"I'll see your ten, and raise you twenty." Riker lent back in his chair, confidence in his expression. Only Troi could tell he wasn't so sure of himself, but she didn't think it fair to use that to her advantage.
Not that she could, with the hand she was holding. "Fold." She closed the fan of cards and crossed her arms, leaning back to watch the commander in action. Riker had already beaten most of the chips out of Data, Worf and Geordi, and had been slowly doing the same to Crusher when Picard had arrived. Now he was having the satisfaction of quietly crucifying his commanding officer as well - and doing it with style. Troi was about the only one left with a reasonably large pile of chips in front of her, and she sensibly quit while she was ahead.
"Still in, Captain?" Beverly was holding a decent enough hand, Troi decided privately. Unless the nonchalance in her voice came from knowing she was about to lose to Riker again.
"Hmm." Picard glanced over the table at his first officer. Troi smiled inwardly at the expression that looked back at him. He'd fold.
"I call, number one." Picard smiled enigmatically, and a somewhat surprised Troi revised her opinion.
"Same here," Crusher agreed. Riker cocked an eyebrow and raised her twenty again. Crusher countered with another raise, and Troi smiled knowingly as her friend's gaze flickered in her direction. The doctor made a face and tossed her chips into the center. "Your turn, Will."
"Raise you ten," was the answer, but he looked at Troi with an enquiring eyebrow as he spoke. She spread her hands in defence at his suspicion, as if to say 'what? I didn't tell her anything.'
"I think I'll see your hand, Will." Picard added his chips in and dropped his cards.
Geordi whistled. "Straight flush. Can you beat that, commander?"
Riker grinned. "I'll let the good doctor go first." Crusher grimaced, revealing two pair of queens. "Ah. Too bad, Captain." He dropped the cards with dramatic flair on the table: ten, jack, queen...
"That is impossible," Worf announced in a low growl.
"That's not what the chips say, mister Worf." Riker grinned as he scooped up the pile, feeling Troi's gaze on him. "Never seen a royal flush before, Deanna?" She continued staring at him, scrutinising his face, and he allowed a hint of pride into his smile at having deceived her empathic skill.
"Is everyone in?" La Forge began to deal out the cards; Troi nodded absently when he got to her, her thoughts still on Riker. She should have been proud that the mental discipline he'd learnt from her had been so effective: instead she was a little irritated that he'd gotten one over on her so easily. That discipline was the secret of his poker face, and it annoyed Troi that he could put a wall between them. It also annoyed her that it annoyed her - and she couldn't put her finger on why, which was in itself annoying.
The hand went quickly, notable only for the fact that Riker lost rather tremendously to Picard. Troi was about to deal him in again when she heard the bleep of his comm badge.
"Riker here." He gestured for her to deal past him and took the request. "I'm needed on the bridge. I'll be right back." Picard made a silent inquiry with his expression, and Riker nodded. "I could use some help, Captain."
"Very well, number one." He nodded goodnight to the officers surrounding the table and followed his exec out of the door.
Crusher shrugged at their disappearance and tossed in two
chips. "Ante up, everyone."
Riker strode purposefully down the corridor, intent on getting back to his winning streak. The call had been minor, a dispute over new scanner alignments, but it had had to be done immediately or it would have put their entire mapping mission in the Elorae sector behind schedule. Picard had taken over, allowing him to return to the game in hand.
He reflected, as he was still far enough away from Crusher's quarters where the game had been held, that Deanna had seemed quite angry at his successful bluffing. He thought she should have been proud; it was her tutoring, after all - even all those years ago - that had let him excel at the task of covering his emotions. But...
Noticing that he was at the door to the doctor's quarters, he quickly shut off that train of thought. Deanna would know what he was thinking - she always did - and he didn't want to antagonise her further. He pressed the chime and a moment later the door slid open. Immediately, Troi looked up at him and he thought for a moment that she had heard his thoughts. As he registered the conversation, he realised with a mixture of sympathy and embarrassment that she didn't mean that.
~It wasn't my ideal choice of topic, I will admit.~ Her voice echoed ruefully in his head, and he could tell it was bothering her. She hardly ever sent to him anymore... he missed it, but he didn't let it show; another facet of his 'poker face', he thought privately as he retook his seat beside her.
"Remember your first time, Will?" The glint in Crusher's eye would have made anyone else squirm in their seat. Riker was doing that for an entirely different reason.
"Umm..." he stole a glance at Troi, trying to catch her eye, but she was busily arranging her cards. He cleared his throat. "Not really. It wasn't a greatly earth-shattering experience, that I recall." Unlike a few other times, he continued silently to himself. Troi shot him a glare and he realised with a muttered apology that it hadn't been quite private enough.
"I am extremely interested in hearing about such experiences, commander." Data's face, as always, was perfectly serious, totally belying his subject matter. "I am attempting to formulate a program based on sexual experience and culture. Any contributions would be welcome."
Riker coughed, studying his hand to distract himself. "Why? What are you going to, uh, do with this program?" He ignored his colleagues' expressions. "I think you might find that a lot of people will be... reluctant... to share details about that kind of experience, Data."
"Oh, I don't see anything wrong with it," Crusher contradicted with an enquiring smile his way. Riker wondered if she knew the particulars of her best friend's first time. "We are all adults here, Will. It's nothing we haven't all done." Her eyes sparkled teasingly.
~Get me out of here,~ Troi muttered in his thoughts, although he wasn't sure he should have heard it.
"Are you deliberately trying to embarrass me, Beverly?" he asked with a grin, stacking his chips. "You should give in now." ~Yes, please!~ came into his mind and he struggled not to laugh. He knew he shouldn't be hearing Deanna's comments, but she was obviously too distracted and in too close proximity to him to keep them to herself.
"Ante up, Commander," the doctor answered in a knowing tone. He grimaced at her double meaning and tossed in the chips. There were a few minutes of silence, and Riker felt Troi's concern die down, thinking the conversation over. She folded quickly, going to the replicator for a hot chocolate, and flashed a relieved smile his way as she sat down again.
"And you, Counselor?" It took her a moment to realise what the android meant, but all other eyes seemed to be on her by the time she figured it out. "May I ask what your first experience of sexual intercourse was like?"
Riker caught the wordless expression of despair from her, and this time he was meant to hear it. On cue, he pushed his chips to the center of the table. "I'll see you, Data."
The android, oblivious to Riker's ploy, placed his cards on the table. Riker held his breath until he saw the pair of aces laid down. Triumphantly, he revealed his own three of a kind and swept the chips into his pile, knocking over the hot chocolate as he did so. He aimed perfectly; it tipped backwards over Troi, soaking her uniform.
"Will!" Crusher jumped up to grab a cloth, wiping down the table and moving the cards out of the way of the spreading chocolate pool. "Deanna, are you all right?"
Troi had also stood, backing away from the table to avoid the liquid dripping from its edge. "It's fine. Really. I was about done for the evening anyway." She smiled reassuringly at Riker, who was doing a good impression of contrite. "I'll just go back to my quarters-"
"And get changed," Riker advised with a lopsided grin. "I really am sorry."
"I know," ~you're lying, she assured him with a light hand on his arm. "It's okay. Goodnight," she nodded toward the other players and quickly left, flashing Riker a 'thank you' smile, for him alone, as the door slid shut behind her.
"You're going to have to make up for that," Crusher informed him in an irritated tone. Riker sighed, outwardly penitent and inwardly relieved.
Deanna Troi set her second hot chocolate of the evening beside her mirror, smoothing the layers of purple silk that made up her nightdress and starting to unfasten her hair. The evening's conversation had brought back pleasant memories - more pleasant than she had realised after all this time, and she had allowed herself to reminisce more than usual, choosing one of her more sensual outfits to wear after showering. She wasn't expecting any visitors, so she was surprised when the door chimed. Moving to see her guest in the mirror, she called for them to enter. When she saw who it was she abandoned her ministrations, turning to face him.
"Hi." Riker stopped and blinked, taking in her attire with an appreciative glance. "Going to bed?"
"Yes. But you don't have to go," she added quickly, motioning to the couch. "Did the game finish?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah." He shook himself out of his reverie, focusing on her face instead of what she was wearing. "Geordi had something to do early, and Beverly got called out to one of the junior lieutenants. Poker warfare got a little too serious, according to the report."
"They should ban that game," Troi teased absently. "We could play something harmless, like..." She clicked her fingers. "What's it called?" Riker grinned as he took a hot tea from the replicator and sat down.
"That's it. Snap." She pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Something engaging that doesn't allow for... undue conversations." Riker winced sympathetically.
"I'm sorry you had to get wet, by the way. I was just a little low on ideas right around then."
Troi smiled. "It's all right, Will. I needed a shower anyway." She stretched backwards, rotating her shoulders with a grimace. "It's been a long day: with my appointment schedule, trying to integrate the new science team, and then that poker game..." She sighed, and laughed ruefully. "I'm about ready to collapse into bed - if I weren't so stiff."
Riker grinned, put down his tea and stood, walking around the couch to stand behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. Troi closed her eyes and let the firm strength of his massage relax her body, the presence of his mind lulling her thoughts. She was almost asleep when he stopped, and she opened her eyes to find Will crouched in front of her, a smile on his handsome features.
"You stopped." Her tone was accusatory.
"You were falling asleep," he retorted evenly. "I'm not used to sending you to sleep, Deanna." He couldn't resist adding, "I've always prided myself on being able to keep you awake." She looked at him, her eyes fatigued, but smiled nonetheless.
"Even the first time," she murmured tiredly, her mind wandering. He grinned.
"I guess so. Neither of us got much sleep out in that jungle, I-" he was about to go on when he saw her eyes close and sighed with a smile. "Never mind. Come on, Imzadi." He lifted her easily into his arms and carried her to bed, careful not to disturb her sleep as he laid her down. He drew the covers over her and straightened, watching her for a long moment before he sat on the edge of her bed and gently kissed her forehead. ~Goodnight, Deanna,~ he whispered into her mind, before rising from the bed and settling himself into her couch.
Four hours later, he finally ran out of work to do; he'd finished the personnel reviews they'd been working on and caught up on his personal logs, something else he could do away from his own cabin. For some reason he didn't want to leave, although he didn't know why. The night's conversation had affected him more than he realised, perhaps? He mused silently on the question, wandering distractedly around his former lover's cabin. He remembered the first months of their tour of duty: each feeling uncomfortable in the other's private space, neither sure of the boundaries set. Well, they had boundaries now. 'Just friends' covered a lot of ground and in some ways they were closer now than they had been as lovers... but it still felt as if there were something missing from the relationship. He tried not to show he felt that way around her - the last thing he wanted was to make Deanna uncomfortable - but he often wondered if she ever felt the same about him.
He came to her desk, his hands tracing the surface but not really noticing it, until they connected with something that shouldn't have been there. Riker looked down, surprised, and picked up the object. It was a box, little bigger than a PADD but about four inches deep, and ornately carved with Betazoid scripture. A ceremonial box? he wondered. Betazoids sometimes used them to store important artefacts; he'd seen Lwaxana with one carrying the 'sacred' chalice of Riix that she took everywhere with her. Deanna's box had an antique key lock, but the key was lying on the desk and the box was open. Riker carefully set it down again, the lid falling open. Inside...
Inside was a fragment of paper, lovingly preserved and folded exactly as it had always been. Beside it lay a length of vine and a small but sharp rock, resting on a white hairband.
"My God." Riker's hands moved of their own accord, reaching in and very delicately unfolding the paper so that he could read it. He'd almost forgotten what his own handwriting looked like, it had been so long since he'd done anything requiring a pen and paper. He read the poem out loud, listening to the sound of it, and realised he'd never said the words before. He'd written them over a decade ago, but he had never spoken them aloud to her.
He smiled in memory when he saw his signature at the bottom of the page. Deanna had teased him that he would be a famous poet one day, and she wanted this first piece signed. He still remembered writing the words; 'To my lovely Imzadi, from-'
He spun around, surprised. He hadn't heard her wake or enter the room, he'd been that absorbed in the poem.
"It was open," he said lamely in defence, gesturing to the box. "I wouldn't have opened it if it was locked." Troi stepped forward and shrugged slightly, embarrassed.
"It's all right. I..." She blushed and looked away for a moment. "I was just... reminiscing a bit more than usual, I guess, thinking about the conversation earlier - I was going to put it away in the morning." She looked as uncomfortable discussing it with him as she had with Data, motioning awkwardly to the open casket. "Besides, everything in there belongs as much to you as it does to me." She smiled tentatively, holding out her hands. "May I?"
"Of course. I gave it to you, remember?" He handed over the crinkled paper, a little humbled by the gentleness in her touch when she held it.
"I remember." Her voice held that musical quality he loved, that reminded him of the past. "I never showed anyone, you know. Not even my mother, which took a lot of doing back then."
He grinned despite himself. "I remember that as well. Not a lot changed over the years, in that respect."
"Except that she approves of you now," Troi reminded him, not looking up from the poem.
"Only because she knows you won't settle down with anyone else." He saw her stop reading - wanted the words back as soon as he spoke, afraid to upset the balance between them, but it was too late. "Deanna, I-"
She looked up into his eyes, saying nothing, and his voice died his throat. He wondered if he had offended her: her expression was unreadable. "I didn't quite mean that the way it came out."
Her face didn't change, her voice slow and measured. "Yes, you did."
He reminded himself belatedly how pointless it was to try lying to her. "Okay, I did. But... oh, hell, Deanna..."
"It's funny." Her voice was distant as she folded the paper in her hands with infinite care. "All my life, I've thought that my mother knew nothing about what I wanted, about what would make me happy." She replaced the paper in its box and closed the lid, tilting her head up to look at him. "I only just realised... she knows what I want more clearly than I do."
They were only inches away from each other; he closed the distance, pulling her, unresisting, into his arms. There was a long pause as they watched each other; unsure, their safe, comfortable boundaries stripped away.
~Imzadi...~ He smiled at the irony as she instinctively sought out the security their bond gave her.
~I miss you,~ he said gently, ~and I know you miss me, Deanna. And, much as I hate to oblige your mother...~ he leaned down and kissed her, and to his relief she returned it with passion long forgotten between them.
They held that way for a long time, each unwilling to release the other, until Troi gently pulled back. There was laughter in her thoughts as she broke the embrace and stroked his cheek. ~She'll be more insufferable than ever.~
~I think we can handle it... together,~ Riker assured her with a smile, lifting her into his arms and kissing her again.
"Aren't you leaving, then?" Troi teased as he put her down on the bed and lay down beside her. Riker grinned and pulled her up against him.
"Well, if you're still that tired-" She silenced
him with a kiss and brushed a hand over the manual light switch by the bed.
Will Riker woke to the sound of an insistent alarm buzzing in his left ear. He didn't need to open his eyes, feeling Deanna sit up and lean over him to turn the sound off. He reached out and grabbed her, pulling her down on top of him before she could lie down again. She laughed and nestled back into his arms.
~Good morning to you, too.~
~My pleasure,~ he answered without opening his eyes. "Computer, what time is it?"
"The time is oh-seven thirty hours," came the crisp reply. Riker grinned.
"Plenty of time." He opened one eye to regard his companion, turning his head to kiss her good morning. "I love you, Imzadi."
Troi sat up slightly and looked at him, raising an eyebrow at his admission. "That came out quite easily."
"It came out the way I meant it," he replied sincerely. "I've always loved you, Deanna, you know that." He frowned in concern when she paused. "Don't you?"
"Of course." She smiled a little too eagerly; he sighed.
"Hmm?" She made the pretence of relaxation, comfortable with her head on his shoulder.
~Don't lie to me.~ He chose to send to her rather than speak verbally, making the words all the more forceful. *You're not sure about this, are you?*
Now she sighed, and opened her eyes. "No. Not entirely." She sat up urgently, trying to make him understand her feelings. "It isn't that I don't love you: you know I do. It's just that we've done this before, and... there's no security in us, Will. I don't want to ruin what we have as friends, and I need to know it's going to work out."
Riker sat up next to her, pulling her close to him. "You'll have a long wait for assurance like that." She flinched away in misunderstanding at his words, and he held her tighter. "Deanna..." He sighed and stroked her hair. "We're never going to know that we'll work out together. What makes a relationship is trying to make it work. And I think we can try." He touched her chin and tilted her head up. "Can't we?"
She frowned uncertainly. "We've tried before, remember." Her words weren't harsh, but he understood her reluctance. He had always been the one to break the promises, first on Betazed and then Risa. Even on the Enterprise, knowing she would have been with him again in an instant, he'd done what he always did: shunned the long term fulfilment of what he could have had with Deanna in favour of beating Kirk's more infamous record. He and Troi had worked together for six years, and he'd never really tried quite as much as he should have done; his sincerity never seemed to last long enough to make things work between them. ~But this time, it's going to be right,~ he promised himself - and her.
He smiled ruefully, realising she'd heard his thoughts. "This is the last time, Imzadi. This time things will work out, I promise. I won't hurt you again." He tried to look penitent, which wasn't difficult. If there was one thing in his life he regretted, it was failing Deanna. "One last chance to redeem myself?"
She frowned studiously for a long while.
"Hmm. I suppose so." Sensing the very real regret in his mind, she smiled tenderly. "I know you always meant well. Things have just never seemed to go right for us."
"They will this time," he promised so vehemently that she almost laughed.
"Do you know, I think so. I have a good feeling about you, Will."
"That would be love," he teased. Now Troi laughed.
*My, Commander, you are being presumptuous this morning.*
*I'm your Commander now?*
She laughed again at his deliberate misinterpretation.
*You were always my Commander, Imzadi. It just took us both a while to realise
Piled up her office work and placing it neatly away, Deanna Troi smiled to herself. Her last appointment of the day had finished a few minutes before. Lieutenant Reid had commented that she seemed in a particularly good mood today, something Troi couldn't deny: she'd been in a good - no, a great mood for the past week. She knew someone would notice soon, they'd have to - she couldn't keep her relationship with Will quiet for very much longer. She was about to call him when she checked the chronometer, realising he'd still be on duty. Though he didn't seem to be doing anything particularly interesting, judging by his state of mind.
~I'm not,~ came the unexpected comment, making her jump. ~Did I surprise you?~
"Don't do it again," she replied aloud, knowing he would hear her.
~Why not? I missed being in your beautiful head: let me make the most of it.~
Troi rolled her eyes. "That's very sweet, Will."
~People will think you're mad if you keep talking to yourself.~
"There's no one else here," she said. "Wouldn't that make you mad as well? You are in my mind."
~In your mind I'm mad?~ She laughed.
"You know what I mean." She smiled as he sent back a wordless reply. "I'm going now. I'll see you later?"
~As soon as I get off duty,~ Riker assured her. She smiled as she felt his irritation at the uneventful duty fade against the prospect of seeing her again. Still smiling, she left her office and wandered out into the corridors of the Enterprise, not really caring where her feet took her. She hardly noticed anyone until she reached deck ten: she blinked in slight surprise as the doors to the crew lounge swished open in front of her. Ten Forward was moderately busy, but then Guinan was never snowed under even when it was exceptionally crowded. Troi found a table at the back of the room by the large window and sat, gazing out at the starfield. It reminded her of Will... she blushed, surprised at herself. Everything reminded her of Will recently - she was acting like a lovestruck teenager! Which you were when you met him, she reminded herself, nearly, in that respect. She had been twenty-one, Will a year older, when they had met at Chandra's wedding. She frowned, amazed that she'd forgotten, and made a mental note to tell her friend about their renewed relationship; Chandra would want to know. She had always reminded Deanna that Imzati should be together, no matter what the difficulties - not that Deanna had listened...
"Ready to get your own back tonight?"
She looked up, pulled from her memories by Beverly Crusher's voice. The doctor slid into a seat across from Troi, pushing a coffee toward her friend. "I noticed you hadn't got a drink. You don't mind if I join you?"
"No, please." She hoped she wasn't smiling too much; she hadn't seen much of Beverly since she and Will had gotten involved again. "What was it you asked me?"
Crusher grinned, taking a sip of coffee. "Did you forgive Will for getting you drenched last week. I thought you'd be ready to get your own back tonight."
"Oh, that." Troi shrugged. "It's nothing. He felt a little guilty about it, but it was only an accident." She curled her hands around the cup, sipping the steaming liquid. "I was losing anyway."
"You were about the only one with enough chips left to challenge him," Crusher informed her. "If I didn't know better, I'd say he did it on purpose."
Troi laughed. "It's only a game, Beverly."
The doctor looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. It would have been nice to see you beat Will, though."
"You only say that because you lost," Troi teased. Crusher raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"How do you know?"
Deanna looked up from swirling her coffee. "I have seen Will since then, you know."
"What does that mean?"
Crusher shrugged nonchalantly. "Only that you've been particularly exuberant this past week."
~She's right, you know,~ Riker put in.
~Oh, go away,~ Troi answered petulantly.
~If that's what you want.~
Troi blinked, bringing her mind back to her physical companion. ~I was teasing, Will,~ she sent before answering her friend. "Yes?"
"You were gone for a minute there. Do you want me to take a look at you?" Troi shook her head, waving away her distraction.
"No, I'm fine. I do feel quite energetic today, actually - the mission is going much better now that everyone's settled into their work." Crusher raised an eyebrow, unconvinced, but Troi just smiled enigmatically, paying great attention to her drink.
She didn't have to turn around to know when he walked into the room; smiled when he ordered a chocolate sundae along with his drink. ~Hello, Imzadi.~
He greeted her with a mental hug. ~Do you want me to be totally undercover, or just discreet?~
Troi smiled inwardly. ~Discretion will do.~
"Joining us, Will?" Crusher made an appreciative noise at the chocolate sundae the first officer carried to their table. "Trying to win her over for tonight? That's a big apology." Riker grinned and set the dish down in front of Troi.
"I aim to please."
"And you do very well," Troi replied knowingly, digging into her sundae.
Crusher tossed her an enquiring glance; receiving no answer, she lent back in her chair and scowled at them both. "Is there something going on here I don't know about?"
"Why, Beverly." Riker turned his gaze from Troi, his eyes twinkling. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
Crusher's delighted exclamation drew the attention of a good third of the busy lounge, bringing a flare of heat to Troi's face. "Beverly! Shout a little louder, they might hear you up on the bridge."
The redhead winced, immediately apologetic. "Sorry, Deanna. I was just surprised, that's all. It's a little overdue-" She suddenly stopped, looking uncomfortable. "Do you two want to be alone?"
Riker and Troi exchanged glances. "I don't think we're quite as uncontrolled as to ravish each other right here," Troi reassured her with amusement.
"Speak for yourself," Riker teased, pulling his chair closer to hers and sliding one arm around her waist.
"It's not my fault you're so damn attractive," he muttered, sounding put out. Troi glanced sideways at him, concealing amusement; after a long moment she sighed and kissed his cheek.
"There. Now have some self-control." She pushed him playfully away from her. "He's always been uncivilised," she said mock-apologetically to Crusher, who, from Riker's point of view, was squirming rather delightfully in her seat. The first officer made a face but released her; however, the way his hand reached for hers didn't go unnoticed by their companion. She coughed politely and stood.
"I should go anyway. I have the crew medicals to start - again."
Troi smiled, seeing straight through the excuse, but allowed the other woman some dignity in walking away. "See you at the poker game tonight, Beverly?"
Crusher looked back over her shoulder. "Oh, I'll be there." Troi glared mock-angrily at the smirk on her friend's face before Riker distracted her with a bite of chocolate.
"People are looking this way," she informed him as she took the spoon from his hand. "It's going to be all over the ship by tonight."
Riker shrugged, reclaiming the spoon and her hand. "Let them watch. We aren't a secret, are we?"
"No," she conceded. He smiled.
"Then it's not a problem." He dug the spoon into
the sundae and offered it to her. "Enjoy."
Troi smiled in answer, pushing the bearded first officer back against his pillow. "Yes, thank you."
He grinned suggestively up at her. "Want some more?"
This time she laughed outright. "We don't have time..." Riker silenced her, pulling her down onto his chest for a long, passionate kiss.
"Never put time restraints on an artist, Counselor. And when it comes to loving you," he brushed the back of his hand over her face, "I have perfected the art."
"You're a sincere but very corny man, Will Riker."
"It's always worked for me," he retorted teasingly. Troi made a mock-disgusted face.
"I'm not like most of the other women you've dated, Commander." He smiled and kissed her lightly, tenderly.
"That's why we're Imzadi, remember? And why I love
you so very," he turned her over, onto her back, "very," and
kissed her, "very much..."
Troi rolled over onto her side, watching her lover as he dressed, and smiled absently. The poker game would be in Will's quarters that night, but they were cutting it fine to be ready when the rest of the senior staff arrived.
"I hope you're not planning on playing poker dressed like that," Riker teased.
"We could play strip poker," Troi deadpanned. Riker coughed uncomfortably.
"Bad idea. I might lose." He grimaced. "I've had enough of stripping publicly in my dealings with you." She laughed, wrapping her arms about his shoulders as he sat on the edge of the bed, and nuzzled his neck.
"You'll have to when we get married, you know. My mother won't let us do anything except the traditional Betazoid ceremony."
He turned his head, somewhat surprised. "That's an awfully big assumption to make, Deanna."
"What, that we'll be married one day?" She smiled calmly. "Will, you said yourself that we'll only ever settle down with each other. It's just a matter of when and where." She put on an uncertain expression that was only half feigned. "Unless... you don't want to marry me."
He turned back to her, holding tightly to her fingers entwined with his. "Hey, I'll get down and propose now if it'll make you feel better." When she frowned at his flippancy he sighed and smiled, kissing her. ~Of course I do.~ "We just have to take our time, right?"
Troi nodded. "All right."
"You're okay with that?" She nodded again. "You're sure?"
"You don't sound too happy about it." Troi shrugged. ~Deanna! Tell me.~ "What's wrong?"
She turned away from him, silently reaching for her clothes. "I'm going to take a shower." Riker moved quickly, blocking her path, and took her by the shoulders.
"No, you're not. Something's wrong, and you're going to tell me what it is." She looked away: he took her face in his hands and made her look at him, softening the rough gesture with a gentle caress. "Please, Deanna. No secrets." She met his gaze; after a moment she nodded and he released her, drawing her into his arms.
"Will... Imzadi..." She scowled to herself and paused. "I don't know how to say this without sounding unpleasant." Riker laughed.
"It's never stopped you before." He grew serious at her withering glare. "Don't say anything, then. Just put it in here," he tapped the side of his head.
"No." Troi shook her head. "No, I - I want to tell you. Will," she took a deep breath to compose herself, backing away from him in an effort to think clearly. "We've known each other for such a long time, and you're the most loyal friend I've ever had - I'd trust you with my life, but I know you. You don't commit, you never have... you've shown me that, and I need you to - I don't want to be hurt by you again."
She had turned her back on him, unable to look him in the eyes, and now he slowly walked up behind her. Still she couldn't turn around to look at him, flinching when he laid his hands on her bare shoulders.
"You trust me with your life, but not your heart?" She didn't reply, but he knew he'd hit a nerve. "Oh, Deanna, I thought you knew me better than that." He stroked her long hair, brushing it back from her face, concentrating on making her understand how he felt. "I could never commit to anyone because 'anyone' is not you, my Imzadi." She raised her head and slowly, hesitantly turned to face him. "I need to be with you, Deanna. I love you, I respect you... I need you. And if I have to propose marriage to convince you of that, then I will." He raised an eyebrow. "Hmm?"
She looked up at him, a small smile on her lips. "No, it's all right."
Riker tilted her chin up to make sure, reassured by her smile. "It's really all right this time? You're not hiding anything from me?" Troi shook her head. "Good." He slid his arms around her, and this time she didn't pull away. "I don't want us to rush things, Deanna. I want us to get this right, to get married when it feels right and not because we have to prove we're committed to each other." His hands came up to caress her back, warm on her skin. "We shouldn't have to prove anything, especially not to each other. You know I love you, you must know I'm serious about you." He opened his mind as totally as he could, tucking her head under his chin and holding her to him, open to her completely. ~If you don't know by now, Imzadi, come on in and find out the truth.~
Needing no further encouragement, she did.
As long a time later as they could allow, they moved apart. She stood modestly naked beside the bed, watching him with a dazed look in her eyes while she tried to match what she knew of him now with what she had always known about Will Riker. It had been thirteen years since they had shared each other so completely, and many things had changed him through the passage of time. He was still the confident, attractive personality she had fallen in love with, but he had matured and grown out of the total need for command she had once teased him over. She knew now why he passed up promotion after promotion to serve under Picard; a contentment that could not be completely put into words, but that tempered the ambition which had always taken him from her in the past. That was why he was so certain he could love her now the way he should have done then, she realised. And behind it all was his deep, abiding love for her, that had always been there and would not be hidden away any longer.
"Deanna?" He placed his hand on her cheek to catch her attention. "You'd better get dressed. Everyone will get here soon." She looked down at herself, realising with embarrassment that she was still naked.
"I was a little... distracted." He grinned and pushed her gently in the direction of the shower with a soft kiss.
"Don't worry about it; just go get ready." After a moment making sure she was all right, Riker turned and glanced at his reflection, pulling a comb through his hair to tidy it. Deanna would probably need to do the same, he thought idly, remembering their afternoon activities. He picked up the poker box and began to pile chips in the center of the table, checking the number of seats against who he knew would arrive shortly. He wondered if Picard would join them; the mission was going successfully, so he should certainly have the time... Riker grinned at his imaginings of their stoic Captain's reaction to his obvious attachment to Deanna. His smile widened as he sensed Troi's presence behind him and he turned to embrace her, greeting her with a kiss.
The door chose that moment to chime, and they reluctantly parted. Troi smiled up at him and leaned comfortably back in his arms, resting her hands on his shoulders. "Aren't you going to let them in?"
He considered it, and she swatted at his chest in mock irritation when his thoughts flitted over the possibility of leaving them out in the corridor. "Will! Be nice." She pulled out of his embrace, pointing warningly to the door. Riker pouted and sighed.
The door opened to admit La Forge, Data and Worf; they were all business and the game proceeded through five hands before Crusher and Picard made an entrance. This time it was Troi on a winning streak, with a sizeable stack of chips to her credit; as the doctor took her seat opposite, she was gathering up yet another set of winnings.
"You don't seem so lucky tonight, Number One," Picard remarked as he dealt his first officer in on the game.
"I'm letting her win, Captain," Riker explained teasingly, inclining his head to indicate Troi. She raised her eyebrows and, saying nothing, continued to count her chips.
"I'm sure you are, Number One," Picard answered with the barest hint of sarcasm. "Counselor?"
"I'm in." She tossed her two chips into the ante and looked pointedly at Riker. "Your turn, Commander."
~Getting personal now, Imzadi?~ He grinned back at
her and added his own bet. "I'm in."
"Two pair. Looks like your winning streak's over, Deanna," Crusher announced with a grin as she collected the ante. "You're not doing too well either, Will. Sure you want in?"
"Give us a chance," Troi said defensively, glancing at Riker with a small, knowing smile. "Comeback is our speciality, right, Will?"
He grinned and briefly took her hand in his. "Deal us in, Beverly."
The doctor shrugged, but Troi smiled as she saw her friend's gaze land uncomfortably on their clasped hands. "Okay. But no cheating, you two."
Riker clapped a hand over his heart, shocked. "Beverly, you wound me. I never cheat. Deanna, on the other hand..." He winced as she slapped his arm. "...never even thinks about it," he finished without missing a beat.
"I should think not," Troi answered tartly, but her tone softened at his mock-fearful thoughts. "I hope you're ready for defeat, Beverly."
The doctor raised an eyebrow, continuing her dealing without looking up.
~What are you hiding under there?~ Riker asked mentally as Troi checked her cards. She shot him a look.
~You think I'm going to tell you?~
He sighed. ~It was just a thought.~
~I've said it before, but I'll say it again: you're a corny man, Will Riker.~
~It wasn't meant that way.~
She shrugged and took her cards from Crusher. ~So? I'm waiting.~
~For you to tell me what your cards are, of course.~ She looked up at him with a sideways smile and added her chips to the ante. A moment later Riker did the same.
~Did you think I was going to tell you?~
Troi shrugged mentally. ~Well, if you're not prepared to commit...~
~Ha ha.~ He gave a disgusted snort and folded as Crusher upped the bet higher than his remaining pile. Troi smiled secretively.
He grinned and got up, heading for the replicator. As Troi folded to Crusher's winning flush, he set a hot chocolate down in front of her.
"To make up for last week," he explained. Deanna smiled knowingly.
"I think you've already managed that quite adequately," she assured him. He smiled back, privately, and swung his chair around to seat himself behind her. She lent back into his arms as he wrapped them about her shoulders, resting his chin briefly on her shoulder. Troi smiled: although it was quite obvious now what was going on between them, there was no visible reaction from any of their companions. ~Either Beverly warned them, or they've been expecting this for a long time,~ she projected to Riker. He grinned and whispered back in her ear:
"I'd bet on the latter."
She nodded slightly in agreement. It certainly seemed that
way. Blushing slightly at being so predictable, she smiled and relaxed against
him, watching as Beverly picked the others clean - again. The doctor looked up
in question and smiled, very slightly amused. Troi returned it good-naturedly
and shrugged, turning to look back at Riker, who smiled down at her with all the
love she had ever known. He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the mouth: she
reached up and twined her fingers with his, and no one bothered to deal in
either of them for the rest of the night.