"I'm sorry, Will."
Her voice was quiet; the emotions she had once been so open to expressing were subdued into the same quiet tone she had taken to using since the funeral, even with him. Sometimes he thought especially with him, as if she were afraid to let go in his presence for fear it would do something irreparable to them both for her to need him that much in the plain light of day. He'd been the one at her side through it all, despite the protests of the Embassy who of course needed to find another Federation representative to send in their official capacity, as was appropriate for such a sombre and important occasion. The whole planet had mourned with Deanna Troi that day - but it had been Will Riker hovering at her side, at the back of her mind until they the last guests had left and were alone in the house together, and he'd taken her in his arms and let her cry out all the pain and loss she had kept silently hidden during the most harrowing day of both their lives. He'd known then, looking down at her tear-streaked face as she sobbed herself to sleep in his gentle embrace, that he could spend the rest of his life with her. Except...
He'd gotten his shipping-out orders that morning, before all this had started. The cold, impartial words that told him to leave his heart and soul behind and leap skyward again after what felt like a lifetime on her peaceful world. He couldn't pretend he didn't want to go - he'd wanted this career for too long to abandon it so completely, but now he had something, someone who mattered just as much as those stars he longed to walk among again, and - for once in his life - he'd realised he simply couldn't make that choice.
And then it had happened - so unexpectedly, so tragically, that he hadn't seen until it was too late that he didn't need to decide anymore.
He was leaving in four days.
But she wasn't coming with him.
And Wyatt was coming in to take his place.
"I don't get it." He looked up into her eyes, not bothering to hide the feelings he knew she could hear even louder than his dazed words. "I don't understand... how he can just - just waltz in and do this to us. To you..."
"I have to make a choice, Will." Her voice was choking as she lowered herself to the bed beside him, as close as she could dare, and he could feel how she was forcing herself not to just come into his arms and let them both hide away from the world again. "We both knew... and it doesn't make this any easier, but..."
"You don't want to leave." He said it quietly; not a defeat, but a finality she had never heard from him before.
"I can't. You know that." He nodded silently, not looking at her; she covered his clenched fingers with her own, leaning close, barely whispering now. "I have to stay, Will... and if you could..." She swallowed hard past the heartbreaking pain rising to choke her voice and forced the words out. "I knew you wouldn't be here forever. I knew I had responsibilities here. Especially..." her voice broke slightly, and he felt her hands tighten around his. "Especially now. But I let myself hope that we could find a way..."
"There's never going to be a way. Not now." He looked up to meet her gaze, hopelessness shining in his eyes. "Is there?"
Her answer was a heart-rending sob, dragged up from the bottom of her soul and leaving an open wound behind. "No."
He shut his eyes to hide the pain. "Dea..."
She started to cry then, when he said her name that way, and he pulled her tightly into his arms and held her as if the effort of that alone could keep them together. As if he could hope for just one instant that she could come with him, that he could stay, that their world could be put back together again if only there was enough love in his embrace to bind it.
"I don't want to leave you like this," he murmured into her hair. "With everything this way..." He gestured with one hand to the chaos of half-packed boxes around them, a scene that had been all too familiar in the last few confused days. "How are you going to cope with moving all this stuff?"
"Wyatt-" She stopped herself on the name, struggling past it, and he tried to push down the anger and jealousy he knew was pounding through her head as if it were her own. "Will, I know..."
"Shh." He covered her mouth lightly with his fingertips, quieting the apology he knew was on her tongue, and shook his head roughly. "It's all right, Dea... really..."
The look in her eyes was sympathetic, knowing he was lying more blatantly to her than he'd ever tried to do. "Will..."
"Okay." He met her gaze fiercely, catching her tightly against him and his eyes filled with anger. "It's not all right. You should be mine, Deanna. Call that chauvinistic and unenlightened of me if you want-"
"Will." She looked up at him, laying her hand soothingly on his chest, her voice tearfully quiet. "I want to be yours. You know that. I want that more than anything, but it's not our time... not now." Her fingers rubbed lightly over his uniform, although he wasn't sure she even noticed the movement. "I have to stay, and you have to go... and I don't want to keep you here if you're not ready."
"And Wyatt is." It was a statement of fact, his anger strangely unable to free itself from the pain of knowing she was right. He couldn't tie himself to her that way when he wasn't prepared to be everything she needed him to be - he'd only end up hurting them both, and as broken as his heart felt right now, he couldn't ever bear to do that to her.
"I wish it could be me," he whispered hoarsely into her hair. She nodded wordlessly against his chest, and he felt her touch his mind gently in that way she always did; an understanding that he did truly wish that, more than anything in the world - that if he could change that for her he would do anything, but that he knew what would happen if he lied to them both now for the sake of his own pride and jealousy. He had to force himself not to start crying as well when it hit him that this was probably the last time he would feel that - a love and understanding without words, because there didn't need to be any, because they had... what they had...
She pushed him away abruptly: he cursed and reached for her automatically, knowing she had heard his thoughts and begging for it not to be like this, for them not to be apart so soon, anything for just a few minutes, even seconds more... "Deanna-"
"No!" He stopped short at her desperate tone; she pushed her hands towards him protectively, closing her eyes to hide the pain that he knew was tearing at her. "Please, Will... please just go..." She swallowed back the tears one more time, arms crossing over her chest as if to physically hold in the sobs he knew were fighting for release. "If you don't leave now I won't be able to stand it..."
"Deanna." He held out a hand to her and drew her toward him, and despite her protests she put up no resistance to his embrace. He held her close again, savoring that last precious moment, burying a kiss in her hair as she clung to him. "It's okay," he whispered into her hair; forcing himself to believe it, to let her sense that he didn't blame her for making this decision. "I do understand." It was a measure of what she had done for him that he could say that; a measure of how he felt for her that he could make this sacrifice to give her a chance to be happy. "Just promise me one thing?" He crooked a finger under her chin and lifted her watery gaze to his. "No goodbyes. Not with us."
She nodded tearfully, somehow managing a tiny flicker of a smile. "No... no goodbyes."
Riker nodded softly. "Then it's all right." He hesitated and then swallowed tightly, his chest burning. "Do something for me?"
She tried to smile. "Anything."
"Tell him..." He closed his eyes for a moment, everything she had ever taught him battling to keep his mind blank as he said the words he'd been dreading. "Tell him I said to take care of you, okay?"
There - the words were out, the words that made this nightmare a twisted reality, and they burnt like acid on his tongue. He turned away before she could reply - unable to shake the feeling that only half of him were crossing the room, striding quickly over the plush carpeting, reaching for the archaic door that still had to be opened by hand, that meant he had those few extra seconds to endure with the thought of her in Wyatt's arms, touching Wyatt's mind -
He stopped on the threshold with the door open and looked back over his shoulder... and saw her still standing there as if she would stand forever watching him leave, fresh tears that she refused to let fall still shining in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," she whispered again, and it said everything she couldn't say in words with that voice. He smiled sadly.
"I know. For what it's worth, so am I. About..." He paused. "About all of it."
She knew what he meant; a single tear escaped to roll down her lightly tanned cheek, her voice breaking behind the smile she forced onto her lips as she broke her own restraints and moved painfully towards him. "It's worth everything, Will..."
He smiled and reached out to touch her cheek, to wipe away her tears a final time and tilt her head up to take one last look tenderly into her eyes. She pulled his hand into hers suddenly, then, and buried a desperate kiss in his palm, and he watched her silently for a long moment before he had to pry his fingers from hers. The tears, as eerily silent as those that had started them on this shattered path, spilled down her face again; this time he didn't wipe them away, but laid a soft, loving kiss on her trembling lips and stepped back with his own eyes burning.
"Be well, Imzadi." And he turned and walked
those final steps across the threshold that would try to make that word
meaningless forever, and he didn't look back.