And the Chances After That, Version 2
written by N. B. Thayer


Lieutenant Will Riker stepped away from the edge of the precipice, where he had so recently and so narrowly come close to losing his life, and over to the side of Commander Will Riker, who had just saved him. Shock, gratitude, adrenaline, and the mental image of that bottomless pit crowded his brain, making him momentarily speechless. He looked in wonder at his double, who gave him a brief smile.
"There is another way out, isn't there?" Commander Riker said, his breathing returning to normal after the exertion.
The lieutenant nodded, then got his voice back. "Yeah. Oh, yeah." He tried to collect himself to say something about what had just happened. "I, uh, I-"
"Forget it," the commander said. "We've got work to do."
They made their way to the site of the broken servo-link without further incident. They fixed the servo-link and got confirmation from Worf and Data that the core was transmitting. To be sure that there would be no further problems, they waited while the download proceeded. They waited in silence, Lieutenant Riker trying not to think about his recent brush with death, trying not to think about any number of things, while he watched Commander Riker monitor the transmission and check some of the other equipment. When the download was finally done, Lieutenant Riker took the lead to show Commander Riker the way back to the ops center.
But they didn't get very far. About twenty meters up the passage the lieutenant chose, a wall of dirt and rocks blocked their way.
The lieutenant turned to the commander. "There must have been a cave-in," he said nervously. At the look the commander gave him, he cleared his throat and concentrated on sounding more confident. "But don't worry. There is another way. It will take longer, but I think we can still make it. If we hurry."
"You think-?" the commander repeated.
But Lieutenant Riker was already jogging back the way they had come. When Commander Riker caught up to him, the lieutenant increased his speed until they were both running. As they ran, the commander slapped his comm badge.
"Data, Worf. Don't wait for us. Beam back to the Enterprise now."
"Sir?" Data's voice came back. "The transport window will be closing soon. Further exploration is unnecessary and inadvisable."
"We're not exploring. Get back to the ship," Commander Riker yelled between breaths. "Enterprise, can you beam us out from here?"
"We're in a shielded area. They won't be able to get a lock on us," Lieutenant Riker yelled to the commander, just before a negative response came back from the Enterprise.
A look from the commander to the lieutenant told the lieutenant that the commander already knew. They ran faster. They reached the end of the passage, and scrambled up a ladder to the next level, then pounded down the corridor up there. Commander Riker pushed himself, but could feel his breath growing short, the muscles of his legs starting to get rubbery. Lieutenant Riker began to pull away from him.
The lieutenant glanced back and saw the gap between them. "Come on," the lieutenant yelled, slowing just enough to let the commander catch up to him. "We're almost there. You can make it."
The two Rikers burst into the ops center together and spared an instant to give each other a look of immense relief. They knew they had made it. Lieutenant Riker leaned on a console catching his breath, while Commander Riker bent over a chair. The commander hit his comm badge and gasped, "Enterprise, get us out of here."
For a moment, there was no response. The commander straightened up. "Enterprise," he repeated, a notch of worry in his voice.
"We can't get a lock on you, sir," a voice came back. "We're having a problem with interference from ion radiation."
Lieutenant and commander exchanged a look. "Enterprise," the commander warned, "we don't have much time."
"We know that," the voice said in a rush. "We're doing everything we can."
"Will." It was Picard's voice. "Will, we won't-"
There was a burst of static, then sudden, deafening silence.
"No," the commander said, "no. Enterprise,... Enterprise."
But only silence answered him.
Slowly, commander and lieutenant turned to face each other. Their eyes met and held.
* * * * *
Out of the darkness they knew so well came the sense of something unknown. Or, rather, something not known for a long time. First there was a disturbance in the air. Then there were noises of things moving, things much bigger than the rodents they shared the darkness with, and movement that indicated purpose and intent. And then there were voices other than their own. They paused in the darkness to listen to the voices, and found that at least one was familiar. They approached slowly, and saw light.
"I'm picking up life signs, humanoid, this way," one voice said.
"How many?" another voice responded.
Their eyes had adjusted by then to the light, and they stepped out to meet a friend who for the last eight years had visited them only in memory and spirit.
"Hello, Geordi," Riker said.
"What brings you to this neck of the woods?" Riker said.
Commander Geordi LaForge looked at the two Rikers facing him, and gave his head a brief, hard shake. "Boy, am I glad to see you two," he said, all the more witty or poetic things he had considered saying forgotten in the emotion of the moment.
"Not as glad as I am to see you," the Rikers replied.
Frowning slightly, LaForge glanced from one to the other. They had spoken simultaneously. But the commander had more pressing things to worry about. "Are you ready to beam out?"
The Rikers laughed.
"Am I ready to beam out?" one said.
"I've been ready to beam out for eight years," the other said.
LaForge motioned to the other two members of his away team. "Saller, Rettlee, form up." He tapped his comm badge. "Five to beam up."
And Nervala IV once again lost its Human inhabitants.
* * * * *
In the transporter chamber, LaForge watched the two Rikers gaze around the room, their movements exactly mirroring each other.
"The Enterprise," both breathed.
"Yes," LaForge said. He couldn't quite keep his voice neutral as he added, "But there have been some changes."
Both Rikers turned to fix him with an intent, expectant expression. "Changes?" they asked.
LaForge shook his head. "The captain will debrief you after you've been to Sickbay," he said. He turned and began to lead the way out of the transporter room.
As they walked down the corridor to Sickbay, LaForge's rank, the subtle but substantial difference in the way he moved and spoke, and the sadness that clung to him despite his pleasure at seeing and rescuing his long-lost friend sank into the Rikers' consciousness. The Rikers began to be anxious about the changes LaForge had mentioned. It must have been as long an eight years for the Enterprise as it had been for them.
They were quite relieved to be greeted in Sickbay by Doctor Crusher, although they noticed immediately that she, too, had changed. She was as beautiful as she had been, but she looked older. Much older than the passage of eight years could account for. She also seemed tired, as though she had been on duty for days, but the Rikers had the feeling she was like that all the time.
She smiled when she saw them, and it made them sad to realize that they were sure she did not often smile.
"Will!" Crusher exclaimed. She looked from one Riker to the other. "Which one of you is Commander Riker and which one of you is Lieutenant Riker?"
"I am," one Riker said.
"I'm both," the other Riker explained.
Crusher looked at them for a moment as though sorting out what they had said, then nodded, and took on the brisk, efficient demeanor of officer and doctor.
"We'll start with a comprehensive physical. Come this way."
* * * * *
Hours later, the Rikers sat on a diagnostic bed, facing Doctor Crusher.
"Well," the doctor said, "there are still a few more tests I'd like to run, and more questions I'd like to ask you, but, as far as I can tell, you're perfectly healthy, and the captain is getting impatient. So, off to the ready room with you."
The Rikers were tempted to make a few stops on the way, but they really were looking forward to seeing Picard again. And they remembered the changes in LaForge and Crusher, and felt that it might be safest to hear what the captain had to say before attempting to find other old friends. But there was one visit it was really hard for them to put off, one person whom they would have gone to before going to Picard.
As they approached the ready room, they felt her presence within, and realized that their desire and anxiety about stopping to see her were moot. Silently, they thanked Captain Picard for including Deanna Troi in this meeting, although they also wished that they might have had a more private reunion with the one who was their Imzadi.
When they entered the ready room, their eyes knew right where to look to find her. She was standing, looking out the view port with her back to them. In the moment before she turned around, they had time to notice that there were changes in the room, and that Troi was the only one present, but they were still shocked, when she turned, to see the four pips at her collar.
"Deanna," they said. It was part question, part exclamation.
"Will," she responded.
There was a deliberation to her movements and her manner that contrasted to the poetically graceful Troi of their memories. But the change did not wear badly on her, and, also, there was the sense that the other was still there, buried deeply, but not gone forever. The measured calmness was a tool of command, part of her now, but not the whole of her.
They knew all this about her as she took her first step towards them. By the time they met her in the middle of the room, they knew everything important about her. They knew that there was sadness in her, as there was in LaForge and the doctor. They knew that she was alone and that she thought that she had accepted being alone. They knew that she had learned what it was to be a captain, and that she was a good one. They knew that, though her face showed almost none of it, she was feeling happy, afraid, relieved, anxious, silly, and solemn. They knew that she had thought she was prepared to see them again, but she was finding the experience of it unexpected. They knew her as she was now, the shape and texture and sound of her. And what they knew took over that part of them that was devoted to her, filled it, and expanded it.
"Imzadi," they said. Each of them took one of her hands.
She gazed at them, into their eyes, and replied as if hypnotized, "Imzadi."
She brought their hands up to cup her face and kissed each of them on the palm. Then she let go of their hands, moved forward and hugged them, one arm around each of their necks, her head between theirs. They hugged her in return.
For a moment, Troi gave herself completely to what she was feeling and what they were feeling. And, for that moment, it did not matter that she was captain, that because of her position and the sadness now part of her, she had developed the habit of being a little distant with people, that there were two of him, which would be complicated, that she had promised herself she would approach this meeting carefully, that she had things to tell him that would hurt him, that she had changed and so had he. None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was that he was here. She could see him and touch him and sense him. For eight years of eternity, she had been starved to bone and dust and beyond for the sustenance she derived from his presence. But now there was no longer a hole in her, an ache that never healed. Now he flowed into her, and held her as she held him, with his heart and soul as well as his arms. She felt springtime, she felt light, she felt joy.
With a deep sigh, she pulled slowly out of their embrace, and stepped back. The moment was over. She was captain again. There was still a smile on her face, however, and her eyes shone fully.
The Rikers smiled back at her. "Deanna," they said softly, voices husky, "will you marry me?"
Troi was surprised, as much by the question as by both of them asking together, but she was not shocked or stunned. Her reaction after surprise was amusement. "I missed you, too," she said lightly.
Enjoying her amusement, the warmth of their smiles increased rather than diminished. "Exactly," they said. "But I am serious about this. I realized on Nervala that you were more important to me than anything else. I know it must seem sudden to you, but I made a vow that I would ask you as soon as I possibly could. I don't want to waste any more time. I want to be with you as much as I can and as much as you'll let me. Whatever ship I have to serve on, whatever assignment I have to take, it doesn't matter, as long as we're together. I mean it.
"I don't expect you to give me an answer now. I'll wait for as long as you need to think about it. I've gotten pretty good at waiting."
The longer the Rikers talked, and the more Troi recovered from the intensity of the first few moments, the more she realized the truth of Crusher's report. The doctor had told her that not only did the two Rikers not know anymore which one of them was which, they thought of themselves as one identity. Troi had brushed aside Crusher's conclusions and concerns, partly because she could not easily imagine what the doctor said to be true, but mostly because she had not wanted to take the time then to try. She had wanted to see the Rikers. And Crusher had said they were otherwise healthy. Telling Crusher that she would be better able to evaluate the Rikers' condition by experiencing it first hand had been little more than a good excuse at the time, but Troi was finding that it, also, was true. Her Betazoid empathic sense told her that she faced one man, not the two she could see, although there was a slightly disconcerting double-vision-like effect to what she perceived. The question they asked, and the way they asked it, told her even more clearly that this was something that would have to be confronted and addressed. But it would have to be done gradually, gently, and at a time when they could concentrate on it alone.
"I understand you're serious about this, Will," she said carefully. "I think the best thing would be to talk about it again later. In the meantime, I'm sure you have a lot of other questions. Why don't I tell you a little about what's happened in the last eight years and then whatever else you want to know you can ask me."
It was less of a question and more of a command, but they nodded in response anyway.
"Sit down," she told them.
They sat on the couch and watched her pace slowly for a few minutes. Finally, she pulled her desk chair over and sat facing them. She looked down at her hands for a moment, took a deep breath, looked up to meet their eyes, and began speaking.
"We were all very upset to lose you on Nervala Four. We made every effort we could to come after you, but nothing worked. Eventually, Starfleet ordered us on to other business, and we went. There was nothing we could do, but wait for the eight years.
"I missed you. I missed you terribly. I didn't realize how much I was accustomed to your presence and your friendship. I didn't realize how much we were still Imzadi to each other, despite the platonic nature of our relationship. Of course, I had had a brief physical relationship with Lieutenant Riker, and that stirred up some old feelings and desires, but when you were gone, I realized that what I missed went much deeper than that.
"Missing you, missing everything you were to me, was very difficult. I found that I no longer wanted to work with feelings. I resigned my post as counselor. But I was still aboard the Enterprise, doing other work, and we were being assigned missions, and it happened that I was on an away team that had a bit of trouble, but I was able to get things to come out right. I got a lot of attention out of it and a promotion, and Captain Picard asked me to be his first officer. I accepted. I was Captain Picard's first officer for five years."
She paused for a long moment, then looked down at her hands again before continuing.
"There was a shift in power in the Klingon Empire. The Duras sisters were able to overthrow Gowron and take control of the High Council. One of the first things they did was to send an assassination squad after Worf-and Captain Picard."
"No," the Rikers exclaimed, not out of disbelief, but because they knew what was coming and didn't want it to be so.
"They were successful," Troi said, her voice rough and raw.
She brushed unselfconsciously at the tears that began to flow down her cheeks.
"Oh, Deanna," they said. Her sadness and grief were more important, more real, than their own at the moment. They started to move toward her to comfort her, but she held up her hand for them to stop.
After another moment, she resumed her account. "With the death of Captain Picard, I was given command of the Enterprise. I've been captain for two years now. The Federation is at war with the Klingon Empire, but it's an on-again off-again affair, with neither side willing or able to commit all resources to achieving a victory."
She looked at them clear-eyed, but with tears still flowing down her cheeks. She tried to smile. "That's the condensed version, of course. There are eight years of ship's logs you can read through if you want."
Inhaling deeply, she stood up, then crossed to a big display case standing by the wall near the couch. She touched a panel at the side of the case, and the cover lifted. Reaching in, she grasped the handles of the item displayed and carefully lifted it out. She brought it over to the Rikers, holding it with the sharp edge up, and offered the item to them.
"Worf left you his bat'telh," she said.
They hesitated for a moment, looking at the weapon, and began to realize that Worf was dead. Feeling the prickling of tears at the backs of their eyelids, they wordlessly accepted the bat'telh. Troi turned back to her desk, inserted a data chip in a computer slot, tapped in a few commands, then removed the data chip.
Troi crossed to face the Rikers again, and held the data chip toward them.
"Captain Picard left you this," she said.
They stared at the data chip as deep sadness wrapped its suffocating grip around them.
* * * * *
Alone on the holodeck, the two Rikers briefly considered a visit to Curtis Creek. But that was not why they were here. Wanting to go to Curtis Creek was self-deception, a desire to forget their purpose on the holodeck. They would not allow themselves that evasion. And, besides, they knew that it would not work. Even at Curtis Creek, they would not find an escape from what they knew and felt.
They sighed. "Computer, run program."
The grid lines of the blank holodeck vanished, and the Rikers smiled at the irony of what appeared. They were now standing on the bank of Curtis Creek. The sounds of flowing water, the occasional buzzing or chirping insect, underbrush rustling at the passage of small wildlife or gentle breeze, birds singing in flight, and the quiet humming of a man filled the air.
Jean-Luc Picard was sitting on a boulder in the middle of the stream. He was wearing his uniform, but no boots. The boots were on the bank beside the Rikers.
Picard stopped humming. "This is really very nice," he said. "I should come here more often." He paused for a long moment, looking up at the sky, then turned to look at the Rikers. "I want you to think of me here, Will, enjoying myself. Whatever happened to me is over and done with now, and I don't want you to think about it. I don't want you to mourn me. I'm not making this program to give you a final farewell. Actually, I'm making it to say hello. I'm making it in case I'm not here when you are rescued from Nervala Four."
A big smile lit Picard's face. "Welcome back, Will, welcome back!" Picard was about to say something else, but then stopped. The smile faltered and Picard shook his head, too choked with emotion to go on. He gulped a deep breath. "We missed you, Number One," he said thickly. His mouth pulled into a lopsided smile. "I hope that doesn't get me in trouble. Deanna is my Number One now. She's been my first officer for a few years; she's doing a fine job. You'll be proud of her. I hope she's here to welcome you aboard."
Picard paused and glanced down the stream. "I've been thinking about that fish you used to talk about, Old Storymaker, the one that always got away, that likes to hide in the big hole down around the bend. Shall we see if he's there now? We can talk more as we go."
Picard looked at the Rikers until finally they nodded. Then he smiled, stood up, and began to make his way downstream, wading or stepping from rock to rock. Through a blur of tears the Rikers watched him. Picard was almost to the bend when he stopped and looked back.
"Will! What are you waiting for? Take off your boots and get moving." Picard started to turn downstream again, but then turned back and added, "That's an order, Mister."
"Yes, sir!" the Rikers croaked past the lumps in their throats. They bent to take off their boots.
* * * * *
Will Riker's quarters were exactly the way he had left them. Of all people, Deanna Troi knew this best. In Riker's absence, she had been the most frequent visitor there. She had grown accustomed to the stillness and the silence of the rooms. She had memorized the items visible and their locations. She had learned that Will Riker would only be there in her imagination.
As she entered now, she saw that everything was as it had been, except for the one difference that made all the difference in the universe. Will Riker, flesh and blood and emotion, not figment, was there to welcome her. Two Will Rikers were there to welcome her.
They were standing in front of the couch where they had been sitting, trying to read the Enterprise's logs.
"Captain," they smiled.
It was impossible for her not to smile in response. "What should I call you?" she retorted. "Commander or Lieutenant?"
"Commander, of course." They grinned identical grins.
She knew it was more complicated behind the grins, but for the moment she let it pass.
"How was it?" she asked.
Their expressions changed, but not as abruptly or as deeply as what they were feeling. It took them a moment to be able to speak. "I wish," they began, then had to start again, "I wish I had had the chance to say a proper good-bye to him."
"You were the only one he left a farewell to."
They turned to her. "It wasn't a farewell. It was a welcome back. An extraordinary program, actually. I'll have to show it to you sometime."
To that, she could only nod.
"He didn't want to be mourned," she heard their voices say and nodded again, but when she felt in them the urge to comfort her and heard them begin to act on it, she stepped back and found her voice.
"I'm all right."
They knew she was not, but they didn't push her. She glanced around the room, looking for a distraction, pretending she had a purpose for her scrutiny.
"You haven't changed anything," she commented. "You haven't even put away the things you left out."
"I don't remember where they go." They smiled briefly, then glanced around the room as she had. "It seems like a dream," they said, more seriously. "You know? If I touch anything, it'll all disappear."
"You know I'm here, don't you?"
They turned back to her and nodded.
"Can you tell me about it? What was it like on Nervala Four?"
They gazed at her for a long moment, then sighed and sat on the couch. "I thought you said that you had resigned as counselor."
She smiled at them as she came forward and sat in a chair by the side of the couch. "I still like to keep my hand in, on special cases. And yours is very special."
"Oh, great," they said unenthusiastically.
"How long have you been talking at the same time?"
They blinked in surprise, then looked at each other as though noticing for the first time that there were two of them.
They turned back to her and, after a moment, shrugged their shoulders in answer to her question. "I don't know. It happened gradually. And I couldn't tell you in units of time. Units of time didn't have much meaning on Nervala." They tried to smile.
"It's not just the talking," she said, not picking up their smile. "When I look at you, I see two of you. But when I close my eyes, I sense only one. How did this happen?"
They sighed, ran their hands through their hair, shook their heads, then tried to explain. "I was me. I was both me. I just didn't know all the experiences I had had. At first, I talked-we talked-there wasn't anything to do but talk-and after a while, I knew everything I had done in both lives, and then there was nothing to keep me apart." Their eyes narrowed in concentration. "I guess I tried at first to stay separate when I realized what was happening, but then it didn't make much sense to do that, and I got more and more used to both being me, until I was me, and now I am me." They took a deep breath and let it out, then looked at her. "Does it bother you?"
"Well,-a little," she confessed. She would have said no, but they would have known she was lying. As it was, they knew she was understating her discomfort.
Their eyes narrowed. They looked down at their hands, and then back up at her. "I guess I'm going to have to change again, aren't I? I'm going to have to split myself."
"Is that what you want?"
"I hadn't thought about it until just now." They paused for a moment. "I have to do it," they concluded decisively. Then doubt clouded their faces. "But what if-" they broke off without finishing.
"What if you can't?" Troi finished for them.
They just looked at her.
She gazed back at them, knowing it was too soon for answers, knowing, also, that they needed one. They needed reassurance. "Well," she said, "of course, the first thing to do is try." She took a deep breath. "If you can't, you can't. As you are, you'll be initially disconcerting to the people around you, but they'll get used to it."
"You think so?" they challenged. They didn't want false reassurances, no matter how earnestly and with what good intent they were offered. "What about you? How long do you think it would take you to get used to it?"
"I don't know," she admitted.
They knew, as well as she did, what she didn't say: part of her would never get used to it.
* * * * *
"Why can't I stop?" The Rikers scowled in irritation, knowing they had done it again. "On Nervala, I didn't talk at the same time as much. I can't seem to stop now, and it bothers-people."
Doctor Crusher gazed at them from the other side of her desk and did not look bothered. "On Nervala, how did you decide which one of you would speak?" Crusher asked.
They made an impatient gesture, then looked at the ceiling, then looked at Crusher. "I didn't. I didn't need to decide. I didn't think about it, I just did it. When your nose itches, how do you decide which hand to scratch it with? You don't think about it, you just do it. That's what it's like."
"Except now you're scratching your nose with both hands and people are noticing."
They nodded, almost smiling. "And I can't stop. When I try, I end up not speaking at all." They sighed, looked down at their hands, and turned serious, very serious, their voices becoming quieter as they went on. "But the speaking is just a symptom. What I really need to change goes much deeper. I thought I would start with the speaking, and then figure out how to do the other. If I can't stop the speaking, though..." They didn't finish the thought aloud, just took a deep breath.
Crusher leaned forward across her desk, matching the Rikers' seriousness, and momentarily distracted them from their distress. "Will," she said, "have you talked to Deanna about this?"
The Rikers' eyes lifted slowly to Crusher's. They stared at her and didn't say a word.
"I see," she said quietly. She smiled gently and sat back in her chair. "I'm not an expert, this is a little out of my area of knowledge, but from what you've told me, I think that the speaking at the same time is a good sign."
"A good sign?" they repeated, not looking even remotely convinced.
"Yes," she insisted. "You said that on Nervala you didn't speak at the same time. You traded off naturally, isn't that right?"
They nodded. "Mostly, yeah."
"It takes two people to speak at the same time. You're not different enough yet to say different things, but if you were still as much one person as when you were rescued, you wouldn't speak at the same time. You'd speak trading off naturally. You'd scratch your nose with one hand, not two. If you scratch your nose with two hands, it means either your nose is really itchy, or your hands are responding independently of each other."
They looked at her for a long moment. "That's just a theory," they said.
"Is it? You became one person by being together constantly with few distractions from each other. It stands to reason that with more demands on your attention, divergent demands on your attention, and with more time apart, you will become different. You will become two people."
They rubbed their jaws contemplatively. "Even if I didn't become different, if I were apart, no one would notice that I was scratching my nose with both hands." They came to a decision, nodded, and stood up. "Thank you, Doctor."
They took their leave and Crusher said goodbye. As she watched them go, she wished that she felt more strongly that there was reason for them to thank her.
* * * * *
Entering the ready room, the Rikers had a moment of deja vu. Troi was standing at the view port again, her back to them. But this time when she turned, there was very little welcome for them in her. Worse, they barely felt the connection they knew they had with her. This time, all she gave them was detached acknowledgment. They tried not to let their anxiety show.
"Commander," Troi said formally, "have a seat."
"Yes, sir," they said, voices neutral, and were gratified to feel a slight softening in her attitude toward them.
But they knew better than to let the smile they felt show itself.
They sat on the couch. Troi sat behind her desk, but turned towards them. In demeanor, in manner, she was very much a captain. In spite of the anxiety it produced in them, the Rikers found themselves admiring her for it, and responding to it.
"Geordi says that you're performing well on your shifts."
The Rikers nodded. They had finally been allowed to assume duties, and, at their request, had been given separate shifts at the helm. They had only been serving for a few days now, but already their confidence, no less than their desire, had returned. They were back. They were home. Only one thing kept them from total, delirious happiness. Until being summoned here today, they had not seen Troi for five days.
"He says it's like you were never gone," Troi continued, smiling briefly. "I suspect he's being a little generous to you, but not so much that his judgment is at fault. What about you? How do you feel you're adjusting?"
It was an open question, and could have been taken as referring to the more personal issues she had previously discussed with them, but they chose to interpret it far more narrowly, and answer only regarding their professional situation.
"I have more work to do, but I have been studying the improvements and modifications to the ship, and I feel I'm learning them fairly quickly. I haven't had any problem at helm. Piloting came right back to me. Of course, we haven't seen anything unusual yet, but I feel I'm ready."
Only one of them spoke, the other remained silent. After they had gotten tired of simultaneously saying to each other, "Then you do it," after they had Rochambeaued for five minutes before realizing that they would always pick the same element, they had replicated a coin to toss to decide ahead of time which one of them would speak. Troi did not overtly notice the result of their efforts.
She nodded at their report. "Geordi also tells me you were asking about ships that might have postings." She looked at them with a hint of disapproval. "That's something you should have discussed with me. I am, for now, your captain."
"Yes, I know," one of them said. "I was going to talk to you about it, I just wanted to know what some of the possibilities were first."
Without further comment, Troi consulted a data padd on her desk.
"After Geordi spoke with me," she said, "I shopped your name around a bit. Starfleet is being difficult about your rank. They haven't ruled on what it will be yet. But even so, all of the captains I talked to expressed interest in you. Some of them don't have much to offer, but most of them could give you at least senior officer status, and a few of them are ready to offer you a second officer's spot, or better. Data is looking for a first officer. He said he would be honored to have you." She held up the data padd and indicated that one of the Rikers should take it. "Here's the complete list."
The Riker closest to Troi halfway stood up and leaned over to accept the data padd, then sat back down. He held the padd so they both could look at it. They scanned the information, seeing the listings, but not really wanting to see them. Faced with the reality of deciding to leave the Enterprise, the Rikers were beset by second thoughts. They knew that a number of the offers, especially the one from Data, were better than they could have had a right to hope for. They knew that they should be happy and grateful, excited at their good fortune. But they weren't.
Troi cleared her throat. "There is," she paused, "another possibility."
The Rikers looked up from the padd. They waited for her to go on.
"The Klingon Underground, the rebels fighting the Duras sisters, are allied with the Federation, of course. Worf's brother, Kern, is one of their leaders."
The Rikers' pulses quickened as they wondered what this topic had to do with the subject that had been under discussion, and found themselves very interested in speculating about it. Then they realized that their reaction had almost distracted Troi. They told themselves to calm down, and wait and listen.
"Kern feels very strongly that the rebels and the Federation are bonded by what happened, and that we must seek vengeance together," Troi continued. "It's a sentiment that has inspired and invigorated the rebel Klingons, so much so that they offered their best ship and crew to Starfleet, and asked for a Starfleet captain who would fight in Captain Picard's name."
It took the Rikers' breath away. When they had looked at the offers on the padd, they had tried, and failed, to imagine a position they would want. But this was it. This was a position they didn't just want, it was the one they had to have. In their excitement, they barely heard the next thing Troi said, "The Klingons want ship, captain and crew to pursue the war exclusively and relentlessly, seeking vengeance together."
Troi paused, her eyes narrowed on the Rikers, and waited until they met her gaze before she went on. "As far as the Federation is concerned," she said, "the whole thing is too unconventional, too dangerous, and too proactive. And Starfleet hasn't had the right person for it. They've been looking for a way to turn the Klingons down without offending them."
With difficulty, the Rikers sat still and refrained from interrupting. They tried not to allow their excitement to show, although they knew that Troi must be feeling it. They could feel her ambivalence clearly enough, knew that beneath it she was hurt. She did not want them to want this, but she had known they would, and she wanted them to be as happy as they could be.
"I asked-around," she told them. "If you were to volunteer for the Klingon ship, you would be accepted. Starfleet would even promote you to captain. And it would be your ship, as long as you could keep it. As long as you could keep yourself alive."
She opened a hand in their direction, finally offering it to them.
They briefly considered discussing it further with her, but they knew that that would be a pretense, and she would know it. "How soon can I go?" they asked, the excitement causing them to make a momentary lapse into speaking at the same time again.
Troi stared at them steadily. "As soon as you're ready," she answered, her voice flat.
* * * * *
The one and only Will Riker aboard the Enterprise stared into the pool of water a few feet away and determinedly refrained from thinking about the time. He was on the holodeck, in a simulation of the Wanderer's Paradise, a well-known site on Risa. He was lying on the grass at the water's edge, waiting for Deanna Troi to join him.
But the time he had asked her to meet him had passed at least an hour ago, probably closer to two. He sighed, picked up a pebble, and threw it in the water, watching the ripples slowly spread. He wondered idly how long would it take to fill the pool with pebbles.
"Will," he heard her quiet, melodic, distinctive voice behind him.
Thinking he was imagining it, he hesitated for an instant before turning. When he did, he saw her, standing there, gazing about the clearing. He knew she must recognize it. He stood up. She was still in uniform, and looked tired. Her eyes finally came around to him, and took in his appearance. He was wearing non-uniform pants, and a casual, loose-fitting shirt with the first few buttons open. It was what he had worn on their last date on Betazed, sixteen years previously.
Though it was very subtle, he recognized the expression on her face: wary.
"I was beginning to think you weren't going to show." He tried to smile. "It would have been ironically appropriate."
"I'm sorry I was late," she said, studiously avoiding remarking on his appearance or the setting. "I had some reports I had to finish. What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
She started to turn toward the exit, where her thoughts were inclining, and winced as the muscles in her neck complained. Reflexively, she put a hand up to rub at the sore spot.
Riker stepped over to her and around behind her. "Allow me," he said.
He began to massage the abused muscles of her neck and shoulders. She told herself to step away or ask him to stop, but she found herself stalling instead, even leaning into the gentle and soothing strength of his hands. Still, she didn't completely relax.
"You're a bit tense," he murmured.
"It goes with the job. ...Has anyone ever told you you're very good with your hands?"
"Mm-hmm. I believe someone did say that to me once."
The loosening began in earnest.
"He's gone," Troi said.
"I thought you were going too."
"You should have. You'd have had a better chance together. You could watch each other's backs."
"The whole point was for me to split up. I realized that if I wanted to have a chance of separating, one of me would have to go."
"Go? Go to his death?"
"No, to my own ship and crew. I was happy to go. You know that."
"Yes." She thought of their reaction when she had told them of the position. She recalled the restrained goodbye she had exchanged with the one who had left. The words they had spoken to each other outside the shuttle had been at odds with the nature and depths of their feelings. She remembered watching him disappear into the shuttle, it departing, and her feeling that she was losing him yet again.
"You were happy to go," she confirmed. She spoke from her feelings of that moment, the pain thick in her voice. She would have wept, but his hands, massaging her shoulders, held her back from that.
Despite his hands, though, because of habit, she felt alone as she grappled with the pain. Her attention on that, she did not immediately react when his fingers stopped kneading the muscles of her neck and caressed her there instead, smoothing away her hair. But then his lips brushed her skin just above her collar.
She turned in surprise, ready to take a step back, her mouth open to protest, but he had anticipated her movement. His hands shifted to her arms and pulled her tightly against him as his lips dropped to hers. His mouth claimed her mouth, stealing and dissolving any words she might have spoken. It was forceful, but not overpowering, passionate-very passionate, but not violent. If she had wanted to, she could have pulled away. She could have freed herself and stopped it. But, no. Immediately, intensely intoxicated by the sensations, she returned his kiss, feeding his hunger with her own.
It was he who ended it. He wrenched her away from him and held her at arm's length, his grip almost tight enough to hurt. His eyes blazed into hers.
"I am here," he said fiercely. "I'm not going anywhere, Imzadi."
All she could do was stare back at him. Finally, she nodded unsteadily. Not taking her eyes off him, she said, "Computer, freeze access to holodeck four. Limit release to voice codes of Troi, Deanna, or Riker, William."
"Access frozen," the computer replied.
It was Riker's turn to be still and stare. Troi shook his hands off her arms, and reached up to pull his face gently down to her. They spent long seconds tantalizing each other, their lips getting closer and closer together, but not touching yet, as they turned their heads first to one side, and then to the other, preparing to kiss. When contact was made at last, it began as the lightest touch, barely enough to be felt, but quickly becoming much more. More than they could withstand. Eight years of longing exploded in that kiss. They tasted each other eagerly, desperately, for minutes that seemed impossibly short, yet endless.
Instinct alone guided their hands and fingers in undressing themselves and each other; they could not spare anything from their kissing. Soon, they were naked with each other, lying on the grass, making love as though it was the only thing that would save their lives, and even their souls. All that they knew about love-making, all that they had experienced before, was irrelevant to this encounter. Bodies moved as bodies will, and did what they did, but the sensations produced, the intensity experienced, were uncharted stars. Riker and Troi embraced the flight, survived it, exalted in it. They could because they had each other.
They came back eventually to being mere mortals, man and woman, making love on the grass at the water's edge, and found their completion. For a time, nothing else was necessary. Finally, though, they rediscovered speech.
"You were right," Troi sighed. "I was very tense."
"Eight years'll do that to you," Riker said. He started to tickle her stomach with a blade of grass. "You know, I've never made love to a captain before. To an admiral once, but never a captain."
She caught his hand, crumpling the grass and stopping the tickling. "So what you're saying is, I'm your first."
"Um, I suppose you could put it that way." He frowned at the mutilated blade of grass.
"Well, then, why didn't you?"
He dropped the grass, abandoning it, and smiled at her. "You're my first, Imzadi. My only." He kissed her for emphasis. One kiss led to another, and another. They made love again.
When they were done, they lay beside each other, staring up at the sky. "Deanna?" Riker inquired. "Have you had any thoughts yet about what I asked you?"
She turned to him, frowning, then her eyes widened as she realized what he meant. From the time he had made it until this moment, neither of them had said anything about his marriage proposal. He smiled at her reaction.
"I told you I was serious about that," he reminded her. "Now you can say yes and not be a bigamist," he teased.
She turned away, not ready to be serious about it herself yet, and responded to the teasing. "I don't know about that. Mother says I'm married to the Enterprise. She says she's started to think of the shuttlecraft as grandchildren."
Riker laughed.
"You shouldn't be so full of good humor. If you are serious about this, and you want to follow Betazoid tradition, you have to ask her permission, you know."
Riker's expression became one of mock fear. "I'd forgotten about that," he said. "I suppose she'll be pretty hard on me."
"She might be. But not if you promise her grandchildren she can bounce on her knee."
"You keep mentioning Lwaxana's grandchildren. Is that a hint?" Riker asked with enough seriousness below the teasing to make Troi turn and look at him.
"Do you want it to be?" she asked.
He gazed at her for a long moment. "Are you saying you'll marry me?"
She sat up and turned away. "I'm still thinking about it," she said.
He did not press her. He could feel that there was something else on her mind. She threw a pebble in the pool. Finally, she turned to look over at him.
"How did you decide which one of you would go?" she asked.
He sat up. "Do you really want to know?"
She nodded.
"I played poker." He grinned.
With an effort of will, she translated the pain caused by his answer into a disgusted look. "I shouldn't have asked," she said.
But he was still smiling. The loving and gentle expression in his eyes blotted out her pain until it wasn't even a memory.
"The winner got to stay with you," he told her, and leaned over to kiss her.