Bitter Greens

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"So was she the reason you were interested in me?" Will Riker stared across the desk in his ready room at Shehady Kimmel. She sat in one of the not-so-padded grey chairs as if she were posing for a glamor shot for her modeling portfolio. Her blue and grey uniform fit her like that proverbial glove, only better. This was the first time he'd seen her in it, and the shock of it was slow to fade. They'd been talking for nearly fifteen minutes about Starfleet and careers, a subject neither of them had been willing to bring up on Risa, though, he thought, he really should have. "No. She may be the reason I find Betazoids interesting, but you -- no, you're quite interesting enough on your own. Though a tad too secretive for your own good." Shehady smiled. A cat's smile, just before it caught the canary. Her eyes, though dark as Deanna's, were narrower. "I hope you can forgive me." "I wasn't wearing my uniform, either." Her eyes traveled down then up to his face again. "Oh, I noticed that you weren't. And you seemed quite comfortable about it." Will shrugged. "It was Risa. The wine, the song. . . the wine. And the moonlight." "You were alone, though. That's not usual for you, Captain." "And how do you know that?" "I know your type. Plus, I'm telepathic." "That will take some getting used to," he said, sitting up straighter. "Oh, don't worry. I was only kidding. Not all Betazoids are so nosy that they pry into people's heads without permission. In fact, that's generally the exception to the rule. But you're not likely to have any lack of companionship, when you want it. I thought twice before I interrupted your little pity party." Will sniffed. "So much for not being nosy." "You were sitting naked on a beach, alone, in the moonlight. Drunk. Your whole posture suggested loneliness and self pity." "And what were you doing, walking down the beach nude?" "Taking a walk." The corner of her mouth twisted upward. "I was previously at a clothes-optional party at one of the beach houses up the strand." "So how long have you been in Starfleet?" "A year. They recruited pretty heavily on Betazed for a while. I've been in private research for years, and though they were really looking for counselors, they're also desperate for anyone who will volunteer to fill a uniform." "Do you use telepathy much on the job?" "Nope. Most of the time there's no reason for it. The rest of the time, it's an invasion of privacy unless I have the patient's permission. Your girlfriend wasn't a telepath, was she?" "An empath." "Ah. That would explain your confusion. Empaths tend to be swayed easily by their feelings, and to be easily influenced by the emotions of others. She probably never saw much need to maintain a closed shield. Emotions are just as easily readable on someone's face, most of the time, so people don't always guess she's reading them." "Okay, so you're not empathic at all? I thought telepaths could also sense some emotion." "It depends on the species. I find emotions difficult to deal with. Most Betazoid telepaths are a little empathic. Not so many of us are completely empathic." "She always blamed the fact that she was half human." Shehady gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Could be. Or she's just one of the rare few. I've met half human telepaths. What's her name?" "Deanna Troi." Shehady didn't blink. Good. She didn't know her. "Bet she was a counselor." "On the _Enterprise,_ when I was her first officer. She was the ship's counselor until she left Starfleet, about a year after marrying one of the Ryxi." "You're kidding," Shehady blurted, grinning. "One of those winged guys with the ridged noses? And the long tails?" "Ever seen one in person?" "Not yet. I'd like to. Supposedly, a few of them are finding their way into Starfleet. Have you met any of them?" "The _Rampage_ was one of the first ships to visit their homeworld. I made a few friends while I was there." "And the _Enterprise_ was the other, which was how the estimable Ms. Troi -- Mrs. Ryxian -- met her husband?" Shehady reached for her café mocha, which sat on the edge of his desk. "I can't imagine it. The pictures I've seen of them -- they look thin, top-heavy, and difficult to sleep with." "She found him irresistible enough." "Aren't they supposed to be polygamous?" "Like I said -- irresistible, regardless of the details." Shehady laughed. "I just don't see it." Then she sobered quickly. "Wait a minute -- Troi? Is she related to the Betazoid Federation Delegate, Troi? Of the Fifth House of Betazed?" "Lwaxana's her mother." "Then I get it even less. In fact, judging from how I'm having to drag information out of you, she chose her husband over you -- " "Not exactly. We've been good friends far longer than we were lovers. I was uneasy about her husband for a variety of reasons, but she's happy, so I can't complain." "Sure," she said, going along with it. "Do you regret letting her go, all those years ago?" Will took another mouthful of cold coffee to stall for time. "Yes." "Ah. Good. An honest answer." Shehady's sly smile returned, her eyes narrowing. Will raised an eyebrow. To which she replied, "We all have baggage, Captain. Some of us carry it here," she clutched an imaginary bag to her chest, "and others merely drag it along behind by the handles. Seems to me you're the latter type. So am I. You own up to it without a lot of theatrics or explanations, and the ex-girlfriend is married. No problem." He couldn't help laughing. Rising, he pitched the cold coffee into the recycler and contemplated a replacement drink. "So how much baggage do you have?" "I let go of the handle of the last major suitcase back on Risa." Her voice lost all mirth. "His name was Kent. I met him at the Academy -- a fellow older recruit. We shared an apartment for a while. He's got aspirations of being a captain, but I don't think he'll get far." "And he left you behind," Will said. "Bastard." Surprise leached the wistful smile from her lips. "Is that as in the 'I'm guilty of it too' kind of bastard?" "Damn straight. It's a common problem we Command School grads have. We think sacrificing ourselves in the name of almighty Starfleet makes us gods." "My, what a plate of mixed bitter greens we serve up in the captain's ready room." Riker leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "Why are you in Starfleet? Why join now, when you had a life at home?" "For the sake of something different, I guess. The chance to practice medicine in space, learn more about exobiology. . . classes aren't good enough." Shehady rose, meandered over, and studied the front of his uniform diffidently. "Is it inappropriate to hug a captain in uniform, when one has only just transferred aboard? Or do I have to observe some sort of waiting period? Or is it just insubordination?" Chuckling, Will ran a fingertip along her jaw. He leaned to kiss her. She tasted like coffee and chocolate, and she enjoyed it as much as he did, leaning into him, twining her arms around his neck. This was improper -- the captain pawing one of the crew in his ready room. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to care. {I could learn to love this woman.} For a panicked moment, he suspected she might have overheard the thought. She didn't do anything that might confirm that she had. When the kiss ended, by mutual assent, she giggled. "You didn't seem the giggling type." "Under the right circumstances, any girl giggles. I just spent a week paying no attention to anything but the naked man I found on the beach. I don't quite feel like I've come back from leave yet." "Do you believe there's such a thing as imzadi?" Slipping her arms from his neck down to his waist, she hugged him, chin on his shoulder. "I believed I'd found my imzadi. I was wrong. No imzadi could do what Termin did. I think it's possible there is such a thing as an imzadi, but that it's possible to be mistaken about it. I don't worry about it." "Bitter greens," Will said. "Kent was understandable. Termin just decided one day that I wasn't what he wanted. He took up with a younger girl with bigger breasts and a smaller IQ. And given what I thought I had with him, it hurt -- a lot." Somehow, Will guessed that was an understatement. He combed her shoulder-length, straight golden hair with his fingers, letting it fall by increments from his hand. "Let's try something different." "We're going to try something?" "Is that okay? Or am I just another holiday diversion?" "Oh, yes, and I always hug superior officers, just out of general friendliness," she mocked. "Shehady." He pulled her head to his mouth and kissed her hair. "I don't have a way of describing how you make me feel, but -- I'd like to find out if it's something I want to keep." She didn't reply, but tightened her arms around him. "I'm sorry, that isn't exactly the most romantic thing I've ever said. Hell. I'm sorry. This is so upside down and backwards from -- " From what he usually did. From the endless string of casual relationships. When had it gotten so hard? Shehady inhaled, and he heard the telltale throb in her throat. Taking her by the shoulders, he held her away from him and brushed tears from her face with his knuckles. She spread her fingertips in an arc across his forehead and ran them lightly down his face. "Something different." Her brittle twist of the mouth became a smile. "I'd like that." ^&^ ^&^ ^&^ {How did Jean-Luc manage it?} Will sighed at his reflection in the mirror and studied his attempt at beard trimming while distracted by thoughts of Shehady. She was only on board for six months, the _Rampage_ only a temporary assignment for her, but had hinted at requesting a more permanent one. It hadn't been the giddy, slip-sliding rush into each other's arms he'd had with Deanna, but it was more than he'd thought it might be. Neither of them had said the 'l' word, or really vocalized their opinions of the relationship. But she was soothing the ache in his soul, and he hoped he did the same for her. The problem was continuing the relationship on board his ship. There would come a point at which one of them would have to make a sacrifice, or the relationship would have to end. After two months of quietly slipping into each other's quarters, he already wanted more than this secrecy. He wanted to stop feeling like he was breaking rules. Starfleet couldn't prevent relationships from forming, but they could frown upon senior officers fraternizing with subordinates. Will suspected they'd already been an item of ship's gossip; it was only a matter of time until more 'official' notice was taken. The door signal came in faintly from the living room. Dropping the trimmer in the sink, he tugged his collar straight and went to answer. Shehady, holding a padd, stepped inside when the door opened. She dropped it the instant the door closed and threw herself headlong into a kiss. "Well, good morning to you, too," he exclaimed, laughing. "I figured out where I want to go. I guessed the farther away the better, so I'd like to see Ryx." "Tannick," he corrected, trying not to let his smile cave in on itself. "Whatever. I'd like to tour the drone rehabilitation center. As a doctor, I can request permission to do that, can't I?" "That's not on Tannick. But we could do that. It'd be nice to see Jean-Luc and Beverly again. You realize we're probably going to spend a good portion of our leave traveling?" "As long as the rest of the crew aren't with us, I don't care where we are." Shehady grinned. "And I'll get to meet Deanna, won't I?" "If you want." "You said you were still good friends, and I know you've sent at least one message to her. Did you tell her about me?" "I told her. She said we should come to see her some time." Shehady's grin widened. "See? We're even invited. From everything you've told me, it's going to be an interesting leave." "Are you sure you wouldn't rather do something other than visit my friends?" "Will," she said, gathering handfuls of his uniform and pulling him backward toward the bedroom, "you said this was something different. I want to meet your friends." Something different. Was it because they'd defined it that way from the beginning? Was it because both of them had survived too much loneliness? Was this the cynical union of weary souls who had little else in common? As they pulled at each other's clothes, he shoved the questions aside for later. It was easy enough -- he'd done it more than once already. ^&^ ^&^ ^&^ Leaving the _Rampage_ docked at Starbase 43 with Data in charge, Will booked them on a transport on the first leg of their journey to _Jhegwa._ It took a day to reach Starbase 53, from which a Ryxi shuttle left daily for Conglomerate space. Another stop at a planet called Derwith, where they spent an afternoon of layover sitting on a cliff overlooking a heaving green ocean feeding each other bites of a local delicacy called _sebbitz._ Then a shuttle to _Jhegwa._ This time, Will wasn't so inclined to avoid contact with the Ryxi. He took Shehady exploring and sampled the varied cuisine in some of the restaurants. "Friends or no friends, this is fun," she exclaimed, watching a gaggle of Ryxi walk by. More than half of them smiled in their direction. "What gregarious people! Seen anyone you know?" "Not yet. I'm still not certain which level the center's on. It's not marked, and it's not likely anyone would give us directions." They wandered into one of the dozens of landscaped corridor junctions. Will thought this was the one he remembered from his last visit to the rehabilitation center; he stopped and looked down each of five corridors, trying to see something else that would jog his memory. Then he saw a familiar wingless person. "Deanna!" he shouted, startling Shehady. Deanna stopped in mid-stride and turned. "Will!" she cried, face lighting up. She touched the arm of the Ryxian she was with and ran toward Will, dodging around the bulk of a Zeg standing like a wall with one of his fellows, skipping through the center of a group of chatting Ryxi without treading on anyone's tail, and finally reaching him. "I'm on the right level, I guess," he said. She surprised him with a hug, then stood back and appraised him briefly. "You look better than you did last time I saw you. That must be your doing," she said, holding out a hand to Shehady. "I'm Deanna zel'Gwahiri Terlag'heza." "Dr. Shehady Kimmel -- I met you once, a long time ago, when you spoke at the university on Betazed. You probably don't remember. I was the redhead in the back of the room who asked you about the process of rehabilitating a Borg drone separated from the Collective." "Actually, now that you mention it, I do remember. A pleasure to meet you again." Deanna's happy smile didn't waver. "Shehady's interested in touring the center," Will said, eyeing Shehady. She hadn't told him about meeting Deanna. "I was on my way there. I have a few appointments, but I'm sure Jean-Luc would be happy to put off whatever he's doing to show you around. Or Beverly might be free -- she could answer your questions pertaining to medical difficulties of drone reclamation, Dr. Kimmel." Deanna led them toward her waiting Ryxian friend. Will took the opportunity to size her up. She was letting her hair grow, and had it tied up on the back of her head in one of her beaded hair ornaments. From there, it fell in cascades of ringlets down her back. The red pantsuit she wore wasn't a uniform -- the Ryxi didn't wear uniforms, and didn't require non-Ryxi in their employ to do so, either -- but it reminded him of the ones she'd worn in the early days on the _Enterprise._ "You're looking trim, considering," Will said, grinning. Deanna backhanded him lightly in the chest. "Just because a woman has a baby doesn't mean she'll get fat. Besides, I get plenty of exercise." Her sly grin told him well enough what kind of exercise. He let it pass. Give her one chance, and the whole conversation could become embarrassing. The Ryxian met them halfway and turned to walk with them down the nearest corridor, out of the way of the heavier foot traffic through the junction. "Hello, Captain," he said. "I'm sorry -- you're one of Gwaheer's brothers, aren't you?" "Sakhara, this is Dr. Shehady Kimmel," Deanna said, walking ahead and to one side of the Ryxian. Sakhara studied Shehady and smiled. "From Betazed. A telepath?" "Yes. I didn't know there were Ryxi telepaths." "Most of the terlag'heza you will find in the center are telepaths. Deanna's the exception. Empaths don't usually have the fortitude to work with the drones." Sakhara regarded Riker questioningly. "What brings you to _Jhegwa?_" "We have a few weeks of leave. The _Rampage_ is at a starbase for a series of annual checks and a few upgrades. Shehady wanted to see Tannick, and this was a logical place to stop in for a visit. I didn't see much of the station last time." "Is Shehady. . . ." Sakhara looked at Deanna in a silent plea for help. "I don't think so, 'khara. Will, have you explained the Ryxi sense of smell to Shehady?" "Not yet. I was hoping you would." "Ah." They stopped outside an unmarked door, solid grey metal, with no apparent way to open it. Deanna faced Shehady and gestured at Sakhara. "He was confused because the Ryxi can detect emotional states and sexual affiliations by body odor. His question was whether you and Will are married; though he knows Betazoids and humans have a different custom, the Ryxi have no such thing as a wedding ceremony. Marriages begin and end with sexual relationships." Shehady didn't blink. "That must simplify things." "It's complicated," Sakhara said. "Trust me." Deanna tugged Sakhara's ear. "Tillen didn't deserve you." "Tierza agrees with that assessment. She also wanted me to remind you that if you ever -- " "No, I won't, and no, you can't clone me. Open the door before I twist your tail." Sakhara grinned, but laid back his ears and bowed his head as if chastised and humbled. "It would be such delight, to have you twist -- " She grabbed his ear and twisted, and he bent his body backward, trying to alleviate the pain. "You said tail!" he exclaimed a full octave higher than before. Deanna let go and grabbed his hand, then pressed it to the center of the door. It lost its solidity and irised open, developing creases where there had been only solid metal. She grabbed Sakhara by the back of the neck and threw him in. "Sorry about that, but he has to keep teasing me," she said, gesturing for them to follow. "He didn't mean any of that." "How can you be so sure?" Will asked. He watched the door swirl shut behind them and looked up as the element suspended from the ceiling glowed red and a beam swept over them. Noticing Shehady's expression, he said, "Sweeping for weapons and nanomachines, and any diseases that might affect the patients." "I know he's kidding because I'm an empath," Deanna said. "And he's perfectly aware that if he weren't kidding, Gwaheer would kill him." "And she's _not_ kidding about that. My brother and I may be close, but he's very possessive of his wives, as I am. As any Ryxian is." Sakhara regained his composure and became all business as the inner door opened and admitted them to the foyer. Will and Shehady waited a few paces back as Sakhara and Deanna spoke to the clerk briefly. "If you wait here, I've had her page Beverly," Deanna said, coming back to Will and Shehady. "When I'm done, I'll come find you." Something twittered mechanically, and she pulled up her right sleeve to reveal one of the Ryxi wrist comm units. She studied the tiny glowing screen and smiled, in such a way that Will knew it must be a message from Gwaheer. She wandered away from them, down the same corridor Sakhara had just taken, pressing buttons as she walked. "Must've been a love note," Shehady muttered. "Will, you didn't tell me her husband was a telepath." "Sakhara's not -- " "I know he's not. It's just hard to miss a bonded empath. I have to admit, I peeked a little out of insatiable curiosity. She either doesn't care who knows what she's thinking, or she's relying on the common courtesy of the telepaths around her, but she's got some strong resonance going on with her husband. I'm betting either the Ryxi are telempaths when they have any such talent at all, or it runs in this particular family. I think Sakhara's the same." A door opened, and there was Beverly, smiling. And this time as Will returned an affectionate hug, he noticed the hugger had gained weight in a place made less obvious by the dark blue jacket she wore over her blouse and slacks. "Congratulations, Mrs. Picard," he said, then glanced down. She wrapped the jacket closer around her self-consciously. "Thanks, Will. You look -- " " -- better than the last time you saw me," he finished for her. "This is Dr. Shehady Kimmel. Hypothetically, the reason I look better." He smiled at Shehady affectionately. Beverly took her hand, more like an affectionate gesture of thanks than a handshake. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Deanna said you wanted a tour. This way." The tour was much like the last one, not very comprehensive. The interest Shehady expressed wasn't unexpected; she'd asked him many questions about the Borg and his experiences with them, and about Jean-Luc Picard. Many people, upon discovering who he was and who he'd served with, asked the same questions of him. What surprised Riker was the pleased -- no, overjoyed -- attitude Beverly had toward Shehady. It brought up questions and doubts he'd kept under tight wraps. Was he in this relationship because of loneliness and regret? Was Beverly relieved because she knew he'd been lonely? And there were a lot of faces to his regret. He knew there wouldn't likely be a civilian occupation to which he was suited. Starfleet had always been his obsession. His only family, his father, hardly ever contacted him; the elder Riker had that on again, off again relationship with Kate Pulaski, and probably a handful of other women he knew, to keep him occupied. Will could predict something similar happening to himself and Shehady, as they both pursued their careers; it would be easy enough to synchronize shore leaves and meet. Pigeonholed into a single career path, falling into the same relationship pattern as his father -- he was making the same choices his father had. "Are you going on to Tannick today? Will?" He looked up. They were standing near the door in the foyer. He'd followed them blindly, not hearing a word until Beverly had said his name. Both women chided him with their eyes. "Sorry. We hadn't planned that far ahead," Will said. "The last transport leaves in a couple hours. If you miss that, you'll be stuck here for three days. If Jean-Luc and I weren't going back ourselves, we'd be happy to let you stay with us. The accommodations Gwaheer arranged for us here are more than adequate. In fact, if you're staying, we'll just give you the lock code -- " "No, that's okay. I appreciate the offer. But Shehady wants to see Tannick too, and I have the feeling this station could get tedious after three days." Beverly nodded. "The transport leaves from the third docking level. You'll see it if you're on the right level -- just follow the lines of Ryxi. Jean-Luc and I will be on the last flight out, and so will Deanna and Sakhara." "Good. We'll see you there," Shehady said. Beverly saw them out, and as the door shut behind them, Shehady took Will's hand. They walked for a while in silence, through corridors and along rows of shops and offices. "Will, not that I'm complaining or anything, but why is it your friends are so relieved to see us together?" He smiled, simply to cover the frown he caught before it could escape. "Probably because they worry about me." "You worry about you, too. Like last week -- that night I sneaked in to surprise you and you woke up out of some dream you wouldn't tell me about. I got the distinct impression you were _trying_ to be passionate as a distraction." She tugged him closer, and let go of his fingers to hug his arm. "You've got to talk about it, sweetheart. If there's something about us that's bugging you -- " "It's something about me, Shady. Just me." The use of the inadvertent nickname resulting from his drunken mispronunciation of Shehady was nearly enough of a distraction. Unfortunately, she was as determined as most other women he'd ever loved. Hell. As the only other woman he'd ever loved. And where did this 'only other' business come from? "Pay attention to your Freudian slips, Will," Deanna had said once upon a time. Well, damn the counselor's intuition, anyway. And Beverly's, too. "Just you," Shehady repeated, in a way that made his heart sink. Something was going wrong here, and he wasn't quite sure what it was yet, just that he needed to do something about it. "Please don't sound like that. Look, why don't we find the right docking level, then find something to eat, and while we're waiting for boarding we'll discuss this. All right?" She bought into it reluctantly. Every questioning glance she shot his way for the following hour it took them to find the right ship, then find an eatery close to the boarding area -- every indication of doubt, right down to her reluctance to hold his hand, sent panic-induced adrenalin surging through him. He didn't even taste the food when they finally sat in a corner of a small, crowded establishment overlooking the curved docking area near the bottom of the station. They ate quietly for a few minutes. Shehady invested her attention in picking unsavory bits out of her soup between bites. "I think I always assumed I'd get back together with Deanna, someday," he said at last. "In spite of the short-term liaisons we both had. There was only one other whom I took seriously enough to change my mind about that, and that ended rather abruptly. And she never seemed to find anyone, at least until -- well. There was one man she got serious about, before she met Gwaheer. When she married -- if you think the bond's obvious now, wait until you see them together. She can't help it, I know that, but in the beginning it was hard to take. I had actually been thinking about proposing. I missed her after my promotion took me away from the _Enterprise._ But her career had become more important to her as the years passed, and I thought she wouldn't be willing to give it up that easily. Now -- well. Silly me. Here she is, starting a new career and a family, making her husband her priority." He looked at her finally, to find her sitting, hands in her lap, staring at him with a neutral expression. "And here I am, probably wrecking my chances with you. But Deanna taught me that honesty is the shortest road to wherever I'm going in any relationship. I suppose if I'm going to lose you, it may as well be now than later." "Why is it you think I can't handle the truth?" she exclaimed. She threw her napkin on the table and crossed her arms. "I'm not in this for the fun, Will. I've heard you sigh like you're carrying your ship around on your shoulders. You toss and turn all night -- I've got bruises on my shins. I wanted to come see Deanna because I want you to either get it out of your system -- or let me go." Will stared at the tears on her face -- hell. What was he thinking? He glanced out the window at the foot traffic going by, without seeing much. "I'm not in love with her any more, Shehady. She wouldn't give me the time of day even if I were. I've been trying to figure out what to do with you, that's all. If I'm doing you any favors by trying. I've spent my life as a Starfleet officer, and sacrificed Deanna to that goal. I'm a lot like my father that way. I never thought I'd say that, but it's true. I've started to think that maybe, for us Riker men, there really isn't such a thing as true love and lifelong relationships. Either we sabotage it ourselves by being too flippant about the relationship, or we get our priorities upside down and backward, and see them walk away from us. I guess that's what it comes down to -- I don't want to drive you away. I'm afraid of it happening anyway." "Will, look at me for a minute." He did, and she leaned across the table to take his hand. "I'm not going to leave because you're afraid. But I'll sure abandon ship in a hurry if you start holding it all inside and not talking to me about it. Communication, right? Just like your counselor taught you? I'll admit a certain attraction to the dark, brooding type, but let's get real, here. We're not exactly the poster couple for 'Young Lovers Monthly.'" He had to laugh, just as she intended him to. "Bloody hell. I've been expecting the holographers from 'Career Fleeters Monthly,' for their 'Sick and Tired' centerfold spread." "Hey," someone called, and they both turned. Beverly and Jean-Luc were leaning in through the restaurant entrance. Beverly beckoned. They boarded ahead of schedule to avoid the last minute rush, and took seats at a table near a viewport. If he'd known there was a restaurant on board, Will thought, they'd have gone straight to it. The ship was nearly empty of passengers, this early. Jean-Luc seemed to be as happy to see Shehady as Beverly had, though the indications of that were more subtle. Will grinned and glanced at Beverly's midriff bulge. Any distraction in a storm. "Going to name him after me?" Predictably, Beverly blushed from collar to hairline. "Aren't you the arrogant one?" "Wihelmina has a certain ring to it," Jean-Luc said. It earned him a half-hearted whack on the shoulder. Deanna found them, and Sakhara came behind her, along with five other Ryxi. She left the group and sat between Shehady and Beverly; the Ryxi took a table not far away and began a spirited conversation in their own language that the translator caught only bits and pieces of. "I'm curious," Will said, turning to Deanna. "What language do you speak around the house?" "Zakhad wants to learn Betazoid, so we usually speak that. And we're teaching Zerin Standard and Ryxi as well." "Is it possible for you to have children naturally?" Shehady asked. Will shot her a reproachful glance, but Deanna's ready answer defused his surprise. "No. Zerin is actually Zakhad's child. She isn't able to carry to term, because of an unfortunate mishap. The Ryxi don't encourage hybridization because of the degree of difficulty in engineering even a viable embryo, let alone the problems for the child once it's born. Flight requires more than a set of wings. The genetic coding would have to be such that the child would be mostly Ryxi, because they're so specifically designed for flight -- it's considered cruel to deprive someone of the ability. And a hybrid might not be able to fly, if the weight-to-wingspan ratio were off, or he lacked the metabolic balance or the two additional senses." Shehady raised an eyebrow, almost in perfect imitation of a Vulcan. "Telepathy is necessary for flight?" "The Ryxi have seven senses -- in addition to the usual five, they have an extraordinary sense of place, and keen depth perception that goes beyond sight. Telepathy isn't so common among them, though they theorize that it developed as an extension of their other senses." "Sense of place?" Deanna rolled her eyes. "I've tried to explain this before, and it's always impossible, but -- wait, you're a telepath. You know how you can sense someone standing outside a door, even though you're shielding and not trying to? It's like that, but the Ryxi can sense more than that. It's how they keep themselves from colliding with each other in midair. It's also how the ones who can teleport manage to do it. They're the ones who can sense, not only where other people are, but where they are in relation to objects around them. They use that ability to teleport. If they can remember their bearings from a place they've been, they can actually pull themselves through space and time to it again. It's how they can appear on a ship without knowing where in space the ship is." "Can they orient on a person?" Shehady asked. Will glanced across the table at Jean-Luc and Beverly, who were both as interested as Shehady. He got the impression neither of them had asked these questions before. Deanna blinked, then a faraway look crept into her eyes, just for a moment. "No," she answered at last. "It has to be a place." "How far away is Tannick?" It caught Deanna off guard. "I really don't know. It's never been a concern. Far enough that we have to travel through transwarp conduits to make it home in a few hours." "I'm just asking because it's amazing to me that you could communicate with your husband across such a distance." Deanna laughed. "I can't. I was asking Sakhara. Who, though he can't teleport himself, would know such things." "I thought you were an empath." Shehady's challenge would have evoked a different response in Deanna just a year ago. Will smiled as Deanna raised her head and said, "I used to think so. Although I'm not certain what to call it, I'm something more than an empath, but not quite a telepath." The conversation turned to other subjects, as conversations usually did, and Shehady indulged her curiosity about the Ryxi throughout, even asking Deanna about the process of bearing Ryxi children, and rearing them. Beverly seemed just as curious. At one point, Deanna even teased Beverly for not asking more questions when she had them. The transport left _Jhegwa_ while they talked on, ordered drinks, and eventually dinner. They arrived in orbit around Tannick five hours later. "We're going to be very tired, or go to bed early," Deanna said, glancing out the window at the planet. "There's about four more hours of sunlight ahead of us, and Zakhad's probably got dinner planned. Unless Zerin's given her a hard time for the last two days." "You've been gone that long?" Deanna scowled at him. "Will, really." "Yes, really," Jean-Luc said. "She managed to be away from home for an entire week sometimes, when we were still aboard the _Enterprise._" "That's what you think." Deanna grinned craftily. "Gwaheer has an excellent sense of place, when it comes to the counselor's quarters aboard the _Enterprise._" "I hope he can't teleport in his sleep. Just imagine the look on Ron Gallibardi's face," Beverly said, laughing. Will hadn't met Deanna's replacement, but it must have been someone unlikely to have a good sense of humor about a winged alien appearing in his room. Deanna led them to the transporter room, unwilling to wait for the shuttle to land. With a few words muttered to the protesting attendant, she convinced him to not only send them down, but to put them on the flat area outside her front door. "There are some advantages to being married to the _Kreh'talliath na lei'sonn,_" she exclaimed. She stepped up to the door -- she's anxious, Will thought. Whatever it was, she'd sensed it all the way from the ship. Shehady stared around them in wonder. "This is your house?" "It is, and -- " When Deanna opened the door, music poured forth. She hesitated for a mere five seconds then went forth as a mother defied. "ZERIN!" The music was stilled a moment later, and then galloping footsteps were audible, and shouts -- Will recognized Zakhad's voice, distorted as it was by frustration and anger. Finally the melee ended, and Deanna appeared in the door, clutching a wriggling, winged infant to her chest. His tail, nearly four feet long and about the right thickness to make a decent whip, coiled and suddenly shot up to hit her alongside the head. She took it with a patient tolerance that spoke of many such occasions. "Sorry," she said with a grim smile. "Come in, please. It's safe. Luckily, there's only one of him." They followed her inside, through pools of sunlight filtered through the many panels in the ceiling. The furniture had changed from his last visit; now there were sofas around the edges of the room, and the long conference-type table had been replaced by a small round one. Will recognized Deanna's influence at once. A large painting, a replicated Chagall, hung on a wall that had been bare before. 'Bouquet of Roses' -- she'd had a smaller copy in her quarters on the _Enterprise._ Deanna's fellow wife sat on the end of a sofa, leaning against the wall. Her long blue hair was coming out of her usual braid, and she looked exhausted. "Thank you, Zakhad," Deanna said. Zakhad sniffed. "No -- thank you, for coming home. He's been an absolute terror. Genetics aside, he knows exactly who his birth mother is." "I'm sorry. I guess I'll have to go back to the less busy schedule." She smiled down at the now-quiet infant. "Terrible little boy." Zerin stuck his hand in her mouth. She spat it out, and he tried again, until he missed and jammed a finger up her nose, at which point she rearranged him and grabbed him by the base of his tail. Holding him at arms' length, she carried him, squirming and making desperate little wheedling squeals and squawks, from the room. He caught her arm just as she disappeared into the kitchen. Deanna's laughter drifted back to them, joined by Zerin's light, chirping giggle. "How cute," Shehady said. Zakhad looked skeptical at that. "Please excuse me -- it's been a rough day. I'm Zakhad zel'Gwahiri Terlag'him." "Shehady Kimmel. I think I've got it figured out, but -- the zel'Gwahiri part is a married name?" "Yes, it is. My apologies for the state of -- everything," Zakhad said, looking around her. One of the chairs had been tipped over, and Will realized a scattering of objects was strewn about the floor. "Zerin must have his father's sensitivities. I suspect he sensed Deanna when the shuttle came into orbit -- he's been whining and crying since she left, but a few moments ago he went absolutely crazy. He turned on nearly every -- oh! Excuse me, I have a lot of things to turn off!" She rushed from the room. "Okay, so polygamy as a defense mechanism against the terrors of young children," Shehady said. "Do you analyze everything this way?" Will exclaimed. "Just things that intrigue me." She grinned. "I can't wait to meet Daddy." ^&^ ^&^ ^&^ Will tested the amorphous bed with a finger, and looked around the guest room. Bare as most Ryxi rooms tended to be, with just a table and a couple chairs in the corner. A window that overlooked the canyon. The bag he'd carried all day sat in another corner. Shehady returned from the bathroom. "It literally is a bath room. I guess the size of the hot tub makes sense, if the normal occupants have wings. You're depressed." "No, just tired. Deanna was right, the time differences have me worn out. And it feels weird to see the sun still up." Shehady smiled and put her arms around him, kissing his cheek. "Let's take them up on the hot spring idea. They're already out there." "I don't know -- two Betazoids and two Ryxi, and no modesty in sight." "Oh, stop. You weren't modest on Risa." He sighed. "Okay, try it this way -- ex-girlfriend and her husband, and his other wife, and present girlfriend. All of races that don't care if they walk around in the nude in broad daylight." Shehady laughed. He loved her laugh; she only did it when she really felt like it. "You're right, we don't -- did you see, he's really got -- " "Blue balls. I know. They tease him about it all the time. Though technically I guess it's the scrotum that's blue. What?" "You're just being silly. Come on, Will. Off with it." She unbuttoned his shirt. "We're going to sit in the hot water and relax, and it won't be that bad. It's not like you haven't already seen Deanna naked, and Zakhad really doesn't have that much more to see. And I can't imagine that Gwaheer would surprise you in any way. For a big winged guy, his equipment's pretty standard." He helped her pull off the shirt. "All right, whatever. I'm a sucker for a beautiful woman." He dropped his pants and caught her in his arms. She wouldn't let him kiss her for long, though. "Thought you were tired. Think of cold showers and ugly women, and let's go." She dragged him by the arm. Gwaheer was sitting in the center of the pool, head bowed while Deanna massaged both sets of his shoulders. Zakhad must have gone inside for something. Deanna looked up and smiled at them. "Glad you decided to join us. Sunbathing on Risa again, Will?" He nearly looked down at himself. She must mean the absence of tan lines. "It's been a while," he said, stepping down into the water. Shehady simply dropped in nearby, sending ripples across the surface into Gwaheer's face. He shook his head and sneezed water from his nostrils. "Sorry." "It could be worse. I could just push his head under." Deanna opened one of his wings and began working her way up from the shoulder. "I often do, when he says something naughty." "Naughty," Gwaheer echoed, wincing when her fingers closed on a wing joint. "That's one of your mother's favorite words. Not so hard, you'll make it pop out again and Zakhad will scold all night." "She won't scold me. I saved her from _your_ son." Gwaheer adopted a long-suffering expression Will had seen on parents before. "How odd it is that suddenly he has one parent." "I think that's universal," Shehady said. "I was always my father's daughter when I did something bad. I was Daddy's daughter a _lot._" "I'm guessing Zerin's mischief has a lot more to do with his mother. My daughter was never that wild. Whether it's genetic, or if Deanna somehow fed him subconscious instructions while in the womb -- " Deanna grabbed his hair and shoved his head forward. She let go almost at once, and he came up spluttering. Then his tail whipped up around her neck and she disappeared with a squeak. He snapped his wings shut as he was pulled under after her. "I told you it would be worth it," Shehady said, shoving Will's calf with her toes. "I don't see how this qualifies as 'worth it.' Who knows what they're doing -- " Both of them surfaced at the other end of the pool, gasping. Deanna went back under for a moment, and came up holding the band she'd had in her hair. After shaking water from his ears, Gwaheer amiably helped her, plaiting her hair with surprising dexterity, considering he'd folded his fingers and worked only with his knuckles. "You watch it. We have guests, after all," she exclaimed. He smiled cryptically and half-hummed, half-purred. Finishing the braid, he pulled her backward and wrapped his arms around her. Both of them sank to chin-level and closed their eyes. A long, high-pitched wail came from the house. Deanna's eyes opened. "Maybe I should just go sit with him." "Go to bed, _kahzan'kahliu._ You're very tired, and your presence will calm him. He hasn't slept very much in your absence." She slipped out of his arms and turned to face him, and a long look passed between them. He hummed a few bars of a song that made her smile, then she climbed the steps on that end of the pool and headed for the house. Will kept his eyes on Gwaheer's face, and off Deanna's shapely rear view; the Ryxian closed his eyes again. "You've been very quiet," Gwaheer said after a few moments of silence. "Both of you. Except for Shehady's constant stream of questions, that is. Is there something wrong?" Will looked at Shehady. He realized he'd been avoiding looking at her all afternoon, and saw that recognition in her eyes as well -- a half-scolding sadness. "I know what you're thinking, Will," Gwaheer said. "And not because I'm reading your mind. You have that 'trapped in a tub with telepaths' expression. I've seen it before. But the fact remains that the last time you were here, in spite of the circumstances and the complicated set of issues you were sorting out, you managed to be much more yourself than you've been today. I suspect from Shehady's similar demeanor that it's a personal matter. If you would like me to leave -- " "No." He surprised himself. Will glanced at Shehady, then at Gwaheer again. "Actually, I'd like to talk to you, if you don't mind." "I'll go inside," Shehady said. But Will grabbed her arm before she could rise from the water. Gwaheer studied him with an unfathomable look that reminded Will of Deanna at her most opaque. A counselor's look. "What do you want to discuss?" "I don't know what -- I can't find the words. I need your help. You're a counselor." Gwaheer moved slowly down the length of the hot spring, among the wisps of steam and bubbling water, and settled just out of arm's length, careful not to strike his wings on the side. He sat up to his shoulders in the water and watched Riker, his pupils shrinking to points and exposing the golden rays against the solid blue. "You are afraid." Will glanced nervously at Shehady. "I don't feel fear." Gwaheer smiled lazily. "I've heard that one before. One of the peculiarities of humans is the ability to force one feeling to masquerade as another. Denial, as Deanna would say. But you're sweating, and I can taste the fear. Requiring Shehady's presence is another symptom of fear -- you are afraid of what will happen if she goes." "I need your help, Gwaheer. Don't make it so difficult. It's bad enough that I have to admit it -- to you." "Then tell me what you want." Will tried to think. The damned bat was right -- he was afraid. His breath came faster, his heart hammered, and he couldn't think. "I want you to sing for me." "Really?" "You've done it before. Sing what I'm feeling. I can't -- there are no words in me." Gwaheer narrowed his eyes and sighed. "You want me to tell you how you feel? How do you know I can tell, if you can't?" "I've heard you do it for Deanna. Remember?" "Deanna is my bonded mate. Will, I can't tell you what you want to hear. I honestly don't know what that is. Are you so afraid of admitting it to yourself?" Shehady got out of the water, dripping her way into the house and leaving wet footprints on the pale stone of the walk. Will watched her go, mute with terror. "I asked her to go," Gwaheer said softly. "Relax." "How?" "No need for anger. Which, of course, is another manifestation of the fear. You want me to help, don't you?" "You won't do what I asked." "That wouldn't help you. Do you love her?" Will opened his mouth. Only air escaped. He glared at Gwaheer and sat back against the edge of the spring, grinding the rough rock into his shoulder blades. "Do you honestly want me to help you? Do you trust me?" "I don't have much choice at the moment. You're the only counselor in sight other than Deanna, and I can't talk about this with her. Shehady thought I've been distant because of unfinished business related to Deanna. She wanted me to confront her. She wants me to get this out of my system. But it isn't Deanna at all. I don't think it is, anyway. I honestly don't know what it could be. Shehady's forced me here to confront the wrong thing, and if I can't figure this out, she'll leave." Gwaheer stood and climbed up to perch on the edge, wings drooping, letting the water stream from his body. "You shouldn't stay in for more than twenty minutes. It's very hot. Wouldn't want to see you boiled alive." "Are you going to make me beg?" "You don't want Shehady to leave. You don't believe your difficulty is due to Deanna. What precisely is the problem?" "I'm. . . not happy. But I am. I enjoy every minute I'm with Shehady, yet I don't feel -- it's completely different than it was with Deanna. I try to feel like I'm in love, but it's not happening." Gwaheer's ears stood out from his head, the tips drooping. He looked at Will, wearing a strange, sad-yet-amused smile. "Rehia and I were together for over a decade before she brought Zakhad home. She was all fire and air, all motion and passion -- and Zakhad was completely different. She approaches her emotions almost as clinically as her patients. I had the sun and the moon under my roof, one hot, one cool. And Deanna is different yet. She's become the ground, a solid foundation, a refuge. She accepts me and never flinches away from me, even when I am angry. You will never find the same emotion twice, Will. Every love is different. I could find another wife tomorrow, and it would be different yet again. Deanna's feelings for me differ from what she felt for you, just as your feelings for Shehady differ from what you felt for Deanna." "But why am I so unhappy, then? Love is supposed to be happy. Hell, Deanna's beyond happy." Will pulled himself out of the water, leaving his feet on the top step. "It's because I'm afraid of it, isn't it? I'm afraid of screwing it up again." Gwaheer closed his eyes, still smiling his sad amusement. "I told Deanna the day I married her that she was free to go back to you. I encouraged her to consider it. I dangled it in front of her as if it would distract her, because I was afraid. As a wife, she would be a liability to me in so many ways -- the knowledge that she, being a Starfleet officer, might be killed too easily in the line of duty, frightened me. I didn't want to suffer the way I did when Rehia died. Losing a bond mate is comparable, I would guess, to having open heart surgery with no anesthetic, but the wounds of surgery heal faster. Twenty years of waking up every morning and having it hit me all over again that a part of my soul was missing -- I nearly drove Zakhad over the edge of her infinite patience. Deanna terrified me, and I wanted to escape. If I lost Deanna, I would put not only myself, but Zakhad, through more years of suffering. But she insisted -- they both demanded it. And of course, I am very weak-willed, where Deanna and Zakhad are concerned." They sat listening to the bubbling of the hot spring for a while. The sun dropped toward the horizon, casting long shadows of trees around them. Finally Gwaheer said, "You should go to bed. Tomorrow you will feel better. Especially if you sleep late, which you are welcome to do." "I don't want to lose Shehady," Will said. "But I don't want to lie to her. I don't know how to be with her. She has expectations of something long term, she hints at that, but I'm not sure I can do that without -- " "Do you love her?" "I don't know. I think I do, but then I'm not sure. God help me, I don't know." "Or you don't want to know. It's safer to resort to denial. Have you let her touch your mind yet?" "No. She hasn't asked, I haven't offered." Gwaheer stood and walked around the spring slowly. "Consider doing that, before much longer. Telepaths are not empaths, nor are they omniscient. There is a constant struggle within, when one is a telepath and one's mate isn't. I have never invaded Zakhad's thoughts, but the temptation exists. Shehady is very polite, but very inquisitive." Will watched him go in the house, then rose and made his way to his room. Shehady had curled up with her back to the door. She snored quietly as he closed the door. He was amazed to find that the bed, as fluid as it was, compensated and didn't disturb her when he lay on it. She'd pulled the blinds shut, and lines of sunlight slowly going purple made stripes across her lightly-tanned skin. He traced the curve of her spine with a fingertip hovering over her skin, then his hand settled just above the curve of her hip. Shifting in her sleep, she inched backward into him and shrugged him on like a comfortable jacket. He closed his eyes and fell asleep with his arm draped over her. ^&^ ^&^ ^&^ He woke alone. Shehady wasn't in the bath, either, and after Will dressed he wandered around the house. Shehady stood in the kitchen looking out the window over the sink, peering to the left. The smell of coffee -- real coffee, fresh brewed, not replicated -- made Will's stomach growl. It reminded him of breakfast, eggs and hash browns, pancakes and syrup, the way he used to make it when he'd taken up cooking. God, how the years flew by! But just the smell of coffee, and he was flipping cakes on the griddle again in his memories. "Look at them," Shehady whispered. A hand on her shoulder, he leaned and followed her gaze. Gwaheer and Deanna -- of course. They were waltzing slowly on the flat, just outside the front door. Her forehead rested on his chin. His wings wrapped around her like a cloak, his eyes were closed and he was probably humming. Then his wings snapped back, she let go and backed away, and he sprang, catlike, to the top of a large post marking one corner of his dooryard. His hands gripped it, then his feet, then he sprang from there into the air. The downbeat of his wings sent dead leaves and small puffs of dust into the air on either side of him. He rose into the air, banking around, and soared out of sight. Deanna ran to the edge of the yard and held up her hand; Gwaheer returned, hovering, and gripped her wrist with his foot lightly before turning on a wingtip and gliding away down the valley. "Beautiful," Shehady whispered. "To be cherished that way. My parents had a bond like that." Will thought about his discussion with Gwaheer the prior evening -- for someone Deanna had dragged into the relationship, he seemed blissfully happy. He must be even happier now that he had Deanna here. She wouldn't be roving the galaxy facing danger every day. Deanna joined them, looking windblown but happy. "Good morning. I hope you slept well -- you must have, you missed breakfast." She pressed a panel and a cupboard slid open, revealing a neat row of coffee mugs. They stood in the kitchen drinking coffee fresh from the pot, sampling the array of flavorings available. "Gwaheer must like coffee," Shehady said. "Not really. He knows I do, though, and he brought back some of this the last time he went to Earth. Zakhad likes to drink the kahlua straight." Deanna picked up the large bottle and grimaced. "I'm surprised at how familiar the food seems," Will said. "Or is that Zakhad's way of being a good hostess?" Deanna pursed her lips in amusement. "Remember when Ro Laren made us hasperat? And how we all ran around waving our hands looking for water, with tears streaming down our faces and tongues on fire? Most Ryxi food will do that to you, if it's not prepared with a human palate in mind. Zakhad's good at it." "You know, when Will told me you'd married a Ryxian, I couldn't understand -- but I think I'm beginning to. Are they all that courteous?" Deanna opened her mouth but the sound of thundering wingbeats outside interrupted. She rolled her eyes and went out to greet the newcomer, the hem of her long white house dress brushing the tops of her bare feet. "I have guests, Tormal," she exclaimed in a forbidding tone. "Oh, boy," Will muttered. Tormal -- he remembered the youngest of the brothers well. Still single, and he had a crush on half his brothers' wives. "Who is it?" Shehady asked. "When Gwaheer's father died, his mother asked him to raise his youngest brother. In spite of his better efforts, Tormal's impossible," Will whispered, barely mouthing the words. Ryxi could hear too well to do otherwise. From the front room, they heard a scuffle of feet. "I just wanted to show this to you and Gwaheer -- I got it on Qo'nos." "Get out!" At the anger and fear in her voice, Will bolted for the door. Shehady came close behind. Deanna backed against the wall and stared at the ugly Klingon weapon in Tormal's hands. Before Will could move, a shadow fell across the door, and in the swiftest of movements Gwaheer was in the room and grabbing his brother by the back of the neck. He wrested the knife from Tormal's hand and shook the smaller man, hard. "I told you I did not want weapons in this house! I have a child who fears nothing, and a wife who hates Klingon weaponry -- that she politely admires your collection means only that she cares for you in spite of your obsession. If I ever see this in my house again, it -- and you -- will be thrown in the lake. Is that understood?" Tormal flinched with every word, as if they were stones being thrown at him. Gwaheer spun and threw him bodily from the house. Then he cocked his arm and threw the knife after; the _thunk_ and absence of a scream must have meant he'd struck the post rather than Tormal. He slapped the controls with his palm to shut the door, and spun to hurry to Deanna. She'd slid down the wall to sit on the floor, and held her head in her hands. Rather than embrace her, Gwaheer settled on his haunches in front of her like a gargoyle, hands over his knees and watching her intently. "I'm better," she said with a sigh. "I'm sorry. It's a good thing Zakhad took it upon herself to take Zerin with her. Don't be so angry with Tormal -- " "Later, Deanna. You have guests, and I have people waiting impatiently for me." Deanna ran her fingertips down his face, in a gesture that reminded Will of when Shehady had done the same thing to him in his ready room two months before. "Fly." Gwaheer held up his hand, and she put her palm to his, and their hands swayed together in an odd, sinuous dance. He spoke softly to her. "Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet. Let it not be a death but completeness. Let love melt into memory and pain into songs. Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest. Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night." She pulled her hand away, and he vanished. Shehady jumped; so did Will. He'd forgotten how abruptly Gwaheer could be gone. Deanna regained her feet while they stood for a few seconds in shock. "I'm sorry, that doesn't happen often. Tormal usually doesn't come when we have guests." "You were afraid of him," Will said. "I was afraid, but not of him. That particular kind of knife -- I didn't expect to see it again. It reminded me -- but that's not important, now. I'll make you breakfast." Shehady caught her arm, however. "That was a flashback. I've seen it often enough. We treated a lot of casualties on Betazed during the war." Deanna frowned. "Yes. But like I said, it doesn't matter. It doesn't happen often, any more." "Worf?" Will tried to keep anger out of the word. Not that it mattered; she sensed it in him, as was obvious by the look on her face. "I made mistakes, Will. We all make them. We all carry the regret. Worf tried too hard even when he knew it wouldn't work, and I have a tendency to deny it when something's wrong." Deanna hugged herself. "It was to our detriment, but it's understandable." "Regret doesn't cause flashbacks," Will exclaimed. Deanna turned away, shook off Shehady's next attempt to touch her, and went in the kitchen. Shehady looked at Will as if expecting an explanation, but he had none. Resigning himself to unsatisfied, concerned curiosity, he put an arm around her shoulders and they joined Deanna in the kitchen. ^&^ ^&^ ^&^ They spent the day touring the city. Deanna knew her way around as if she'd lived there all her life, knew the restaurants and the sights to see, and was stopped several times by friendly Ryxi and We'lassi who wanted to chat. Shehady enjoyed every minute of it, and it was easy to relax into being a happy couple on tour. Will even managed to forget that Deanna had ever been more than a good friend, though when he did remember it hurt a little. Even now, even with Shehady laughing and clinging to his arm. Strange as it was, Gwaheer's total lack of concern about him was what helped the most. The Ryxian had never expressed irritation or concern about Will's prior relationship with Deanna. He seemed to accept Worf the same way -- though Deanna had obviously been wounded badly by her relationship with the Klingon, Gwaheer didn't harbor any ill will toward him, and during their visit prior to the treaty, had even befriended him. Worf didn't sing Klingon opera with just anyone. Shehady and Deanna had hit it off well, and by the time they returned to the house via the public transporter, the three of them were relaxed and smiling, and a little tired from all the walking. When they entered the front room, they were confronted by a group of unexpected guests -- not unusual in Gwaheer's house, Will gathered from the calm way Deanna handled it. She stood silent a moment, and the three Ryxi at the table looked back at her. "I hope you haven't been waiting long," she said at last. "Our apologies," the one sitting nearest to Deanna said. "We did not know you had guests." "This is Will Riker, and Shehady Kimmel. They'll be staying with us for a number of days. Will, Shehady, this is Gwaheer's daughter, Saan, and her son Zohk, and his wife, Lehon." The three Ryxi smiled. Will struggled to adjust -- of course, given Gwaheer's age, and the age of his daughter -- but this was Deanna's step-daughter, in spite of Saan being twice her age. This was her step-grandchild -- "It's a pleasure to meet you," Saan said carefully. Now that he knew who she was, Will could see a slight resemblance to her father. She looked at her step-mother -- did the Ryxi differentiate like that? Or were all wives considered mothers? -- and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. Deanna's reply was laced with amusement. "What is it, Saan?" "I wish to show Lehon the family pictures. Would it be permissible to borrow them for the evening? I had hoped to introduce her to Zerin, also, but I see he isn't here." "Zakhad took him with her to work to give me time with my friends. I'll get the pictures -- you'll have to find the ones you want. There are so many of them." Deanna left the room. Will smiled at the Ryxi; Zohk, he guessed, smiled tentatively in return. Happily, Deanna returned with a metal box and put it on the table. She let Saan open it and sort through what appeared to be a hundred or so data wafers. "Shehady, if you'd like to go ahead and take Will out to the garden, I'll bring out some drinks for us in a bit?" Deanna said. Will thought a relieved thank you at her and followed Shehady from the room. When the kitchen, the long corridor to the back of the house, and the back door were between them and the Ryxi, he said, "You didn't ask them any nosy questions." Shehady shrugged and headed for the table and chairs on the patio at the edge of the canyon. "There's some tension going on with Deanna. She's not completely comfortable with them." "Thought you weren't the nosy type." "Oh, it's different between Betazoids. We don't mind so much, if it's not intrusive. We've actually been speaking Betazed most of the day, not that you'd notice with that translator she has around her wrist. Her first thought through the door was something like 'here we go again.'" Will slumped into a chair. Slumping was probably running neck-and-neck with his other vice, drinking, for the position of favorite off-duty pastime -- that wasn't directly related to Shehady, anyway. Shehady was in a class all her own. She seemed to realize he was thinking about her, and settled in his lap, biting his neck playfully. "You didn't wake me up last night." "We were both too tired. And talking to Gwaheer didn't help much." "I think you expected too much. He was exasperated by your demand. What's the business with singing for you?" "The Ryxi believe that some emotions are too important or too strong to be simply spoken. They sing them instead. Not always melodiously, and not always elegantly, but they sing any time they can't find the right words. Even anger. And Gwaheer is a fanatic about old Terran music, just like his father, and he has an immense collection, some songs dating back to the twentieth century. He often sings them." "Why do I get the feeling the Ryxi live a long time?" "Gwaheer's nearly two hundred years old, as far as I can make out. How's that for a May-December relationship?" "A what?" "Never mind. Deanna said he's known her mother since before she -- Deanna, not Lwaxana -- was born. And Saan is pushing the century mark herself." "Well, I'd be tense, too, with a stepdaughter that old!" Shehady played with his beard idly. "You ever thought about kids?" "Of course." He thought about all the children he'd known on the _Enterprise_ -- including his temporarily-diminutive "son" Jean-Luc, and Deanna's encounter with an unknown life form that had chosen her as a temporary mother -- and grinned. "I like kids. Even the ones who gave me trouble when I was Jean-Luc's first officer. Even when Worf's son knocked me flat when I agreed to help Worf with his weapons training. I'd like to think I would do a better job as a father than my dad. I'd actually try to be there once in a while." "Bitter greens," Shehady said. "Thought you swore off salad." "You asked." She ruffled his hair. "I'm glad we came. Today was nice. You're right -- it really isn't anything to do with Deanna, is it?" He labeled the odd strangled feeling his chest 'fear' as Gwaheer had, and tried to get around it. "I wish I could tell you what it is." Will hated her quiet sigh, and the dwindling of her smile. He tried to prop it up with his thumb. It worked, briefly, but then she curled up with her head on his shoulder, lay her hand flat on his chest, palm over his heart, and heaved another great sigh. "Touch my mind," he said quietly. "Read what I'm thinking." She didn't move. "Do you really want that?" "It's only fair. I can't talk, and you can do it." He pressed his lips to her forehead. "I want you to know. It's a little frightening, but I know you must be frustrated by this. I am." She touched his forehead and traced four lines down his face, a manicured nail running down his nose. He felt it suddenly -- the sense that someone had just stepped into his skin with him, and not just in his head as he'd imagined, but throughout his body. {Relax. It's not going to be the same -- I'm not an empath.} {But Deanna never really -- it wasn't like this, and you're -- you don't sound the same.} {Close your eyes. It will help.} She was right. But now he seemed adrift in darkness, and she was still there. Distantly, he still held her in his arms, and her head still lay upon his shoulder, keeping it warm while the other felt cold in the gentle breeze rising from the canyon. {Will it help if I go first?} {Go first? Can you tell -- do you know how I'm feeling? Can you see it?} {I'm a telepath, Will, not a magician.} The sob surprised him -- he didn't even feel it coming, it was just there, and Shehady slipped from his lap to stand clutching his head to her stomach. He'd never cried this way before. She was still there, still with him, but the connection was more tenuous than it had been. He realized his fingers were digging into her arm, his other hand pinching the back of her thigh, and sat back to catch his breath and hopefully his dignity. She dropped to one knee and brushed his face tenderly, with a look on her face that reminded him of Gwaheer's that morning, as the Ryxian had recited poetry to his wife -- it tore him apart again. "I'm sorry," he blurted, fighting for control. "I love you, Shehady." She laughed -- the rippling notes echoed in the canyon behind them. Bursting into tears, she climbed into his lap again and kissed him fervently. {I love you!} "It's about time." Shehady nearly fell off his lap turning to look. Will caught her and looked up at Deanna. She put the tray of drinks on the table and smiled her best pleased-as-punch-and-dying-to-laugh smile, and tilted her head as she crossed her arms. "What?" Will blurted, daring her to say anything more. The smile softened to one less amused and more reflective. "Will Riker has finally learned how to conquer fear of intimacy." Shehady did laugh at that. And Will dropped her, letting her slide down one of his legs to the stone patio. She covered her mouth with one hand and giggled maniacally. "I'm sorry, but she's right." "Thank you," Will exclaimed. The hardness in his voice wasn't lost on Deanna. "I'm sorry -- I didn't intend to ruin the moment. But Gwaheer told me what you discussed last night, Will. And I think his assessment of both of us is right -- you and I are alike in that we feared so much that we would ruin a relationship that we subconsciously sabotaged ourselves. I erred on the side of forcing myself to cling beyond all sanity, and you err on the side of never taking the final leap." Deanna put a drink in front of Will, then held out a hand to help Shehady up. Both women sat down, and Shehady reached for a glass. To break the silence, Will guessed, Shehady asked, "What was that thing you did with the hands this morning, with Gwaheer?" The amused and pleased smile returned. "A reminder. When I married Gwaheer, he showed me that gesture, to define his expectations of our relationship. We are together, we move and live as one, but at any time one of us may choose to go our own way." Deanna held up her hands flat against each other and imitated the sinuous back-and-forth motion, then parted them and fluttered her fingers like a bird in flight. "My choices are always mine, but I choose with him and Zakhad in mind. His choices are the same. It keeps us together." "I like that." Shehady looked at Will out of the corners of her eyes. "You think that would work?" Will grinned. "It would be worth a try." He held up a hand, and she put hers up to it and pushed. He shoved back, and both of them laughed. "I hope it works better than the example." Deanna hummed something, and it was so unusual for her to hum that Will looked at her askance. She smiled a little and shook her head. "Are you taking up singing, now that you're living here full time?" Will asked. "I try to fit in when I can. It's a mutual effort -- Zakhad learns my language, Gwaheer tolerates my irrational crying fits that sometimes interrupt what he's doing, and I try to put my feelings into song." "So sing something for us." Shehady's puckish grin brought out one of Will's. A woman after his own heart. Deanna looked at the sky. "I _don't_ think so." "You know, I've never heard her sing -- unless you count the off-key renditions of happy birthday once in a while." Will winked at Shehady. "It's time for your grand debut, then. Come on, you can sing just a little something for us. Just a verse." Deanna shook her head and sipped her drink. A shadow flitted over them, and all three of them looked up automatically. Gwaheer turned on a wingtip and fluttered down to land neatly on two feet, just out of the way of the table. He folded his wings and came to the table, grinning. Deanna sat up straighter, eyes flashing a warning, and Gwaheer backed a step, coiling his tail and pointing his ears forward as intensely-amused Ryxi seemed to do. "You asked me to sing for you last night, Will," he said. "I informed you I couldn't do that, but I think Deanna could. Since she is suffering from self-induced laryngitis -- well, really, DeeDee. That isn't a nice thing to think about me." "Fine, you sing, then. I'll just be a good wife and get you something to drink." Deanna ran into his wing as she stood, as it popped open in front of her. "'hiri, please -- " "Insecurity isn't a normal Troi characteristic." He took her hand and spun her under his arm, sending her skirt billowing around her ankles. She laughed nervously and glanced at Will and Shehady. And then she began to sing, and Gwaheer joined her, gathering her under his arm. "When you look into my eyes?And you see the crazy gypsy in my soul?It always comes as a surprise?When I feel my withered roots begin to grow?Well, I never had a place that I could call my very own?But that's alright, my love, 'cause you're my home When you touch my weary head?And you tell me ev'rything will be alright?You say, use my body for your bed?And my love will keep you warm throughout the night?Well I'll never be a stranger and I'll never be alone?Wherever we're together, that's my home If I travel all my life?And I never get to stop and settle down?Long as I have you by my side?There's a roof above and good walls all around?You're my castle, you're my cabin and my instant pleasure dome?I need you in my house 'cause you're my home." They walked away as they sang loudly and tunelessly, and finished as they disappeared around the shrubbery. Zerin's shrill cry, followed by a frantic shout from Zakhad and a crash, came faintly from the house. Shehady laughed, but fell silent and looked at Will expectantly. He put his glass on the table and pulled her by the arm into his lap. "Is it something different yet?" She giggled. "Will, with you, it's always something different. It better stay that way, too."? ---------------------------- You're My Home -- From Billy Joel's Piano Man album. Poetry quoted from Rabindranath Tagore's poem, "The Gardner."

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This page contains a single entry by Lori published on July 16, 2006 2:27 PM.

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