. She'd probably already pushed the invisible line of their friendship to its limit by keeping her hand on his face as long as she had.

She curled her hands into fists to keep them under her control. The desire to touch him again was already so strong! Her nails frantically dug into her palms, resisting the pull, willing herself to accept the blank wall she came up against when she tried to sense him without physical contact.


Will's voice pulled her from her roiling thoughts.

"Your hand is bleeding." Alarmed, he took her right hand in his and pried open the clenched fist, exposing the deep crescents that had formed from the force of her nails. Sure enough two of them were welling with blood and spilling over the side of her hand.

Faster than she could react, Will replicated a standard issue dermal regenerator and healed the tiny wounds. She hadn't even felt the damage she'd inflicted; so caught up in her thoughts.

She afforded him an amused smile at the way he'd jumped up like that. His lightning-quick reflexes were so fast that it had almost made her dizzy.

"Have you been moonlighting as a nurse now, Commander?" She unthinkingly used his favorite tactic to set him at ease.

Will chuckled and set the instrument down on the night table.

"Hardly. Just a little something I picked up during my time in Sickbay."

"Oh, I see. You've been banged up so many times that you finally decided to figure out how to heal yourself in order to avoid Beverly."

"Exactly." With his blue eyes sparkling at her, Will raised the now healed palm to his lips and pressed three soft kisses against her skin. A flash of heat burst through his body and something *clicked*inside his spirit, washing over him like the warmth of her embrace. His eyes locked onto hers, seeing a flicker of shared sensation in her dark gaze. He held her with an expression she'd never seen before.

"What was that? Deanna, tell me you felt that too." He lowered her hand, twined his fingers around hers.

"I felt…. something… that's for sure. And I'm not cold anymore."

"Neither am I," he realized out loud. Comprehension sunk in. He hadn't connected the cold, empty feeling he'd had since leaving Sickbay with Deanna's difficulty sensing his emotions but they had to be connected. "That's good, right?" He encouraged, not liking the troubled expression on her face.

"I guess," she replied slowly, unconvinced. She'd never experienced anything like this before.

"Deanna…" Will paused, remembering Crusher's words just before she'd left. "Beverly talked to your mother."

He relayed the conversation that had been recounted to him earlier.

If possible, Troi grew even more thoughtful. She listened intently to his narration, attempting to make sense out of everything that had happened.

"I'd better talk to Mother," she remarked, removing her hand from his reluctantly. "Can you let Beverly know that I'm all right?" Just like that her sense of him disappeared again and Troi suppressed a shudder. Was this going to be what it was going to be like for the rest of her life?

"Sure," he responded, getting off the bed and lowering his head so she wouldn't see the longing in his eyes. As soon as she'd released his hand the vague, empty feeling he'd had returned; he couldn't believe it had taken this long to recognize they were related. "She'll probably be here within the hour to see for herself."

"I'm sure she will. Thanks."

She gifted him with a quiet smile and with a brief backwards glance in her direction, Riker scooped his boots up off the floor and headed for his quarters. She had to rely on the sound of the doors closing to signal his leaving instead of her empathy and the knowledge brought tears to her eyes.

Taking a deep breath, Deanna centered herself and prepared for an uncomfortable conversation with her mother.

Part 19

"Fractured? Mother, what do you mean by fractured?" Twenty minute later, a fully clothed, perfectly coiffed and completely exasperated Deanna Troi was seated at the console in the living area of her quarters. "I've never heard of anything like that before."

Through the viewscreen Ambassador Troi faced her daughter with a sympathetic expression.

<<Darling, I have to admit it came as a surprise to me as well. But after Doctor Crusher described your symptoms, well… I'm afraid there is no other explanation. You and William should never have been capable of forging a bond between you to begin with. Is it any wonder that it's disintegrating now? It's not like either of you have put any effort into fortifying it over the years.>>

Lwaxana paused and took a sip from the ostentatious goblet in her hands and Deanna noticed that her mother's gown was the same shade of yellow as its jewel encrusted base.

<<At least not the way it's meant to be sustained that is.>> She smiled slyly. <<Tell me, Little One. What do you remember about your time in Asteria.>>

Deanna stared at her; dumbstruck.

"Asteria? That's only a myth, Mother." She rolled her eyes and sat back in her chair. It was so difficult to have a serious conversation in between the layers of innuendo and fairy tales her mother insisted on peppering the discussion with.

Lwaxana straightened her posture and set down her goblet.

<<No, Deanna it most certainly is not. Do not demean your upbringing by saying such a thing.>> She fixed her daughter with a hard stare. <<I taught you better than that.>>


<<Well, I can see that once again you're letting your field of study overwhelm your spiritual side. Your father was the same way. If I hadn't known better I would have sworn there was some Vulcan blood in him-->>

"MOTHER! Can you please tell me what you're talking about?" Deanna pleaded, rubbing her temples to ward off the headache that always seemed to accompany a subspace communiqué to Betazed these days.

<<Yes. Yes, dear of course. There's no need to shout, Deanna. Really.>> She picked up her beverage again and took a long draught before setting it aside again. << Dr. Crusher told me that you've been overworked and exhausted and I'm guessing that you haven't had time to complete a meditation cycle in quite some time. You really need to learn how to relax more Little One.>>

"That's it, I give up. I'll talk to you later, Mother." Troi reached forward for the manual off switch on the screen.

Lwaxana raised her hand to stop Deanna from halting the transmission and continued.

<<Anyway, because of that I'm sure you found your shields were just run ragged. For some reason, when William was injured this last time, his spirit travelled to Asteria. Due to your bond, he managed to pull you along with him, most likely because of your condition. Again, darling, this is something else that under no circumstances should have been possible. Of course you two always seemed to have a knack for defying what's expected of you. And that's not necessarily a good thing.>>

"You're making this up." Deanna sighed and raised her hands in frustration.

<<I most certainly am not.>> Lwaxana replied indignantly. <<But I may be speculating just a little bit.>>

She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together to illustrate her point.

"How do you know all of this?"

Lwaxana straightened her posture and smiled pridefully. << I am the Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Riix, Little One. There are many things I am privy to that are currently outside your understanding. One day, when you are ready to hold the Chalice this knowledge will come to you as well. If you hadn't been so obstinate for all these years we would have had this conversation years ago instead of now. Simply put, you've neglected your bond, Deanna, and as a result it's being taken away from you. Now, as long as your sense of William returns through tactile contact you still have something left to salvage. The two of you have a very serious decision to make. And you'd better do it soon before it is taken out of your hands altogether. >>

With that Lwaxana ended the transmission and left her bewildered daughter staring at the Federation emblem that appeared on the viewscreen.

Part 20

When her mother's words had sunk in, Troi found herself wandering around her quarters in stunned silence. She'd always thought that an Imzadi bond was unbreakable; one of the few absolute truths she'd held close in her heart.

She'd already lost most of her sense of Will, though her mother had told her that one day she'd be able to sense him they way she could everyone else. But he'd never felt like everyone else to her. From the moment they'd first met his emotions had always been stronger, easier for her to sense than other people.

She had to tell him what she'd learned. Would Will want to let their bond continue to break? To be able to be fully free again? She'd have to let him decide, guessing what his answer would be. Of course they'd still be friends. They'd always be friends, she was sure of that. But they wouldn't be … Imzadi. Her breath caught and tears threatened to spill onto her cheeks. She collapsed on to her sofa and placed her head in her hands. She'd already cried more in the past day than she had in the last few years.

The doors chimed and Troi struggled to regain her composure before allowing entrance to her quarters. When Riker entered her hands were folded serenely in her lap and though he noticed that her eyes were bright with unshed tears he didn't draw attention to it.

"Any insight?" He asked, walking further into the room. From the look on her face he didn't think that Deanna's conversation with Lwaxana had gone well at all.

Troi patted the cushion next to her and asked him to sit.

"Will, we need to talk."

"That sounds ominous." Riker attempted a smile but it didn't meet his eyes. "Let me guess. Your mother has found a way to blame me for this too, right?" He knew he'd never been one of her favorite people.

"Not exactly." Troi played with her fingers, stalling for time. "However, she did have an idea as to what caused some of this. Not all of it." She corrected quickly, staring at the floor. Lwaxana hadn't known how Will was able to get to Asteria in the first place, if indeed he had really been there at all.

Riker curled his index finger under her chin and raised it towards his face. Instantly she felt his curiosity and concern. Fastening impossibly dark eyes on his she began to tell him everything she'd learned from her discussion with her mother.

As soon as she'd started speaking Will had released her, leaving her once again with no sense of what he was feeling. He was pulling away, listening to her with his trademark poker face in place.

"It's not like I really gave you much of a choice to begin with. " She looked down at her hands again, flushing with embarrassment. Without being able to rely on her empathy and unable to read his body language left her struggling to communicate with him.

He stared at her incredulously, having a hard time believing what he'd heard. Had she already made up her mind now that their bond was on its way to breaking by itself? She'd once told him that the only way their souls could be separated would be if they let go. Was she giving up?

"So why should I have one now?" he asked, a bit more harshly than he'd intended.

"Will…" She startled at his tone and he lowered his voice.

"How much time do we have?" He asked, an idea floating into his head. He had to convince her not to let go. The thought of her slowly slipping away from him churned in his stomach. Maybe her mind wasn't completely made up yet and he'd be able to persuade her to at least hear him out before she gave up on their bond altogether.

"Mother didn't know," she shrugged. "She said fractures are rare and there isn't a lot of information in the historical record."

"So it could be a while. Or we could wake up tomorrow and the bond could be completely gone?" His voice faded to a whisper.

Her heart thudded loudly in dread. Was he that anxious to be free of her?

"Hypothetically, yes to either." She clamped down on her lip with her teeth, mirroring the constraint she placed on her emotions.

Riker took her hand in his and Troi was almost overwhelmed by the determined focus of his feelings.

"We're both supposed to be on shore leave. What do you say we get out of here and figure this out without any distractions?

"What?" She blinked at him, stared at the contemplative expression on his face and reacted to the light squeeze of her fingers by curling them tighter around his. Searching his eyes to make sure she'd heard him correctly, Deanna nodded slightly and returned his emerging smile with one of her own.

Part 21

"For some reason this feels familiar," Riker mused, setting his bag down on the porch of Deanna's rented cottage and walking down the steps into the sand. With three days left on her lease and with the Enterprise still in orbit around Pacifica it had made perfect sense for them to go to Laguna for their leave.

"That's odd. You said you've never been here before."

"I haven't," he shrugged. "But there is definitely something…" He took a deep breath and inhaled the salty tang of the ocean air. "I don't know exactly. I haven't been to the beach in longer than I can remember."

"There's your problem right there. Some time at the beach should be a mandatory component of every vacation." Troi responded sagely. "It fixes everything." She lounged against the white wooden balustrade that wrapped around the porch.

"Thank you for that assessment, Counselor." He tipped his head. "So will it fix our dilemma, too?"

The smile faded from Deanna's face and she leaned over the railing, looking down at him. "I don't know, Will. I'm sorry."

He reached up and briefly touched her cheek. "Deanna, this isn't your fault."

"I'm still amazed that you convinced Beverly to let us out from under her watchful eye and tricorder." She changed the subject and for the moment he let her.

Will shrugged it off.

"It was easier than you'd think." To his amusement, after expressing some mild reservations, Crusher had all but jumped at the idea of Riker and Troi heading off together.

Will crossed to the stairs and offered his hand casually. He was hoping that the more Deanna sensed him the less she'd be willing to give up on their bond.

She willingly accepted his hand, tamping down the impulse to clutch it tightly, and joined him in the sand. She tilted her head up towards the cloudless sky and stretched. The warmth on her skin felt wonderful and she could almost forget the reason they'd beamed down here.

"Are we going to talk about this?" Riker's voice startled her back to reality and Deanna slid her hand out of his grasp and smoothed back her hair.

"Isn't that my line?"

"Usually, yes. But you don't seem to be using it right now so I thought I'd borrow it."

She raised her hands in the air, feeling the cool breeze waft through her fingers.

"Go right ahead. Frankly, I'm a bit tired of it. I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired."

Will dropped into the sand beside her and eyed her carefully. They'd both been through a lot over the past few days and Riker knew it had been even harder on her than it had been on him. She hadn't finished recuperating from her collapse when all hell had broken loose between them and he'd seen firsthand what the emotional trauma of thinking he'd been killed had done to her. Coupled with the normal day to day stress she'd always shouldered, Will was surprised she was holding up as well as she appeared to be. She'd always been a lot stronger than she looked.

"You're entitled to a break now and then, Deanna."

"I know, Will." She lay back in the sand and closed her eyes and once again Will was struck with a peculiar sense of déjà vu.

"Did your mother have any insight as to what happened to us in Sickbay? Beverly said she didn't seem overly surprised." He was torn between wanting to push her into talking to him and not wanting to upset her but at the back of his mind Riker could practically hear a timer ticking down, telling him they were running out of time.

"If she knows anything, she certainly isn't sharing it with me." She shaded her eyes from the glare of the sun with one hand and rolled slightly towards him. "I thought you just told me to take a break."

"And I thought that the whole point of us coming down here together was so we could figure this out together. You've been avoiding me since the minute we got here."

"Avoiding you? I've barely been out of your sight."

"That's not what I meant, Deanna. You know full well that you're being evasive and you keep changing the subject."

"What do you expect me to say, Will? I don't know what happened or what to expect. Right now I feel like I don't know much of anything."

Will heard the defeat building in her voice and instinctively reached for her, overwhelming her with the deluge of his frustration and longing. With an arm around Deanna's waist, he crushed her against his chest and brought his face close to hers before he whispered against her lips.

"What about what *we* feel, Imzadi?"

He pressed her back into the soft cushion of the sand, trapping her against the hard, unyielding wall of his chest. She pushed her hand against him in surprise. It had been well over a year since he'd made even the smallest pass at her and she'd honestly thought he didn't feel that way anymore. A few months ago he'd almost left the ship and thrown his career away to be with another woman. Her eyes locked on his and her pulse sped up at the needful intent in his gaze.

"Will…" Whatever else she'd planned to say disappeared into his mouth when his lips captured hers, brushing against them in the sweetest of kisses. Her arms drifted upwards and snaked around his neck, clinging to him in a way she'd sworn she never would again.

Riker's large hands cupped her face. He angled her mouth closer to his and unable to stop himself he whispered to her.


Deanna jolted and broke away as soon as she felt his mental voice brush against her thoughts. After all this time he chose now?

"You've never once done that in all our years aboard the ship," she said in a shaky voice, squirming against him until he let her up from underneath him. He obligingly rolled to the side but held on to her wrists so that she couldn't completely get away.

"Yeah, well I'm doing it now."

Tears streamed down her face.

"Of course you are. Because at any moment you might not be able to and we all know how much Will Riker hates to lose." She spat the words at him bitterly, her voice raising as she spoke.

"Deanna, wait just a minute." He had no idea he'd set her off but he'd had to do something.

"I should have known you'd try this now." She took a deep breath and moved to wipe her eyes.

"Please release me," she said evenly.

Will loosened his grip and waited as she moved far away. The hollow sense he'd had earlier returned as she scampered back up the stairs to the porch.

Icy shards of emptiness stabbed through her at the break in contact and Deanna's breath halted at the sudden pain in her body. She slammed against it with the strongest walls she could create and dashed into the cottage.

Will was on his feet in a heartbeat, chasing after her.

"You know, Counselor, your communication skills leave much to be desired," he shouted, slamming the door behind him.

Deanna spun around and glared at him.

"You're unbelievable, Riker." It had been so hard to resist him but she couldn't take the chance. She was already losing her sense of him in small increments. To have him back even half-heartedly only to have him completely disappear when it was over would be unbearable.

"You're afraid of me," he countered, seeing the fear on her face and comprehending why she'd pushed him away. He advanced slowly towards her, refusing to let her leave this time.

"Now who's in need of a new line?" she retorted. She squared her shoulders and faced him directly. "Is that your answer for everything, Will? I am not afraid of you and I never have been." Resting her hands on her hips she stared him down. "If anything, you're the one who is scared of me."

"You're right," he replied quietly. "You absolutely terrify me sometimes, Deanna."

Taken off guard, Troi could only gape at him with wide eyes. Pinning her in place with a crestfallen expression he didn't stop there.

"Earlier today when I beamed back to the ship and found you in shock, and on Saturday when Beverly and I went to your quarters, you were unconscious and we couldn't wake you up, you scared the hell out of me." He took another step towards her. "Last month when you showed up on the bridge of a Romulan ship masquerading as an agent of the Tal Shiar, you frightened me half to death."

She couldn't speak, couldn't tear her eyes away from him.

"When you lost your empathy altogether and resigned your commission I was afraid you'd leave the ship and I'd never see you again." Each word brought him closer to the frozen in place Betazoid who stood against the seashell pattern that papered the wall, her bottom lip quivering uncontrollably.

Riker's eyes burned fiercely into hers and he continued walking towards her until he was only inches away.

"And years ago," he lowered his voice, "when I responded to a hostage situation at an art museum and I saw a Sindareen raider holding a phaser aimed at your head, I nearly jumped out of my skin. You have a long history of scaring the shit out of me, Ms. Troi and I think it's time you knew that."

Will extended his hand. "Sense that I'm telling the truth, Deanna."

Troi closed the distance between them with a final step taken on trembling legs and curled her fingers around his as Riker stroked her cheek with his free hand. She drew in a sharp breath, his words echoing in her head.

"I can't."


"No, Will. You don't understand. I can't sense you at all." She looked down at their entwined fingers and helplessly lifted her gaze to his. "Even now. My sense of you is completely gone."

Part 22

Two and a half hours later thesun hung low in the sky, sending copper tipped waves crashing towards theshore. Will wrapped his arms moretightly about Deanna's waist and leaned back against the bottom step of thecottage. She'd hardly said anything atall to him since she'd lost the ability to sense him through tactilecontact. Instead, she'd been staringforlornly up at the sky for close to an hour, trying to meditate but unable toclear her mind. He wanted to do something… anything to help her but he didn'tknow where to start; waiting for a flash of inspiration. He was content to holdher until then; listening to the pounding of the surf a few hundred feet away.

From her place in his lap Deannarested the back of her head against Will's shoulder and fought to contain hersadness. Ironically, she hadn't beenthis close to him in a very long time, yet she'd never felt farther away. She'deven tried to send to him again but he could no longer receive her thoughtprojections.

"I never thought we'd end uphere," she confessed; her whisper shattering the silence between them.

Watching her trail her fingersaimlessly through the sand, Riker was once again swept by a wave of déjàvu. It ate at him but he still couldn'tplace it.

"Me neither," he replied. "If you would have told me that I'd bevacationing on a mostly deserted island, watching the sunset with a beautifulwoman in my arms and we'd both be utterly miserable, I'd have laughed at you."

"Who knew?" Troi shrugged.

"Not us, that's for sure." Heinclined his head and rested his cheek on the silken cushion of her hair.

"You know, if you were one of mypatients I'd tell you that sometimes things happen as they are meant to, evenif we don't always fully understand the reasons why." Unaware of her actions, she traced anindistinct pattern up and down his forearm.

"I've never had your blind faithin fate, Deanna. And I certainly hope you don't conduct your sessions likethis."

"It's not one of the normaltherapeutic postures, I'll grant you that." She squirmed slightly, turned toface him, and placed a hand on his shoulder to help keep her balance.

"On the contrary, Counselor. Ifind it to be *very* therapeutic." Riker flashed her his trademark grin, leanedforward, and kissed her on the forehead in a friendly manner.

Deanna smiled mischievously inreturn and her eyes were shining and reflecting the crimson glow of the sun asshe said, "So does Barclay."


She laughed gleefully and pointedat him.

"If you could see the look onyour face," she chortled.

Without warning Riker abruptlystood, forcing her arm around his neck so that she wouldn't fall.

"That's it, you're going in." He easilyslung her over one shoulder and headed determinedly for the water as Troiyelled to be set down.

"Oh, I'll put you down allright," he smirked, wading in until the water lapped at his calves. He droppedher into the crisp, cool waves and laughed when her outraged shriek faded intoa yelp, landing on her bottom in the sand.

She quickly found her footing andemerged from the water drenched and furious. Her thin cover-up clung wetly to her body and her hair was a soggy mess.Seeing Will's amused expression her eyes darkened in anger.

"I cannot believe you did that. You'reso juvenile sometimes." She grasped the hem of the soaked fabric twistingaround her legs and flipped it up and over her head, revealing the gold bikiniWill had teased her about packing. Hequickly followed suit with his gray T-shirt and swam away to deeper water,leaving her sputtering in the breaking waves.

Diving under the refreshingspray, Will smiled to himself. At thevery least, he'd managed to distract her for a few short minutes. He didn't know how long it would last but hewas grateful for every second of it. Watching her struggle to accept that she could no longer sense him wastearing him apart.

Lost in thought, Riker floated onhis back with his eyes closed against the fiery glare of the sunset. He couldn't see Deanna approach until it wastoo late to stop her from grabbing his shoulders and dunking him soundly underthe water. Will surfaced with a splash and calmly went after her again, adevilish look in his eyes. " I'll show you juvenile!"

Twin peals of laughter filled theair as the game played out and at some point, Deanna found herself with herarms draped around Will's neck and her legs tangled with his beneath the water.She halted in her motion to pull him under again and faced him with a puzzledexpression.

"Does this feel familiar to you?"she asked, wondering why it felt like this was just a continuation of somethingthey'd started earlier. They hadn't been at a beach together, even aholographic one, in almost a decade but it felt like just yesterday to her.

"Yes. Very, very familiar," heresponded. The droplet of water on herbottom lip fascinated him, the solitary bead traveling a path he had to follow.He inclined his head and slowly swiped his tongue across it and Deanna shiveredbut didn't pull away. Keeping his eyes on hers Will kissed her thoroughly untilshe tightened her hold on him reflexively, coaxing a whispery moan from hermouth.

Her tongue teased its way pasthis lips and Riker groaned when she curved her body ardently against his. His hands reached for her under the water,pulling her closer and winding her legs around his waist so she could feel hisrising passion for her.

In the sky above them, the sunsank into the sea and a streak of silver blazed across the sky then edged themoon in shadow as the binary eclipse came into view.

Part 23

Desire flamed despite the chill in the air and she kissed him again, snagging his bottom lip between her teeth and lightly sucking on it. Exhilaration coursed through her, she'd never known the thrill that came with not being able to sense his emotions. There was an incredible freedom in not sharing his feelings, allowing her to concentrate on her own in a way she'd never expected. Seizing the moment, she let go of all hesitation and smiled at him, feeling the rapid beat of his heart against her chest.

"Are you still scared of me, Will?" she teased, running her hands through his hair.

"Absolutely," he murmured into the sensitive curve of her neck, causing her nipples to harden. Walking slowly towards the shoreline with Deanna in his arms, Will sped up as they approached the cottage. Visibility was poor due to the darkness of the nearing totality of the eclipse and climbing the stairs two at a time, he set her down on the oversized lounger on the porch and braced his arms on either side of her.

He softly kissed his way up her neck and along her jaw in a slow sensuous journey back to her lips, lingering over every drop of seawater he found on her skin.

Troi dropped her head back until she was just out of his reach and gazed up at him hungrily.

"You should be."

She reached behind her and unfastened the top of her gold bikini, letting it fall to the floor. Riker's eyes darkened and he swallowed hard.

"Gods Will, I want you."

Her breathless sigh and accompanying words left no doubt in Riker's mind. All the turmoil of the past week and the loss of their bond faded to the background. Wantonly rubbing her breasts against the hair-roughened skin of his chest, Deanna moaned with pleasure and a rush of heat surged through his groin at the sound.


He reveled in the warmth of her skin on his and glided his hands down to cup her breasts. Shaping them with his hands, Will rolled his thumbs over the taut buds of her dusky nipples and Deanna threw her head back in rapture.

Not to be outdone, she slipped her hands beneath the waistband of his navy blue swim trunks and stroked his growing length with a delicate touch, delighting in the guttural sounds of pleasure that emerged from Riker's throat. Without her empathy she took her cues from his shallow breathing and the way his hips jerked forward towards her hands.

The first time she'd touched him years ago, she'd set him on fire. He'd never guessed that such small hands could have the ability to wreak such sensuous havoc on his body so quickly. Fighting to maintain control, Will lowered his head and nipped at her collarbone lightly before wandering down to the swell of her breasts; his beard rasping against her skin in a rough caress. Deanna stretched languidly beneath him and clasped him tighter in response.

The song of the sea and Deanna's soft sounds of pleasure filled his ears in the darkened night; the beach around them fading from view as the height of the eclipse approached above them. Lifting his head in the rapidly fading light, Riker's eyes seared into hers and he whispered "Imzadi."

Pain flickered across her face and the sight of her dark eyes glistening with tears moved Will to tug her hands away and hold her close to him.

"I'm sorry, Deanna," he said, wishing there was some way for him to make this easier for her. It had been a long time since she'd sent to him and although he knew he'd miss it for the rest of his life, it was nothing compared to the sense of loss she must be feeling now.

She brought her fingers to his lips to silence him.

"It's not your fault, Will," she said, following her finger with her kiss-swollen lips. She teased his mouth endlessly and wrapped a silky leg around his thigh then lay back on the soft cushioned surface of the lounge chair. Reaching up to hold his face in her palms, she spoke softly.

"But if you'd like to make it up to me anyway…"

Will knew her cavalier attitude had to be due to denial but he wanted this to mean more to her than just a distraction. Capturing her comparatively tiny hands in his, Will threaded his fingers around hers. "Deanna," he began, stopping when he felt Deanna's hands begin to tremble in his grasp.

She felt him squeeze her hands in a soothing motion. Gods, he looked so serious… and she had no notion whatsoever as to what he was feeling right now. The adrenaline fueling her earlier actions had all but faded, leaving her suddenly nervous and subdued.

"We're on equal footing again, aren't we?" she said with a shy smile.

"Would that be so bad?" he asked gently, dropping her hands and caressing her cheek.

Deanna hesitated and weighed his words before she answered.

"Maybe not," she admitted.

"You saved my life, you know. Back in Sickbay." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Deanna… you are my life."

She blushed deeply at his words and snuggled into his chest but didn't answer. Riker backed off, for the moment. He wasn't going to force this conversation now but they needed to have it soon. He exhaled a sharp breath and tangled his fingers into the damp curls of her hair.

"We should probably go inside," he murmured against her lips, making no move to rise off the lounger. Instead, his hands traced every curve they could find. Tilting her face upwards again, Will enveloped her lips in a series of breathtakingly sweet kisses. Troi's midnight eyes were unfocused and heavy lidded with desire, shattering Will's concentration to the four quadrants.

"Probably," she agreed, having no intention of going anywhere at all. She reached down and lowered his swim trunks and Riker kicked them aside. He sucked in a breath at the cool rush of air against his heated flesh. They couldn't stop now, not even to search for a bed.

Deanna ran her lips over his throat and the rapid drum of his pulse surged under her tongue. She was so hungry for him, licking the dried salt water from his skin in teasing strokes. Her nails scratched mischievously down the muscles of his chest before taking the velvet steel of him into her hands again, slowly circling the tip with her thumb.

Stifling a growl, Will gave himself up to the sensation of her gentle grasp for a few sweet seconds before pulling away to catch his breath. He hooked his thumbs into her bikini bottoms and swiftly dragged them down. His expert hands dipped between her thighs and Deanna moaned beneath him. The sound set his blood to boiling.

She was pure perfection for him, her beautiful face flushed with desire and the slick wet heat of her calling to him in the most primal of ways, needing him to claim her as his own.

"Will," she gasped, moving restlessly beneath him. His mouth inflicted sweet torture on the aching tip of her breast and his teasing fingers delved into her. A cry of ecstatic joy burst from her throat and unwilling to wait any longer, she pushed his hands away and guided him into her.

Riker's low groan of pleasure encouraged her movements and coaxed her legs apart so he could plunge deeper. Without her empathic abilities it was like making love with an incredibly familiar stranger, she thought wildly, her body instinctively remembering what he liked even though her mind didn't recognize his presence.

She gripped him snuggly, small tremors quaking through her inner muscles, her hips canting towards his in an insistent rhythm that Riker was more than happy to meet with his own. The increasing pressure was building unbearably and with a soft whimper and unable to hold back, Deanna wrapped her legs high around his waist. Riker's mind reached for her unconsciously and kept searching for the other half of his soul before he released.

The last rays of moonlight disappeared, bathing them in the inky shadows of the stars overhead before the night surrounding them turned completely dark.

Deanna's eyes squeezed closed and she clenched around him, her breath coming in ragged gasps. The weight of him crushed against her and she cried for him to thrust harder… faster. Will groaned her name, gritting his teeth and increasing his speed, withdrawing slowly then swiftly returning to bury himself in her heated depths.

"Imzadi," she breathed and something inside her locked into place. The endless midnight sky blazed with silver fire, flooding her with the perfect sense of joy. Her eyes flew open and gazed wondrously into his deep blue eyes, his expression mirroring her own. Keen pleasure overwhelmed them and their lips met again, sealing together in an explosive kiss that refused to be denied.

<<Imzadi!>> she cried and Will felt it in the depths of his spirit. With a final thrust he clutched her hips in his large hands, his grip slippery with sweat.

<<Imzadi>> he answered instinctively, forcing them over the edge together.

She was everywhere at once, filling the hollow void that had opened in soul when he'd left her behind in Sickbay after waking from his coma. Dropping his head to her chest, Riker felt her heat beat frantically under his cheek. Still joined, he caught his breath while Deanna tenderly stroked his hair. Once he was able, he lifted his head and saw that her eyes were rimmed in tears, reflecting the now silver starlight filling the sky.

"Imzadi," he whispered again, wholly open to her as she was to him. Bringing his hands to her face he brushed away the falling tears with the pads of his thumbs and smiled brilliantly at her. Not wanting to crush her with his weight he grudgingly lifted himself off of her and rolled to the edge of the crowded chaise with his hip resting against hers.

"So maybe sex *can* fix a few things after all," she joked halfheartedly. Then he felt; her shields rose high and a too familiar wall formed between them.

"Deanna, that wasn't just sex." He shook his head at her, not liking her immediate emotional retreat.

Troi sighed heavily.

"I know it wasn't, Will. We… re-forged our bond somehow." The cool breeze blowing off the ocean strengthened and she shivered from the loss of his warmth. Before he could hold her again Deanna rose to a sitting position and cast a glance around the porch, looking for something to cover herself with. Finding nothing, she reluctantly stood and headed into the cottage, away from the chill air.

Riker silently followed at her heels, waiting for her to make the next move. She seemed uncomfortable around him again, more so than ever before. Not willing to let her walk farther away he hooked his arms around her waist and drew her backwards against him. When she relaxed into his chest comprehension struck him like a fist.

"Again?" he asked, seeing the immediate change in her body language.

Deanna glanced at him over her shoulder and nodded.

"But at least it's a start, right?"

"But to what end, Will? Do you have any idea how dependent I could get if I can only sense you when we touch?"

He nuzzled her neck. "I'm feeling pretty dependent right now, myself." At her look of dismay, he quickly covered, saying, "Maybe it's just coming back slowly instead of all at once."

"It could be," she allowed. She leaned farther into him when she felt him take the sensitive lobe of her ear between his teeth and gently tug. "And that's not the only thing," she said mostly under her breath. Louder she said, "Or… maybe it just needs to `recharge' every ten years or so."

Riker abruptly stopped his actions and spun her around to face him, keeping his hands on her shoulders.

"Don't even joke about that," he replied with a tinge of anger in his voice. "Ten years… damn it, Deanna. I don't want to be away from you for ten minutes." His eyes blazed into her until he focused and saw her stricken expression. Taking her hand in his, he led over to a long white wicker framed sofa, sat down and pulled her onto his lap. He draped the soft peach blanket over them and took her hands in his again.

"I've had a lot of time to think over the past few days. Seeing how close I came… we came… to losing this."

She watched him in silence, feeling each spike of emotion as he tried to put his emotions into words.

"I think; no I know, that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to give us another try."

She fought through the distraction of his heavily muscled thighs underneath her.

"Will, we've been through this."

He pressed a silencing finger to her lips and a fleeting smile passed over his lips when she kissed the tip of it.

"I know that. Just hear me out, okay?"

Deanna nodded and Will trailed his finger back and forth across the fullness of her bottom lip.

Part 24

"I know that. Just hear me out, okay?"

Deanna nodded and Will trailed his finger back and forth across the fullness of her bottom lip.

"I understand all of your concerns about us being together while we're serving together on the same ship. Hell, I even agree with most of them. But seriously, Deanna, have you stopped to consider how ridiculous it would be to be together and serve on different ships? We'd never see each other!" He raked a hand through his hair and grimaced when his fingers got stuck in the ocean-matted mess.

"We've been serving together as friends for a long time now and I think the past few days have shown us that that isn't the answer either." He lifted her arms out from under the blanket and draped them loosely about his neck. Troi made no move to resist and kept her eyes riveted to his face, watching him with an inscrutable expression. Riker lowered his forehead until it bumped against hers. When he spoke again his breath was warm against her lips.

"There has to be a way for us to reach the middle ground. Say you'll find it with me," he commanded softly. He wasn't going to let her change the subject this time without answering him.

Deanna stared at him in rapt fascination, her eyes wide and searching. She didn't answer him right away. He'd never spoken to her so earnestly about this before. They'd always side-stepped their previous relationship, choosing instead to focus on the blossoming friendship that had come into being during their early years aboard the Enterprise. Hearing his words and feeling their underlying emotion sent her off-kilter. He was serious. Very serious.

"Imzadi?" he asked. Troi didn't answer, still staring at him like she'd never seen him before. How in the galaxy has she missed this change in him? Had he gotten that good at shielding over the years or was she too caught up in her own mixed emotions to have never considered that his own might have become clear?

"……di?" She heard this time, the unease in his voice shaking her out of her stupor.

She shifted slightly on his lap and each was instantly reminded of their state of undress.

"Quit distracting me and answer my question," he rebuked with a smile. A teasing finger traced her spine but Deanna was easily able to discern the nerves behind the confident grin.

Her large, dark eyes seized his heart and Riker resisted the urge to tap his foot as he waited. After what felt like a lifetime he thought her heard a tentative, "Okay" emerge from her mouth.

"Okay?" he echoed. Had she truly, finally agreed with him?

Slowly she nodded, feeling the instant rush of joy that followed and marveling at the drastic shift in his emotions.

Millimeters away, she closed the gap between their mouths and kissed him, softly at first and then more insistently as she deepened the pressure of her lips on his. Time ceased to exist… just stopped…until there was nothing outside of their joined lips and searching hands. When they broke apart Will winked at her dazed expression.

"You sure you don't need me to convince you further? It'll be tough but I know you're worth the sacrifice." He skimmed his hands down her back and curved them around her hips.

Deanna lowered her arms from around his neck and laughed.

"I think I'm okay for now, but I'll keep that mind for once the Captain finds out."

Riker growled and pulled her closer. "He can get his own woman…"

Part 25

Troi rested the back of her head on Riker's chest , watching the sky's silvery stars give way to a series of pewter clouds hanging low over the ocean. Off in the distance the high pitched chirp of a Pacifican sea erne filled the air with its eager search for breakfast as it glided along the cresting waves.

Languid and sleepy-eyed they rested, entwined in the sand under a king-sized blanket. Will had successfully cajoled her outside to experience Laguna's legendary sunrise with him by dangling the prospect of a mug of unreplicated hot chocolate before her rumbling stomach. Having seen its shimmering first light many times before, she wouldn't have minded staying in the large canopied bed with its satin comforter and multitudes of feather pillows once they'd wound up there… eventually.

In the hour before daybreak with the oversized mug long since emptied and discarded, Deanna let her eyes drift shut and gave herself up to the soothing motion of Will's fingers against her scalp while he rubbed her head in a circular motion, echoing the way he'd shampooed her hair a little while ago.

After their talk, he'd kissed her breathless then carried her into the shower and with a heartbreakingly serious expression and inifinitely deep blue eyes, told her he needed to wash away the memory of the previous day. He'd leisurely run the soapy sponge over her body, sensuously massaging every inch of her until she was writhing under his hands before pressing her back to the wall and making sweet, delicious love to her there.

"What are you thinking about?" he murmured. The deep rumble of his voice vibrated warmly against her back and Deanna smiled, savoring his feelings of tired contentment.

He'd been right about the gradual resurgence of their bond. Since their most recent joining her sense of him was no longer limited to when they touched and Deanna could now feel a whisper of his presence run through her from a few feet away.

"I was thinking that I'll never be so quick to place a spiritual connection so high above a physical one ever again."

Will chuckled and his hand casually danced up her thigh. The swiftly rising temperature in the nearing dawn kissed them with a hot breeze but did nothing to ease Deanna's shivering beneath the blanket.

"I've been trying to tell you that for a long time." His fingers began slowly crawling higher.

Troi looked up at him and lowered her lashes flirtatiously.

"I'm listening now, unless you'd rather show me… again."

Grabbing her waist, Riker rolled onto his back into the sand, bringing her with him with a surprised squeal. His eyes seared into hers and Troi's heartbeat quickened, echoing the tide rushing back in towards shore as his lips neared hers.


"Hmmm?" She stretched lithely against him and dropped her gaze to his lips.

"Do you think the eclipse had something to do with this?" he asked, surprising her.

Deanna raised her eyes to his again and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"I don't know, Will. Didn't you say something about electrical disturbances preceding the quake?"

"I'm not suggesting that our brains went haywire, Deanna."

"Of course not. Yours has always been a little abnormal." Her smile deepened and she lowered one arm.

"Thanks a lot." The pout in his voice had Deanna softly stroking his lips with the tip of her index finger.

"Either way the eclipse is ending so we may never find out."

"Yeah, but wouldn't you want to know?" He reached up for her hand and tenderly kissed her palm. "In case it happens again?"

"Sure. But at least we know how to fix it now." She brushed her lips across his chin and wrinkled her nose slightly at the tickle from his beard. She'd have to get used to that.

Will laughed again and grinned.

"I can see it now." He lifted his arms and framed her face with his hands, highlighting the gleaming darkness of her eyes between them. "Beverly telling the Captain that she had to take us off duty so we could partake in an ancient Betazoid ritual where the participants need to be as close as possible and don't wear any clothes."

Deanna thumped her hand hard against his chest.

"Please… after we explained my mother's Phase to him I had the distinct impression that Captain Picard would rather not hear anything else about any aspect of Betazoid physiology.

"Good point. But I'd love to see his face when she enlightened him." His eyes sparkled at the horrified expression growing across her face. "Then again," Riker mused aloud, "maybe we should save the shock value for when we tell him he'll be attending a Betazoid bonding ceremony."

Troi covered her surprise with an arched brow and spoke quickly, trying unsuccessfully to gauge his emotions for any sense of teasing.

"Aren't you getting ahead of yourself?"

"Not at all. Just planning for the future. We *will* be married one day, Deanna. There's not a single doubt in my mind."

"You mean that," she stated, her mouth falling open.

Riker seized the moment and kissed her soundly before she knew what hit her. Her adorable blush when flustered spurred him to draw this out as long as he could.

"Of course. Just don't keep me waiting too long before you propose."


"Well, I asked last time so now it's your turn."

She gaped at him.

"Besides, isn't it Betazoid tradition?" Will captured her hands.

She mutely nodded. Her eyes were wide and fixed on his.

"So maybe, just once… we'll do something to make your mother happy."

Regaining her equilibrium, an impish light gradually seeped into her onyx eyes.

"That gives us two options then." A smile teased her lips, drew him closer.


"Mmhhmm." She inclined her head and licked at his bottom lip. "Either you'll have to let me go so I can find someone she deems suitable---"

"Not an option," he interrupted, shaking his head vehemently and scattering the sand from his hair. "You're mine and I'm not going anywhere."

"Quite archaic of you, Commander," she demurred.

"Deanna…" he warned. He meant every syllable of it. "What's the other option?"

She pressed herself flush against him and explored the rippling muscles of his chest and arms with her hands. She couldn't stop touching him, loving the feel of his skin under her hands; the way he smelled…

"Deanna? The other option?"

Her smile was blindingly bright as her lips curved upwards. Lowering her mouth to his, Deanna spoke softly against his lips.

"That's simple, Imzadi." She nipped at his bottom lip, drawing it carefully into her mouth and tracing its outline with her tongue.

Will's eyes closed at the sumptuous caress and flew open at her following words.

"We'll need to promise her at least two grandchildren."

Latching onto her eyes, alight with mischief, Riker cupped her face in his palms and stroked her cheek with the pad of his thumb.

"Why stop there?" he questioned with a devilish grin when she released his lip. The desire in his words struck him even as he said them, picturing her growing round and ripe with his children.

Troi's heart practically skipped a beat and her mouth popped open again.

<Oh, Imzadi> floated through his mind as he inclined his head for another kiss.

Part 26

The glittery swirl of the transporter beam faded away, leaving the two officers standing hand in hand in its wake.

`Oh good. You're back. I was starting to think something else went wrong down there." Dr. Crusher rushed forward towards Riker and Troi.

"Glad to see you missed us, Doc." Riker greeted her with a grin then bent and grabbed at the straps of both of the small satchels that had appeared next to them on the transporter pad. He hoisted the bags over his shoulder and guided Troi forward with a hand on the small of her back.

Crusher eyed them speculatively. Both appeared tanned and healthy at first glance but she was itching to run some tests to confirm that everything was back to normal.

"Maybe you could let us unpack before you drag us off to Sickbay?" Troi chimed in with a matching smile, taking a step off the transporter pad. She was practically overwhelmed by the intensity of Crusher's emotions; so eager was the CMO to evaluate her patients.

"One hour," Crusher relented, leading the way out of the transporter room.

"Agreed." They answered at the same time and Crusher's blue eyes widened.

She looked over her shoulder to make sure they were following. Bursting with questions, she bit down on her lip to stop from interrogating them in the corridor and preceded them into the turbolift.

Away from the prying eyes and large ears of the transporter chief and seeing Riker casually drape his arm over Troi's slim shoulders as he called for Deck Eight, Crusher called for Sickbay and rounded on her friends.

"You look fine to me, but without tests…"

"One hour. You said one hour." Deanna reminded, raising a hand to stop Crusher from reaching for her tricorder while they were in the turbolift.

The doctor reluctantly nodded and continued staring at them as the floors whirred by.

"What?" Riker asked, under the weight of her punishing stare. He leaned against the wall and met her gaze head on.

"I'm not sure yet." Crusher's eyes narrowed as she looked them over. They were standing very close together. She opened her mouth to speak and was interrupted by the lift doors opening onto Deck Eight.

"You'd better be on time," she said instead, calling after them as they exited the lift.

Without looking back at her Riker raised his hand in acknowledgment then replaced it on Troi's back again as the doors hissed shut, blocking Crusher's view and whisking her up the remaining four decks to Sickbay.

Alone in the corridor, they looked at each other and sighed before continuing on their way. Three days without seeing another person had left them less than anxious to return to the ship and face Crusher's tricorder. Though Riker was hoping that the away team had gathered some sort of information that might make sense out of what happened to them, he was starting to agree with Deanna that they may never know.

Approaching Troi's quarters, Riker followed her inside, staying close behind her.

"We have an hour." He spoke in a low tone, close enough to tease the back of her neck with the heat of his breath. He dropped their bags on the floor near the door.

Deanna turned and almost crashed into him. She smiled patiently, her eyes bright.

"To unpack and settle in, Will. Not to play." She'd sensed his plan from the instant the doors closed.

"Okay," he easily agreed, drawing her pliant body into his arms and pulling her against him. He fiddled with the fastener at the back of her civilian dress with one hand. "I'll start by unpacking you." He whispered into her neck, trailing his tongue down the delicate curve.

"Will," she protested, glancing at the chronometer before her eyes fell closed at his searing projections. The brush of his beard against her skin sent tingles down her spine and she shuddered in his arms.


He led her into the bedroom, scattering clothing along the way with each step they took. Sinking down onto the bed with him, Deanna's head fell back against the pillows and she gasped at the damp kisses falling across her throat. Will pressed her backwards into the mattress, covering her body and bringing his lips to hers.

<<And I definitely plan on settling in for a while.>> He sent, nudging her legs apart with his knee and sliding between her thighs.

Sauntering into Sickbay two minutes under their one hour deadline to be evaluated and return to duty, the two were greeted by an overeager Dr. Crusher and ushered into an exam room.

Running a scanner from the top of Riker's head down to his toes, Beverly shook her head in amazement.

"I'm seeing no residual damage from your injuries and your vitals have never been stronger. You really do have more lives than a cat, Commander."

"Or maybe I have a guardian angel looking out for me, Doc." He smiled at Troi over Crusher's shoulder.

"Maybe you're just lucky, Will."

"Undoubtedly. The luckiest man alive," he replied with absolute sincerity. Deanna colored slightly under the heat of his gaze.

"Well, whatever it is you're clear to go back to duty and can resume Alpha shift in the morning." Crusher turned and jerked her thumb at Troi, gesturing for her to take Riker's newly vacated place on the biobed. "You're up next, Counselor."

"I've spent more time in Sickbay over the past week than I have in years," she grumbled.

"Welcome to my world." Riker smirked, leaning against a cart teeming with equipment.

"Relax, Deanna. It'll only take a minute or so." With a hand on her hip, she began the scanning routine she'd just completed on Riker.

"So how was your shore leave?" Beverly asked in a neutral tone, repeating the scan again.

"It was just fine, Beverly. Can we go now?" Troi's eyes narrowed, watching Crusher hover over her with the scanner. The CMO read the results again.

"Not quite yet," she murmured. Then she turned towards Riker. "Will, could you excuse us for a few minutes.

"If something's wrong with Deanna…"

"Nothing's wrong, Will. Just give us some time, please."

Riker's look of dismay was met with a helpless shrug by Troi before he nodded.

"The Captain wanted to see me when we're done here, anyway." With a final glance at Deanna he reluctantly left.

Crusher leaned forward once he was gone and raised her eyes from the scanner.

"All right. Out with it."

"Out with what?" Deanna folded her arms defensively across her chest.

"What really happened between the two of you on that leave? I thought Will's vitals were good until I got a look at yours. My god, Deanna, your readings are unbelievable right now." She looked down at the results in her hand. "Never mind. I have a good idea what you've had to have been up to in order to cause these."

"That's what you kicked Will out for?" Deanna was surprised. In spite of Crusher's words to the contrary, for a moment there she thought something really was wrong with her.

"Come on, Deanna. This past week has left my head spinning. First you collapse and I have to order you to rest, then Will almost gets himself killed and somehow drags you down with him---"

"That's not fair, Beverly, you can't blame him for that."

"----and now this!" She tapped her scanner against the edge of the biobed. "Unless this is some sort of side effect from your lost sense of Will. Your libido is ramped up so high that if I didn't know better, I'd assume you were in phase."

Troi straightened her posture and indignation flared in her voice.

"I am not in phase. I am much too young for that, Beverly."

"Of course you are," Crusher soothed, grabbing a stool and pulling it closer. She dropped down onto it and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and folding her hands under her chin.

"Now, spill."

Part 27

"You wanted to see me, Captain?" Riker paused in the doorway of the Ready Room. He pushed his unhappiness at being asked to leave Sickbay and concern for Troi to the back of his mind and waited for his Captain's orders.

"Yes, Number One. Have a seat." Picard set down his cup of Earl Grey Tea and gestured him closer. "I understand that you've been declared fit for duty."

Riker straddled the chair opposite the Captain's desk and nodded.

"I have, Sir."

"Good. Glad to hear it. I thought you might be interested in reading this." He picked a PADD up off the desk and slid it across the desk to his first officer. "It's Mr. Data's final report on the Pacifica mission. Quite a few surprises in there."


"It seems that the seismic activity plaguing the area near the research station during the eclipse was caused by an incredibly large concentration of feridium oxide situated directly underneath the station."

"That's one of the most magnetic ores in the quadrant!" Riker leaned forward, his blue eyes snapping with intensity.

"Exactly, Number One. Data believes that the feridium deposits were responsible for all the electrical disturbances recorded by Dr. Newell's team just before the quake that injured you." He picked up his cup again and sipped at the robust beverage.

"Captain… that team has been working there on and off for over ten years now. Why was this only being discovered now? I saw their equipment. It was all top of the line." Ideas flew threw his head but were quickly discarded before being verbalized to the Captain. Could the magnetic properties of the feridium oxide somehow be possible for what happened between he and Deanna?

"Indeed, Number One. But Data's findings showed that during the last eclipse five years ago the quakes that occurred at that time opened a chasm under the station's primary laboratory, bringing a large quantity of feridium closer to the surface. Most of the station has been coated in miniscule particles of the ore since that time. The lab equipment had been simply covered in magnetic dust."

"Which would have explained why the consoles kept malfunctioning." Riker finished, thinking of the endless hours wasted while working on the machines that broke almost as soon as they were fixed.

"Yes. Geordi has spent the better part of the last few days extricating the feridium oxide from where it collected in Data's positronic neural net. All of you were exposed during your time down there. You more than the others, due to the amount of dust that was stirred up when the ceiling collapsed on top of you. So tell me, Number One, how is your head feeling right now?" Picard didn't try to hide the twinkle in his eye.

Riker chuckled and sat back in the chair. A wide smile broke over his face.

"Just fine, Captain."

"You enjoyed your leave, then?"

"Yes, Sir."

Something in his tone struck Picard and he scrutinized his first officer closely. Riker certainly looked as though he'd been on leave, a direct contrast to the battered shell of a man he'd been during the earlier part of the week.

Instead, vitality and a relaxed demeanor radiated from him like a solar flare. The Captain set aside the empty cup and inclined his head slightly. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Riker look this well since his last trip to Risa, well over a year ago. He knew full well how his Exec preferred to spend his shore leaves but it couldn't be possible….he'd gone to Laguna with the Counselor. Riker and Troi? He knew they had been an item at one time and were now close friends. He'd never thought the two of them would….

"Sir? Was there anything else?"

Realizing he'd been staring at Riker for some time, Picard stopped his thoughts from drifting. He tugged at his jacket and dismissed him.

"No, Number One. That's all for now. Good to have you back, Will."

"Thank you, Sir." With a backwards glance, Riker stood, grabbed the PADD and exited the Ready Room with his heart pound fiercely in his chest. He couldn't wait to share what he'd learned with Deanna.

Part 28

Hours later, after sharing what he'd learned and having a small meal together they rested together on the couch in Riker's quarters. He'd set the room's illumination to candlelight and soft jazz serenaded them from hidden speakers.


"Hmm?" A small rush of joy coursed through her at the easy way he'd started calling her that again.

"What did Beverly have to say?" In all his excitement he'd forgotten to ask earlier. And since she hadn't volunteered, Will knew it couldn't be that serious.

Troi rolled her eyes.

"It was more like what she asked. She was only fishing for details about our leave together."

Riker leaned his head into her hair and twirled a long tendril around his finger.

"What did you tell her?"

"Not much," she admitted, curling her fingers into his free hand. "She knows my sense of you came back but I was very vague as to how and why. She kept digging though and may have guessed." Their friend the CMO was nothing if not tenacious.

Will nuzzled her ear. "Captain Picard was looking at me pretty strangely too."

"What do you mean?" she asked, sighing at the strong fingers now caressing her neck.

"I couldn't put my finger on it." He deepened his touch as he spoke. "But I'm sure they'll both figure it out very soon if they haven't already." Will slid the low drape of her violet dress off her shoulder and nipped gently at the skin he revealed.

"If you do that in public they certainly will." Troi responded. She didn't seem pleased about it and Riker responded more harshly than he intended.

"So what?" he frowned, not liking turn this conversation was taking. "Music off," he ordered the computer. The room filled with heavy silence as he waited for her answer.

"Don't you think you're rushing things just a little bit here? We just got back."

"You call the ten years to get to this point rushing things? I'm sorry Deanna but I'm not going to be sneaking in and out of your room at night like I used to. We're both too old for that." His voice rose in distaste at the thought. "Speaking of which, we've been back for hours now and you've made no move to contact your mother, have you?" He knew her answer even before she shook her head no.

"Can you blame me?" she countered, scooting off his lap, rising to her feet and pacing the room. "You really think I want to listen to all of that again?"

"What's worse, Deanna? That she'll disapprove again or that she'll start planning our wedding?"

Her face crumpled. "It's so easy for you, Will. You decide what's right and when and everything and everyone else is just expected to fall in line. It doesn't work that way!" His self-assurance was one of the traits she'd loved most about him but sometimes it was beyond irritating.

"Don't you think I know that?" He stood and walked toward her as she backed away. "If it did you would have come back to me years ago."

"Oh please." Troi threw her hands up in exasperation. "Less than six months ago you were willing to throw everything away to chase after another woman."

Riker nodded with difficulty and spoke quietly, his back rigid. "You're right. And I've been kicking myself for it ever since. It was the second stupidest thing I've ever done. The first was not meeting you on Risa."

She stiffened at the still sharp memory that assailed her at his words and he stepped closer, placing his hands on her shoulders and ignoring her uncontrolled flinch at his touch. Through their bond he felt walls stronger than duranium fly up between them.

"We came so close to losing this for good and now you think you can turn it on and off like a switch? Not this time, Imzadi. You may not have given me a choice the first time but I'll be damned if I'll let you take it away from me now." He raised his hands to her face, holding her head firmly but gently and forced her to look at him. And I've felt you blocking me from almost the instant our bond came back on the planet…" Staring intently at her glistening eyes Will cleared his mind and reached through her shields. He knocked them aside with sheer force and determination, filling her with the certainty of his love for her and holding fast under the weight of her apprehension.

Deanna trembled under the strength of his emotions and her knees buckled beneath her. He held her shaking body tightly against him, supporting her from falling.

"You're not supposed to be able to do that." Her voice shook and tears filled the large dark eyes he held captive with his own.

"I love you, Deanna," he said fiercely. "I'm so in love with you that I can't see straight. I can't see anything but you.

He dropped to the floor, taking her down with him and his forlorn expression ripped her to pieces.

"You've trusted me with your life on multiple occasions; you've let me back into your bed. Now, let me back into your heart, Imzadi."

"Will…" The tears spilled forth endlessly. "I can't."

"Can't or won't?" His tone cut into her like glass. "Damn it, Deanna. Stop pulling away from me. You've owned my soul for ten years and I don't want it back."

"You're going to leave again," she cried, without thinking. It always came down to that. Why was he doing this to them for a second time? They just got back to the ship this morning; why did he have to bring all of this up now?

"No, I'm not. I'm not going anywhere right now. And if I do get another chance to have my own ship one day, I'll only be accepting the commission if you agree to come with me." He stroked her face with the edge of his hand, wiping away the tears almost as fast as they fell. Troi sensed that he was telling the truth and looked down at the floor wordlessly, unable to speak and get past the bitter lump in her throat.

"We're in this together, Deanna. No matter how long or how hard you fight against us, these last few days have proved what I've already known for years. You are mine as I am yours and there's nothing else that matters. Nothing. Not this ship or our careers or your mother's plans for you."

She lifted her head and his vibrant blue eyes met hers again, clashing in challenge.

"Look at me and tell me you aren't in love with me and I'll let you go. It may destroy me to do it but I won't hold you here against your will. But I don't think you can. " He held his breath, waiting with his heart threatening to burst from his chest.

The whisper of defiance she felt in him ebbed away, replaced by the purest sense of love. Troi closed her eyes and whimpered, letting it wash over her; infusing her soul with its warmth and overpowering her with its golden luminosity as it vanquished the last of her doubts. She basked in it for the space of a heartbeat before her eyes slid slowly open and locked onto his.

Tell me," he cajoled, running his fingers across her cheek and angling her face closer to his until their breath mingled.


"Tell me, Deanna," he insisted. His lips neared hers; drawn to them as though they were covered in the magnetic dust he'd learned about earlier.

<<Imzadi… I've never stopped loving you.>> She reached for his mind hungrily, slipping into his thoughts as easily as if she'd always been there.

"See, that wasn't so hard after all," he answered. She felt his laughter joyously ring through her spirit and broke the kiss, glaring at him furiously.

"You are so smug sometimes, Riker."

"It's the Ferengi's sixty-second Rule of Acquisition, you know. `The riskier the road, the greater the profit.'

"You're maddening." Even as she spoke her hands slipped beneath the soft fabric of his blue sweater, gripping at the broad shoulders she found under the cloth.

"That's why you love me," he murmured into her mouth. Resuming their earlier journey, his fingertips skirted along the bare skin of her shoulder.

Deanna sighed and her hands flirted with the back of his neck.

"Shut up and kiss me, Riker."

Part 29

"Shut up and kiss me, Riker."

"Now where have I heard that before?" he questioned with a chuckle. When he hadn't complied, she silenced him with a quick searching kiss.

Troi flipped his sweater over his head and tossed it aside, launching herself at him. The hunger in her eyes heated his blood as she pulled him closer and her tongue scorched a hot, damp path across the strong muscles of his torso.

"When you go into phase, you may kill me." His breath caught and held at the sensual assault on his senses and he tensed beneath her touch.

"Last chance to back out," she said coyly, stripping off his remaining clothing.

"God, no," he groaned.

Troi placed her hands on his broad chest and shoved him backwards onto the carpet. He clumsily reached up for her, frustrated by the handfuls of cloth he held instead of her skin. Struggling to find the small fastener hidden in the garment with the heavy mass of her sweetly scented hair in the way, Will was easily distracted from his task.

With a throaty laugh Deanna kissed his chin and guided his hand to the clasp at her back, drawing her hair over one shoulder.

"I have a favorite rule myself."

"Oh?" With more room to maneuver, he coaxed the dress lower down. "One twenty-five, `You can't make a deal if you're dead?'" His mouth went dry at the sight before him and he grew hard at the notion that she'd walked around the ship with her beautiful breasts unfettered beneath her clothes.

"No. One hundred and sixty-eight ." <<'Whisper your way to success.'>>

Will felt the mental caress all the way down to the soles of his feet and his breath was a rough, heated pant against the curve of her breast. Neither had seen the need for swim suits during the latter part of their leave and the uninterrupted honey-colored skin of her chest was warm beneath his mouth. "That's one hell of a whisper," he muttered. He teased her incessantly, rolling her over into the carpet, his hands and lips tracing newly familiar territory over and over until she was gasping his name and melding her passion with his own.

His silky tongue toyed with the tingling points of her nipples, driving her to madness with each damp caress. He tugged gently with his teeth and liquid heat filled the aching hollow between her legs.

"Come with me, Imzadi. No more games. I want you… naked in my bed." Where you belong, he silently added. Possessive need flashed in the dazzling blue of his eyes and Riker stood, extended his hand and swept her up off the floor.

She got to her feet with a moment's hesitation, the dress slithering to the ground with a muted hush. The silken material rustled against her legs and pooled at her ankles, leaving her clad only in a scrap of purple lace. Stepping out of the dress, she silently followed him, trying to banish the subconscious thought of all the women who'd preceded her there. Troi began to shake as at the silent entreat to her soul. No matter how many others there'd been, she'd been the first to touch his spirit. The only, his eyes told her now as he seemingly read her mind.

"Computer, quarter lights, fifteen percent illumination." Will's voice was husky and Deanna felt his tethered control about slip. Her legs were boneless and she sat on the edge of the bed, opening her arms and urging him into them.

He went willingly, outlining the curves of her body with his large, masterful hands. His smoky gaze was etched with need, surprisingly soft against the ferocity of his kiss. Plundering the sweetness of her mouth, his hands splayed across her back and he devoured her whole; leaving her lips wet, swollen and gasping for air. His name became a whispered prayer on her lips and when he moved away she cried out in frustration.

Her eyes still on his, Deanna shifted slightly and wriggled her hips, helping him to discard her last remnant of clothing.

<<Imzadi>> registered in his close to incoherent thoughts and he shifted slightly, grasping her foot in his hands. Deanna collapsed against the plush softness of the pillow and tried to catch her breath, propping her elbows behind her on the bed and watching him plant small kisses on the delicate arch.

"You may have the most perfect foot in the sector," he said. The words rumbled against her heel and drew a ticklish laugh from her throat that stopped abruptly when he sucked the tiny burgundy painted toes into his mouth.

Deanna flashed him one of her eminently tolerant looks and a teasing smile flitted to her lips.

"I never took you for a fetishist, Will," she remarked with mock seriousness and a raised brow. "Maybe you should talk to someone about this."

With a dangerous gleam in his eyes he tugged his mouth away. He loved the way she tasted, sweeter than the chocolate she could never get enough of. He wove fiery kisses around the curve of her ankles.

"You're my fetish…" His mouth wandered up to her calves, licked at the smooth skin. "My obsession …" He ran his tongue along her knees, sending a spike of desire down her spine and wringing a soft sound from her throat. "My addiction …" The heat of his breath was hotter than flames when he brushed his beard across the top of her thighs and lingered there. << My imzadi…>>

It jolted into her spirit like a lightning bolt.

A shallow breath of air left her lungs and the Betazoid eyes he adored grew wet with the fervor of his emotions shining like a song in her blood. She was riveted to him, couldn't look away from the devilish grin and rapidly darkening eyes as he tapped her lightly on the leg with his index finger.

"Open," Riker whispered, his face transforming and growing wicked with desire.

Her eyes drifted closed at the intensity of his stare and her thighs parted in response to his erotic request. She was burning for him, a breath away from begging. Even though he'd scarcely touched her body, she felt every caress, every lick of his desire resonate in her soul. Her mind clouded with passion and she sensed rather than heard his strangled sigh when she complied.

"Success… remind me to thank the next Ferengi we meet for his words of wisdom." He nipped lightly at the crease of her thigh and hungrily inhaled the intoxicating scent of her arousal.

Troi's quick retort vanished in the soft moan that escaped instead of words. All conscious thought fled, lost to the exquisite sensation of his mouth moving over the swollen folds of her sex. Her eyes opened, glazed and blind to anything but the molten ecstasy of his tongue. A quickened breath escaped her lungs and her trembling fingers clutched at the sheets. Her heels dug violently into the mattress and she arched towards his mouth in an uncontrolled motion, whimpering with need. There was nothing in her universe but him; the lazy movement of his tongue circling her most sensitive flesh and the all consuming flame of his lust flowing through her mind.

He'd known she'd been holding back during their time on the planet but now with no walls left standing between them, he paused and looked up at her, waiting. Her desire-laden eyes gazed at him with a look of such utter trust and adoration that his chest tightened.

"I've been starving for you, Deanna." The words vibrated hotly against her swollen center. "Ten long years…" With another insistent lick and roll of his tongue, Troi's breath disappeared into vapor and throbbing with need, Riker gripped her hips so tightly in his hands that the marks he left would last for days.

Deanna shuddered into him. The pleasure he incited was unbearable… and building. Scalding heat poured through her, a mist of moisture spread over her skin and her wild scream of release was voiceless. It broke over Will in a sizzling cascade of pleasure careening through his soul… just the way he remembered. He'd woken too many times over the decade they'd been apart with that perfect moment echoing in his head only to find himself alone, breathless and fully aroused.

Struggling to calm his raging pulse and painfully hard erection, he slowly continued on his path upwards, savoring the trembling in the limbs beneath him.

"You okay?" he asked, bestowing a gentle kiss on the breast beneath his cheek and seeing the frantic beat of her pulse at the flushed base of her throat. His strong hand wrapped around her damp, shaky wrist then threaded their fingers together.

The concept of speech too impossible to fathom, Deanna squeezed his hand weakly.

With her free hand she trailed a fingertip across the nape of his neck and along his shoulder.

"Will," she finally managed. "Come here."

Riker covered her body with his own, undeniably aroused and unable to withstand even that simple touch from her hand. He seized her mouth again, running his tongue along the seam of her lips and tracing the outline of her teeth, hungrily exploring everything he could. Desperate, he lifted her legs high about his waist and pushed inside, burying himself inside her still shuddering body with a long perfect stroke.

Identical gasps of pleasure filled the air and they moved in concert as one; rocking…quickening…crying out in tandem, their heartbeat s raced together and their thoughts and souls joined as fluidly as their physical forms, carrying them on wave after wave of utter ecstasy. Silver fire flashed between them and they closed their eyes against the blazing glow. When they reopened them at the same moment each gasped in turn, stunned to find themselves... back on the beach.

Part 30

Wrapped around each other in the sand with a warm breeze whispering over their bodies, Will was the first to catch his breath. Glancing around sharply, he held Deanna tightly against him. The curved crescent of the iridescent moon hung low on the horizon and sea churned in the distance.

"Feeling the earth move is one thing but this is something else altogether. Wow. Did you do this?" He looked down at the woman in his arms in amazement but Troi just stretched and looked up at him with an expression of equal surprise.

"More like we did this, I think."

"Wow," he repeated, excitement breaking over his face. He rolled to his side and tucked her body into him more fully. "This isn't Laguna but…we were here before weren't we? " He had a vague recollection of this place and his eyes narrowed, trying to pinpoint the memory.

Troi's eyes grew wide as something brushed against the back of her mind. "She wasn't making it up!"

"What? Who wasn't making what up? Deanna you aren't making sense." He raised his arms and held her shoulders, looking deep into her eyes and seeing her struggle to focus.

She brought her hands to his face. "My mother, Will. She told me that after your injury our souls were somehow transported to Asteria."

Riker's brow furrowed. "Astral projection? That's incredibly rare for Betazoids and even more so for humans if I remember correctly." He strained to capture the thread of familiarity that had been hovering in the back of his mind since they'd gone to Laguna together.

"And that's where we are now?" he asked, pressing a kiss to the top of her head and trying to recall what he'd heard about Asteria. "I always knew we were good together but I never thought we'd actually kill each other with pleasure. Still, this is a hell of a lot closer to my idea of heaven than I ever thought possible." An amorous light shone in his eyes and his fingers stole along the column of her spine, reaching down to cup the firm cheek of her bottom in his hand.

Troi swatted her hand lightly against his thigh.

"Be serious, will you?"

His voice dropped a half an octave, sending a shiver through her at the sound.

"Sorry. But you have to admit, we were very *very* alive just a few minutes ago. So why are we here again? And how did we manage to leave last time?" He raised his hand from her behind and rested it on the small of her back.

"I'm not sure… you had disappeared and I was thinking about you…" The memory was inching towards her conscious mind but not quite there yet.

"We were in the water and I was kissing you…" He closed his eyes briefly, tasted the sweetness of that first kiss on his lips and couldn't stop from running his tongue along them. Opening his eyes into her inky gaze, it flashed through his consciousness.

"I… projected to you. The next thing I remember I was waking in Sickbay, being tortured by Beverly."

"You were gone and I was there alone…" So alone. She remembered the emptiness; the icy chill and a wave of warmth ran through her; a reassuring presence. Just as quickly as she felt it, it dissipated and left her cold and confused.

Seeing the look of distress on her face, Will lowered his forehead to hers.

"Hey, its okay. We'll get out of here together. Hell, we'll have to. If not, Beverly will get quite a shock when she gets fed up and breaks into my quarters."

Deanna smiled faintly at the image his words constructed in her head. "And we'd never hear the end of it then."

Riker winked at her. "Exactly."

She felt it again; that elusive flash of heat in her mind but she couldn't hold on to it.

"Will…" she gripped his arm, "I don't think we're alone here this time."

He cast a hunting glance around them at the turbulent sea and star-filled sky then returned his gaze to her face.

"Are you sure?"

Troi's brow furrowed. "Well no, actually. But for a few seconds there, I could have sworn there was something."

"Something? Or someone? Maybe your Betazoid gods are trying to tell us something."

Deanna shrugged. "I don't sense anything malevolent if that's what you mean. Or anything at all other than us right now."

"Let's just keep an eye out then."

Deanna nodded. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, searching with every sense she'd so carefully honed over her many years of mental training. Nothing. Eyes flooded with disappointment opened and suddenly she sagged against him, dizziness streaking through her.

"Deanna!" He felt her body shake in his arms and his heart skipped a beat.

"Will," she murmured, "I'm okay." She took another deep breath.

"Whatever you just did, don't do it again." He placed his hands on her elbows and waited until the color came back into her cheeks. "I don't get this. If only our souls are here, what caused that?"

"I don't know, Will. I was only trying to sense whatever it was empathically. I couldn't find anything though."

"Just relax for a while. Since it seems that we're safe enough, let's get some rest and try to figure this out."

The rapid beat of her heart concerned him. Crusher had told him that his had gone into overdrive shortly before he'd woken up but she'd been able to return it to a normal rhythm while in Sickbay. Unless they'd been gone longer than he thought, their bodies were still in his quarters and far from medical attention in case something went wrong.

Troi acknowledged his words with a short sound, her eyes already drifting closed. She rested against his chest and let the soothing touch of his hand caressing her back lull her to sleep. Soon after, he followed.

Part 31

What seemed like a few short minutes later, Troi opened her eyes. She and Riker were in his bed, intertwined beneath the extremely rumpled sheets. Grabbing a hold on his bicep, she immediately shook him awake. This time her memory was crystal clear and she needed to know what he remembered in case it faded.

Will opened his eyes part way, pulled her closer and shut them again, settling back into the pillows. Deanna waited patiently, resting her chin against his chest. She felt his emotions gradually shift from a dream state into wakeful consciousness until he was staring down at her. Abruptly sitting up, he gathered her against him and searched Troi's face, finding matching confusion there.

"We were… somewhere else, weren't we?" Will's eyes narrowed as images of their time in Asteria assailed him. "That wasn't a dream," he declared and Troi nodded, sharing his thoughts. She'd remembered as well. "But somehow we're back again." He tilted her face up with a finger under her chin. "Are you okay?"

Deanna smiled reassuringly. "I'm fine, Will. And before you ask, I have no idea how it happened."

<<The time is 0500 hours>> The voice of the computer stated crisply.

Riker groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. "We'll have to put this aside for now. I'm back on alpha shift."

"And I have appointments beginning at 0630." Planting a firm kiss on his chin, Deanna slipped from the bed and headed for the shower.

With an openly admiring glance, Riker exhaled a sharp breath and tossed back the blanket. Intent flashed in his blue eyes as he followed steps behind, only to be thwarted at the entrance to the bathroom by the chiming of the doors.

Quickly grabbing his blue robe from the back of a chair and putting it on, he headed into the main room of his quarters with a forlorn glance at the door to the bathroom.

"Come in," he said, stifling a yawn. He hated being bothered so early. He especially hated missing out on the opportunity to join Deanna in the shower.

The doors slid aside at his invitation, revealing Dr. Crusher standing in the doorway with a hypo in hand.

Without bothering with small talk she immediately started in on him.

"Will, I wanted to catch you before the start of your shift. I know that if I asked you to stop by Sickbay it could be weeks before you finally got around to it."

"I'm not that bad," he objected, scratching at the hair on his chest and leaning heavily against the wall.

Crusher laughed at his sulking face and stared pointedly at him until he shrugged his large shoulders and gave in.

"I got the last of your test results back." She smiled at him. "This will only take a minute."

"Can't this wait, Doc?" he interjected, hearing the shower shut off in the room behind them. The last thing he wanted was for Deanna to feel ambushed by their friend after the interrogation she'd narrowly avoided the day before. Though he wouldn't have cared about answering Crusher's questions himself, he knew Deanna was already feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened to them over the past week.

"You have company," the CMO realized aloud. Her gaze flicked from Riker to the dress and lingerie strewn about the room and hearing the sounds of movement behind the partially closed bedroom door dropped the smile from her face. "The magnetic properties of the feridium oxide caused some abnormalities in your system that weren't initially apparent."

"Obviously nothing major, Beverly. I'm feeling better than ever."

"I'll bet," she muttered mostly to herself with another look at the clothing on the ground. She should have guessed. Will Riker never slept alone for long. He wasn't going to like what she'd come to say.

"Will? What's taking you so long? I thought you were going to join me," a familiar accented voice spoke coyly from behind the door.

Crusher's eyes widened at the sound. She knew there had to be more going on between Riker and Troi than Deanna had let on in Sickbay the day before but she'd never expected to have her suspicions confirmed like this!

When Riker hadn't answered, Troi sensed Crusher's presence in the other room. Sighing to herself, she wrapped a large towel around her body before leaving the bedroom and smiled sweetly as she walked towards the living area.

"Good morning, Beverly. Are you joining us for breakfast?" Deanna kept her tone pleasant though she was inwardly cringing at the grilling she knew would follow later. Riker grinned widely at her appearance and waited to see what she'd do next.

Troi paused in the doorway, smiling brightly at the curiosity and glee she sensed from Crusher. She might as well enjoy the doctor's reaction; Will certainly seemed to be doing so.

"No…" Beverly forced her attention back to the reason she'd dropped by unannounced and quietly sighed in relief. Having looked through Troi's medical records during her coma, she knew they'd have nothing to worry about. "Actually I came to give you this."

She stepped forward and injected a surprised Riker in the neck with the hypospray in her hand.

"All done," she said cheerfully, backing away. Since Troi hadn't been part of the away team she shouldn't need the boosters.

"What was that?" he asked, rubbing the injection site with his palm. Crusher didn't normally stop by crew quarters to mysteriously stick their occupants with unnamed hypos.

"As I was saying earlier, the feridium oxide caused some adverse effects on the standard array of Starfleet vaccines we've all been issued. You are now once again up to date on the boosters for Rigellian fever, Thelusian Flu and the fertility inhibitor."

Troi froze where she stood with her arm braced against the doorjamb and her eyes wide and introspective. Could it be possible? Was *that* what she had sensed earlier? Her mind partially registered Riker's awareness of Crusher's words and the way the doctor kept looking back and forth between them.

Seeing the stunned look on the Counselor's face, Crusher walked towards her.

"Deanna…you look pale. Maybe I should see if you're okay," she murmured, taking a reading from the bewildered Betazoid. Troi appeared to be in some sort of trance and only seemed to emerge from it at the sound of the rapid beeping coming from Crusher's scanner.

"You're more than okay," Crusher stated, in fact you're…"

"Pregnant." Troi affirmed in a numb voice, still unmoving and hardly believing what came out of her mouth though she knew it to be true. The presence she'd felt earlier had not only been with them in Asteria; it had been inside her.

As their words sunk in, Riker's eyes lit up. Without thought he rushed towards Troi in three large strides and lifted her off the ground and into his arms; filling her with his giddy wonder. "A baby?" he spoke reverently, spinning her joyfully around the room.

<<Imzadi>> he sent, suffusing her with his love and elation. Deanna clutched the towel to her chest with both hands, thinking she might lose it to Riker's exuberance. Unable to form another coherent thought she let Will's delight overtake her and relied on his strength to keep her jellied limbs upright. If he hadn't been holding on to her she would have fallen to the ground.

Pressing his lips excitedly to hers, Will's pleasure engulfed her spinning head. Lost in his passionate kiss she couldn't help but respond, heedless of Crusher's amazement at their searing embrace. Her lips devoured his and a low groan escaped Riker's throat at the silky tip of her tongue gliding over his.

"I'll just let myself out." The doctor said wryly, backing slowly towards the doors. "Deanna, stop by and see my later, okay?" Without acknowledging her words, the insensible Troi wrapped her legs around Riker's waist as he pressed her back against the wall. With a final astonished look behind her, Crusher left the quarters as fast as she could. They certainly weren't waiting for her to leave before they celebrated.

Part 32

Trying to catch her breath Deanna remembered Beverly's presence, pulled back and broke the kiss, attempting to fight through the passion-filled fog clogging her mind. It wasn't easy.

"Will, wait a second," she said breathlessly, then realized that they were alone. She hadn't even heard Crusher leave but she must have at some point, hopefully before she'd gotten an eyeful. Deanna steadied herself with a hand on Will's shoulder and almost lost herself to the lust in his eyes. It took all of her control to not give in to the hands drawing off her towel but she managed to focus.

Hearing her shaky voice, Will stopped cold and looked her over carefully. The enormity of what they'd just learned had sunk in and threatened to overpower her. Instead of being flushed with desire her face had gone ashen and he felt a fine trembling in her limbs. Gently kissing her forehead, he carried her to the sofa and set her down, keeping his arms around her.

"I don't know if we're ready for a baby," she confessed, resting her head on the side of his neck.

"Is anyone?" he countered. "A brilliant psychology student I used to know once told me that our ability to adapt to the unknown is one of our greatest assets in space. Do you disagree with her assessment, Counselor?" He softly stroked her hair in a calming motion and his eyes twinkled at her. There were no words to express his joy and he wanted her to be as happy as he was though he could see she'd need reassurance.

Deanna thought hard for a prolonged moment, still reeling from all of the changes she'd been seeing and sensing in him over the past week. When she'd teased him with the remark about giving her mother grandchildren he hadn't even blinked. The Will Riker she thought she knew would have been on the fastest transport to the farthest sector of the known universe at even the hint of prospective fatherhood. And she certainly hadn't expected this so soon!

"No… if I remember correctly, she tended to be right once in a while." She managed a wan smile for him and squeezed his shoulder.

"Oh, I think it was more often than that. Either way, we've got plenty of time to get used to it." He checked the chronometer and sighed. "But if I don't get to the Bridge in twenty minutes I may be spending most of it in the brig."

Troi just nodded as Riker's hand continued to caress her neck.

"And I still think we need to talk about what happened before we woke up. It's been a hell of a week."

He rose and tugged her to her feet then enfolded the still stunned Betazoid in his embrace and tenderly kissed her.

"I'll see you later, okay?" His euphoria at their situation spilled into her along with his regret at having to leave.

Troi nodded again, unable to take her eyes from him. She'd never known him to wish he was anywhere other than commanding a starship but she clearly felt that he'd rather stay with her a while longer. Lately she was learning a lot about him even though a few months ago she would have sworn that she had known him better than anyone… even herself. So often surprised by him, she felt unbalanced.

Deanna watched until he disappeared into his bedroom and with a shaky breath picked her dress up from the floor and slipped into it, leaving the towel in a crumpled heap in its place then walked in a daze to her quarters next door to sort through her emotions before her appointments began for what would be a very long first day back on duty.

Part 33

Once inside her quarters Troi tried again to catch her breath. It was all moving so fast; she couldn't keep up with all the thoughts and emotions swirling around her. Only a week ago she had a comfortable friendship with Will. But now… Troi sank down into the cushions of her couch and dropped her head in her hands.

The threatened loss of their bond had catapulted them into an intense relationship before either of them had been able to think it through. And Will's assurance that it was right only made her more unsure. Will Riker had always been known for the certainty of his convictions but he'd never seemed to have any where their relationship was concerned. And yet she could sense that he felt so strongly that they were meant to be together, the same way she used to. She was still trying to figure out how she felt now. She loved Will. She always had. Yes, she cherished the friendship they'd developed during their six years on the ship together but the prospect of an intimate relationship with him had so quickly become a reality over the past few days. She hadn't thoroughly grasped what it would mean for them as friends, lovers and officers serving together. And if that wasn't enough to take in, now they'd be parents. Gods, just the thought of having his child made her heart race and her knees weak. When they were together the first time, it had been over so quickly that she'd never had time to contemplate them having children together.

Unaware of her actions and still in a daze, Troi stood and began to salvage what was left of her morning routine.

Next door in his quarters, Riker whistled to himself. He couldn't contain his joy, even within the confines of the small sonic shower. For all his reputation of an incomparable ladies man he would have gladly given it up years ago for another chance with Deanna. And now he had it. On those few occasions that he'd imagined a family of his own, she was always there with him and it was her face he pictured on his future children.

He hadn't been kidding when he'd told Dr. Crusher that he was the luckiest man alive. And that was before he'd learned they'd be having a baby. He could tell that Deanna was more than a little apprehensive about their future and he'd scarcely gotten her to agree to try again once that their bond came back when she'd discovered she was pregnant. He just hoped it wouldn't make those damned walls of hers fly up again and send her running away from him. Even so, he wasn't going to give up or let her turn away again. Even if it took the entire ten months of Deanna's pregnancy to coax her into his arms, Will wasn't going anywhere this time.

With a broad grin he stepped from the shower and quickly dressed, hoping to avoid a reprimand for tardiness on his first day back on duty.

Part 34

The ability to compartmentalize was one of her greatest mental disciplines, Deanna noted, sipping hot chocolate between appointments. With three already concluded for the day and only one more to go, she'd managed to shift her tumultuous personal life to the back of her mind for now and concentrate on what she did best, counseling others about theirs… among other things. It felt wonderful to be back in her office and also to not feel like she would fall asleep at any moment.

She sipped again from the steaming cup and finished inputting the session notes from her last appointment. Closing her eyes briefly, she savored every swallow of the rich, sweet beverage and cleared her mind to prepare for her final appointment of the day. Then she felt it; that flash of heat in her spirit. Already becoming a distinctive presence, it was becoming easier to sense.

The doors chimed, snapping her back to her attention and signaling the arrival of her final patient of the day.

"Come in," she said, glancing at the chronometer on her desk. It was a lovely thing, a small time-telling device hidden in the petals of a life-sized replica of a muktok, carved out of delicate crystal and programmed to echo the flower's distinctive chime at the end of each of her counseling sessions. Will had given it to her years ago and the crew seemed to prefer the delicate sound to the harsh beep that so many other Counselors employed.

It told her now that Robin Lefler was almost twenty minutes early for their appointment. But when the doors slid aside, Dr. Crusher was standing there instead of the young Ensign.

"Beverly," she said, with mild irritation coloring her voice. "I have an appointment in a few minutes." She'd been planning on getting through the work day before facing what would be Crusher's endless questions.

"No you don't," the doctor countered cheerfully, stepping farther into the room. She settled herself on the settee and folded her hands in her lap.

"Due to a minor electrical fire in Engineering Ensign Lefler will be spending the next few hours underneath a dermal regenerator and then, if my guess is right, with Mr. Mott to clear away the singed portion of her hair."

Troi visibly winced. "Ouch."

"She's in Selar's capable hands. I told her that I'd cancel your appointment for her but then I figured I'd take it for myself." She leaned back and made herself comfortable. "So, Counselor. Anything you want to talk about?"

Troi sat mutely, absorbing Crusher's feelings of merriment on the success of her one-upmanship.

"If you aren't sure where to start, I could suggest a few moments that I'd love to hear about." Her blue eyes sparkled in the soothing light of the Counselor's office and made the normally peaceful Betazoid want to throw something at her to wipe the smile from her face. Beverly was enjoying this way too much for Troi's already uneasy comfort level.

Instead Deanna controlled her temper and continued to sit in silence. She correctly sensed that her lack of details was driving Beverly mad and reached for her cup again, hiding a smile behind its rim.

"You're a doctor, Beverly. And Wesley is almost grown. Surely you haven't forgotten how these things happen." The teasing edge to her voice informed Crusher that in spite of Troi's icy stare, her friend wasn't that exasperated with her.

Crusher shook her head and sent her red hair flying over her shoulders.

"Not funny, Deanna."

"You were asking for that Beverly and you know it."

Crusher shrugged. "Maybe so but my god, Deanna, can you blame me? You and Will have been dancing around each other for years and I'm not the only one who's noticed. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the crews set wagers as to if and when you'd get together."

"I hope not."

Troi turned a sickly shade of green. Even on a ship this size it was hard to keep anything private for long and Deanna had always opted for discretion in her personal life whenever possible. Of course it was an open secret that she and Will had a prior relationship but the extent had been kept under wraps, if occasionally whispered about once in a while.

"Relax, Deanna," Crusher instructed, placing her elbows on her thighs and leaning forward. "I'm sure everyone will be just overjoyed for you both." Her emotions shifted and surrounded Troi with an air of mischief. "Of course there will be a few junior officers left broken-hearted when they realize they've lost their chance with `Will-the-Thrilll.' The poor girls," she smirked.


"Speaking of which…" Crusher's salacious curiosity slammed into her.

"Oh no you don't." Troi waggled a finger at her. "You already tried that yesterday. It didn't work then and it won't work now."

"Well, considering the difference in your test results between yesterday and this morning I don't have to assume that you've been doing a lot more than just talking to each other and spending time together. The evidence is pretty conclusive, Deanna." Her smile deepened. "And I saw firsthand that the two of you can't keep your hands off each other."

"Sorry about that." Troi's cheeks flushed pink in remembrance of what Crusher must have seen.

"No you aren't," the CMO responded. "And you shouldn't be. I've seen worse and done worse in my day. And now I may not have a life of my own but at least I can live through yours."

She made a face. "And if you won't share I'll just have to withhold all offers of babysitting services."

"Babysitting services…" Troi echoed and her face whitened. "Oh Gods…" She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear her head and calm her suddenly jumpy stomach. When she reopened them Crusher was standing beside the desk with a glass of water in her hand.

"Here, sip this Deanna." She held it out to her and Troi accepted it gratefully.

"Thanks." The cool liquid helped immensely as it trickled down her throat. Glancing upwards, she caught Crusher staring at her speculatively.

"It was pretty obvious this morning how Will is feeling about all of this, but Deanna, are you okay with this?"

"Yes," Troi stated more firmly than she felt. "But it's a lot to take in all at once."

"I'll bet," Crusher agreed with the return of her smile. She rested a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "You know… if you'd like to keep this to yourselves for a while I could schedule your appointments in the holodeck. The sickbay simulation is almost as accurate as the real thing and it would afford you a bit of privacy. There's no reason for the ship's gossip mill to be grinding any harder than it already will be."

"Thank you, Beverly. I'll talk to Will," Troi replied quietly. A small weight lifted from her chest and she finished the last of the water in her glass.

"Anytime, Counselor." Crusher squeezed Troi's shoulder. "We'll set something up this week. I need to get back to Sickbay right now, though. We'll set something up later this week."

Troi nodded.

"And take it easy, will you? If anything doesn't feel right, let me know immediately."

"I will. And I'll try to take it easy, I promise."

But it wasn't meant to be. Within minutes of Crusher's exit the console on her desk beeped, signaling an incoming message from Betazed.

Part 35

Within minutes of Crusher's exit the console on her desk beeped, signaling an incoming message from Betazed.

Troi sighed deeply and squared her shoulders before activating the small viewscreen the side of her desk.

"Hello, Mother," she said, pasting a smile on her face to belie her inner frown. She really didn't have time for one of Lwaxana's dizzying conversations on her first day back at work but she was better off getting through it now rather than later when she could be with Will.

<<Hello, my darling,>> her mother greeted. <<Do you realize that it's been ages since we've talked?>> Lwaxana frowned disapprovingly.

"I spoke to you four days ago, Mother," Troi said patiently, blowing air through her lips and trying not to clench her jaw. She struggled to keep the weariness from her voice and immediately knew it was going to be another one of `those' talks.

<<Four days, four weeks. It's all the same when you're a mother.>> Her hand fluttered at the side of her face. <<Tell me, Little One. How are things with you and William?>>

"We're fine, Mother."

<<And the two of you?>> the elder Troi persisted, << Have you made your decision yet?>>

"Let's just say it's been taken out of her hands," she replied somewhat cryptically, hoping her mother would leave it alone. But of course, she wouldn't.

Lwaxana's bejeweled hand flew to her mouth in shock. <<Oh, Deanna. I'm so sorry.>>

"Don't be," Deanna said wryly, sensing it was no use. "Everything's fine. And yes, we're back together. But please, no more questions right now. It's my first day back on duty and I have a million things to take care of."

A bright smile beamed on Lwaxana's face and she nodded in acceptance. <<I'm so happy for you, darling. And it's about time! I won't push you---at least not for a little while.>>

"Thank you, Mother." Deanna breathed a momentary sigh of relief but she had an inkling that Lwaxana's resolve to be good wouldn't last very long.Still, she might as well take advantage of it while she could. Tipping her head to the side she said thoughtfully, "Mother…can you tell me why Will and I wound up back in Asteria again last night? One moment we were on the ship and the next we were just gone. But this time we remembered it all when we returned."

Lwaxana's head jerked sharply upwards. <<You and William went back there? Together?>> Her eyes filled with glistening tears. <<Darling….>> Her voice cracked and she went silent.

"What is it, Mother?" Often emotional and always exuberant, unwarranted crying was not a trademark of Lwaxana Troi.

When Lwaxana spoke again after composing herself her voice was conciliatory and emotion-filled.

<<Thank William for me, Little One. The two of you have given me the greatest gift I'd ever dreamed possible.>>

Troi's dark eyes widened in alarm. She hadn't said a word, hadn't even hinted to her mother about the baby and Lwaxana was entirely too far away to read her thoughts. How on the holy rings had she known? She briefly dismissed the notion that Will had already contacted her; he knew better and he would never go behind her back like that. She may not be completely sure about Will Riker right now but of this she was certain.


<<Don't say anything, dear. I just want to enjoy this moment for a while. I've been so looking forward to it for many many years. Too many. Why it took you two so long to come to your senses I'll never know. You certainly weren't going to get any younger… Oh dear, there I go again, don't I? And after I promised I wouldn't.>> She laughed softly at her daughter with a knowing look in her opaque eyes.

"How did you know?" Deanna asked, choosing to ignore that her mother was back to her usual self. Her eyes began to well up in response to Lwaxana's unshed tears.

Lwaxana clucked her tongue and Deanna saw her lean back against her chair. <<You really have forgotten too much of what I've taught you, Little One. Tell me now, when does one experience Asteria?>>

"When one is near death," she answered rotely.

<<And,>> Lwaxana prodded, <<When is the only other circumstance? Come now, Deanna. I know you know this.>> She chided her gently.
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Deanna searched her memory… she used to know this… and her eyes widened in remembrance when she found what she was looking for.

"When there is new life," she murmured, realization dawning on her. SHE had inadvertently told her mother what she wasn't ready for her to know. The tears began to fall unbidden from her eyes. She may not have been able to sense Lwaxana's emotions due to the light years between them but she clearly saw her mother's joy and gratitude etched across her face…. and maybe just maybe began to understand her a little bit better because of it.

<<Exactly.>> Lwaxana smiled proudly. << Maybe you haven't forgotten everything after all.>>

Part 36

Troi came out of her meditative state to the sensation of lips moving gently over the hollow of her throat and she sighed in delight as her head fell back against the cushioned back of her chair. Feeling Will's low chuckle against the steady beat of her pulse she forced herself to open her eyes and greet the broad grin awaiting her.

"Sleeping in your office? Counselor, is there something wrong with your quarters?" He brushed a stray curl away from her forehead and she smiled at him.

"No, Commander. My quarters are just fine, thank you. And I was meditating, not sleeping."

"Sorry, my mistake. But what are you still doing in your office? Deanna, it's past 1900 hours."

"Already?" Troi blinked in surprise.

"Did you have dinner yet?"

"A little while ago. But I could use dessert." She stretched her arms above her head, stacked the padds in front of her into a tall pile and slowly pushed her chair away from the desk before rising to her feet.

"You can always use dessert," he agreed. "Are you feeling okay?" he asked, wrapping his hand around hers. She looked a little pale to him.

"Sure. Just trying to clear the usual headache that comes from a conversation with Mother."

Riker groaned in sympathy. "Well I'm glad I missed that."

Deanna laughed softly and let him guide her to the sofa.

"Let's get some food. I'm starving. Besides, we have lots to talk about."

"Okay. Did you want to eat here or go to Ten Forward?"

"You're not cooking?" she teased, sensing his exhaustion. He probably hadn't stopped since early this morning.

"Not tonight. I already grabbed something with Geordi earlier. But I'll make it up to you." His tone was low and ran over her skin like hot breath.

"That sounds promising."

"It'll be worth it."

She brushed her finger thoughtfully over his mouth.

"I'll bet," she said quietly.

Will laughed her expression.

"I was talking about dessert, Deanna."

"So was I, Imzadi." She licked her lips.

"Is there finally something Deanna Troi loves more than chocolate?" He asked with a low laugh.

"You know there is," she answered. "You."

He winked at her but inwardly his pulse sped up at her admission.

Jumping to his feet, Will headed for the replicator and paused while considering his selection.

"Close your eyes," he commanded, though his large frame effectively blocked the replicator so she couldn't see what he was concocting even if she wanted to.

With an amused smile Deanna complied and listened to the sounds of humming and movement behind her. Finally, she felt him beside her once again and his boyish excitement shined in her spirit as brightly as his eyes.

She heard him set something on the table in front of the sofa and say,

"Okay, open your mouth."

"I remember what comes next," she smirked, still keeping her eyes closed.

"Very funny," he laughed, resting his index finger on the tip of her nose.

Troi opened her mouth and was surprised when Will slipped a long straw between her parted lips.

"Now, sip," he ordered gently.

Deanna obeyed and tentatively sucked a cold stream of thick liquid into her mouth. She was instantly bombarded with an intensely rich chocolate flavor. Smoother than ice cream, it was like sweet velvet against her tongue.

When a blissful sound escaped her mouth the straw slid out and her eyes drifted open to see Will pull a tall glass away from her. He chuckled at the immediate look of dismay that crossed her face.

"What was that?" she exclaimed, her hand automatically reaching out towards his arm. She had never tasted anything quite like that before and she definitely wanted more than just a sip.

"Deanna… do you mean to tell me that chocolate connoisseur that you are, you've never had a milkshake?"

He teased her with a smile and Troi shook her head no, still reaching for the glass. Her eyes were pleading with him in a manner he'd never been able to resist. With a shake of his head he proffered the milkshake again.

"It's an earth beverage," he explained as Troi seized the glass from him and began thoroughly enjoying herself.

"It's wonderful," she murmured from behind the straw, a childlike expression of wonder on her face. Deanna stopped drinking long enough to plant a cold kiss of thanks on his lips before turning her attention back to the beverage. She tasted of chocolate and something infinitely sweeter.

"It's a blend of ice cream, milk and syrup. In this case all three are chocolate but it comes in other flavors." He was glad his choice was such a hit and that he wasn't a huge fan himself; she looked like she had no intention of sharing.

"Who needs other flavors?" Her eyes were sparkling again and Riker assumed it meant that her headache was gone. Now he hoped she didn't get brain freeze from the milkshake.

"Not you, that's for sure." Taking the mostly empty glass from her hand, he set it aside on the small table to his left. Sliding his arm around her waist, he drew her back against him and let his palm settle low on her stomach. "Or, I'd guess, our Little One."

Deanna looked up at him and her eyes brightened at his words.

"Will, I know neither of us planned this…" Troi began hesitantly, figuring she'd start talking before he had to push her into it again.

Riker held her tightly against him and Troi felt her body relax into his as he lowered his lips to the top of her head.

"Sometimes, the best things in my life are surprises," he whispered against her hair. "You certainly were. Actually, I couldn't be happier, Deanna. Except for one thing."

She felt the mischief build behind his words and she knew he waiting for her to ask him to elaborate. Releasing an exasperated puff of air, she gave him what he wanted.

"And what would that be?" she asked, bracing herself for a teasing remark. Riker didn't disappoint.

"You'll have to step up your plans to marry me," he said somberly. "I have a reputation to protect and I can't have the crew thinking you've gotten away with taking such obvious advantage of me, now that you… Hey!!!" he protested the large pillow being launched at his head, seemingly out of nowhere. He looked down incredulously at the small Betazoid who had somehow slipped from his embrace and was staring at him smugly.

"You know, your counseling methods really are unorthodox," he said, dodging another blow from his left. He lunged forward and firmly grabbed her arm, forcing the pillow out of her hand to fall quietly to the carpet.

"You don't know the half of it," she answered, somehow gaining the upper hand and pressing him backwards into the cushions. Her lips were once again warm against his neck. Inhaling his masculine scent she trailed her lips across the thick cords of his neck and all thoughts of retaliation flew out of Riker's head.

Deanna's hands crept up to his collar and deftly lowered the fastener.

"Nude therapy, again? You're still using that one?"

"Mmmm…" she took his lower lip between her teeth and gently tugged as her body molded more fully into his. "Not this time."

She drew back slightly and gazed at him through heavy lidded eyes then looked around at their surroundings. "I've never made love in my office before."

He reached up for her and cupped her cheek, softly stroking her jaw with the pad of his thumb. "And you won't, until you stop darting away again and changing the subject."

"You started it," she said defensively.

"And I'm stopping it too. Now tell me why you don't want to marry me."

Part 37

Now tell me why you don't want to marry me.

Troi braced her arm on his chest and lifted herself partially upright.

"Will…" she pleaded with him. "It's not that. It's just… why do we have to talk about this now?

"When would you like to talk about this, Deanna? Another week or a year from now? How about ten years from now?" He faced her with a sour expression.

"That's not fair," she objected. "You know," she started, trying a different tactic, "for someone who has a history of putting his career above everything else in his life, you've certainly had a change of heart."

"That's because I finally realized what's most important. Everything else can go to hell," he stated earnestly, capturing her free hand in his.

"You don't mean that," she responded with incredulity in her voice.

"Don't I? You're the empath, tell me what I'm feeling."

She felt his insecurity clearly, but it was directed towards her and not towards them. When she probed deeper she found an enormous sense of longing that affected her deeply.

"You're not nearly as frustrated with me as you should be." She smiled tentatively at him and squeezed his hand. "Just give me a chance to catch my breath, please, Will. You may be used to living life at breakneck speeds all the time but I'm not built that way. I never was."

"I know that, Deanna," Riker said patiently, pulling them both upright.

"I just don't see what the rush is. I didn't see it the first time we were together either."

"But you agreed to marry me then."

"I did, but it all happened so fast…"

"Deanna." He brushed her hair back with his left hand. "I wanted to marry you from the first moment I saw you."

Troi gave him a pointed look as she recalled the circumstances surrounding the first time he saw her and Riker laughed softly.

"Okay, maybe not the first moment. But definitely by the end of that week. And you're right, it all happened very fast. But I'm listening to you now and I'll back off for a while."

"I need some time to adjust, that's all. Please don't be hurt by that, Will."

He squeezed her hand again reassuringly.

"I won't. But I'll let it go, for now at least. Now, tell me why your mother gave you such a headache."

When she'd finished, Will exhaled a tense breath and sat back again.

"Sometimes your mother reminds me of Q," Riker grumbled, draping an arm over Troi's slim shoulders.

Deanna laughed softly. "Mother does seem to think she knows everything."

"There is that," he agreed. "I still can't believe she told you she'd back off. You seem to be getting a lot of that lately." He knew he'd been hard on her a few times over the past couple of days but she certainly seemed to need the push. Without the benefit of empathic abilities, Riker had no choice but to `ask' sometimes, even if Deanna didn't feel like talking.

"It only lasted about two minutes though." She leaned further back against his chest and smiled as she thought back to the conversation.

"It must have felt like a lifetime to her."


"You know," he began hesitantly, "you're going to have to talk to the Captain soon. Starfleet regulation states that-"

"'A commissioned officer must inform their captain of any impediment to away missions as soon as deemed practical.' I know, Will. So much for discretion. Maybe I should just let Beverly tell him." She sighed heavily.

"And take the easy way out? That's not like you," he chided. "We could go see him together." He rested his chin on top of her head.

"We probably should," she agreed, making no move to leave the comforting circle of his arms. A few minutes passed in silence.

"So, why are we hiding in your office?"

"We're not… oh I don't know." She lifted her head partway and lay it back down on his shoulder. "Can't it wait?"

"Avoidance, Counselor?" Will brushed some of her hair away from where it was tickling his cheek and wrapped it around his fingers. He kept his tone light, wanting to keep her relaxed even though his first inclination was to open a channel to the entire ship to announce the news. Cautious of her reticence, he'd curbed the impulse at least a half dozen times throughout the day.

"Maybe just a little," she conceded. She glanced up at him with a wistful expression in her dark eyes. "Would that be so bad?"

Will weighed her words and expression before he answered. She looked a little lost and he supposed an evening's respite wouldn't hurt.

"Not tonight. Tomorrow is a different story."

"Acknowledged, Sir," she teased with a smile. "It's not like anything remains secret on this ship for long anyway and you're right. He should hear it from us instead of someone else. We'll talk to him in the morning. Let's keep tonight just for us."

"Do you have anything particular in mind?" A light crept into his eyes and her lips curved further upwards as she regarded him, sprawled contentedly across the sofa.

"Well, there was that fantasy about making love in my office…" With a matching gleam, she twisted in his arms and bore him back against the cushions.

Part 38

"A baby?"

Picard cleared his throat and tried to hide his discomfort behind a cup of steaming Earl Grey tea. His steely gaze swung from one officer to the other as their words sunk in and he briefly flashed back to a similar conversation he'd had with Dr. Pulaski a few years previously about Troi's impregnation by the alien entity she's come to call Ian. But this situation was very different.

"Yes, Sir," Riker confirmed, unable to stop the smile from spreading across his face. Pride rang clearly in his deep voice.

Troi, for her part, just nodded slightly, feeling as though at any moment the Captain was going to call her out for some sort of transgression. She distinctly felt Picard's unease and it added to her own in having to have this conversation. The captain had never been at all comfortable with officers having personal relationships while serving aboard his ship but he'd kept his feelings to himself as long as the involved parties were not derelict in their duties and maintained discretion. And now she and Riker were essentially breaking that unspoken rule in an extremely blatant manner.

"Well…" Picard cleared his throat again and surveyed the couple sitting across from him. Riker's happiness exuded from the large man and Troi appeared quietly radiant, if a bit subdued. "I suppose congratulations are in order." He set down the cup with a decisive gesture and forced a smile to his tense face, though his eyes darted to the fish tank on his wall instead of their faces as he spoke.

"Thank you, Sir," Troi responded quietly, resisting the urge to squirm in her chair and apologize to him. Though Will was with her, this was even more difficult than the conversation she'd had with her mother the other day. Deanna clasped her hands firmly in her lap and sensed Will wanting her to relax her rigid posture from the seat next to her.

"Thank you," Riker echoed. He felt a slight wave of relief course through him and knew instantly it was Deanna's. She had seemed content to let him speak for her for most of the conversation and it was decidedly unlikely.

"Counselor-" Picard addressed Troi directly for the first time, "I trust that Dr. Crusher will apprise you of any medical restrictions if she has not already done so." He wondered whether his CMO already had knowledge of this development and was keeping it from him.

"Yes, Sir," Troi affirmed. "She has."

"Very well then. Dismissed." Without so much as another glance at his trusted officers, Picard picked up his cup again and turned his attention to the multitudes of reports on his desk.

Deanna struggled not to scramble out of her chair as if it was on fire and Riker shot her a concerned glance, which she ignored.

Walking across the Bridge to the turbolift, neither spoke even after the doors closed behind them. Deanna rested the back of her head against the cool surface of the bulkhead. It was finally the end of another long day filled with six counseling sessions and piles of paperwork that had amassed during her leave. She closed her eyes as Riker called for Deck Eight and was unsurprised to feel a strong arm snake around her waist.

Riker eyed her closely and didn't pull her closer, sensing her need for distance. "That went about as well as I expected," he said and Troi laughed softly.

"What?" He queried at her incredulous expression, taking in the flush of her cheeks, though her eyes remained closed.

Those inky eyes fluttered open and gleamed at him. "You're not the empathy, Will. Captain Picard wasn't sure whether he should congratulate us or kick us both off the ship so he wouldn't have to contemplate our situation or acknowledge it ever again."

"It wasn't that bad," he objected gesturing her forward and out of the lift onto Deck Eight.

"Sure, it wasn't," she retorted, glancing back at him over her shoulder and regarding him with a mischievous grin. Riker followed swiftly at her heels. "Seriously, Imzadi, if I'm going to feel like a naughty schoolgirl, the least you could do is give me a reason to feel that way."

Riker's grin intensified and his bright blue eyes widened as he stepped behind her into her quarters. "Only if you braid your hair and dig out that old tee shirt of yours from the University."