By Judy Dugas and Laurie D. Haynes

Lt. Commander William Riker of the U.S.S. Hood awoke to the awareness of lying on something soft.

He decided he must be in the sickbay aboard the Hood. A blurry figure hovered near him and he caught a blue sleeve as it passed by. When he tried to speak, no sounds came from his throat. He grabbed his throat with his free hand and found it wrapped in a compression pad. At that moment, a door swished open and an exotic dark-haired beauty glided into the room.

She smiled warmly at him.

"Awake at last, I see," she said as she moved toward his bedside. "Now, just relax, Commander. Everything is going to be okay."

She placed her hand upon his shoulder and gently pushed him back upon the pillow.

"You'll be able to speak in a few days, but it is very important you remain still, for now." He submitted to her touch, but didn't drop the orderly's sleeve. The orderly touched the woman on the shoulder and gave her a confident smile.

"It's okay, Counselor, the commander is going to be a good boy today," said the orderly in a patronizing tone.

The woman noted Riker's clenched fist on the sleeve.

"I'll get the doctor," she said. "It's time for him to check this bandage."

She patted Riker's shoulder as if mentally giving the command "stay" and then quickly left the room.

After she left, the orderly tapped on the arm that held his sleeve.

"It's okay, Commander," he said. "You took a nasty blow to the throat. Nearly severed your vocal cords. You're lucky it didn't totally crush your windpipe. You've got a few crushed ribs, too, and some pretty bad internal injuries, but you're healing nicely. You just take it easy for a week or two and you'll be good as new."
It was not what Riker needed to know. He looked around the room and saw he was the only patient. He did not see Randy. When he tried to ask about his friend, the orderly insisted with alarm that he shouldn't try to talk.

In anger and frustration, Riker twisted the blue sleeve into the soft flesh until the orderly winced. With his other hand, he ripped the bandage from his throat and tried to get out of bed. Nausea and pain swept over him as he swung his feet to the floor. His death grip on the orderly's sleeve was the only reason he managed the sitting position. He grabbed for the more substantial support of the orderly's neck as he felt himself falling.

The orderly began to shout. "Doc! Help! We have a problem here!"

Riker sensed movement behind him, felt something press against his arm and heard a soft hiss. "No! No!" he cried silently. "Randy, what about Randy" he tried to ask, but couldn't utter a sound.

In the seconds before he fell helplessly into blackness, he relived the events of his last mission.

* * * * * * *

The landscape was barren and deserted.

"God, this is a desolate place," Riker said to no one in particular.

His friend, science officer Randy Dulles, walked up behind him and viewed the scene from the same vantage point. Dulles agreed, but pointed to the crumbling landscape in the distance.

"It wasn't always like this," Dulles said. "Surface scans show evidence of dried-up bodies of water. A little terraforming and Ritan could make a good colony. At least the temperature and atmosphere are right."

Geologist John Matthews interrupted, "Sir, I'm picking up some interesting readings on my tricorder."

The three tracked the source of the readings to what appeared to be a mine shaft.

"It's definitely an ore of some kind, but it's like nothing I've seen before," said the geologist. "The mine walls must have shielded it from the ship's scanners." Looking up excitedly from his tricorder, Matthews asked, "Sir, I'd like to go in and get a closer look. We should get a sample." Riker regarded the mine dubiously.

"This is not a mining mission, Matthews," replied the commander. "We don't have the proper equipment."

Matthews pressed hopefully, "The readings are strong, Sir. I don't think we'd have to go in far before we found something."

Riker exhaled loudly and said, "Okay, but first check the outside perimeter thoroughly. There might be something out here to help in your analysis."

Matthews wandered around to the side of the entrance to continue his readings. Once the geologist was out of earshot, Dulles elbowed his old friend.

"Aw, come on, now, admit it Billy boy, you just don't like the idea of going into closed, dark places." Dulles chuckled. "Remember the time at the academy when they locked us in that storage tank during freshman initiation? I swear I thought you were going to bust a gut trying to get out of there. You were a wild man!"

Riker squirmed in discomfort at the memory and shrugged.

"Okay, I admit I don't like to feel closed in, but I don't recall you enjoying it much, either. Twenty hours without food or water was no laughing matter."

Dulles snickered. "Seems I remember you made a believer out of that senior cadet that locked us in there."

He pulled on a freckled ear with equally-freckled fingers.

"Guess I'm getting a little hazy on the subsequent details," he said. "Now tell me again. How long did that slime devil have to suck his meals through a straw?"
Riker winced inwardly at the memory, but managed a chuckle for his friend.

"Only two days, but he was a fast healer." Riker's tone became bitter. "He knew hazing was against the rule."

Dulles' face grew somber. "Yeah. Well, lucky for you the commandant was cracking down on hazing, Billy boy. You know, assaulting a fellow cadet, even the asshole ones, usually meant you were out on your ear. I still can't believe the Old Man only gave you a month of restriction. How'd you manage that, anyhow?"

Riker's stomach still churned at the recollection, but he flashed his teeth down at his friend and replied, "The Riker charm, Randy, old buddy. It was the famous Riker charm."
Dulles shook his red head and laughed aloud as he turned to his own readings.

As soon as he was alone, Riker's broad grin faded to a self-effacing frown. He shuddered involuntarily as he recalled how close he had come to being kicked out of the academy. God, he had been so stupid. For one instant, he'd allowed his emotions to rule his actions and it had almost cost him everything. He set his jaw and vowed once again to allow nothing to come between him and his dream of being a starship captain.

After several more minutes of reconnoitering, Riker called his team together.

"Okay, Matthews, what have you got?"

The geologist replied, "Well, Sir, all readings point to a concentration of a most unusual mineral within 75 meters of the mine entrance. If we could get even a small sample, it would be a great discovery. The energy readings are quite remarkable."

Dulles combed his fiery locks with his fingers and grinned knowingly at his friend. "Commander, we've got to go into the mine if we want a sample," said Dulles. "It's the only way. This whatever it is could prove valuable to the Federation." Riker's blank expression successfully concealed his personal misgivings.

"Quite right, Lieutenant. Let's go."

The three entered with Riker in the lead, checking the structural integrity of the shaft. They had gone nearly 70 meters when Matthews and Dulles whooped in unison.

"We found it!"

As the two scientists began gathering samples, Riker explored deeper into the darkness of the cave, shining his flashlight. It was for him a personal test of will, for with each step, his chest tightened with a rising sense of panic. It was true, he did fear tight places. But through the years, he had forced himself to bridle that fear. He tested his self control with each step. He had gone about 15 meters deeper into the cave and was feeling quite smug about his control, when he felt the deep rumble of trouble.

Matthews sonic cutter had apparently created sympathetic vibrations in the rocks. Before the two scientists understood what was happening, the cave roof began collapsing on them. Riker frantically tried to reach them, but was forced back by the falling rocks. When the cascade gave way to dust, he stumbled through the rubble toward the scientists. He could not find Matthews at all, but he did find Dulles -- almost completely buried.

Riker wiped away the blood and dust that clogged his friend's breathing passages, and felt for a pulse. It was faint, but he was still alive.

"Randy! Can you hear me? Randy, can you move?"

Dulles stirred and mumbled a reply, "Will? What happened? I can't move my legs."

His eyes lost their lucidity as they glazed over in panic. He began to gasp for air.

"Oh, God! Help me! Will! I can't breathe!" Dulles cried, then fainted.

Frantically, Riker tore at the rocks that covered Randy's chest. Within seconds, he had freed his friend's upper body, but a huge boulder lay on top of Dulles' legs. Riker tried to lever it up, but it wouldn't budge. It was during his investigation of this boulder that Riker found Matthews' body, crushed beneath the behemoth stone.

Over and over, Riker tried without success to contact the ship, but the mine wall swallowed his signals. There was nothing he could do but wait for Dulles to regain consciousness. In the shadowy light of only one flashlight, Riker braced the area around his friend as best he could, to protect against the ever collapsing sands.

As he worked, Riker talked. He talked to his unconscious friend and he talked to himself. And the black walls sucked up his words and made him feel more alone than he'd ever been in his life. Nearly two hours passed before Dulles responded to a Riker's pleas to awaken.

"Take it easy, Randy," Riker said, giving his friend's hand a reassuring squeeze.. "You're going to be all right. I'll get us out of here. You'll be okay."

Riker hoped his calm words effectively concealed his own anxiety.

"Listen to me, Randy. I waited for you to come to, so you'd know you weren't alone. But i can't wait any longer. I've got to try to get out of here and contact the ship."

Frantically, Dulles grabbed Riker's arm and pleaded, "Don't leave me, Will! Please! Don't leave me alone!"

Riker's heart was in his throat as he responded, "It'll be okay, Randy. I'll come back as soon as I contact the ship. I promise."

He tried to pull away, but Dulles fiercely gripped his arm.

"Damn you, Riker! You're not fooling me. You're just going to save your own hide and leave me here to rot!"

Riker pried Dulles' fingers off his arm and closed his hands around those of his injured friend. He forced Dulles to look at him, and said, "Randy, look at me. It's Will. Randy, listen. I'm just going to go get help. You know I always keep my promises. I'll be back. I promise you, I'll be back."

For a short moment, Dulles focused clear eyes upon Riker and he forced a crooked smile.

"I don't feel so good, Billy boy. "You'd better hurry."

Then a wave of pain racked Dulles' body and his eyes glazed over again. Riker knew his friend was slipping ever deeper into shock, but there was nothing else he could do here. He had to go for help. Without another word, he tore himself from Dulles' side and began to climb over the debris that blocked the entrance to the cave.

As he scrambled through the dusty darkness, he continued to call back to his friend. "I'll be back, Randy. You hang in there, I'll be back."

Riker tried to shut out the pitiful wails of his delirious friend.

"Will, please don't leave me here to die alone." The whines gave way to obscenities, "You bastard coward! Don't leave me here alone! Riker! Riker, come back here, you coward! Damn your yellow hide! Come back here!"

The passage became impassable within 10 meters. Riker drew his phaser and fired it at the rubble. A hole appeared, but more rocks fell to fill in the space. He upped the intensity of the weapon and tried to protect himself from the exploding debris. But there was no safe place to hide.

A small stone shot toward him and struck him in the throat. As Riker fell back, clutching his neck, the mine began to rumble the beginning of another cave-in. He stumbled back, seeking safety and tried to protect himself as the rocks fell, but one struck him hard on top of his head. Riker collapsed amid the debris, oblivious to the avalanche that rained down upon him.

When he regained consciousness, his first sensation was that of thirst. Then pain. His throat burned with a tearing sensation. Every breath filled his chest with pain. He could feel his legs, but couldn't move them. With much effort, he managed to push several rocks off him, but found no room or strength to sit up.

A rasping cough convulsed Riker's body and the hand that covered his mouth pulled away bloody. He felt as if his chest was being squeezed in a giant vise. His senses became confused and for several minutes, all his efforts were consumed with the task of remaining conscious.

Once that was accomplished, Riker's thoughts turned immediately to his friend. He tried to call out, "Randy!" but felt his throat tear inside with the effort. All he managed was a raspy whisper. Wrapping his hand around his throat, he felt a large knot at his Adam's apple. He probed tenderly at the bruise. He tried to clear his throat, only to feel it tear some more. Each swallow was the stabbing of a searing knife.

But he had to let Randy know he had not been abandoned. Again and again, Riker pushed past the pain to call to his friend. He got nothing but pain, more tearing pain his efforts. Soon, he could produce no sound at all. He stopped only when his swelling throat began to threaten his very breathing. An unbidden coughing spasm threatened his hold on consciousness.

To stay conscious, Riker soon found that he had to remain totally still. Each lungful was laboriously sucked between the waves of pain. As he lay, unable to move, he strained to listen for any sign of Randy.

After several minutes, Riker heard faint cries.

"Where are you, Will? I can't hold on much longer... Alison? Can you hear me, honey? I love you. Kiss the kids for me. Don't cry, honey, it'll be okay. Will's going to take care of me... Will? Where are you? You promised you'd come back for me."

For agonizingly long minutes, Riker listened to the irrational babblings of his friend. Then there was nothing.

Never had Riker felt so utterly helpless. His friend was dying and there was nothing he could do. If only he could call to him. Comfort him. Tears of frustration cut tracks through the dust on his face. If only he could let Randy know. God! Only 10 meters away. So close. So far.

Riker picked up new stirrings from Dulles. He strained to catch the words. They came to him all too clearly.

"Riker! Riker, you bastard! Come and get me out of this! You hear me, Riker?! Riker! Don't leave me here alone to die! Damn you to hell, you friggin' coward! Damn your cowardly soul to hell!"

Hysterical sobbing, punctuated with curses, continued for another few minutes. They grew weaker and weaker until Riker could hear only unintelligible murmurs of rebuke.
Riker cried silently into the oppressive darkness. He had made a promise to his friend and had failed. He had let Randy down. The only person he had really allowed to get close to him was dying, and he was partly to blame. He should never have allowed them to go into the cave. At the very least, he shouldn't have gone off wandering on his own. He should never have left his men. They were his responsibility. If he had been out there, he could possibly have seen the danger and gotten them out in time. His responsibility. His failure. But Matthews and Randy had paid for it. Paid for it dearly. Matthews was dead and Randy was dying.

God! What was he going to tell Alison? What was he going to tell Randy's children? What was he going to say to the only family he had ever felt a part of since the death of his mother? Riker had learned early in life to endure being alone. With his mother dead and his father always away, Riker had come to expect it. He was not by nature a loner. It did not come easy for him. But he had practiced it and had convinced himself that it was necessary. It was what was needed to attain his goal. To be a captain was to be alone, isolated.

Only with Randy had Riker allowed himself to be open. With Randy's family, he could joke and laugh, even cry and never feel as if it were a weakness. Now, he was hopelessly weak. Physically, mentally, spiritually. He tasted the salt of his bitter tears and he hated himself for that weakness, too. He hated himself for his lack of self-control.
Self-control. To be in control of his fears at all times. It was a rule Riker had lived by long before he became a lieutenant commander. Where was that control, now, he thought bitterly. He struggled against the feeling that the walls of the mine were closing in to swallow him whole. An overwhelming fear tightened its grip on him. And as he tried unsuccessfully to fight off the panic attack, he added that weakness to his list for self- castigation.

Riker began a desperate struggle to free himself of the rubble. As he struggled, more sand and debris cascaded down to pin him tighter than ever. The exertion totally sapped his remaining strength and heightened the waves of pain racking his body. It was at this moment that Dulles vehemently screamed renewed condemnations. The curses went on and on in an endless stream. Those terrible screams echoed in Riker's ears as he finally lost consciousness.

* * * * * *

When next he opened his eyes, Riker was back in the hospital. The memory of the hypospray was clear in his mind. He couldn't let that happen again. He had to make them understand what he wanted, make them give him a pen, something, anything so he could communicate. He had to find out about Randy. Then, he tried to move his arm to signal his sensibility. He discovered force field restraints around his wrists and ankles. He was unable to move.

For an instant, he was back at the mine, pinned under the debris. A rising sense of panic gripped him. He struggled against the bonds as he struggled to regain mental control.

Control was regained by replacing the panic with anger. Anger at being put at someone's mercy.

Riker's struggles brought the attention of the beauty with the luscious dark hair he'd seen on his first awakening. Behind her stood the same orderly.

"Easy, Commander," the woman said softly. "You'll be all right if you just remain quiet." Riker felt the force restraints upon his wrists and he was suddenly beyond anger. He was enraged. How dare they tie him down like a criminal or a lunatic! But as he wrestled against the outrage, he saw the orderly pull out a hypospray and start toward him.

<WAIT! Wait, damn it. NO! Not that again. God, if I could just talk to them. Make them understand. I've got find out about Randy.>

Riker's eyes moved from the orderly to the woman, sensing she might help him. Their eyes met. <Please!> he begged silently.

The woman moved her hand to stop the orderly and spoke directly to Riker, as if answering his request.

"But only if you remain still, Commander. Do you understand? We won't let you hurt yourself again," she said.

Angrily, Riker yielded to the futility of his struggle. Clenching his jaw shut, he slapped his head back to the pillow and stared rigidly at the ceiling as he willed his body to be submissive. In the few seconds it took for him to bring his respiration under control, he silently cursed his beautiful captor. Finally under control, or rather now being controlled, he looked her square in the eye and nodded his readiness to comply with her demands.

She motioned for the orderly to drop the restraining field.

"I don't think so, Counselor," said the orderly. "He's stronger than he looks." Rubbing a bruise on his neck, he added, "He nearly took my head off the last time."

The woman smiled slightly as she said, "You will be quite safe, Ensign. The commander will be a good boy, now. Won't you, Commander Riker?"

Riker first thought he was being patronized. Then he looked into her laughing eyes. She was teasing the orderly.

The orderly grinned as he shook his head, then answered, "Okay, Counselor, the doc said you were the expert. But if you're wrong, let's make it your neck this time. Deal?"

"Deal," she said, and turned back to Riker. "Commander, here are the conditions. You must not try to speak for at least four more days. Dr. Mencel would not appreciate having to reattach your vocal cords for a second time. You will be allowed to sit on the side of your bed, but you will not attempt to stand up for two more days. If you cannot or will not abide by these parameters, we can and will keep you sedated until you are properly healed. Is that clearly understood? Do you agree to those conditions?"

<Agree? Damn right!> He would agree to almost anything to get free of the restraints. He had to find out about Randy. He had to know. Riker nodded assent, but somehow felt she already knew his answer.

The woman bent over him and put her hand on his shoulder. Her touch was warm. Soothing. It was strange, but somehow he could feel her desire to help him. His anger began to fade.

"You have many unanswered questions," she said quietly. "I will get you a lapcom and we will talk for a while. Then you will rest."

The force field was turned off.

* * * * * *

"My name is Deanna Troi," said the woman. "I'm the resident counselor, here. Do you know where you are?"

Riker, propped up on pillows, closed his eyes and felt for the familiar vibrations. Nothing. He typed his reply into the lapcom. "Not on a ship."

Troi nodded. "You're back on Earth, San Francisco to be exact."

She answered his next question without being prompted, "You've been here for three days. You were in a coma on board the Hood for four days before that. Do you remember what happened?"

Yes, he remembered all to well. All of it. Riker shuddered inwardly, but all he keyed in was, "Cave-in. Mine."

Troi cocked her head and waited for more response from him. When none was forthcoming, she hesitated for a moment and carefully evaluated her next choice of words.

"You couldn't move when you were trapped in the mine, could you, Commander? You were in terrible pain, then, and being restrained, just now, caused you pain of another sort, didn't it?" Riker looked up at her in surprise, then typed, "What are you, a telepath?"

Troi replied, "I'm an empath and a partial telepath. I'm from Betazed."

<It's not enough they want to tie me down, they bring in a mind-reader, too,> Riker thought. His mouth was a hard, bitter line as he glared at her.

"There's nothing wrong with needing help, Commander. Let's talk about what happened to you. You came very close to dying, you know." Troi watched him closely and continued cautiously, "Because the mine wall shielded your exact location, it took over 12 hours before the search party found you. By that time, you were in deep shock from your injuries. Do you remember being rescued?"

Riker shook his head.

"You were wildly delirious," she told him. "Enraged beyond reason. Even in your condition, you managed to strike out at the men who pulled you out of the rubble. You very nearly broke one man's wrist before collapsing."

Riker closed his eyes and shook his head in dismay. God, where was the control he'd been so smug about? For an instant, he indulged in self-condemnation.

Suddenly, he felt his inner thoughts were being monitored. Snapping open his eyes, he saw Troi's shining dark eyes upon him. In a reflex action, he pulled the covers closer around him as protection against the exposure. She returned his gaze unabashed. He immediately felt uncomfortable in her presence.

"Are you cold, Commander?" she asked, breaking the tension between them.

He shook his head and finally keyed in the question he needed to be answered, "Did they get Dulles out?"

Riker heard the hesitation in her voice as she replied, "Yes, they got him out."

"Is he all right?" Riker typed. "Where is he?"

"You're tired, now, Commander. Let us finish this tomorrow."

<Don't patronize me, damn it!> Riker thought angrily.

But before he could key anything, she reached out and covered his hands with hers. He resented the intrusion and jerked back from her touch.

Quickly, she reassumed the physical distance between them.

"I'm sorry, Commander," she said.

Riker wasn't sure she was apologizing for her transgression into his personal space, or if she was preparing him for what she was about to say. She put her hands on her knees and bent toward him.

Riker swallowed hard against the tightness in his throat.

"You deserve the truth," she continued. "I'm just not sure you're ready for it."

Riker reached out and grabbed her arm. He had to know. Troi looked deeply into his eyes and saw the pain there, then shook her head as if disagreeing with her own decision, but continued, "He died several hours before the rescue team reached you."

Riker released her arm and laid back against the pillows.

<So,> he thought numbly. <Randy never knew. He never knew.>

His dearest friend died believing he'd been abandoned. Riker stared at the floor and willed his eyes to stay dry. The pounding of his own heart drummed loudly in his ears as if it were beating in an empty barrel. He felt he was being sucked into the void of a black hole.

Then came the anger. More anger than he'd ever felt in his life. Everything he loved had abandoned him. First, his mother, then his father. Now, Randy. The anger filled the void and gave him satisfaction. He was filled with rage that even in delirium, Randy would think that Riker had deserted him.

In his mind, Riker heard all the vile names Randy had called him, and he cringed. <Damn you, Randy!>

And the instant the words were thought, Riker was overwhelmed by guilt.

<Oh, God>

Randy was dead and it was his fault. He should have done something. He should never have allowed them to go in there in the first place. He should have listened to the inner voice that had told him the mine wasn't safe. It was his fault. He was alive and Randy was dead.

<Your fault! Your fault!> Randy's voice echoed in his head.

The guilt built into a crescendo of self-hatred. Riker continued to bore a hole in the floor with his eyes, when an extended hand placed gently on his knee jolted him back to reality.
"I'm truly sorry, Commander," Troi said. "I understand he was your friend."

Riker avoided those deep-seeing eyes. He shook off the hand on his knee and shrugged.

Troi spoke gently, "It is not unusual for the survivor of an ordeal to feel guilty he survived, especially if a loved one died in the tragedy. That's why I'm here. To help you deal with what happened."

Riker pulled his mask of control into place and met her intense gaze.

<Lady,> he thought, <you can go straight to hell.>

But what he typed was, "Thank you for your concern, Counselor, but I don't need your kind of help to deal with death. I've seen it too often to allow it to interfere with my duty."
Riker pointed to the uniform she wore, and added, "And since it is my ability to perform that concerns Starfleet, I'd like to be released from this sterile prison, so I can get on with my duties." He donned a pleasant smile to show there were no hard feelings on his part.

<Now,> he thought bitterly, <just leave me the hell alone.>

When she didn't respond, he typed, "I don't want to discuss it anymore. Randy's dead and there's nothing I can do to change it. I'm tired now."

He closed the lapcom and handed it to her.

Troi nodded slowly, but the look in her eye revealed her disbelief. Nevertheless, she responded, "All right. We'll talk more tomorrow, all right?"

Riker shrugged and sank down into the pillows.

Troi smiled knowingly and said, "Since that's not exactly a 'no,' I'll see you tomorrow."

She lowered the head of his bed, then reached out and squeezed his hand.

"You're going to be fine, Commander," she told him.

Riker gave her an insincere smile. Troi returned the smile with her lips, but her eyes saddened in concern.

As she rose, she held Riker with those dark eyes.

"You're very good, Commander. You could have fooled almost anyone else. But don't try to dissemble with me. You can't hide from me, or yourself."

Riker blinked at her in surprise, then wiped all emotion from his face.

Troi turned at the door and stated matter of factly, "You think you have to be in control at all times. But being in control doesn't mean you close yourself off from your own feelings. You have to acknowledge what you feel. Deal honestly with it. Dealing with tragedy is a bitter experience, Commander, but not dealing with it is more dangerous than you can possibly imagine." She allowed the words to sink in, then she was gone.

* * * * *

Riker woke the next morning, feeling not quite as sore as the previous day. He read for a while on the viewer, then sank back into his pillows to await the inevitable arrival of the counselor. Waiting, he became drowsy and fell asleep. He began to dream of the cave-in. As the dream became more vivid, Riker became increasingly disturbed, tossing his head back and forth in his sleep.

He awoke with a start, confused for a moment until a gentle hand on his arm claimed his attention. He looked up into Troi's dark eyes. The compassion there shined clearly.

"Bad dream," she asked softly, setting the lapcom on the bed. When he didn't reply, she assured him, "I'm here to help you. I'm not the enemy."

She smiled warmly. The sincerity in her manner made him feel less reluctant to talk to her. He sighed noiselessly, then nodded and gathered up the lapcom.

"Have you been having them all along?" Troi asked. "Yes, though the waking reality is bad enough," Riker replied through the lapcom, bitterness showing on his face.

"And what is that reality as you see it?"

"I failed, and now Matthews and Dulles are dead."

Troi regarded him with eyes Riker felt seemed to see right into his soul.

"In what way do you believe you failed?" she asked. Despite the intensity of her gaze, or perhaps because of it, Riker suppressed the impulse to turn away.

He exhaled loudly, then typed, "I was in charge of the away team. I was responsible for their safety."

"You're not omniscient, Commander."

Riker looked up at her as he typed, "I DID have a bad feeling about that mine. I should never have agreed to let them explore the mine."

It was obvious Troi had done her homework as she replied, "Commander, Dulles and Matthews were scientists, were they not? Their job was to investigate new things. You had no way to know the mine would cave in."

Riker stared at her a moment, then shut off the lapcom.

* * * * * * *

Awaking early the following morning, Riker silently admitted he was looking forward to Troi's visit. At the thought of the lovely counselor, he rubbed the bristle on his face. Slowly raising the head of the bed, he requisitioned a hairbrush, a depilatory, a toothbrush and a mirror from the bedside supply unit. Moving slowly to keep from pulling on his injured ribs, Riker carefully brushed his hair and teeth and applied the depilatory to his stubble, taking care not to soil the bandage around his throat.

<She probably thinks I'm a lunatic -- no sense in having her think I'm a slob, too.>

He wiped off the last of the depilatory a few minutes before Troi arrived.

She greeted him with a smile and cheery "Good morning, Commander," as she handed him the lapcom. She wore her hair differently today. Instead of being confined in a bun, her hair tumbled onto her shoulders in a manner Riker found quite attractive. He couldn't help but smile back.

"I trust you slept well, Commander?"

He shrugged slightly, but didn't take his eyes off hers.

Troi said, "Yesterday, you said you felt you had failed. How do you feel about things today? Do you still feel responsible for the deaths of your two crewmates?"

Riker grimaced, then typed, "If I hadn't screwed up and tried to phaser my way out of there, Randy might still be alive today."

Troi leaned forward and said, "How can you know he wouldn't have died anyway? Lt. Dulles had massive internal injuries and his legs had been crushed. The weight of the rock kept him from bleeding to death immediately, I was told."

Riker nodded, replying via the lapcom, "I don't doubt it. He was in terrible pain."

Troi leaned over, put her hand on Riker's and said, "What was the worst part of the ordeal for you?"

His breath caught in his throat as a gamut of emotions ran through him. Tears stung Riker's eyes and he could hardly focus on the keys of the lapcom.

"Randy begged me not to leave him, but I did. I was trying to go for help. Then the mine caved in again and I was trapped. It was awful. I couldn't move or talk, but I could hear Randy calling to me, begging me to help him, cursing me for leaving him."

Troi asked. "How did that make you feel?"

"Frustrated," Riker replied. "Angry." "And guilty?" she added for him.

Riker nodded. "Randy thought I had abandoned him. He couldn't understand why I wouldn't help him. I'd promised him I'd be back."

"Commander, surely you realize Randy couldn't have been thinking rationally under the circumstances."

"I suppose not."

"So why do you think you feel so guilty?"

"I don't know."

"You've had enough for today. Rest, now, then I want you to examine your feelings of guilt."

* * * * * *

For the next two days, Riker and the counselor sparred amicably with one another, testing each other's strengths and weaknesses. Knowing she was half Betazoid had made him a bit uncomfortable at first, but her insistence on confronting every objection, "spoken" or felt, made things surprisingly simpler for him. She used every professional trick to put him at ease.

Riker recognized what she was doing, but soon didn't care. He came to admire her tenacity. She had the heart and mind of a bulldog. Of course, the fact the bulldog qualities were hidden beneath a softly-curved exterior tended to heighten his appreciation.

He enjoyed her company and he began to suspect, or at least hope, she, too, looked forward to the visits. Thus, two more days passed pleasantly. They "chatted" about nothing important. They traded good-natured scuttlebutt about certain professors they had shared at the academy. She brought him up to date on the Hood's activities. Troi became his link to the outside world. Riker began to feel more and more at ease with her, and as he got physically stronger, he began to feel the stirrings of something more.

On the afternoon of the second day, she bent close to him in conversation. He liked the soft, alien lilting of her voice. Riker sniffed the perfumed fragrance of her hair and suddenly longed to run his fingers through the dark tresses. In mid sentence, she faltered and quickly distanced herself from him.

Knowing she'd sensed his urgings, Riker couldn't resist making her squirm a bit.

He typed, "What's the matter, Counselor? Don't you want to help me deal with my innermost passions? His grin was cut short by her curt response.

"Commander, if you allude to your libido or mine again, I will request that you get another counselor."

Riker was at once appalled and intrigued by her response. So, she WAS attracted to him. Maybe even felt the same urgings. But he read the determined glint in her eyes and knew she was bluffing. He wondered if she ever bluffed.

He held up his hands in surrender, then typed, "Excuse me, Counselor. I didn't mean to cross the bounds of the patient- doctor relationship."

For the first time since he'd met her, she seemed a bit flustered.

"It is permissible," she faltered. "I mean ... I would like us to be ... friends, Commander." With a hopeful grin, he typed, "Friends call me Will."

She nodded, smiled and responded with, "Deanna."

* * * * * *

The moment Riker was able to use his voice again, the counselor made him talk. She prodded and probed at Riker's feelings until he revealed everything to her. And then she pushed even harder for him to reveal everything to himself. Fears and uncertainties were exposed and dealt with. By the end of the week, Riker had faced all his demons and walked away whole. Throughout it all, Deanna Troi was relentlessly compassionate and understanding.

"All right, Will," she said on the last day he was scheduled to meet with her. "I understand Dr. Mencel is going to release you from the hospital tomorrow. I've already signed your psychological release and sent it to Starfleet. That puts everything back in order for you."

"Not quite," Riker responded with a frown. "I'm released from the hospital, but not cleared for active duty. SIX WEEKS!! The Hood's scheduled for a deep space mission in three. You know what that means, don't you? I'll be reassigned. Damn!"

"Why do you assume the worst, Will? This could mean an opportunity for your own command." "You mean as a reward for my outstanding achievement on my last mission?" he asked. "Will."

He waved her off.

"I'm not regressing, Deanna. I'm not blaming myself for the cave-in. Thanks to you, I fully understand the limits of my responsibility."

Riker smiled reassuringly at her.

"See, you've done your job well, Counselor." He rubbed his jaw. "I'm just being realistic. Where do I go? A ship can't wait weeks for an executive officer. No, Starfleet will reassign me to whatever ship has an opening at the time of my reinstatement to active duty. It'll be the luck of the draw."

Deanna moved to place her hand on his shoulder.

"Then, Will, I wish you the best hand luck can deal."

Riker looked down and once again experienced amazement at how tiny she was. For until someone actually stood next to her, she appeared statuesque. Perhaps, he thought, it was her inner strength that created the illusion of height. He sent a smile down to her. She made him feel 10 feet tall in more ways than one. Suddenly, thoughts of Starfleet and his next assignment were forgotten.

"You said you'd sent my release to Starfleet today?"

She nodded.

"That means I'm no longer your patient, right?"

Troi gave him a quizzical look and replied, "Well, technically, that's correct."

"Excellent," Riker said with a grin.

Her eyes grew larger than he'd thought possible as she sensed his change of mood, but before she could react, he put her arms around him and drew her to him.

"Now, Deanna Troi, as one man to one woman, I'd like to open a long discussion about libidos." He kissed her long and well. When he drew away, her eyes were shining and she was breathless. "Now," he asked, "what are you doing for dinner tonight?"

Troi smiled. "If that's an invitation, I accept. But I think you'd better take it easy your first day out of the hospital. Where are you staying?"

"Starfleet has assigned me to temporary quarters near here."

"Why don't I come over there, then?"

Riker grinned lasciviously.

"Sounds wonderful to me. See you at eight." He gave her the address.

* * * * * *

Troi appeared promptly at Riker's door at eight, bottle of sauterne in hand and looking absolutely stunning in a black velvet jumpsuit. Riker suddenly felt shabbily-dressed in his sky blue sweater, comfortable trousers and favorite soft-soled shoes.

"Hi," he said, hoping he sounded cool and collected. "Come on in. You look great," Riker told her, looking her over with appreciation.

"Thank you," she responded. "You don't look so bad yourself, Will Riker."

He invited her in. Thanking her for the wine, Riker took a couple of wine glasses from a cabinet, then opened the wine. The act of opening the bottle triggered its internal cooling system, which instantly chilled the sauterne. After pouring the wine, they sat down on the sofa.

"Would you like to listen to some music or watch a holomovie before dinner?" Riker inquired. "Or if you'd rather, we can go ahead and eat. I've programmed the replicator for coq au vin." "That sounds delicious, but let's wait a bit. Some music would be nice."

"Is jazz all right?" he asked.


Riker requested Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" from the apartment computer, as well as several other Ellington tunes performed by Mercer Ellington VI and the Duke Ellington Band.

Riker moved a little closer to Troi. They both leaned their heads back and listened to the music while sipping the wine. By the third number, they agreed they were ready for dinner, so Riker called up the order from the replicator and placed it on the table. As the meal progressed, they talked of their hopes and aspirations.

"Starfleet is my life," Riker told her. "My goal is to command a starship. I can't imagine a life that didn't include exploring space."

"I love to travel, too," Deanna said. "I've requested an assignment aboard a ship. I'm pretty sure they'll grant the request."

"That's great. You'll love it. There's nothing quite like it."

His eyes glazed over for a minute.

For dessert, Riker produced chocolate mousse and a bottle of Saurian brandy he'd purchased earlier in the day.

Troi smiled in delight at the mousse.

"Mmm! I'm mad about chocolate! You sure you're not a mind reader?"

Riker chuckled.

After dinner, the two retired to the couch again to watch a holomovie. Riker felt particularly relaxed in Deanna's company and noted she seemed to be enjoying herself. Riker slipped his arm around her shoulders. It felt comfortable -- right.

After a while, fatigue sneaked up on Riker and he fell asleep with his head on Deanna's shoulder. He awoke to find her smiling indulgently and gently shaking him.
"I'm sorry, Deanna. Some host I am. Can't even stay awake to entertain my guest."

"It's all right, Will, you're still a long way from being fully recovered. I'd better go. It's getting late and you need to rest."

They both stood up and Riker leaned over and kissed Deanna softly. Putting their arms around one another, they kissed again, more earnestly.

He drew her closer. "Do you have to go, Deanna? Please stay."

Troi shook her head. "Another time, Will. You're tired and the doctor gave you strict instructions to rest."

"Yeah, but he didn't say anything about resting alone."

She burst out laughing, stood on her tiptoes, kissed him and said goodnight.

"I'll let you go on one condition," he said, still holding her gently. "Promise to see me tomorrow night."

"All right. I promise," she replied, grinning.

They not only saw each other the next night, but every night for the next week.

At that time, Deanna took a long overdue leave, and for three weeks, the two explored each other with greedy intensity. When she recited some of her favorite love poems, he stunned her by finishing many of the verses from memory. Each day brought new discoveries that heightened each night's delight.

Riker had never been with a woman who not only said she wanted the truth, but never seemed to flinch when she got it. It could have been intimidating, but instead, he found it emancipating. Deanna's unabashed honesty fueled Riker's own passions to near fantasy levels. The intensity of their lovemaking sometimes scared him.

Oddly, a sense of urgency never intruded upon their relationship. The days passed all too quickly, yet when they were together, Riker felt they had all the time in the world."
It was nearly noon, but they'd not yet found reason to get out of bed.

Riker gently twisted his hand in her thick dark hair and bent to inhale the fragrance. "Mmm," he murmured. "Do you smell so good because you're special, or do all Betazoid women smell this way?"

"Is this a rhetorical question or are you planning a Betazoid shopping spree?" "I'm not sure, yet," he grinned wickedly. "Depends on your answer to the question."
Deanna nestled deeper into Riker's shoulder. "I'm only as special as you make me feel, Imzadi." "Imzadi?"

"Imzadi. My beloved."

The two of them lay perfectly still for several minutes, feeling each other's heartbeat and basking in the warmth of each other's body.


Riker gave Deanna a squeeze. "Yes, my love?"

Deanna looked a bit bewildered. "I didn't say anything."

"But I clearly heard you say, 'Imzadi.'"

Deanna pushed back from him and studied his face intently.

"Kiss me," she said at last.

"That's what I like," he said with relish. "A woman who knows how to get what she wants." Riker crushed her lips to his and was tasting her sweetness when he clearly heard her say,

<Imzadi, you are special to me, too.>

Riker nearly bit his lip through. He scrambled backward until she was at arm's length.

"What the hell?!" he exclaimed.

Deanna began to laugh.

"Oh, Will, I'm sorry," she said between chuckles as she dabbed at his bleeding lip with the edge of the sheet. "It was the easiest way to find out."

Riker twisted away from her ministrations. He caught her arms and kept her from snuggling up to him.

"Find out what? Explain. How did you do that?"

<Does it frighten you, Imzadi?>

The words sounded in his head.

<Yes> he admitted to himself, <it's too alien.>

Then realizing Deanna could pick up those feelings, and perhaps the thought, Riker tried to cover himself.

"It's just a bit disconcerting," he said.

Deanna looked at him for several seconds with her head cocked to one side. When next she spoke, her tone was flat.

"Then, I will take special care to shield you from my thoughts."

Quickly, she turned her face from him, but not before he caught the glint of a tear in her eye. "Oh, Deanna," he said, as he crushed her to him. "I'm sorry, baby, I'm sorry."
Riker held her close to him and stroked her hair. He moved his lips across her face and tasted the salt from her tears. Finally, he sought her mouth and kissed her, but she remained rigid in his arms and her teeth stayed tightly-clenched.

He drew back from her and shook her eyes open.

"Deanna, listen to me, damn it. Please don't do this. You must understand. Please. Forgive a human reaction to a totally different phenomenon. Deanna, don't shut me out."
Riker pulled her close to him again and whispered into her ear.

"I know you can feel what I feel. Feel my pain at hurting you. Deanna, feel what I feel for you." And he opened his heart to her and exposed his soul.
Very gently, he sought her lips and pressed softly until she at last yielded to his warmth.

<I love you,> he thought fervently.

<I love you, too, Imzadi,> she replied.

* * * * * *

The bluesy rhythms of the street band still echoed down the narrow sidestreet of old New Orleans as Riker and Deanna strolled back down Royal Street to their shuttlecar.

"Oh, Will, it was wonderful, "she said as they neared the lighted parking area. "It was even better than New York's old Harlem district."
Riker beamed his satisfaction.

"Yes, I thought so, too. How'd you like the blackened redfish?"

"Whew," Deanna fanned at her mouth with a grin. "Spicy."

Riker lifted her so that her face was at his level.

"Yeah," he said with an impish gleam. "I like to eat spicy things." And he began to nibble at her ear.

Deanna tilted her head back, exposing her long neck to his kisses as her fingers moved sensually up from his shoulder blades into his hair.
Finally, with a shiver, he put her down. Holding her at arm's length, he looked at her with a sense of awe.

"Oh, God! You make me weak. You really are something else, you know that?" he said. Deanna smiled into his eyes.

<Yes, Imzadi. I know. So are you.>

Then her smile saddened as she realized, "It's time to leave."

Riker sighed deeply. "Yes, I'm afraid so."

* * * * * *

Riker massaged Deanna's neck as she worked at the deskcomp in her apartment. Her eyes closed as she moved her head to the pressure of his strong fingers. A week had barely made a dent in the backlogged paperwork.

"You're stiff. How about a break?" he said.

He bent and whispered seductively into her ear.

"Remember that little place on the outskirts of Paris? Best jazz combo in Europe. We could be there in an hour."

"Will, you know I have to finish these reports before morning."

He gave her shoulder a final squeeze and muttered, "Yes, I know. I know."

Without looking away from the monitor, Deanna asked, "Why don't YOU go?"

Riker seemed to mull it over for an instant, then shook his head.

"No, I don't think so. Not alone. It wouldn't be the same."

She pushed him to reconsider.

"Are you trying to get rid of me, Lady?" he asked with an indignant grin.

With that, she looked up, a hint of a sad smile on her face,

"I love you, Imzadi."

Riker looked into her eyes for a while, then shook his head with a grimace.

"You're right. I'm being a pest."

He began to pace the room.

"I'm sorry, Deanna, I know your work is important. I'm just not used to sitting around. Patience is not one of my virtues."

Deanna shut down the computer and walked over to put her arms around him.

"Starfleet's bound to contact you soon," she offered. "Maybe tomorrow."

"I just wish I knew, one way or the other. Damn. I hate this waiting."

<I will miss you, Imzadi.>

Not until those words echoed in his mind did Riker realize what receiving those orders would n. It would mean he would leave. He would leave HER. The thought had not really entered his mind until that instant. He would have to leave her. "Oh, Deanna, I'm so selfish. I didn't realize." But before he could say anything, she put her fingers over his lips.

"I love you, Will."

Her words gave no comfort, now.

A sense of loss overwhelmed him. In his sudden misery, he realized why he had not allowed himself such thoughts. For more than three weeks, he had lived so intensely in the presents that he precluded all else. The past, he buried, so it would not intrude. The future, he labeled "Starfleet" and shelved it in a compartment of his mind. Everything was neat and tidy. Everything had its place and time.

And where did Deanna Troi belong? His love for her made him ache inside. But where did she belong in his life? Riker suddenly realized he had not asked himself that question. It was one that suddenly needed an answer. What place was there for Deanna Troi in his life?

The answer slapped Riker in the face and filled him with shame. God, he loved her. But he did not see her in his future. He could not face her.

"Do you love me?" she asked.

Riker didn't answer and he couldn't look at her.

<Imzadi, look at me. Do not be ashamed of your feelings.>

He raised his eyes and saw she already knew. Of course, she already knew. Everything. But she asked him again, aloud, "Do you love me?"

His vision blurred as he reached out and brought her close.

<Say it, Imzadi. It is all right. Say it.>

"Yes, Deanna, I love you dearly."

Riker felt her warmth, the beating of her heart against his chest. He kissed her throat and tasted the cool sweetness of her skin. Stroking her hair, he smelled the blossomed perfume. Her presence saturated Riker's senses. He wrapped himself around her to soak in her essence.

He felt so ashamed. He felt so alone.

"Forgive me, my love."

Deanna put her hands upon his shoulders and pushed him away a bit so she could look up at him squarely.

"There is nothing to forgive, Imzadi. You made no promises. I asked for none. You have given me all you have to give. I ask for no more."

She took his hand and turned it over. She kissed his palm, then moved her lips to his fingers and softly kissed her way back to the palm.

"I am here, now," she said between kisses. "Let this moment of love fill you now, as it fills me." Deanna took his hand and placed it upon her breast.

* * * * * *

Riker cradled Deanna in the crook of his arm and ran his fingers gently down her back. She murmured softly in her sleep and snuggled closer. He pushed back the dark wave that fell across her face and continued to watch her in silence, trying to memorize every curve and contour of her beautiful face. He knew that whatever happened, their time together like this was near an end. It would never be like this again.

Indeed, last night's love-making had been tinged with an urgency, a desperation that had not been there before. Riker was filled with a great sadness for the loss of what had been and the knowledge it would never be the same again.

When finally she opened her eyes, she smiled and gave him a tender kiss.

"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," he said as he caressed her cheek.

Her eyes turned to the window and blinked against the light.

"I have to go in," she said in dismay. "It's late."

But she made no move to get up. Instead, she moved to blanket his body with hers.

"Hold me close, Imzadi. Just hold me. Once more before I go."

Her body trembled against him and he knew she, too, felt the same sadness. He held her tightly against him, her breath warming his neck, her heart thumping softly against his chest. They lay in intimate silence for several minutes.

Then with a, "I have to get ready, now," she scrambled out of his arms. Within a half-hour she was showered and dressed.

"I'll meet you for lunch," he said as she disciplined the unruly hairs that refused to stay piled atop her head.

"No .. I can't. I have an appointment at fleet headquarters. I'm not sure when I'll be back. Oh, that reminds me. You have your last appointment with Dr. Mencel at 10 this morning. He should release you for active duty today."

<Active duty.>

Riker's first reaction was unbridled joy. Then he looked at Deanna and remembered what it also meant.

<Damn. Why is life so complicated.>

Deanna threw him a tight smile.

"When the time comes, will you let me see you off?"

The thought of such a parting was unbearable. He couldn't face it yet, just like he couldn't really face her, now.

"No," he said honestly. "I ... I wouldn't know how to say goodbye."

His misery was complete.

Riker wanted to take her in his arms, but when he turned she shook her head and held him off with a look.

Softly, she spoke, "Someday, Will, you will find your rightful place. Your niche. When you find that, you will be at home. Home with yourself and others. Then, you will be ready to make room in your life for someone else. Then, you will be able to commit to someone without feeling walls closing in on you."

Deanna picked up her padd and headed for the door.

Riker stood in the middle of the room and watched her.

"I do love you," he said at last.

"I know," she replied with a smile.

The door had already closed when her last words sounded in his head. <Drink deeply of life, my beloved, and share it with others. Allow others to share their lives with you. True commitment does not bind, Imzadi, it liberates.>

* * * * * *

Riker's mood was foul as he left the doctor's office. Mencel insisted on another week off duty to make sure the healing process was complete. Riker had hoped to be on board a starship by tomorrow. When he returned to his apartment, Troi's things were gone. The explanation was printed in a short note on his pillow:

"My request for shipboard assignment has been approved and orders were cut today. I report in the morning, so I have to get my things together tonight. We really said it all this morning. There's nothing more to say. If I see you tonight, it will be harder to leave in the morning. It's for the best, Imzadi. May your own assignment be everything you hope for."
That was all. She didn't even say where she had been assigned.

She was gone.

It was over.

It took him several minutes to grasp the reality of it. It took him several days to grasp the significance of it. At night, he held Deanna's pillow and inhaled her perfume. During the day, he listened for her sweet voice to sound in his head. He move around in a daze, trying to recapture their moments together. It was like trying to recapture a dream. But for the ache in his heart, he would have believed it was all a dream.

Starfleet contacted Riker at the end of the week. He had a choice of assignments. He could either take command of the scout ship, Drake, or ship out as first officer aboard a brand new Galaxy Class starship. The new ship had a proud old name -- U.S.S. Enterprise, and the captain, Jean-Luc Picard, had a solid reputation and had seen plenty of action.

Starfleet made it clear that the assignment aboard the Enterprise would be the first step toward captaincy of a Galaxy Class ship of his own.

A Galaxy Class ship! The lure was too good to resist. Riker chose the Enterprise.

In his remaining days on Earth, Riker pored over the tech manuals of the new ship. He studied the schematics, the deck blueprints, weapons capabilities and power curves. He reviewed emergency systems repairs, manual override guidelines, even manual saucer docking and undocking. He was determined to know everything about his new ship.

The "Enterprise." The name held almost mystic qualities for Riker. Each ship of that name had made an indelible mark in the annals of history. His ship was new, it had no history, but Riker felt that there was somehow a link between it and the vessels of that name that had come before it. He wanted to know everything he could about the Enterprise, past as well as present.

So he began to read the logs of the previous Enterprise captains. He was especially intrigued with the personal maneuvers and tactics in the academy. It was required reading. The man was more than a legend. He was an institution. But Riker had not really studied the man.

As he read Kirk's entries, Riker realized the Enterprise was more than a ship to Kirk. She was his mistress. Most captains used their ships as mere instruments to further their careers. The Enterprise was Kirk's career. She became his life. His home. The original crew, even when they moved on, remained Kirk's family.

Through the logs, Riker reveled in Kirk's triumphs, grieved at his tragedies, shared in his uncertainties and recognized his fears and insecurities. He came to understand the man. He came to understand the man's greatness. But most of all, Riker came to appreciate the passion for living that was James T. Kirk.

James Kirk truly did "drink deeply of life." As Deanna's words came back to him, Riker began to understand what she meant. For the first time since she'd gone, Riker thought of her without feeling the pain and anger of his loss.

That night, he dreamed of her. She stood before him, her head cocked slightly to one side, listening to his heart. He reached out to touch her, but she began to fade. In a moment, she was gone, and emptiness filled him. Then slowly, acceptance settled softly into his heart and at last, brought him peace.

A new image began to form before him, it's outline suspended against a black void. It was a ship. A Galaxy Class ship. It was the Enterprise. She was at once new and familiar. As he gazed upon her, he was suddenly transported inside. It was only a dream, he knew it as he dreamed it. It was only a dream, but he knew it was home.

* * * * * * *

The anomalies of Farpoint Station on Deneb IV intrigued Riker greatly, but he had little time to explore them when he first arrived. His meeting with Dr. Crusher and her son, Wesley, reminded Riker of the awesome responsibility he was assuming. A ship filled with families, with children. He remembered the joy he felt when he was with Randy's two children, Emily and Andrew. He determined then and there not to be afraid to get close to the people of the Enterprise. He would not close himself off. A smile crossed his lips. He would drink deeply of life and share. At last, he beamed aboard the Enterprise. He stepped onto the bridge and felt as if he'd stepped into an old, comfortable pair of boots. Even Picard's test did not daunt him, though he was glad to have so recently reviewed the saucer-docking procedure. He couldn't help but beam as he looked around him. This was his home and he intended to stay.

Picard was a no-nonsense captain. He had the presence of a man with no doubts about himself. Though small in stature, Picard bore himself like a giant. An aura of command surrounded him, even when he expressed personal misgivings. That their styles of command were different became immediately apparent, but Riker at once liked his new captain.
When the two stepped from the ready room, Riker saw her. She stood back against the bulkhead as if needing its support. With her hair haloed around her face, she was a sculpted porcelain doll. Deanna. Riker's heart skipped a beat and his mouth twitched in the instant before he dropped his mask of control into place.

She looked upon his mass without blinking.

<Do you remember what I taught you, Imzadi?>

Riker's heart pounded wildly in his ears and he barely heard Picard's introduction. He felt the captain's eyes upon him and struggled to maintain an outward casual appearance.

She stepped forward. <Can you still sense my thoughts?>

He gave one slow nod. Aloud, she said, "A pleasure, Commander."

He swallowed hard against the tightness in his throat and managed a somewhat hoarse, "Likewise, Counselor."

Picard regarded them with interest, and asked, "Have the two of you met before?"

Riker tore his eyes from Deanna for only an instant to admit, "We have, Sir."

Picard entered the turbo-lift.

"Excellent," he said, turning to face the door. Riker and Deanna, eyes riveted to each other, stepped through the door. Picard's eyes sliced a path between the two and he said, "I consider it important for my key officers to know each other's abilities."

Breaking the trance, Deanna turned to face the door and assured the captain, "We do, sir. We do."

As Riker forced his eyes to focus on the door, he "heard" her silent explanation, <I, too, could never say goodbye, Imzadi>

Riker closed his eyes and felt the hum of the lift and the pulsing of the ship. His ship, his new home. He took a deep breath and thrilled to the sweet perfume lingering in his nostrils.
Her nearness was physically disturbing, but he understood things were not the same between them. He found he was able to smile at the memory. A thought flickered lightly across his mind. <Someday, we might be able to share more than a memory.>