A Fate Worse
From: Anyatoo


Jesse Stuart leaned forward in his seat, his whole demeanor conveying the urgency he felt. "Captain...it's absolutely essential that we retrieve this data. It could advance our understanding of the phenomena by lightyears. It could potentially save millions of lives." He sat back in his seat, glancing at Will Riker to gauge how effective his plea had been.
Jean Luc Picard glanced at the first officer as well. He knew Riker and Stuart went back a long way together. If anyone could judge the validity of Stuart's arguement it was probably Will. "Number One?" He asked, soliciting an opinion.
"I volunteer to pilot the shuttle." Riker said simply.
Picard thought a moment more and then nodded. If Riker was willing to risk it he was willing to agree. "Very well." He ascented, despite a nagging feeling that he was going against his better judgement.
Jesse Stuart was unable to supress a huge grin. "Thank you sir!"
Picard addressed his next remarks to Riker. "You are to take no unnecessary risks, Number One. If it appears that you cannot retrieve the buoy with a comfortable margin of safety I expect you to terminate the mission. Is that clear?"
The turbulence was much worse than they expected, and Stuart was fighting nausea as the shuttle bounced and rolled like some sort of amusement park ride gone mad. He refused to give in to the sickness, however, and steadfastly watched the computer readouts, searching for the tell-tale signature of the capsule they were seeking.
"Maybe it's not even there anymore." Will commented, playing devil's advocate. "If it didn't land on solid ground it didn't have a chance. That's sulfuric acid down there..not water. I'll give it ten more minutes, then we're out of here one way or another."
Stuart grunted his agreement. "Damn, Will, this is one hellacious place!"
Riker grinned back, graciously refraining from commenting on his friend's suddenly greenish complexion. "Well, it's sure not Risa." He agreed.
Despite the dire situation Stuart had to laugh. He and Will had spent several wild shore leaves on Risa as junior officers and even though he was married now, with a child and no longer interested in those sorts of bacchanalian pleasures he still had fond memories of his bachelor days. "I'll never forget that Orion woman you..." He began, but was abruptly cut off by the shuttle's abrupt plunge.
Will said nothing. All his effort was concentrated on trying to manage the emergency. The sudden sharp gravometric fluctuation was wrenching them downward as easily as a child would pull on the string of a kite. He tried to compensate but the forces of nature were far too powerful for the small craft. He hit the comm panel. "Mayday, We're going down..." He quickly relayed the message to the Enterprise, and glanced over at his friend "Hang on, Jess...it's not going to be pretty..."
He was aware that they hit and bounced, and then all awareness ceased for a period of time. When he came to the first thing he was aware of was the pungent smell of acid stinging his nose and throat. Next came the realization that he was upside down, still strapped into his seat, and the shuttle had mostly disintegrated around him. A huge rock outcropping jutted just above his head, and beyond that he could see the roiling purple sky.
Amazingly, he did not feel any pain. It seemed unbelievable that he was going to walk away from this unscathed. He felt a rush of elation, tempered abruptly by a moan close at hand. In the first moments of awareness he'd forgotten he wasn't alone. "Jesse?" He called out, fumbling for the buckles that held him strapped in the seat.
"I'm here, Will..."
Riker dropped awkwardly from his seat and felt the craft shift at his movement. Apparently they were not on stable ground. "You OK?" He demanded as he crouched, trying to see through the maze of twisted metal that had been the floor before the impact had curled it upward and inward.
"I think I'm alright..." Stuart replied tightly. "But I'm trapped. The only thing I can move is my arm and my head...damn, Will, when you crash a shuttle you do it thoroughly!"
Will seized a shattered piece of the control panel and wrenched it out of the way, feeling a rush of relief at the sight of his friend's face peering at him from beneath a tangle of crushed bulkhead. "I've always believed that if you're going to do something you may as well make it spectacular." Riker replied with forced lightness as he tried to assess the situation.
Abruptly, the remains of the shuttle shifted again, and Will became aware of the rivulet of brown liquid flowing in through a rent in the metal and pooling just below what he could see of his companion's torso. The pungent smell of the acid assaulted his senses, and for the first time fear started to build in his chest. He was grateful that Jesse's head was pinned in a way that he was screened from the sight. "OK, Jesse. We're gonna get you out of there..." He said with false bravado.
"You don't have a transporter handy by any chance?" Stuart joked weakly, starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.
"Sorry. I left it in my other pocket..." Will replied, eyeing the duranium bulkhead that pinned his friend in place and trying desperately to come up with a plan. He had no equipment available that would cut through the metal. Even his handheld phaser was no match for the incredibly dense material starfleet used for the hulls of their spacecraft.
The shuttle shifted again, slightly, and the flow of acid into the compartment increased. Will grabbed the metal with his bare hands, prying at it with all his strength. Nothing moved. "You'll have to do better than that, buddy." Stuart commented, still unaware of the danger that he was in.
Drawing out his phaser and changing the setting to low, Riker grabbed the piece of metal that had been part of the control panel. "Listen, Jesse. We got a leak down there. I'm going to try to patch it up with this. I'm going to have to wedge myself in there a bit. Sorry if I hurt you."
"OK." Stuart agreed quietly, turning his head as far to the side as he could as Will wedged his head and broad shoulders into the opening and tried to manuever the piece of metal into place over the rent in the hull. Riker grunted with effort and then with pain as a little bit of the acid splashed onto his hand, instantly burning the skin. "Will? what kind of leak?"
Riker almost had it in place and with his other hand he fumbled to bring the phaser into position. "Acid. We must have landed in a pool of it. I'm gonna tried to weld this over the hole." Even as he used the phaser to create a makeshift weld he noticed the other cracks, and more of the liquid seeping in from dozens of entry points beyond his reach. Dread mingled with disbelief. He wished he could wake up from this nightmare.
"How we doing, buddy?" Jesse inquired nervously when he heard the whine of the phaser end.
Will struggled with himself, groping for a way to answer his friend's question, racking his brain for a solution to an impossible situation. He pulled out of the hole enough so that he could look at his friend's face. "Not so good." He admitted. "I got that one, but there are other leaks I can't get to."
Jesse Stuart closed his eyes. "Oh hell." He breathed softly. Will touched his one exposed shoulder gently, not sure of what to say. Suddenly Jesse opened his eyes again. "Will...promise me, you'll tell Kendra that I died on impact. I don't want her to know that I went through anything....tell her that as we were going down I told you to tell her that I loved her and Nicholai...and that I died when we hit."
"Jesse..." Will swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. "Don't give up. I'll get you out. I'm going to try to cut through this bulkhead..."
Stuart shook his head. "Were you asleep in physics 101 when they taught that phasers don't cut duranium?"
The wreckage shifted again, settling further into the bottom of the acid pool and opening up wider cracks in the weakened bulkhead. Acid began to pour in. Jesse screamed as it reached his left foot and burned into his flesh. He turned his gaze on his old friend, his eyes wild with pain, and begging for help. "The phaser, Will! For God's sake...use the phaser."
Will Riker's hands shook as he faced one of the most terrible decisions of his life. Numbly, he changed the setting to high. Jesse Stuart screamed in agony as the level of acid rose, eating away at his flesh.
Will's blue eyes met Jesse's brown ones and they exchanged a look of unspeakable misery. "I'm sorry!" Will murmured as he pressed the trigger and then let the phaser drop from hands that shook as if from palsy. He stared unseeing at the place where his friend's face had been only a moment before. Metal screamed as the shuttle settled even more. The acid level rose, filling the place where Jesse had laid, inexorably claiming the alien craft for it's own. Finally, Will Riker's instinct for survival took over, and he backed out of the narrow spot and looked up at the swirling sky through the gap in the bulkhead. Automatically, with no conscious awareness of what he was doing, he scrambled up the rockface that had penetrated the cabin.
He sat on the rock, watching as the remains of the shuttle eventually disappeared beneath the black surface of the pool. He was still sitting, motionless and oblivious to the pain from the acid burns on his hands and arms, when Worf brought a rescue shuttle in tight and low, and someone reached out and hauled him into the relative safety of the craft.

Part 2

Beverly Crusher's face was very near his as she peered into his eyes, searching for signs of a head injury. "Will...where is Lt. Commander Stuart?"
He seemed to look through her rather than at her. "Dead." His voice was quiet, almost matter-of-fact.
Beverly's frown deepened. "You're sure?" She trained the tricorder on him, quickly scanning his cerebral functions. He just did not seem entirely aware, and she wasn't going to leave anyone behind on this brutal world unless she was absolutely certain they were beyond help.
"I'm sure." Will assured her, becoming a bit more focussed. "He died on impact. What's left of the shuttle and Jesse are in that acid pool."
Beverly winced sympathetically, but there was no time for consolation right now. Whatever had brought down the first shuttle could bring down this one as well. "Shut the hatch!" She instructed the security officer who'd helped pull Will in. "Let's go, Worf!"
The Klingon turned back to the control panel. "You must wear safety belts." he advised as he powered up the shuttle engines. Crusher took one look at the acid burns on both of Riker's hands and swiftly reached around him, buckling the safety restraint into place. The craft bucked and she was nearly thrown against the bulkhead before she could get her own restraints fastened.

The trip back out of the planet's atmosphere was a violent one, and for a few minutes beverly thought they weren't going to make it. The motion was so forceful that she could do nothing but hang on and say a silent prayer. When they finally burst free of the planet's energy field she found she had to concentrate in order to loosen her grip on the arms of her seat. The security guard, much to his utter humiliation, was losing the contents of his stomach. Worf's countenance was covered with a sheen of sweat, and will riker slumped against the restraints, his injured hands dangling limply. Beverly retrieved her tricorder and focussed it again on the first officer, scanning for injuries.
"Doctor. The Enterprise is hailing us. Do you wish to transport to sickbay with the Commander?" Worf inquired and Crusher nodded. Riker did not appear to be seriously injured, with the exception of the chemical burns on his hands and forearms, but she was very worried by his uncharacteristically defeated demeanor.

He didn't seem inclined to talk and Beverly did not feel inclined to press him. She worked in silence, cleansing the wounds and then covering them with protective bandaging that would allow the skin to heal. She was nearly done when the door slid open and Jean Luc Picard stepped into the treatment room. "He'll be fine." She said in answer to his unasked question. "Some fairly serious acid burns on the hands, and a few bumps and bruises, but nothing that won't be healed in a few days."
Picard nodded solemnly and stepped closer to his silent first officer, who still had not even looked up in acknowledgement. "I informed Kendra Stuart of her husband's death." He said gently. "She would like to speak with you when you are ready." Beverly looked up at him with gratitude in her eyes, thankful that he had not left the burden of the telling to his first officer.
For his part, Riker nodded, his eyes focussed on the white gauze that enveloped his hands . "Yessir."
There was an uncomfortable silence. The question hung there, waiting to be spoken. "Will? What went wrong down there?" He was almosted tempted to add the rest. Didn't I tell you to be careful? Didn't I order you not to take any unnecessary risks? ...but he avoided the impulse. Riker might be young and fearless, but he was not a child and most definately not reckless where the safety of others was involved.
"A gravometric spike. It hit us out of nowhere...knocked the thrusters off line. We went down like a rock. There wasn't much of the shuttle left. Jesse Stuart died on impact." His words seemed passionless, as if he were reciting them by rote. Picard waited for more, but there was none, and finally he patted his first officer's shoulder awkwardly, finding it difficult to offer comfort to his friend.
"I'm sorry, Commander. I know you and Lt. Commander Stuart were old friends. I know that if you could have prevented his death in any way you would have."
Riker glanced up at him for a split second. His eyes were brimming, and he bit his lip before looking away. His voice was coarse as he replied "thank you sir.".
Jean Luc Picard inhaled deeply, his jaw set with concern and his own selfconsciousness. He could handle Ferengis and Romulans, supernovas and global warfare. But he was totally unprepared for tears in the eyes of his first officer. "Yes, well, I should be getting back to the bridge..." He excused himself and beat a hasty retreat, half ashamed of himself for his cowardice.
Beverly felt no such compulsion to distance herself from Will Riker's pain. In fact, her first impulse was to do exactly what she would do for Wesley under the same circumstances. She put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a hug. "I'm sorry about Jesse, Will."
He held himself stiffly, not relaxing at all into the embrace, and she released him when she realized he was not ready to take any comfort in human contact. "I'm just about finished up here with you." She informed him, reassuming her professional tone."Then I suppose you'll be demanding that I release you?"
He shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I'm tired, Doctor."
This was something new, Beverly reflected. Instead of fighting to get out of sickbay, it was almost as if he was requesting her to let him stay. It occured to her that maybe he wasn't anxious to face the solitude of his quarters. "Well, then how about if I give you something to help you sleep and you just lay down here? I would like to be able to keep an eye on those burns for tonight."
He nodded compliantly, laying back down without further prompting. Beverly prepared a hypo and administered it to his arm. He would sleep soundly for the night, and Beverly was a great believer in the restorative powers of sleep.
Will closed his eyes. He could still hear Beverly moving about the room, but he chose to pretend he wasn't aware. He felt the effects of the sedative begin to grip the edges of his consciousness, and he welcomed the dulling of his thoughts and sensations. If he slept he did not have to face Kendra Stuart, and he did not have to think about the crash and it's aftermath. He felt his thoughts becoming slower and more disconnected and gratefully relinquished the last vestiges of wakefulness.
Beverly tucked a sheet up around him and stood looking at him for a long moment. In sleep he looked much younger, and sweetly innocent. She sighed, wondering what horror he had experienced this day. "Goodnight, Will." She whispered softly. "Tomorrow will be a better day."

It was 1030 hours before Beverly made it to sickbay. "Good morning Alyssa! I'm sorry I'm late. That Recreation Committee meeting was interminable! I think maybe I'll make you the medical department representative next time."
Alyssa smiled wryly. "Gee, thank you. I can hardly wait."
Crusher picked up the padd on the counter and glanced at it. "So what time this morning did Commander Riker make his escape?"
The nurse frowned slightly. "You know, it's unusual for him, but he's still asleep. How did you manage to get him to stay last night anyway?"
"He volunteered..." Beverly replied, much to Alyssa Ogawa's amazement. "He said he was tired." Crusher laid down the padd and went in to see her patient.
The readout on the biobed indicated that he was just emerging from sleep. She ran a tricorder over his hands as he slowly blinked himself awake. "Good morning Will...or actually it's practically 'Good Afternoon'...how are you feeling this morning?"
He sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, and then sitting still, groggily rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "OK." he finally mumbled.
Beverly smiled, relentlessly cheerful. "Well your hands are healing wonderfully. We'll take the bandages off tomorrow and they should be good as new."
He gave her a dull nod and she shook her head. "Are you always such a bundle of fire first thing in the morning?"
That finally prompted a little smile from him. "No. I'm not usually this energetic."
She smiled back at him, relieved to see his sense of humor resurfacing a bit. His behavior the previous evening had left her feeling a little uneasy about his emotional state, but he appeared to be regaining his equilibrium. "Well, when you get up the energy you're discharged from sickbay. You can return to duty as soon as you feel able."
He nodded, sliding himself into a standing position. "OK. Thanks, Bev."
She watched him go with troubled eyes and wished that Deanna was here to talk with him and offer him some sort of comfort.

At 1600 hours Beverly Crusher stepped on to the Enterprise bridge with the intention of spending a few minutes with Picard and surruptiously checking on the first officer. Picard smiled at her brightly from the center seat and indicated that she should sit down in the chair usually occupied by Deanna Troi. "Where is Will?" Beverly inquired lightly.
The Captain looked at her with mild surprise. "I assumed he was still on medical leave."
Crusher shook her head. "That's strange. I released him from sickbay and cleared him for duty this morning! And he hasn't been here all day?"
Picard tapped his comm badge. "Picard to Commander Riker?"
There was a split second delay before he replied. "Yessir?"
"Number One, are you feeling alright?" Picard asked softly, not wishing to sound accusatory.
"Yessir. Was there something you wanted me to do...?"
Picard thought about it for a moment. There was no point in pressing the issue. "I just wanted to remind you that there will be a memorial service for Lt. Commander Stuart at 1900 hours."
There was a beat too much silence before Riker replied and his voice seemed unnaturally rough and subdued. "Yessir."
At 1850 hours Jean Luc Picard walked into the holodeck where the memorial service was being held and felt a little surge of relief at the sight of his first officer, who had already arrived and was talking earnestly in the corner with Kendra Stuart. He could see Riker speaking, his expression full of sadness and compassion, and he remembered another memorial service, years ago, and how he had stood and explained to Beverly Crusher how Jack had died. He did not envy Riker this moment, but he knew also that it was an important first step in the healing process for all who had cared for Jesse Stuart.
Will squeezed Kendra's hand one last time with encouragement and allowed her friends to take her arm and lead her to a seat at the front of the chapel. He considered taking a seat himself, but chose instead to step back, where he could observe the service from the heavy shadows among the columns at the rear of the church. When the service ended he left the holodeck quickly, before he would be forced to interact with the other mourners in any way. In his quarters he sat alone in the dark and listened to the silence.

"Good morning, Commander." Geordi Laforge greeted the first officer awkwardly as he stepped into the lift, not sure of what to say. "Uh, I'm glad you're OK...and I'm sorry about Lt. Commander Stuart. He seemed like a really nice guy."
"He was aware of the risks." Riker replied flatly, his attention steadfastly focused on the wall.
Geordi tried again to convey his sympathy for the loss of someone he knew to be Riker's close friend. "Yeah, but that doesn't make it any easier for the people left behind."
"Life goes on." Will Riker said simply as he stepped out on to the bridge. Geordi hung back a moment, watching the first officer's back as he headed down into the command well. This was definately a new style for Riker. Cold and dispassionate were not terms anyone would have used to describe him in normal circumstances.
Nothing was said about the previous day. The Captain figured his first officer was entitled to some time off...and some privacy. Taking his cue from Riker's uncharacteristically reticent mood he gratefully kept their conversation on a strictly professional level. Offering emotional support and sympathy were not his strong points, at any rate. They discussed a starfleet dispatch on Cardassian activity in the neutral zone, and casually went over the plans for their next mission - one they'd both been looking forward to - a diplomatic visit to a world that had just made first contact the previous month. Then, almost as an afterthought, Picard reminded his first officer of the review board meeting scheduled for late afternoon. Riker's response was extremely subtle, but years of working together had made it possible for Picard to read the most subtle nuances of his First Officer's character, and he realized that Will Riker was dreading the routine review mandated by Starfleet that followed every fatality among the crew.
Beverly, Worf, Picard, Laforge and Riker took their seats at the conference table. Normally, Deanna Troi would have served as the sixth member of the review board, but she was participating in an emergency disaster preparedness seminar and would not rejoin the ship for another week. The mood was solemn, each of them aware that they were here to discuss the death of a fellow officer, and for some of them, a friend. Stuart had only been scheduled to be aboard for 3 months, while he participated in the research program, but in only a few weeks he had managed to become very well liked. And of course, his friendship with the first officer went back to their academy days.
Following fleet protocol Picard began. "We convene this inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Lt. Commander Jesse L. Stuart. Commander Riker, please give us a brief outline of the mission."
Will Riker's account was straightforward and unembellished by sentimentality. The second part was what was troubling to Picard and the others seated around the table. Riker's voice never wavered as he described the gravometric flux and the shuttle's headlong plunge. Even as he recounted Jesse's plea to "tell Kendra and Nicholai I love them" he showed no emotion. The details were somewhat sketchy. He had blacked out when they hit and when he woke, Stuart was already dead...nearly decapitated by the force of the impact. Riker was certain the death had been instantaneous. When acid from the pool they had landed in began to claim the wreckage Will was forced to abandon Stuart's body as he scrambled for higher ground.
It was a simple and believable story. Noone felt inclined to question Riker further, but regulations demanded certain clarifications. Apologetically, Geordi asked for the sequence of countermeasures Riker had attempted as the shuttle plummetted. Picard asked for a recital of the conditions of the flux for the record. And Beverly, hating the necessary question even as she was required to speak it, inquired gently. "Commander? Did you make an attempt to render first aid to Lt. Commander Stuart?"
For a split second his guard dropped and they saw the grief in his eyes. Then, almost in self-defense against the powerful emotions, he let his anger flare. "First Aid?" He demanded, his voice sharp. "For god's sake, Doctor. The man had no head! Just what kind of first aid was I supposed to render? A damned band-aid?"
There was a long, painful silence around the table as the board members each developed a sudden interest in their notepadds. Such raw pain was not something any of them were prepared to deal with. Jean Luc Picard wished fervently that his ship's counselor were here to smooth things out. Finally, Beverly spoke, reaching across the table to compassionately touch Riker's hand. "Will, I'm sorry...I was required to ask...I know you would have done everything possible for him...."
Riker pulled his hand away abruptly, as if her touch was physically painful. "Are we done here yet?" He demanded.
Picard nodded. "Yes. I think we have all we need. Thank you, Number One. "
Will Riker pushed his chair away from the table and had exitted the room even before the others had gained their feet.
Dr. Crusher lingered behind as Worf and Geordi filed out, and Picard looked askance at her.
"Jean Luc...something just doesn't seem right with Will."
Picard frowned and let out a sigh of concurrence. "He did just witness the death of a friend...and nearly lost his own life as well. I would think that would be enough to set anyone a bit out of sorts."
Beverly shook her head. "I know. But I sense that there's something more to it than that."
The Captain smiled slightly. "You 'sense'? You're beginning to sound like Counselor Troi."
"I wish Deanna was here. She'd know what to do about this." Bev paused for a moment. "Do you think he feels responsible?"
Picard shook his head. "If, as Will says, the craft was caught by a gravometric spike, there is no reason for him to feel any sort of guilt. Even the most talented of pilots would be unable to change the outcome of that situation. "
"Maybe someone should remind him of that" The doctor hinted.
"I will speak with him this evening." The Captain reluctantly agreed.

Picard rang the doorbell the second time and was just starting to become a bit annoyed when a voice said "Come."
The lighting was low in Will Riker's quarters, and the sole occupant sat on the couch, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and a glass in his hands. He looked up when the Captain entered but made no effort to rise to greet his guest. "Hi." He said dryly.
Picard's expression tightened slightly as he took in the half-empty bottle on the low wooden table and the dishevelled state of his first officer. Will's hair was a mess, as if he had been running his hands through it, and his uniform tunic hung open and untucked. Riker noticed his captain eyeing the bottle and he proffered it. "Want a drink? It's Saurian brandy. The real stuff. I won it from a Ferengi in a poker game a year or so ago. I've been saving it for a special occasion"
Picard considered possible responses. He could chastise his first officer for drinking, and confiscate the bottle. Or he could chose to completely ignore the illicit alcohol. He chose the third choice; and crossed to the cabinet and got out a glass. He poured himself a finger of the potent brandy and took a seat in the chair opposite Riker. Will seemed to have already forgotten his presence as he returned to staring morosely into his glass.
Picard took a small sip of the fiery liquid and waited. After a minute or to, the first officer downed the rest of the contents of his glass and reached to pour himself another drink.
"Perhaps you've had enough." The captain suggested mildly.
Riker glanced up at him "Perhaps I haven't." He replied with more defiance than Picard had ever heard in his tone of voice when speaking to his Captain.
Jean Luc decided to try another tack. "Is there any particular reason why you're attempting to drain that bottle?"
Will snorted with amusement. "Oh...I don't know. What do you think, Counselor?"
The Captain chose to ignore the sarcasm. He wasn't a Counselor, but he was astute enough to recognize a man in pain when he saw one. "I think you're feeling badly about Lt. Commander Stuart."
"Congratulations. Give the man a drink." Riker raised his glass in a mock toast.
"Will. Listen to me. I realize that it is difficult to deal with the death of a friend. Particularly when you wake up beside his decapitated body after a shuttle crash. But I hope that is all that is troubling you. Because if you are feeling that you are somehow responsible for Jesse's death you are very much mistaken. You did not kill him. A gravometric spike killed him and there was nothing you could have done to prevent it."
Riker looked up at him and sneered. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about." He said bitterly.
Picard picked up the bottle and firmly replaced the cork. "I know that you've lost a dear friend." He said gently.
"Lost him? I haven't lost anyone!" Riker exclaimed belligerantly. "I know EXACTLY where Jesse is! He's dissolved into a million little pieces in an acid pool in the northern hemisphere of god-damned Avara2." Abruptly, his anger seemed to drain away and he sat his glass back on the table and slumped dejectedly. "I'm sorry...." he murmured, echoing the last words he'd said to Jesse.
Jean Luc misinterpreted them as an apology for his drunken outburst. "It's alright Will. We can talk about this tomorrow. For now it might be best for you to try to get some rest." "Yeah." Riker agreed numbly, rising and staggering slightly as he headed for his bedroom. Picard disposed of the bottle and two glasses and stuck his head into Riker's bedroom to make sure his first officer was OK. Will was sprawled on the bed, snoring quietly. "Lights out." The captain ordered, and left his first officer's quarters, wishing his ship's counselor was available.

Part 3

"Commander Riker?"
Will stopped trying to towel-dry his hair. It hurt too much anyway. His head was pounding. "Riker here.." He replied hoarsely.
"Jean Luc said you might need something for a...headache...this morning. Would you like me to stop by?"
Riker grimaced at the memory of Picard's presence last night and cringed at facing his commanding officer today. "Uh, yes, thankyou..." He murmured his reply, wondering exactly what Picard had told the CMO. He managed to pull on his uniform pants and boots before the door buzzed and Beverly Crusher walked in. She took a tricorder reading and then injected a hypo in his upper arm without comment. He was too embaressed to meet her eyes.
"We need to do one last treatment on those burns, so I need you in sickbay sometime this afternoon. In the meantime drink lots of fluids." She advised firmly.
He nodded, and wished he hadn't as his brain seemed to bounce painfully back and forth inside his head.
Beverly snapped the tricorder shut and studied him for a moment. "Will, is there anything I can do? Do you need to talk?"
He looked up at her sharply. "No, I don't need to talk! I just want to be left alone."
Bev gracefully sank into the chair behind her. "That's a little difficult on a starship." She observed. "Especially when you're surrounded by people who care about you and don't want to see you in pain." Deanna, she thought, forgive me if I'm saying the wrong things to him. "do you feel responsible for the shuttle crash? Or just guilty for being the one who survived?"
He shook his head "It's not like that Bev. It's...well, have you ever done something that logically you know in your heart is the right thing to do, but it feels...so wrong?"
She watched him absently pick at a piece of lint on his pants leg, and suddenly thought she understood. "Sometimes keeping it to yourself is the hardest part." She agreed, and lowering her voice until it was almost a whisper she continued. "I'm a doctor. I've seen people die all manner of deaths...from gentle to agonizing. The agonizing ones are the most difficult...not just for the patient and doctor, but for the family left behind. There have been times when I would have done almost anything to spare them the pain of knowing their loved ones suffered."
"Almost anything?" Will looked at her with a suddenly intense gaze.
"There was a time...on my first assignment as a ship's physician...the away team was stranded on De've in the Ulaniu system. One of the team members...I can still remember her name...Jillian Grantley-Cho....was exposed to the toxic atmosphere. It caused massive pulmonary hemorrhaging. She was literally drowning in her own blood, and she was conscious to experience almost all of it. It was...horrible. When we got back to the ship and we had to face her husband...the away team leader lied about how she had died... he said she was unconscious and didn't suffer...and I went along with him...my heart told me that it would do no good for that poor man to know the truth...but my conscience still plagues me with it sometimes." She admitted gently.
The fire seemed to go out of his gaze, as if the wall had suddenly dropped back down between them. "I'm going to be late for my shift." He said, abruptly changing the subject and rising from his seat. "Thank you for the hypo - my headache's nearly gone."
Taking her cue from him she rose and briskly picked up her med kit. "In sickbay this afternoon for those burns, Commander...or I'll come looking for you." She threatened, and he gave her a wry smile.
"Aye-aye, Doc."
Beverly walked down the hall, feeling somewhat pleased with herself. Perhaps Deanna was right; maybe she did have the makings of a good counselor. She might not be an empath, but she did know a few things about human nature and about her friends. At the hearing she'd suspected Will was purposely being evasive about some of the details of his ordeal, and now she understood why. She wondered how horribly Stuart had been injured, and how long Will had to sit by and watch him die. A horrible secret to have to keep, but one Crusher knew he would guard out of compassion for Stuart's family. Beverly hoped he felt a little less alone now, knowing she knew what he was experiencing. She thought about Lieutenant Grantley-Cho again, and was glad to realize that she finally felt good about her decision. It may not have been strictly ethical, but it was compassionate....and the older she got and the more experience she gained, the more she realized the value of compassion.

Will took a deep breath and entered Picard's ready room. He halted before Picard's desk and drew himself up stiffly. "Sir. I want to apologize for..."
The Captain held up a silencing hand and Riker paused, waiting for the reprimand he knew was coming. How many times had he given the same speech to some unfortunate Ensign who'd committed a serious indiscretion? The worst part was knowing he had slipped a notch in Picard's estimation with his irresponsible actions, and wondering how much further he'd slip if the Captain only knew the whole truth. But Picard surprised him. "No apology is necessary, Will. I trust that you'll find more suitable outlets for your stress in the future."
The Captain had no intention of being hard on his First Officer. He knew that Riker would be harder on himself than anything his commanding officer could come up with. He watched as Will dropped his gaze and stared steadfastedly some point on the wall "Yes sir. Thank you sir."
"Will...Counselor Troi will be returning to the ship tomorrow. Perhaps it would do some good for you to discuss the matter with her."
"Yes sir." Will acknowledged, although Picard got the distinct impression that his first officer had no intention of availing himself of the Counselor's services.Still, that hardly mattered. Picard knew that when Troi was determined, William Riker had very little chance of maintaining his stubborn silence. Deanna's "sense" of his first officer seemed to go beyond the empathic abilities she had with the rest of the crew, and more than once he had been grateful for their special bond.
"Very good." Picard said briskly, not wanting to stretch out the awkward part of this interview any longer than possible. He preferred to deal with his first officer as an equal, rather than a subordinate. "In the meantime, we do have this mission to prepare for." He motioned for Riker to sit as he himself rose and went to the replicator for beverages. "I've been reading this most enlightening account by a member of the surveillance team - apparently a feudal system, similar to earth's during the middle ages, has persisted through industrialization and the atomic age. It's quite fascinating..."
Will glanced at the large glass of orange juice the captain handed him and took a sip. It was one of the odd little quirks of their relationship, that Picard never asked him what he wanted to drink. Will had mentioned it to Deanna once and she'd smiled and told him that it was Picard's unconscious way of expressing concern for his first officer's well-being, without actually having to say anything. Riker had to admit that once he started looking at it in that way it had become a source of comfort as well as amusement. Strong black coffee when he was tired and could not rest. Soothing tea at the end of a long day. Iced tea, or a coke when he was feeling energetic. Occasionally an unasked for sandwich or bowl of soup appeared along with the unordered beverage... And fruit juice when he was a bit under the weather or had abused his body a little too much. As for Picard, Will was quite certain he'd be mortified if he thought about what he was doing. He took another sip of the OJ and smiled into his glass... And the captain had accused HIM of being a mother hen.
The two men chatted easily for the better part of an hour, discussing their next mission and the culture of the world they were about to visit. "One of the great contradictions of Xfex society..." Picard was saying "Is that although they evince great respect for life...to the point of having a highly developed medical system which is free for all citizens, they also have a fairly strong conviction that euthanasia is an acceptable treatment option for certain conditions. Irrepairable birth defects, injuries causing significant debilitation, and even some illnesses where the treatment is extremely arduous or painful are acceptable legal grounds for mercy killing...and yet, interestingly enough, old age is not, despite the inevitability of THAT diagnosis."
Riker leaned forward in his chair, keeping his voice convincingly casual. "What do you think of that, Captain? Is it ever acceptable to kill someone to spare them pain or discomfort?"
Picard smiled slightly and shook his head. "I think each society must make that choice for themselves. We have been through this discussion before, Number One...with Lwaxana Troi's ambassador/fiance' ."
"But that was different." Riker insisted. "He was still a healthy, productive member of his society. Let me put it to you another way. Suppose I was stricken with some horrible, inevitable disease, and I asked you to help me die?"
Picard nodded his understanding. "You're thinking of Worf's spinal chord injury? And your decision NOT to help him?" He looked thoughtful for a moment. "The Xfex obviously would have felt you were wrong in the way you handled it...and yet, there Worf is today...it does make one wonder, doesn't it? If you had chosen to assist him with his culturally sanctioned suicide you would have robbed him of this opportunity. It IS a dilemma, Number One. At least Worf's situation had a clear outcome that you can take reassurance in...but if you had assisted his suicide you would have forever faced these doubts..." He shook his head. "That is a situation I would not care to be in..."
Will almost said something. He opened his mouth to speak, but he just could not get the words out. Instead he concentrated on drinking his juice, although he was having difficulty swallowing past the constriction of his throat. Thankfully, at that moment they were interrupted by a hail from another ship in the area, and they left the privacy of the ready-room to attend to business on the bridge.

Deanna bounced off the transporter wearing a big smile and toting an enormous bag over her shoulder.
"Welcome back!" Beverly Crusher exclaimed, pleased to see her friend looking so joyful "You look like you had a wonderful time."
Deanna gave her friend a hug and a laugh. "Next time you get a chance to go to a Disaster symposium, don't turn down the opportunity. The educational sessions were very serious and informative...but the rest of the time was just so much fun! It was in a beautiful location...right on the beach in a lovely resort area....and the people were wonderful. I wish you could have been there."
Beverly shook her head. "I never would have thought Disaster Response Planners would be such a lively group."
"Me either." Deanna agreed, sitting her bag down on the floor and rummaging through it before withdrawing a small package wrapped in tissue paper. "Here...I brought you something....I think it will look wonderful with your red hair."
Ignoring the slight smirk on the transporter chief's face, Beverly tore open the wrappings like a small child on Christmas. "Oh! It's lovely, Deanna!" She exclaimed, holding up the gauzy blouse. "It looks very...romantic."
Deanna nodded her agreement. "I think you should wear it to your next dinner with the captain" She whispered conspiratorially. "Guaranteed to make him stop thinking about ship's business...."
Beverly rolled her eyes at her friend's teasing. "For about 30 seconds." She laughed. "What else have you got in that bag?"
"Muvdavin wine for the captain. A book of Muvdavin jokes for Data. I brought Geordi some fruit that's kind of a cross between a banana and a strawberry..." She smirked..."Oh, and I bought Will a native loincloth. They're pretty miniscule. I don't expect him to actually wear it but I can't wait to see the look on his face when he opens the package!"
Beverly's expression sobered at the mention of the first officer. "I'm glad you brought him something to make him smile. He's had a pretty rough week."
Deanna's exuberant mood evaporated immediately as she sensed her friend's real concern for Will Riker. "Has he been injured?" Deanna asked urgently.
"He was in a shuttle crash." Bev explained. "He was barely scratched, but Jesse Stuart was killed. Will's taking it pretty hard."
"Oh no..." Deanna said softly, her voice edged with genuine sadness. She'd grown fond of Will's old friend Jesse, as well as his wife and young son. And she could imagine how Will felt.
"Come on, I'll walk you to your quarters." Crusher volunteered. She wanted some privacy to discuss her suspicions about Will and the shuttle accident.

It was 2200 hours by the time Beverly finished explaining the events of the last few days. Deanna listened carefully to her friend's conjectures about what had really happened on the surface of the planet and nodded her agreement. "That sounds logical, Beverly. I think Will would do something like that. And I also agree that he would be very troubled not only by the ethics of his decision, but also by the event itself. I'll talk to him. Sometimes Will tells me things that he wouldn't tell other people, because he assumes I somehow already know. That's not always the case..." She confessed, "but to be honest I haven't done a great deal to dispel that notion either. If it makes it easier for him to talk I think it's a good thing - otherwise he can be so guarded with his emotions that he doesn't even give himself permission to feel them."
"I've always wondered about that." Beverly confessed. "You do seem more attuned to him than anyone else."
Deanna smiled slightly. "I am. Because we are Imzadi...I can feel his emotions much more strongly. Usually with other people I have to concentrate to really get a sense of them. With Will it is more like a constant awareness...and when he feels something very strongly it is almost palpable to me. But, except on rare occasions, I can't 'read' his thoughts."
"But sometimes you can?"
"Normally only when he makes a conscious effort to be open to me."
Beverly shook her head. "I can't begin to imagine what that's like. To be able to know a man's thoughts."
Deanna pondered for a moment. "Well, it's sort of like....did you ever hear about the famous scientist who discovered the key to cat language? Suddenly, he could understand everything that cats said...unfortunately, it was very disappointing. He discovered there were only 2 phrases in all of cat vocabulary. "When's supper?" and "Everything here is mine." - only difference is men substitute sex for supper."
Deanna glanced over at her friend's face, saw her shocked expression and laughed gently. "Oh Bev...I'm just kidding. That's an old telepath joke. Actually it's very wonderful and humbling and a little frightening. Will and I haven't really communicated on that level in a long time...because it is just too..." She trailed off and Beverly nodded her understanding.
Deanna sat lost in thought and finally Beverly Crusher stood. "Well, it's getting late and I want to check on a patient before I go to bed. Let me know how it goes with Will. I am worried about him."
Troi nodded. "I will, Beverly. Thank you. And thank you for being there for him while I was gone."

Will knew who it was even before he answered his door. It had nothing to do with empathic abilities or the Imzadi bond. He just knew that someone would tell Deanna about the shuttle crash and that she'd end up on his doorstep, wanting him to talk. He tried on a grin for size, but discarded it before going to the door. She'd see through any false jocularity in a moment and make things all the more difficult for him. Better to admit to grief over Jesse Stuart and hope she didn't probe for any deeper meanings.
"Deanna. Welcome back." He said warmly, as she took both his hands and gave him a sisterly kiss on the cheek. He returned the kiss lightly and stepped back to allow her to enter his quarters. She went straight to the music stand in the corner and casually checked to see what he'd most recently been playing. Dixieland was always a sign that he was feeling happy and confident, and she knew she was in for some serious flirtation when he'd been playing romantic old big-band era songs. Tonight there was some classical piece in a minor key that she was not familiar with, but she imagined it was a probably slow and mournful to match the emotions she was sensing from him.
"Beverly told me, Will. I'm sorry." She said simply, her voice even more soothing than usual.
"I'm alright." He informed her. "You should really check on Kendra. She's having a hard time with this."
Deanna ignored his veiled request for her to leave and sat down instead. "I hear she's not the only one. Beverly said you've been very irritable...and that she had to give you something for a hangover."
"What ever happened to doctor/patient confidentiality?" He groused, showing more irritation than he actually felt.
"In addition to being your friend, I AM the ship's counselor." She reminded him. "Beverly is concerned about your well-being."
Will tried a different tack. "I missed you. How was your conference?"
She shot him a warning glare. He was a master of the art of changing the subject, but this time she refused to be swayed. "It was wonderful, but we're not talking about me. We're talking about you and how you're feeling about Lt. Comm. Stuart's death. Tell me what happened, Will."
"If it's alright with you, I don't really feel like going over it all again. It's all in the logs from the review hearing. We crashed. Jesse died. I didn't." He summarized it as succinctly as possible, wishing that Deanna didn't know him as well as she did. She was looking at him now with that look on her face.
"Beverly thinks you are hiding something." Deanna informed him. "So does the Captain. So do I." She felt his anxiety level soar, confirming her suspicions. Despite his skill as a poker player, he was a terrible liar when it came to personal matters. She leaned towards him, lowering her voice. "Will, it's ok to talk about it. Whatever you tell me will remain confidential, unless you chose otherwise."
He looked earnestly onto her depthless brown eyes, seeing his reflection there. He considered telling her and wondered what her reaction would be. In his heart he knew she would understand why he had chosen to take the life of his friend, but his heart also told him that Deanna did not deserve to be burdened with the knowledge. He could not ask her to lie to Picard, and he would not put her in the awkward position of keeping something this momentous from Jess's widow. "Deanna. You're absolutely right. I am hiding something....but for the right reasons. I think it's better that I not tell you the details.....but....but it was hard, Imzadi. Maybe the hardest thing I've ever done. And it's going to haunt me as long as I live."
Deanna took a deep breath, Beverly's instincts had been right, apparently. "It's alright if you don't want to give me details." she told him gently. "I understand." She could sense his relief that she was not going to press the issue. "Tell me though, Will. Is there anything that I CAN do to make you fell better?"
He nodded, suddenly uncharacteristically shy. There was something he wanted very much, but he was not used to asking to be consoled.
Deanna cocked her head, urging him silently to say whatever was on his mind. Finally, he mumbled his reply. "I really could use a hug."
Her heart melted and she held her arms wide, welcoming him.He held her close for a long time, burying his face in her soft hair and taking comfort in the warmth of touch. After a while he gave a long, deep sigh and she felt him let go of some of the physical and emotional tension he'd been carrying like a heavy burden. She began to stroke his back with a soothing, gentle rhythm, swaying slightly in unconscious imitation of a mother rocking a child. She felt his breathing slow and the stiffness of his posture melted as he swayed along with her, turning it into a kind of slow dance without music. Softly, he began to hum a traditional Betazoid ballad that she sometimes asked him to play on the piano for her when she was missing her homeworld. She laid her head against his shoulder, enjoying the special closeness of the moment as they waltzed together to the simple tune.
When he let the last note fade away they came to a halt and he took half a step away from her and smiled warmly down into her eyes. "Thank you, Deanna." He said softly and she nodded. Every once in a while she managed to do her best counseling without even opening her mouth. She could sense in him a feeling of peace that had not been present when she'd first entered his quarters. She also knew that a good counselor knew when to push and when to let things be. Now was a time, she sensed, to let him be. There would be plenty of time to talk later.
She gave him another soft kiss on the cheek before releasing him completely. "I'm available for dancing anytime." She joked "...and for talking..." she added, more seriously.
"I'll remember that." He pledged and she smiled.
"Goodnight, Will."

Deanna came to regret letting him be that evening. She had assumed that the healing had begun, but in the next days and weeks it became evident that the shuttle crash and it's aftermath were still effecting him. The changes in him were subtle. He still pursued both his work and his leisure activities with his usual dedication, but somehow the sparkle seemed to have gone out of his eyes. He'd grown defensive as well, she noted, in response to the solicitous behavior of his colleagues, snapping irritably at Data when the android commented on his uncharacteristically somber mood.

The staff meeting was an unremarkable one in most respects. Their diplomatic mission completed, the Enterprise was now involved with a scientific mission involving the study of irregular gravitional fields in the Neva system. Things were about as quiet as they ever got on the ship, with most departments enjoying the brief respite while the science teams spent days involved in tedious observation and experimentation. Jean Luc supposed that it was the lack of anything urgent to focus on that made him so acutely aware of the changes in his first officer. When Data, Worf and Geordi were called away to assist with a particularly troublesome equipment deployment, the captain decided to take advantage of the situation to address the concerns he knew the ship's doctor and the counselor shared.
"Commander Riker? I should like you to take yourself from the duty rotation for the next two days. This is an excellent opportunity for you to take a well-deserved break."
Deanna sensed Will's reaction. Surprise, quickly followed by defensiveness. "Thank you, captain, but I don't need a vacation."
"Your physician feels otherwise." Beverly spoke up, using her no-noncense "official" tone that she employed when dealing with stubborn patients like Will Riker.
"A break WOULD do you good Will." Deanna agreed.
He'd been railroaded enough times by the two of them to know better than to try to fight them, but he couldn't help his itrritation from showing in his responce. "I SAID I was fine. I don't need a vacation. I have things that I want to get accomplished...."
"Delegate them, Commander." Picard said sharply. "Ever since the shuttle crash you have not been yourself, and I need you at 100% when we complete this current mission."
"Are you saying I haven't been giving 100%, sir?" Will inquired, keeping his tone carefully even.
Picard sighed, and exchanged glances with the two women at the table. "Will, you job performance has been sterling, as usual, however, it's been quite obvious to all of us that you've had some difficulty dealing with Lt. Commander Stuart's death. Perhaps if you took some time..."
Riker said nothing, merely stared at the table, obviously biting his tongue. Picard noted however, that his one hand was clenched in a fist so tightly that his knuckles were white.
"Will," Beverly interjected, her voice the gentle one of a friend now. "We all realize what really went on down on the planet. We know that you changed the official story to protect Jesse's wife and family - and we all respect that. You don't need to play the strong, silent type on this. "
Will glanced up quickly at the three people at the table, wondering fleetingly if they really did know.
Picard nodded. Ordinarily he would never condone lying to an inquiry board, but these were special circumstances, and he had no intention of exposing something that could only cause pain. "I 'had a similar experience myself, while I was commanding the Stargazer. And I can honestly say that I can think of nothing more horrible than being forced to sit helplessly by while someone suffers and dies."
Will mumbled the reply, forcing those at the table to listen carefully. "I can think of something worse than sitting idlely by."
Deanna leaned forward, studying him carefully. "what is worse?"
Riker stood up and paced the length of the room. Deanna felt physically ill from the strong, chaotic emotions she was sensing from him. Grief and guilt predominated for a moment, only to be pushed aside by anger.
"Do you really want to know how he died?" He demanded angrily of the three of them. "You want to know? I'll tell you. He was barely injured by the crash. Bumps and bruises...that's all. You know what killed him?" He met each of their eyes, his own burning with emotion.
"I killed him." He spit out. "I set my phaser to maximum and I aimed it right between his eyes. He was looking right at me. I told him I was sorry. And I fired."
There was a stunned silence in the room. Picard recovered first. "Will? Why?"
Now that the first words were out, it was easier to explain the rest. Riker sat back down at the table, and told the story. When he was done he finally looked up at them again, and in their eyes he saw the understanding and acceptance that he needed but had been unable to find in himself.

Crusher and Picard had long since left the conference room. Will and Deanna stood at the windows, staring out at the stars. They'd been talking for a least an hour, and the conversation had finally given way to a companionable silence.
"Do you believe that there's anything after death?" he inquired wistfully. He supposed he was looking for some assurance that Jesse was not completely gone...and for some defense against the emptiness he was feeling.
She smiled. "Yes. Betazoid philosophy says that after the body is gone, the soul remains."
Will frowned at the stars, pondering her statement. "Remains where, Deanna?... Is there some sort of heaven? Some higher plain of existance?...or are you just floating out there, alone forever ...?" He gestured to the blackness of space.
He felt her hand on his cheek, turning him away from his bleak contemplation of the darkness, and he looked down at her. Her eyes were luminous, and looking into them he could almost believe she held the answers to all his questions.
"Not alone, Will. Do you remember when I told you that one of the meanings of Imzadi is "the first"?"
Despite his bleak mood he smiled slightly for her, reliving when she had told him that, laying in his arms in the Jalara jungle. "I remember."
"There is another meaning for Imzadi."
"I know." He replied. "Beloved."
Her heart responded to the way he said that word, bringing back feelings she usually didn't allow herself to feel. "There is a third meaning Will...Imzadi means beloved. It also means the first...and the last."
He thought about that for a moment and then slowly smiled. "So after we are gone...?"
She nodded. "Not alone, Imzadi."
He put his arm around her and drew her close. She couldn't see his face, but she could feel his heart lighten as he softly repeated "not alone".

The End