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the love that lies beneath your skin

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"Lay this oath upon my chest
I'm not meant to follow
Take my chances with regret
A cause I'll prove to no one

And I know I kept you waiting here
For so long I tried to see your face
The answer, it lies within
The love that lies beneath your skin"
-- Bound For Severance, "The Answer"

 

"You're doing it again."

Beverly glances up to see her best friend standing in the doorway of her office, an exasperated look on her face. A frown pulls down her own brows as she tries to figure out what it is that she's doing, the lines between them deepening at the realization that she never even heard the door chime or open.

"Doing what?"

Deanna's lips tip up in that knowing smirk that Beverly only likes when it's not aimed at her. "Thinking too loudly. I wouldn't be surprised if my mother could hear your thoughts all the way on Betazed right now." Her lips purse slightly. "Or wherever it is she's currently ensconced. I don't always get those updates like I once did."

The look on her face makes Beverly laugh. "I bet you never thought you'd be disappointed by that, did you?"

"Don't you start," Deanna replies, resignation coloring her words. She grins when Beverly lifts her hands in acquiescence. "So what exactly is it that has you shouting in my head today?"

"You don't know?" She knows better than to say it, very familiar with the limits of her best friend's empathic abilities. Before Deanna has the chance to do more than quirk an imperious eyebrow at her, Beverly shrugs. "I know you don't. I just-- I don't know where to start. And I'm up to my eyeballs in performance reviews, so I don't even have the time to try to unravel it." She sighs softly. "I am sorry if I've distracted you from your own work. Wasn't my intention in the slightest."

Deanna is quiet for a long moment, and Beverly can feel the intensity of her stare and fights the urge to squirm. "You've no need to apologize, you know, but perhaps it would be wise to take a break from those reports? You need to schedule a little Beverly time."

"I don't have ti--"

"I can pull rank and insist," Deanna says, smoothly interrupting her. A prim smile curls up her lips ever so slightly. "And I'm pretty sure I can get the XO to agree with me."

Beverly's eyes narrow at that. "Why are you bringing him up all of a sudden?" When Deanna remains silent for a moment or two, she tries again. "Deanna, what's going on?"

"I think you need to ask yourself that, Beverly," she replies, standing up to reach across the desk to squeeze Beverly's hand. "And when you have an answer, I think you need to speak to him about it." With those parting words, she leaves the office as quietly as she entered it, leaving Beverly behind to stew over the enigmatically clear expectations now resting on her shoulders.

*****

It's several hours later before she ventures out of her office, long past the end of her duty shift. There is still far too much work to be done, but she has time yet before the reviews are due, and her concentration is shot as it is. Without realizing it, her feet lead her to Ten-Forward. The lure of a drink and the vast darkness of space are tantalizing, but as she steps into the large room, she is immediately met with not only the cacophony of more people than she can easily handle in her state of distraction, but also the sight of the three people she's closest to sharing a table up near the windows. There's a minute shift to the set of all three pairs of shoulders, as if they preternaturally know she's just across the room. Deanna, of course, can probably feel her emotional landscape closer. They've had that discussion before. Even after nearly six years of serving together, it still feels a bit odd, but she's… used to it. When the two men she cares about the most after her son tend to react the same way more and more with the passage of time, it definitely unnerves her.

A shift in movement brings her back to the present situation. Deanna's already turned to study her, head cocked slightly to the side with an unreadable expression. For all intents and purposes, she could be looking at Jean-Luc, who is clearly telling a story at the moment, but Beverly just knows the truth is something else. When Will laughs at whatever's being said and looks to Deanna for a reaction that is clearly less than either man expects, he follows her gaze to see Beverly standing there. The amusement on his face shifts imperceptibly to a smile she knows he only pulls out for her.

"Dr. Crusher," Guinan says, suddenly appearing at her side with a plate in her hand. "What serendipity to see you here. I am swamped at the bar for some reason and can't get any of my staff's attention. Is there any chance you can take this plate of osgoid over to Counsellor Troi? I even have a glass of your favorite synthale for you."

"Oh, Guinan, I wasn't--"

"I am in your debt for this." Guinan just butts in with that incessantly calm voice of hers, pressing the glass and plate into her hands. "When you're ready for another round, let me know and I'll take care of it personally."

And then she's gone, leaving Beverly standing there with hands full enough that she'll start to draw attention if she doesn't do something about it. Taking a deep breath, she straightens her spine and begins to walk over to the table just as Jean-Luc starts to turn around. She offers them all a small smile, and she knows it doesn't quite meet her eyes, but she really doesn't want to cause a scene.

"Ah, Beverly, so good of you to join us," Jean-Luc says as Will pulls out the chair positioned between him and Deanna. "I was beginning to think you might've forgotten our standing get together."

She shakes her head, the smile growing slightly. "Apparently body memory is better than my actual memory today. My apologies for being tardy." She sets the plate in front of Deanna. "I was asked to deliver this to you. But it sounds like the next round for the table is on Guinan, so there's that." She settles and takes a long drink from her glass, relishing the smooth flavor on her tongue. It goes a long way to settle her into her skin. Feeling their eyes on her still, she says, "I got caught up in performance reviews, but when I reread the same PADD four times without retaining anything, I realized it was time to call it a night, as it were. And here I am."

Deanna pushes the plate closer to Beverly and inclines her head. "Have one. I won't lecture the CMO about the importance of eating regularly, but as Ship's Counsellor, I am well within my rights to advise you that chocolate can right many wrongs in one's life if eaten regularly."

The twitch of those mulberry-stained lips, combined with the mischievous twinkle in dark, expressive eyes, is enough to get Beverly laughing with genuine surprise. She picks up one of the gooey morsels, letting the chocolate sauce stop dripping before popping it in her mouth. She chews slowly and swallows, a low, appreciative moan escaping her lips in the process.

"Okay, that helped more than I expected," she says softly. "Thank you, Deanna, but I won't keep you from your treat."

Deanna shrugs and smirks. "I got them for the table. I had a feeling they'd--" she stops mid-thought and blinks in surprise as Will's hand snakes out to grab the largest, gooiest piece to pop into his own mouth. Rolling her eyes as he offers her a chocolate-smeared smile, she continues, "I had a feeling they might be needed tonight. I just wasn't expecting someone to be quite so selfish to take the biggest piece."

Will's murmured Sorry is muffled by the mouthful of food. Beverly chuckles and shakes her head, taking another sip of her drink. Without thought, she leans over with a thumb to wipe at the sauce still clinging to the corner of his mouth and beard. It takes the startled widening of his eyes to realize what she's even done, and then she's almost afraid to look at their companions' reactions. She's never made such an intimate move in public before, and that sensation of all eyes on them comes back harder than when she first walked into the lounge.

"You have worse manners than Wesley and Jack combined," she grouses good-naturedly in an attempt to cover her embarrassment, and picks up a napkin to push into his hand. "You dribbled all down your uniform, too." She glances furtively at Deanna, who wears a bemused smile. "Was he always like this?"

"Oh yes," is the quick reply. "He used to be worse, if you can believe it."

That gets them all laughing, even Will, who has the good sense to look a little sheepish as he rubs at the chocolate staining his jacket. Pleased with his reaction, she snatches back the napkin and smirks as she licks it to get it wet, then dabs at the stain.

"Did you just lick that and touch it to my--"

"Do you want the stain out or would you rather advertise to everyone on the ship that you're unable to eat properly?" Her arched eyebrow is enough to make him grumble with a small grin. "Good boy. Always smart to leave the clothing rescues to the moms of the universe."

*****

By the time the four of them are getting up from the table, Beverly's mood has grown lighter, which is good in her book. Deanna heads for the doors first, claiming the need for a little sleep before she takes a partial bridge shift, and links an arm with Beverly's.

"Come on," she says. "Walk me to the lift and we can plan when we're going to get together to work out tomorrow."

Beverly knows this code for what it is, and is pretty sure that the two men also know, but plays along. "All right, but I'm not the one doing a partial bridge shift followed by a full duty shift," she teases. "If you bail on me, you'll never live it down."

Deanna's rich laughter floats in the air around them as they pass through the doors and out into the oddly empty corridor. Once they've walked a few meters down toward the lift, she turns to face Beverly, all traces of levity gone. "You're feeling better, I can tell, but you need to talk to him about whatever it is that's got you all turned around inside. You know he's more than willing to listen."

"It's not that easy."

"I have a little time before I have to be in bed if you'd rather talk to me about it." When Beverly starts to speak, Deanna cuts in smoothly and squeezes her arm. "Strictly as friends, not in any official capacity. I can feel how conflicted you are, but I still can't figure out what it is. You really should talk to someone as a sounding board, even if it's not me. Go hit the holodeck and create someone to talk to, if you think that'll help."

"I'm sure it won't come to that," Beverly replies softly and squeezes her arm back. "I probably just need some sleep and one of our workouts. It'll be fine, Deanna, I'll be fine."

She weathers Deanna's scrutiny for a moment as the lift doors open. As they step inside, she can hear Will and Jean-Luc talking about something, voices getting closer, but not close enough for them to hold the lift.

"Deck eight," Deanna says as the doors slide shut. The gentle movement toward their destination is almost undetected. "As long as you make sure to take care of yourself. You don't want me to make good on my threat from earlier, right?"

Beverly chuckles and shakes her head. "Not a chance. I just need a little time. If I can't figure it out in the next day or two, I'll come find you, all right?"

They exit the lift and walk toward their quarters. "I can accept that." She smirks then. "For the record? Will's actually quite good at full body massages that melt away your tension and let you sleep more deeply. You should ask him about that."

"You-- I--" She sighs as Deanna laughs again. "Sometimes I hate that you know things like that…"

"All part of the job," she replies with a shrug as they stop in front of her quarters. "You sure you don't want to borrow these ears and shoulders tonight?"

"I'm fine, Deanna. Get some sleep." She offers her own smirk. "Doctor's orders."

*****

She takes a long, hot shower, enjoying the way it eases lassitude into her bones. Pajamas and robe keep her warm as she curls up on the couch with a cup of chamomile tea to study the stars speeding past, only the light of a couple candles competing with that of the stars. She's not even sure how long she's sitting there, lost in thought, before the chime startles her. "Come in," she calls out softly, unwilling to get up just yet. "Will?" she asks as the door slides open to reveal the man occupying her thoughts, silhouetted by the corridor's lighting. Or, one of the men occupying her thoughts. "Is something wrong?"

He steps inside just enough to let the door close again, likely waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. "I'm not disturbing you, am I?"

"No, of course not. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Don't go to any trouble for me," he says, still standing there. "Can, uh, can we talk?"

She motions him closer, watching as he crosses the room in a dozen or so strides to settle in front of her. He's still in the chocolate-stained uniform, the sight of it making her smile. He glances down and grins sheepishly, the dimples still just visible beneath the dark beard.

"What's on your mind, Will?"

He chuckles and rests a hand on hers. "I was actually going to ask you the same thing. You seemed a little distracted tonight. Was it because of that whole incident in Ten-Forward?"

She could easily lie and let him believe that as truth, but she doesn't want to. She just doesn't know if she's ready to explain the real reason just yet. "No, that was more of an unconscious reaction to something that's been on my mind." It isn't until the words are out of her mouth that she fully realizes what she's said.

Fantastic…

Will is quiet for a long moment, turning to study the stars just as she was doing before he came in. "They're beautiful, aren't they?" When she mutters a nonverbal affirmative, he smiles and faces her again. "You know, they remind me just how big the universe is on a regular basis, and just how small my problems are, especially when I have people to share them with."

"Yes, I know."

He takes a deep breath and laces their fingers together. "What's wrong, Red? You know you can tell me anything, even if it's something I've done." He pauses then, head tilted curiously. "Is it something I've done?"

That makes her chuckle softly and squeeze his hand. "No, it's nothing you've done, Will, I promise. But you are involved in what's got me so confused." She glances down at their intertwined hands, sensing the quiet support emanating from him. "I got a communique a couple of days ago from the Trill homeworld." He stiffens ever so slightly at that one word, but she can tell he's trying to play it off.

"Oh?"

"It would seem they're interested in having me speak to their medical and scientific societies about the procedure I did two years ago."

"I see."

His thumb rubs over the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. The movement is soothing and gives her a bit of a reprieve to consider him again. His eyes are down on their joined hands, but she's sure of what she'll see reflected in those piercing blue eyes if he would but look up at her. They've discussed everything about that whole Odan incident several times over the last two years, from every conceivable angle. It was the feelings they'd both felt and admitted to eventually that let them continue this relationship of theirs. Friends with benefits still feels awkward in her mouth and in her mind, but it's the closest thing they've ever come to with regard to labeling what it is between them.

"It seems odd that they'd wait this long to have to speak about the procedure, isn't it?" he finally asks, voice pitched low in a way that suggests vulnerability more than embarrassment or curiosity. "I mean, you wrote up that report about it two years ago and they never questioned it then. So why now?"

"I'm not sure?" she responds truthfully. "Maybe they've finally cut through some sort of bureaucratic red tape? They've always been something of a secretive race in the past, you know that."

"Okay, that's fair," he says, then glances up at her. "Why does this have you so tense and distracted now though? It doesn't make any sense, Beverly."

"Because the request came specifically from Kareel, from Ambassador Odan."

She doesn't even have to look at him to know how that name will affect him. There's a very real reason that neither of them have mentioned Odan's name in at least a year now. It's always been discussed in the broadest of terms after the first couple of months when they were feeling their way around their emotions and fears over what had happened. Oh, they'd still discuss it, but it was rare, both choosing instead to just focus on the good things that came out of the incident.

"Does she just expect you to drop everything and give this talk?"

"No, nothing like that. She apologized for contacting me in the first place, and even said that she'd specifically requested to ask me instead of whichever government official was meant to." She swallows thickly and coughs to clear her throat. "She said she wanted to see me, both of us actually."

"No." It's quick, decisive, and brooks no dissent.

"Will--"

"I have no reason to see her. I did what I needed to in order to keep the symbiont alive, and I'd do it all over again." He smiles softly and squeezes her hand again. "Especially because it brought me closer to you, Beverly, and I will never regret that. But I don't need to see her and bring up all of those conflicting feelings and memories that I had when I played temporary host to Odan."

She nods slowly at that, remembering the strange things he sometimes muttered in the night early on in their relationship. "I did tell her in my initial response that, while I would need some time to consider the offer, I was quite certain that you wouldn't be interested in attending the conference or being a guinea pig for their questions."

"Good. Because I'm not interested in the slightest." He pauses then and looks out at the stars again. She can tell there's something rattling around in his mind, something he needs to chew at before he can properly express himself. She sips at her now cold tea, grimacing slightly, and lets him have the time he needs. "If-- If you need me to be there with you, I'll go. But that's my only stipulation. I don't want to be put on display."

Shifting to set the cup on the coffee table, Beverly cups his cheek until he finally meets her gaze. She can see the conflict clouding his eyes, turning them a steelier grey blue color. "You will not be put on display or made a spectacle of, Will. If that's the intent, I fully intend to refuse the offer to speak at all."

"Beverly…"

"No, you can't change my mind on this any more than I can change yours. Neither of us needs to be a specimen under their microscope, particularly not after this much time. The literature I wrote up about the whole procedure, plus the holo-projection that was made, should more that suffice for what they want."

"And if they pull some sort of diplomatic request through the appropriate channels?"

Beverly chuckles darkly at that. "If they pull that, and Jean-Luc has to order me to do it, they'll have a very hostile presenter at their conference."

He laughs at that and shifts to press a kiss to her palm. "Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of your temper. It's something of legend, you know."

"Then all of my hard work over the years has finally paid off."

He chuckles softly and tugs on her hand. "Come here," he murmurs. "I think I need a little TLC from my favorite physician."

She rolls her eyes, but acquiesces easily enough, unwilling to voice just how much she needs the comfort of his closeness, too. She starts to lean in, but pulls back with a wrinkle of her nose. "I am not going to hug you while you wear that stained jacket. I just showered not long before you stopped in."

"Oh yeah? Good to know," he says with a waggle of his brows, but leans back to unzip and set his jacket on the table near her mug. "Better now?"

She appraises him critically, looking for anything else to tease him about, but finds nothing amiss. Without further consideration, she shifts to lean against him, cheek finding purchase on his shoulder, nose tucked against his throat, just below the trailing edge of his beard. His arms wrap around her lightly, letting the scent of smoky sandalwood surround her, and she relaxes against him further with a content hum.

"How is it that you know what I need to feel less off-kilter?" she murmurs curiously. "Did Deanna teach you some ancient Betazoid secret when you were Imzadi?"

His laughter rumbles through his chest under her, and she feels another layer of her confusion sloughing off. "Not a chance. I could only ever sense when she'd intentionally brush against my emotions. Her mother was a little more heavy-handed at times, but also never intended to harm me. She was just more interested in getting what she expected from everyone, not just fellow Betazoids." She hums noncommittally at that and smiles when his cheek rests against her hair. "But I know what you need because we trust each other and have learned how to read each other, right? You've helped me every bit as much as I've helped you over the years."

"I suppose you do have a point." She leans back to carefully meet his gaze. "About what happened in Ten-Forward…"

"Do you regret it?" he asks when she doesn't say anything further.

"No." She blinks at how quickly the word is out between them, mind casting back over the moment again for clarity, then nods at her reaction. "No, I don't regret that I did it. Perhaps the only thing I regret is that it happened in public without us discussing it beforehand?"

"Beverly, we've never outright said that we were going to keep our relationship quiet. Deanna and the captain alone would be able to figure it out, given how well they know the two of us. The rest of the senior staff is astute enough to have probably guessed already. Who knows about the rest of the crew?"

"But we've never made any decisions about--"

His finger against her lips stops her from finishing her thought. "What's really got you so upset about what happened tonight, Beverly? Is it because of Odan contacting you?"

She starts to answer, wanting to refute his supposition, but stops herself before she can. Instead she nods slowly. "When we-- When we started this relationship of ours, we wanted it to be casual, friends who happened to enjoy sleeping together. We didn't want to jeopardize our friendship or our working relationship. And there were the complications with Deanna and Jean-Luc that we needed to tread carefully around, too."

He smiles and nods slowly. "And yet, Deanna was the first one to figure us out. In fact, I believe she came into my office and told me that she was quite pleased that I'd found someone willing to put up with my wandering eye."

"She did not!"

"Oh yes, she did!" he replies with a chuckle. "She also apologized immediately for making it sound so cavalier, but she made her point. It was part of the issues in my relationship with her." His expression turns almost sheepish then. "She also promised to castrate me if I hurt you by leading you on in any way, shape, or form."

"I can't believe it! She--"

"She meant well and was protective of her best friend. I was flattered by it, to be honest."

Beverly shakes her head. "No, you don't understand, Will. She said basically the same thing to me, too. Something about how you two may not be romantically involved any longer, but you were one of her dearest friends and her Imzadi, and that if I should somehow hurt you, she knew ways to make me pay."

That makes him throw his head back in laughter, and she has no choice but to join him at how skillfully their friend had played them both. When the laughter eventually dies out, she meets his gaze openly, stunned to see the depth of emotion in his eyes. There's a part of her that wonders just how naked her own feelings are as he looks at her.

"When did it change for you?" he finally asks her, voice barely audible but filled with emotions that she's not entirely sure she wants to unpack and name just yet.

She shrugs helplessly and lets out a soft sound that is supposed to be a laugh, but sounds a little too wet for her comfort. "This was supposed to be easy," she finally mutters.

He cups her cheek and leans in to press a gentle kiss to her lips. "It's whatever we want or need it to be." She sighs heavily and nods, then scowls when he adds, "And you didn't answer my question, you know."

"I honestly don't know? I've loved you as a friend for years, just as I do Deanna."

He smiles and inclines his head in agreement. "But you're not sleeping with her." And then he narrows his eyes and looks at her sideways. "Or are you?"

She punches him in the chest at that, smirking at his pained Ooof in reaction. "You deserved that."

"I probably did, yes. And she'd do the same if she was here, deservedly so." He strokes her bottom lip with his thumb. "You know, I think we've talked about this before, but I want to say it again. I did love you before Odan, as a friend, and I was attracted to you, too, but I felt you were unapproachable somehow. And when that whole situation came about, I saw how upset you were about losing him, and I couldn't let you feel like you'd failed both the man and the symbiont so badly, so I volunteered. And yes, the rest, as they say, is history. I don't regret a single minute of it, outside of when I thought I'd hurt you." He takes a deep breath and licks his lips. "I think when the idea of continuing sleeping with you came up after the procedure was completed and Kareel Odan left, I wanted…"

Beverly searches his eyes when words fail him, reading the truth of his feelings more easily than she thought. Unable to voice her own feelings, she leans in to kiss him again. It's gentle at first, a simple brush of skin against skin. Just an affirmation of the words neither of them can actually speak. But as she starts to pull back, his hand glides back into her hair, cupping the back of her skull and pulling her close for another kiss, and another, and another after that. Each touch of lips lasts longer, pulls more from the depths of their emotions. The soft moan startles her, but she can't be sure which of them has let it loose. It takes a handful of seconds to realize that she doesn't actually care whose moan it is.

"Stay," she mumbles against his mouth, not wanting to pull back far enough to state the request properly, and nibbles at his bottom lip.

It takes a moment before he can reply. "Are you sure?"

This makes her lean back to smile softly at him. "I'm sure that I don't think I'll be able to get any proper sleep if I let you out that door right now." She mirrors the smug smirk on his lips. "It's not like you haven't spent the night before, Will."

"This is very true." His eyes sparkle with mischief as he leans in for another kiss, muttering against her lips, "I think the CMO's bed is more comfortable than the XO's and that's just not fair."

Her laughter splutters out, completely ruining any chance of a proper kiss. "You know as well as I do that we have the exact same bed, Will Riker. Just admit that you like my décor better than your own."

"Never gonna happen, Red."

"You're lucky that I love you enough to let you call me that."

His smirk is broad, and she belatedly realizes what she's just said. "I love you, too, Beverly."

It feels better than she ever expected to share the sentiment and mean it as more than the platonically filial way she'd previously thought they felt for each other. She leans in for another kiss, feeling far more settled with this deeper sensation simmering just beneath her skin, knowing that Will also feels it and is ready to explore it together.