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Endangered Species

Chapter Text

Dry air burned her skin. Three suns blazed in the sky, tightening and cooking her delicate pearlescent flesh that so rarely saw the light of day. She lifted a hand to shield pale silver eyes from the harsh surface conditions. It didn’t help much at all. Rather than relief, she only saw more clearly just how far she still had to walk for shelter.

Simply walking proved to be such a struggle. Looking down at her newly formed legs only offered a fractional bit of consolation. Blood’s thick, copper odor filled her nose and she couldn’t escape it whether she crawled up the coast or found the strength or knowledge to run. Her long left hand curled around the shredded meat of her torso just above the waist—just above where her tail used to begin. She pressed her palm to staunch the blood as she lurched toward the surface town but sharp stabbing pain made her recoil. Sweating and crying out, she dug into her wound and pulled out a piece of silver metal as long as her middle finger. Pain temporarily abated but a fresh gush of blood had her worried.

She had to reach the surface town. If there were any survivors in her kingdom, they needed her to arrange a rescue. And it was her kingdom now. The knowledge strangled her under its unexpected weight but she’d watched it unfold with her own two eyes. Mother was vaporized by a weapon of light completely unknown to their people as she swam hard for the nursery cave. That meant the crown sat upon her head now.

Queen Loire of Vamari.

It wasn’t possible.

Bile rose in her throat, realizing her girlhood was over in a single hour-long attack by an invader none of them had before encountered. Their red eyes glaring through protective helmets burned into her memory as did the truth that they swam like awkward surface dwellers handicapped by two overly muscled legs and weighed down by breathing apparatus when they left their vessels. Fearful bile turned to wrathful burning in her stomach at the thought of those invaders spilling from their ships to mow down the remaining Vamari survivors.

She never knew who they were or from where they came but she decided they must have been after the cave crystals. Vamarian cities all over the Oceanne Basin used those crystals to illuminate their buildings when darkness swallowed the surface or when the seas were too rough for their usual perfect clarity. However, in the wrong hands, their crystals possessed enough natural energy to fuel weapons. Only a race capable of murder on the scale she’d just witnessed would use force to gain access to their crystal mines instead of arranging trade for them. An honorable race would use diplomacy first. They were animals. They were evil.

How could surface dwellers tolerate those suns? She squinted into the sky, but instant white-hot blindness disoriented her sensitive eyes. Stumbling into a dry bush scraped her new legs. Red welts bloomed on her ankles up to her knees, causing her to cry out again. It was horrible to damage legs she so rarely used. The last time had been upon her coming of age when she performed the moon ceremony while her human father had looked on with such pride in his dark blue eyes.

"Our girl will be a great queen," he’d said to her mother.

Smiling radiantly, her mother had nodded. "Her mixed heritage will help our people gain footing in the Federation."

That had been her mother’s greatest hope. Loire, as queen, would bridge the divide between those who championed Vamarian autonomy and those who championed the idea of Vamari joining the Federation. Sometimes she wondered if that was the true reason for her mother’s affair and subsequent secret marriage with a Starfleet officer. Whether her mother had actually loved her father or had used him to convince her people of a political move would always remain a mystery. Now she was all that remained of her mother’s dream.

Fine sand turned to gravel against the tender soles of her feet. It ripped her attention from the past, blessedly so, and forced her into the present horror. Keeping on top of the horror would in turn keep her alive.

A bloody trail marked her uneven gait from the ocean to the surface town.

Of course, calling a remote Federation colony a "town" was a bit of a stretch.

With a deep breath burning through the gills inside of her gauzy purple gown, she pressed onward until she began climbing manmade steps. Her gills weren’t used on the surface, nor were those belonging to any of her people, but her human father had given her an unusual lung capacity for her kind. Being able to breathe deeper allowed her to travel faster and for greater distances before her body needed to stop and rest. Without realizing it, her father had probably saved her life by passing on his human attributes. She doubted she could have made it from the wreckage of her kingdom to the surface town without first being far too burned by the three suns overhead to recover if her lungs didn’t fuel her progress so well.

Even so, the blood loss was beginning to weaken her at an alarming rate. She stumbled onward, reaching the edge of the town with a prayer song slipping through her pale lips that she would have enough strength to give the survivors a chance.

There. Just ahead, a few humans flush through with the vibrant colors making a rainbow of their species began to notice her. She raised her arm—the one not presently occupied with the business of clotting her belly wound—and croaked out a plea for help. Two of them glanced at each other as if questioning whether it was safe to approach. She knew the rumors about her people. Namely, people of the surface town circulated stories that her people routinely captured and ate children who dared to swim in the ocean. It wasn’t true. Nor was it true that her people robbed their fishing nets of precious food. Clearly the stories still circulated, though, and she began to realize that nobody might be willing to help her. The idea of bleeding to death appealed to her more than cooking under those three suns. At least bleeding only meant going to sleep. And if they didn’t help her, she decided she simply lacked the strength to fight more.

Two queens of Vamari might die in one terrible day.

"Please help me," she said hoarsely, trying out her English. "My people have been attacked. Yours may be in danger, too."

More people looked her way upon those words reaching their ears. One drew closer.

"An entire fighting force landed in the Oceanne Basin. My capitol is gone. Destroyed. I am Loire, Queen of Vamari. Thousands of my people have just been slaughtered and the invaders are still down there!" Tears fought their way to the surface as her trembling arm pointed back to the otherwise calm ocean lapping at the sand. "Do you understand me? They might be coming for you next! I must contact my father in Starfleet!" A silent, stunned interval of time passed. The trembling in her arm spread to the rest of her body and her voice, now screaming in raw agony, shook under the weight of her grief. "Everyone I know is dead! Help me!"

Chapter Text

Rich red silk spilled down from the top of a window—not like the simple red of Commander Riker’s uniform, but more complex as if threads of varying shades weaved tightly into the fabric. The holodeck really was a marvel at realistic detail. He stretched on a chaise sofa designed to be comfortable for all six-feet-four-inches of his frame, enjoying the quiet as much as the subtropical breeze blowing in through the open French window. A gramophone used centuries before played like it was brand new through another open window across the street. On the ground floor, the jazz club would rumble with the rhythm of dancing, swaying bodies once the hot summer sun finally went to bed and let the night owls play.

This program was his invention. It was his secret alone. He built a place for himself in 1920s New Orleans to hide when the sterility of the Enterprise needed a bit of atmosphere. Once in a while he ventured downstairs to join the jazz band or to talk about something aside from missions, crew schedules, or what was happening with the same people over and over again. Sure, he loved his position in life but at times the monotony got to him.

Riker got up from his chaise and crossed the room to pour himself a drink. It wasn’t real, of course, but it sure tasted and felt real as it slid in a warm path down his throat. Taking his bourbon to the narrow wrought-iron balcony afforded him a view of the street three floors below where a pair of ladies in cloche hats laughed together. One of them had her lips painted as red as her nails. As if feeling his eyes on her, the lady peered straight up at his balcony and laid on her most dazzling smile, which he returned with his glass lifted in her honor.

"Will, you comin’ to the party tonight? It’s gonna be a blazer!"

The music in ancient New Orleans speech always made him smile. "I might. Are you going?"

"When have you ever known me to miss a party?"

"Anna," hissed her companion, "honestly, you can’t just yell at strange men."

Anna tossed her head back for a good laugh. "That ain’t a strange man. That’s Will Riker. Every girl in this neighborhood knows him."

"Sounds like a German name to me," the companion replied with a discreet glare his way.

It happened that way every now and then. Some took him for a German by his name and his looks, which was the worst thing to be in America after the first World War. He never changed the program after realizing why some of the people spat out the word German like rotten meat. The unexpected layer to his story intrigued him and had led to two different fistfights. Releasing tension on a holodeck program helped more than he had predicted.

And releasing tension seemed more and more necessary after Deanna began seeing Worf of all people. That one sure took him by surprise. Ah, well. He couldn’t expect her to pine for him forever if he wasn’t yet willing to put her above his career.

"Anna!"

She turned on her heels. "Yeah?"

"Save me a dance tonight."

"You got it, big daddy."

Riker let out a burst of laugh as the ladies crossed the street out of sight.

Turning back to his holodeck flat once they were gone, he considered changing out of his uniform and attending the party in full Jazz Age attire. He thought it might be fun to play the program with another layer of realism even if the people were designed to ignore how different he looked and behaved as a Starfleet officer. An early twentieth century suit was in order.

"Bridge to Riker."

He froze in his tracks, having just crossed the bedroom threshold, and inwardly groaned. "Riker here," he answered in a professional tone but knowing his day off was done.

"We’ve arrived at Vamari. The distress signal has appeared in three more coordinates at an average of sixteen kilometers distant from the first," said Data through the communicator.

"I’m on my way."

Footsteps as immediate as breathing already had Riker moving for the holodeck doors, presently disguised as his flat’s door. He scrubbed the weariness from his face with an absent regret that he did not get a little sleep before the Enterprise arrived at the planet in travail. At the illusion of an Art Deco front door, Riker turned, sweeping a glance over his retreat, his private domain. A humid breeze caught the white gauzy curtains under the red silk drapes. Outside the sun lowered over his street and lengthened the shadows cast over the wrought-iron balcony, deepening the honey-toned woods along with jewel-toned and leather upholstery prevalent in his programmed furniture. Each piece he’d chosen for himself after studying New Orleans in the 1920s.

If Riker ever managed to set aside science, he could have allowed himself toy with the idea of reincarnation. Some attractions just couldn’t be explained with logic.

"Computer, end program."

And just like that, Riker’s cloistered refuge melted into the blank holodeck as if it never existed.

Peaceful thoughts in turn melted away to the place inside where he kept all the things that were his own and he redirected all his energy toward the mission. Will Riker receded as he made his way to the bridge and Commander Riker resurfaced in the manner he carried his shoulders and strode with purpose wherever people saw him. He recounted the facts in his mind until he became comfortable enough to react to any variables thrown his way.

The turbolift doors opened and Riker stepped onto the bridge, his second home. It wasn’t his bridge, of course. Perhaps one day Commander Riker would become Captain Riker, but that outcome required either catastrophe or transfer. Neither option appealed to him, while a good old-fashioned rescue mission felt like a good idea in his worn-out condition.

"Captain," he said in a simple greeting.

"Number One," replied Picard with a quick glance away from the viewer.

"We weren’t due to arrive for another three and a half hours."

"Yes. An increasing number of distress signals made it prudent to arrive faster."

Riker’s vision narrowed at the viewer, presently displaying an M-class planet in the throes of invasion and destruction. Rather little land covered the planet’s surface, yet, he thought as he took measure of the scene, none of that land appeared to be the target of the annihilation. Blackened craters marred the sea bottom so thoroughly that they were obvious from orbit, as were the billowing plumes of gas and smoke erupting from those craters. Movement drew his attention to the bottom of the image where a long, white line roared toward the coast of the larger island. He squinted and stole a look at Captain Picard, who appeared stricken under his control.

"Tsunami," he said under his breath. "Hail the source of the initial distress signal."

"Channel open, sir."

A human woman replaced the overall view of the planet. Light hair curled around her shoulders but the soot on her face and the blood clotting at the corner of her mouth only heightened the fear in her eyes.

"Are you from Starfleet?" Her voice turned high with tension.

Riker looked back at Deanna sitting in her usual place beside the captain’s chair. Subtle wrinkles between her dark brows put her distress on display as funneled into her through the woman.

"Yes, I am Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the USS Enterprise. We received several distress signals from your planet and we were told your colony was attacked by an unknown aggressor."

"Not our colony, Captain Picard. They came for the Oceanne Basin." She paused, blinking. "There were other signals? We only have one survivor here. She’s … she’s in bad shape."

"Picard to Transport. One to beam directly to Sick Bay."

"Wait," the blonde interrupted. "She needs me. All her ladies-in-waiting are dead."

Picard hesitated, and then nodded. "Picard to Transport. Two to beam directly to Sick Bay."

"Aye, captain," replied O’Brien over the communicator.

"Ladies-in-waiting?" Riker asked when the viewer switched back to the planet.

"I suppose we’re dealing with Vamarian royalty. The Federation colony has been here for only about a hundred years but I’m vaguely aware of an aquatic race that stretches back at least two thousand years. We know about them, but we haven’t had much contact. It was decided to allow their society to develop a bit more before establishing more formal talks with the Federation."

"Crusher to Picard. Two patients are on board."

"Thank you, doctor. We’ll be there momentarily," Picard replied. His attention shifted. "Lieutenant Worf, get a lock on the other distress signals. Have any survivors sent to Sick B—"

Bodies jolted on the bridge as a collision knocked their ship. They’d been fired upon.

"Red alert! Shields up!" shouted Riker. He coolly took hold of the back of Data’s chair for stability but never took his eyes from the viewer.

"Shields up. Weapons at the ready, sir," Worf reported.

"Who fired!"

Picard interrupted. "On screen!"

"Yes, sir." Data’s cool gold fingers input the command to his station.

The viewer shifted. A hexagonal ship swung around, ready for another go at the Enterprise, yet no one recognized the species to which it belonged. A bulbous shape jutted out from the back end of the foreign ship like a rudder with a red strip of light intersecting the structure all the way around its midsection. Riker’s mind split into multiple directions with one part memorizing the ship for investigation later while the active part of him traded off and supported Captain Picard’s orders.

The Enterprise fired with equal vigor.

In the old days, they called it the fog of war when a man was in the midst of combat, yet Riker’s experience couldn’t be any more different than a fog. The cells in his body seemed to align with the singular task of survival. Willingly, he gave himself over to the intense focus, the possession, and simultaneously existed within himself and somewhere out there where he could analyze and predict the aggressor’s next moves. Their weapons were like nothing he’d seen on a foreign ship and managed to knock the Enterprise’s shields down by 26%, thereby striking decks 20 through 24. The foreign ship’s shocking maneuverability for its size put them at a disadvantage. It had the potential to take them out altogether if they didn’t regain footing soon.

Deanna hit the floor when they were hit again. Feeling the thump of her body collapsing behind him only vaguely pulled his attention from the fight. In the back of his mind, he knew she’d cry out for Worf if she took a serious wound, not him. Not him anymore.

"Geordi, what’s the story with the shields!" Riker boomed to the communicator.

"I’m trying to get it repaired! I need four minutes!"

Picard, gripping the arms of his chair, said, "Get our shields running, Mr. LaForge." His attention reverted to the fight.

"Data, you got a lock on those people requesting help?"

"Yes, sir. Eleven individual life forms."

Seamlessly, Picard finished Riker’s order. "Get them to Transporter Room Three, now."

"Yes, sir."

"Are they on board?"

Two seconds passed. Three. "Now, sir."

"Get us ou—"

The firing stopped as abruptly as it began, leaving the bridge in stunned and ambiguous silence. All of them watched as the aggressive ship turned in the opposite direction and disappeared without ever indicating why they made such an attack or what they wanted. As soon as the Vamarian survivors were removed from the planet, the threat to the aggressor was removed as well, it appeared. Unsatisfied with the uncertain end to the fight, Riker labored on containing his resentment toward that foreign ship and toward his own captain for being ready to retreat.

"Sir…."

Glancing through the corner of his eye, Captain Picard was clearly not in the mood to debate his orders. "Our orders were to evacuate those requesting sanctuary, not to engage in a possible war of which we are totally ignorant."

Riker’s fingers dug into his knees as he sat down and his mouth thinned. "Yes, sir."

"Go to Sick Bay and look in on the Vamari royal and the other survivors. I must know their conditions." On his feet then, Picard looked to Worf standing on the ramp behind the captain’s chair. "Organize teams to examine the ship’s damage and search for wounded." Then he turned back to the front. "Mr. Data, set all sensors to their highest levels and scan our surroundings on a continuous loop. We can’t afford any more surprises right now."

Truthfully, Riker was glad to be sent away on something tangible that he could do in the moment, so he didn’t have time to dwell on how much he loathed the idea of retreat. Nothing about the situation told him that staying and fighting was a good idea with refugees on board, yet the old combat soldier in him couldn’t stand the taste of retreat. They might not have been able to win by traditional means, he thought as he stalked the corridors to Sick Bay, but how much of his command history during attack was traditional? Predictability never got anyone far, especially in pockets of space where Starfleet rarely ventured. He wasn’t in command, however. And once his racing blood went still again, the resentment and oppressing need to fight would dissolve. It was his adrenalin talking.

"You’re quite right about that."

Riker smelled her warm, musky perfume before she appeared at his side. Deanna flashed a smile up at him.

"Right about what?"

"Take a few deep breaths, Will. Your adrenalin is in control."

He stared ahead, saying nothing at first.

"The captain thought the survivors might need emotional support," she said as if he asked her to explain her presence.

"Good idea," Riker said.

"And what about you?" Her dark eyes affixed to his profile.

His mouth twitched. "What about me, Counsellor?"

"Are you all right?"

You’re dating one of my best friends, he wanted to say. I stupidly thought you’d still be here when I decided I was ready but it’s obvious I ruined whatever we had. The real hell of it is I’m still not ready but watching you with him makes me want to punch myself.

"I’m fine. Just worried about ship damage," said Riker instead.

Of course Deanna knew he was lying but she was kind enough not to press on the bruise, so to speak. They fell into silence on the way to Sick Bay, each considering the different roads that led them apart in the private parts of their minds, while sorting out the priorities pertaining to the refugees and the damaged ship in the forefronts of their minds. Starfleet officers always learned that compartmentalization skill. It probably kept them alive.

"Speak to the royal. She will likely respond to your status more than mine. I’ll help her people—what’s left of them, anyway."

Riker nodded.

Just before they went into Sick Bay, Deanna’s voice softened. "We’re going to be all right."

"I know," he said without looking at her.

They went their separate ways, a nurse immediately taking Deanna to the dozen or so people they’d beamed up from the planet, and Dr. Crusher meeting Riker at the entryway to the private recovery rooms.

"Any reports of casualties among our people?"

"Nothing serious. Calling red alert before it got really violent saved a lot of people."

"Good. Who did we rescue, then?"

Dr. Crusher tucked her flaming hair out of the way. "Well, I’m uncertain. She arrived with a penetrating abdominal wound and we had to put her under sedation to repair the damage. I’m just waiting for her to come around now. Truthfully, I’m not sure how she’s still alive. Colonists said she walked all the way to their town with that hole in her belly and under their suns."

"What’s the matter with their suns?" Riker asked, ambling along with the doctor.

"Her genetic makeup shows that she has one human parent and one Vamari parent. It appears that she has the ability to live quite successfully both in water and on land. The trouble is she has a terrible sensitivity to all varieties of sunlight. That means when she’s not in aquatic form, she really should only be exposed to no light stronger than nighttime."

Riker’s brows lifted, curious and confused. "Aquatic form?"

"It’s the most interesting thing I’ve come across in a while. What little we know about her people suggests that they can go into water and their legs will fuse together by rapid skin regeneration into a vague image of what Earth mythology calls mermaids."

That certainly wasn’t in Riker’s mind. "Mermaids?"

Dr. Crusher confirmed it. "Yet when they come out of the water, the encasing tissue dries up and comes away, thereby freeing their legs to walk and run on land. The respiration system is even more astonishing with both gills on the sides of her chest and perfectly formed human lungs inside. Most of her anatomy is human, in fact, except what’s required to function for long periods in the Vamari ocean. It’s truly one of the most remarkable forms of evolution I’ve ever seen. Looking at her right now, you’d never guess that being immersed in a specific water compound would trigger a hormonal reaction that encases her legs in enough tissue to create a tail."

All right, then. Riker’s hand involuntarily clenched as his mind came to grips with what he expected to encounter. He remembered the enormous fish-like people from Pacifica.

Catfish whiskers and tails couldn’t be farther from the truth, however. Dr. Crusher led Riker to a dimly lit corner of Sick Bay where a still, unconscious body lay on one of the medical beds where he too had been a patient. He stepped closer and bent over the lady as far as propriety allowed.

Not a single scale in sight. A crisp sheet drawn over her breasts nearly matched the white condition of her skin, although bouts of angry redness and blisters dotted her complexion. Exceedingly pale blonde hair had been wound in a coil at the base of her neck, not uncommon for Sick Bay patients, but the size of that coil suggested her hair had never been cut in her life. She brought to mind a pearl sitting in a satin jewelry box if he was honest about it. Her ears and eyelids resembled the delicate pink seashells he’d once seen on leave in Hawaii back on Earth.

It was her pearly, almost translucent skin that indicated she wasn’t altogether human, but then, so did the shape of her body under the sheet. Long and lithe, she was built for the sleekness required to spend a large percentage of her life in the ocean. She was perhaps four or five inches shorter than him if he estimated, which was rather tall for a human woman.

Riker gestured to her blistered skin, speaking quietly. "Is this because of the three suns?"

"Yes. We’re taking a slow approach to healing the rash."

"Why? It must be painful."

As Dr. Crusher spoke, she put new information into the patient’s bedside PADD. "At first, we treated her for a burn but it didn’t react appropriately, so we realized it was an allergic reaction instead of a burn. Normally I’d advise a more aggressive treatment but I tried it on her leg and it left scars. Her skin is incredibly delicate like tissue paper. She requires much more hydration to keep her skin, hair, and internal systems healthy as well."

"Has she been awake at all to tell you who she is?"

"Not yet but the others identified her. We’re looking at Loire, Queen of Vamari as of about ten hours ago." A pointed look passed between Dr. Crusher and Commander Riker over the new queen’s medical bed. "They reported that she witnessed her mother, the former queen, being vaporized—their word, not mine—on her way to trying to rescue Vamari infants in a place they referred to as the nursery caves. Apparently, there is a story that her father was a Starfleet officer."

His head snapped up. "What?"

"I couldn’t get his name out of the survivors in their state but you might have better luck."

"Starfleet hasn’t been out here that often. A few exploration missions, I think."

"I’d start looking there."

Nodding, he took a deep breath and faintly scratched his beard. "Can I question her?"

"I’d rather wait until I’m confident of her physical stability before I subject her to the mental and emotional instability of her new reality."

Riker concurred as much as he needed to speak to the new queen. He peered down at the mystery that landed in their laps. Twelve hours before, he was only somewhat aware of Vamari as a distant kingdom. Now he stood at the bedside of their queen wounded in an invasion that obliterated her people, her culture, and her home.

The worst part of it for him was understanding firsthand the lifetime left to her of enduring the void of a dead mother. He fought it, of course, but the flat and lifeless image of Betty Riker’s photograph rose to the surface of his thoughts. Dark hair, blue eyes, a voice he couldn’t remember but tried to imagine over and over again. He barely knew his mother as an infant before she died, yet the void remained. Pain edged that void like a ring of fire. There was no way to prepare her for that life sentence. Maybe he didn’t have the right to try since he didn’t remember anything about his mother’s death. This poor lady watched the entire thing happen.

Impulsively, Riker laid his hand over her cold fingers. "You’re safe here," he murmured.

Chapter Text

Riker should have eaten in addition to the list of should haves on his way to a senior staff meeting Captain Picard called. A rumbling stomach worked to pull his attention away from the PADD displaying a replay of the attack on the Enterprise a few hours prior. Nothing about it made sense to him, least of all the ship he couldn’t identify. Something about the ship’s general contours tugged at something in his brain, of course. It would come to him.

He took the turbolift and rounded the bridge toward the observation lounge with hardly an upward glance. The encounter with an unconscious Vamarian queen tugged at his brain too, and far more than he wanted to consider at the moment. She was in safe hands with Dr. Crusher and a security detail Worf oversaw stationed outside of her private recovery room. Still, flashes of her pale face mingling with the knowledge that she faced a lifetime without a mother just as he did served to pull his attention from the PADD more than his hunger.

“Good of you to join us, Number One,” Picard said dryly.

They were all out of sorts. Shaken, even.

Riker took his seat near the head of a curving table in the observation lounge. “Apologies, Captain. Dealing with the Vamarian refugees took longer than I anticipated.” Quick finger strokes transferred the images on his PADD to the larger screen built into a nearby wall. “I’ve been reviewing the attack we endured, and I haven’t been able to come up with any ideas about who might have been behind it. This is the vessel as it appeared on the viewer just after we transported the Vamarian survivors. I sent the image through Federation databases with no direct matches.”

“I may be able to offer a hypothesis,” Data said from farther down the table.

“Proceed,” Picard said.

Standing, Data extended an arm to the bulbous shape at one end of the ship. “This portion here appears to be the rear of the vessel, but upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the ship is actually orientated backwards from our position. They didn’t take us by surprise, sir. We took them by surprise. They reacted impulsively. Almost too deeply of an emotional response, suggesting the aggressors to be—”

“—Romulan,” murmured Picard, rubbing his chin.

An immediate deep growl emanated from Worf’s chest. He tensed.

“Precisely, sir. It would explain Commander Riker’s lack of recognition of the vessel, given the Romulans’ widespread isolation from the Federation until recent times.” As he spoke, Data touched the screen, pinching and turning the image around. “If we view the vessel from this direction, it becomes easier to recognize a few indications of Romulan design. However, this vessel is unlike any constructed in the Empire to date. It suggests significant advancements in their technology, therefore explaining our difficulty in defeating them. It’s possible their weaponry has improved.”

“Exactly what are the Romulans doing this far out? And destroying a remote kingdom that poses no threat to the Empire whatsoever?” It had Riker’s hackles up still.

Data tapped and swiped the screen to bring up reams of text that Riker had no interest in reading in his state, unable to shake off the need for a fight. Eyes narrowed, he listened as Data ran the available senior staff through the geological, anthropological, and technological makeup of the oceanic planet.

Ever the cool balm on the room, Captain Picard took in the information before he spoke. “You’re saying the Romulans didn’t go to Vamari with the intention of destroying an entire species but instead tried to steal their natural energy resources. For what purpose?”

“It’s unclear, sir.”

“They weren’t expecting the Vamarians to fight back,” suggested Riker. “That’s why they were obliterated. They got in the way.”

Data nodded. “That is the most probable conclusion.”

“The Romulans may have attacked the Enterprise simply because we took on the survivors,” Worf added, “to eliminate all witnesses to their theft. Survivor accounts reported to the Federation could lead to war since there is a small Federation colony on the planet.”

“Then it’s reasonable to assume they’ll be back to finish the job,” Picard said, brows raised.

Worf nearly took pleasure in it from Riker’s vantage. The Klingon darkened his voice a fraction, perhaps only perceptible to those in the observation lounge who knew him best. “Then we’ll be ready for them, sir.”

*****

Warmth. Comfortable, gentle, yet so very unnatural warmth.

The sensation encasing Loire’s hand was the first to draw her back into the waking world, immediately followed by sharper burning pain over most of her skin. She whimpered in the delirium between consciousness and the world beyond as if her body couldn’t contain her suffering and released it through small, tortured sounds. Darkness began to lift as her own weeping woke her. Eyes fluttering open revealed a blurry shape in the cool dark beside her.

“Your Majesty,” a hesitant feminine voice said. “Is that what I should call you? Can you hear me at all? I’m Tandy from the colony.”

Thankful for shelter far from three burning suns, Loire swallowed hard and rolled her head on the pillow toward the voice. She recognized the woman sitting there, the warm, pink human tenderly holding her hand. Moments before collapsing entirely, that woman calling herself Tandy put up a valiant fight to stop Loire’s gaping abdominal wound from emptying her of life-sustaining blood completely. Tandy was the last face she saw as the world went black, a death song seeping from her lips, and Tandy remained the first face she saw upon breathing surface air again.

“Drink,” croaked Loire drowsily.

Bright yellow hair swinging around her face, Tandy nodded and hopped from her chair with the practiced ease of every human born to nothing but life on two legs. Loire’s silver eyes followed her to a rectangular hole in the wall where she spoke directions to mix the chemical contents of the Vamari water needed to sustain her body. It was oddly comforting that a human simply understood her needs. Loire began to relax a little until she watched a glass of that Vamari water materialize in the hole from nothing at all. She tried to sit upright, such was her astonishment, but a searing tear in her calf’s flesh dropped her to the bed just as quick. She was dehydrated and suffering the worst sun exposure of her life.

“Oh, no. Don’t try to move,” said Tandy, rushing to her side with the water. “Dr. Crusher said it’s going to take a few days to heal your … whatever this is … burns, I guess. Here. Drink your water, Your Majesty.”

“Loire,” she spat through gritted teeth.

“Pardon?”

“Name is Loire. Don’t know what Your Majesty means.” Pain robbed her of words.

“Oh. It’s what we call royalty on Earth.” Tandy flipped around suddenly. “Dr. Crusher!”

An immediate presence filled the doorway. Loire felt the woman’s confidence and curiosity exuding through her stark black and blue uniform, which was identical to some sort of attendant rushing to keep up with her. Of course this doctor would be curious about Loire. Only a handful of humans had ever encountered her kind over the centuries. Loire tempered her rising fear into some semblance of patience while the redheaded doctor waved tools over her body and Tandy reported the particulars of her waking.

“How are you feeling?” her soothing voice questioned. “Is your name Loire?”

It became harder for her to speak the more her grogginess faded. “Yes, Loire.”

“Will you need a universal translator?”

Loire shook her head. “I speak English. Father is from Earth.” She licked her lips. “San Francisco.”

Nodding, Dr. Crusher moved closer to the head of the bed. “Starfleet?”

“Yes.”

A pause followed as if the doctor with kind eyes wanted to know more but Loire pursed her mouth. Keeping her father’s identity a secret had been ingrained in her habits since leaving the nursery caves. Being an officer while in fact married to the queen of a species someday hoping to join the Federation was a serious conflict of interest that could ruin his career and went against something he called the Prime Directive. Every part of her being cried out for the comfort of her only remaining family, yet she fought the impulse for his sake. She was alone now. Not only was she alone but she was a queen and she had to behave as such.

Dr. Crusher glanced at her attendant. “Let’s get Troi in here as soon as she’s available.”

The attendant nodded.

“Loire,” the doctor said over her, “I’m giving you something different for the pain. We just need to figure out which method works for your physiology. Tell me if this helps more.”

Cold metal pressed the side of her throat and a soothing burst of medication began winding a path throughout her body. Her vision blurred but she fought to stay awake. “My people. Were any alive? Did you find them?” It suddenly occurred to her that she might very well be the final living remnant of her kind. Salty tears pooled, burning the tender skin around her eyes.

“There are eleven,” Tandy reported with a gentle sweep of her hand over Loire’s brow. “I saw them myself. They’re here and they’re safe. All of them are desperately worried for you.”

“Where is here?”

“You’re on board the USS Enterprise. It would be very easy to contact your father from here. I’m sure he’ll want to be with you right now,” Dr. Crusher said helpfully.

Loire deliberately changed course, her eyes resolutely focused on the ceiling. “Will I live?”

“Yes, of course.” The idea of any other possibility seemed to take Dr. Crusher aback. “I repaired the internal injuries while you were under sedation. You were run through the abdomen by something long and slender that damaged several organs. Blood loss was significant, but I’d rather give your body time to heal itself than give you synthetic blood without knowing more about your physiology, as I said before. We just don’t know much about your people. If you don’t regain strength fast enough, I’ll give you a little human blood since you are half human while I try to replicate your own.”

“More water,” Loire prompted.

“Here.” With one hand under Loire’s neck, Dr. Crusher helped her drink from the forgotten glass. “I’m sure you know about your aversion to strong light. Surfacing at the hottest point of the day killed most of your skin. When I tried to heal it by my usual method, it caused significant scaring and I had to stop. Your skin can’t tolerate the strength or speed of our instruments. But we are monitoring the blisters and open wounds while they heal naturally. I’m afraid you’re going to lose about 70% of your top skin layers before this is over. All of it will regenerate, of course. We’ll keep you comfortable during the process. If you weren’t half human, I’m fairly certain the journey would have killed you since you were already weak from taking an abdominal wound. Now that we’ve taken care of that, the rest will heal easier.”

“I had to reach the surface town. My people needed help.”

“It was an incredibly courageous thing you did. The survivors wouldn’t be here without you. We’re taking good care of them.”

A fresh wave of tears rose from Loire’s throat to spill from the corners of her eyes. “I watched my mother die.” And her father wasn’t even aware yet. She swallowed back the bubbling sorrow and allowed a measure of rage to fuel her before grief took over completely. “I must know who did this to my people. They will suffer for their evil.”

“For now, let’s get you better,” said Dr. Crusher, clearly avoiding Loire’s sudden anger. “Is there anything I can do to help you be more comfortable for the moment?”

Closing her eyes, Loire let herself breathe deep, a strange feeling through her human lungs. “Wrap my arms and legs in wet cloth. Tandy knows the seawater compound, apparently.”

“I do. I’m a marine biologist. An antiquated field, I know,” she said.

Loire nodded. “Hydrating my skin won’t make it heal faster but it won’t hurt as much.”

“We’ll get that started for you today, then,” replied Dr. Crusher. “Come with me, Tandy.”

Alone in the shadowy, cool room, Loire drew in another deep breath and focused on calming her heartrate. Colorful monitors on the wall beside her bed measured her life signs while a slight medical worker slipped into the room and entered information into her patient PADD. She was human at first glance until Loire noticed the spotted pattern along her hairline, down her face, disappearing into her black and blue uniform. The isolation Loire knew on Vamari made her realize she couldn’t identify other species besides humans. Many of them even appeared strange to her eyes.

Once the spotted woman gave her more water and quietly slipped out of the room again, Loire let her eyes slip closed. The insurmountable task of rebuilding her kingdom stretched out before her until she shook her head and batted away unanswerable questions. They were a homeless race, an endangered species, and nothing she did was going to change that truth anytime soon. Not even being queen gave her the power to bring back thousands of obliterated families.

“Mother,” she whispered into the dark, “what am I to do?”

The ancestors would give her wisdom and comfort, she thought, but would they know where to find their people without a temple, priestesses, or the sacred relics? It made her heartsick as the new loss settled into her consciousness. She begged the ancestors from her bed to spare at least one of the priestesses so their old ways would survive the destruction.

Soon a plan began to form. A veneration ceremony to remember their dead—the new ancestors—would do a great deal to solidify the bond among her refugees. In addition, the last of their kind needed to see her performing royal duties as soon as possible to solidify her rule. Leading ritual to echo her mother in a horrid transition of power seemed prudent. They needed a leader to keep them all together. She needed to lead.

Anything to keep from dwelling on her insurmountable loss.

Chapter Text

Flickering, rolling shapes slid effortlessly beneath the surface. Riker crouched at the edge of a swimming pool that stretched all the way to the windows at the other end of the recreational space. It was a last-minute addition when the Enterprise-D was commissioned and prudently so. Dr. Crusher, together with the marine biologist from the Federation colony, had arranged to drain the pool and refill it with the closest approximation to Vamari seawater they could replicate.

It seemed not all the aquatic people were able to live comfortably in surface air for the indefinite future the way their half human queen could. A few days, perhaps, but with the struggle the Federation was having with locating a new place for them to rebuild their lives, Dr. Crusher worried for their health. It wasn’t the air, she’d said. This species possessed both gills and lungs. It was their hydration requirements directly linked to evidence of skin lesions developing on a few of the weaker survivors. Drinking helped, but time immersed in the pool helped more.

He felt guilty for being curious and wanting to see their transition from legs to fins and back again when the process seemed so private in their culture. They shut themselves away in the recreation area during immersion time, isolating themselves from the rest of the ship, which made Captain Picard require all staff to seek permission before entering that refuge.

One of the sleek shapes rose to the surface before Riker’s perch on the pool’s edge. Pearly white and silver-eyed like the others, the man nodded a polite greeting as he drifted closer.

“Has Great Mother awoken?” Moh’ee was his name. He spoke to Riker the most, having been a guard to the Vamari royal family and exposed to more English through the queen.

“That’s the news I came to deliver, actually. Queen Loire regained consciousness six hours ago, but our Dr. Crusher wanted to make sure she was in stable condition before reporting it,” said Riker. He held Moh’ee’s eyes, man to man. “Her injuries are being treated. She’ll survive. It’ll be days before she’ll be able to visit you all here, I'm afraid.”

“The Great Mother should be with her people. It is our honor to care for her.”

“Dr. Crusher is one of the best physicians in Starfleet. She’ll release your queen to your care the moment she feels the … Great Mother … is strong enough to go without pain management.” Riker’s lips twitched within his beard. He stumbled over what he took to be a royal title in their culture that he couldn’t quite comprehend, although it was important to show due respect.

Moh’ee eyed Riker with unflinching suspicion touched with a number of unspoken things between men of any race. “Have you seen her? Do you know her wounds?”

The length of his tail swayed deep in the water, almost serpentine in shape with reflective smooth skin like the bottle-nosed dolphins on Earth that went extinct when Riker was a small boy. Delicately thin fins spread outward with a faint lavender tint that deepened into navy blue at the edges. Their men were fierce looking and strong with sharply angled faces and efficient muscles to carry them through long distances in hard currents. When Moh'ee walked the corridors, he stood half a head taller than Riker and Worf. He was not a man to trifle with at all.

“I saw her after we pulled your people aboard our ship. She was still unconscious. I haven’t seen her since she woke up.”

Silver eyes narrowed into slits. “What keeps you from tending to our queen?”

Riker regarded the man through hardened features. “I’ve been searching for the ones who did this to your world.”

“Mm. Good, then.” Respect relaxed the manner Mo’hee looked at him.

The truth was Riker still itched to bloody the Romulans after the captain ordered their retreat. It was unlike him, holding onto the desire to fight, but the unsatisfied heaviness wouldn’t dissipate the way it did once adrenalin melted. He continued working with Data even after his duties officially ended for the night, four long hours ago. Fatigue nagged at him, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep even if he attempted to go to bed. Sleep hadn’t come easy for weeks, in fact. So, he worked. Eventually, he’d work himself into the ground and sleep when he couldn’t think about the unsatisfied state of his personal life anymore. Bloodying the Romulans would only make him feel better for a few days, maybe a week, and he knew it. He pressed on with it anyway.

“How are your wounded? Do you need anything else?”

“We will heal. We will rebuild,” Moh’ee said with a touch of defiance in his tone that Riker had heard from so many other war survivors. “The ancestors have already given us a sign of our assured survival, yet we cannot properly thank them for it.”

Riker’s head tilted a fraction. “How so?”

Turning in the water and using his tail like a rudder, Moh’ee pointed to the back half of the pool where a young Vamari woman, much smaller in build than the others, swam the surface. Only those with more serious wounds kept to the bottom. She glided, head raised, and peered out at the stars. As she rolled on her back and flung water upward with a flick of her tail, a slight rise low in her belly caught Riker’s attention. They reproduced as mammals, not fish. And then he repremanded himself for studying them like specimens again.

“Life comes to my other heart.”

“Oh.” Dark brows arched higher above Riker’s eyes. “She’s your wife?”

Hand pressed to his chest, Moh’ee gave a short bow from the shoulders. “My other heart. Wife is not a word.”

“I see. Congratulations to you, Moh’ee.”

For the first time, the former guard to the Vamarian royal family smiled in Riker’s presence. Their kind possessed a triple set of eye teeth, which made them look mildly ferocious even in joy. “Ancestors saw to our new life’s survival in the invasion. It is a sign. My other heart is sacred now.”

“You are blessed,” said Riker with a quiet smile.

Moh’ee nodded. “I charge you, Riker, with informing the Great Mother since we cannot be in her presence yet. Ancestor blessings will give her hope for our people. “And—” he dove in one swift motion to retrieve a bag that he presented like treasure “—you must return this to her. I rescued some of the royal relics before the palace began to collapse. Tell her I shall guard her reign as carefully as I guarded the venerated soul of her mother.” A realization darkened his eyes as he passed the watery bag into Riker’s hands. “Now she is a Great Grandmother with all of our Great Grandmothers. She is an ancestor.”

Navigating the nuances of their culture still left more questions than answers but Riker sensed it was appropriate to lower his eyes and give a slight bow of the head. Memorializing the dead had some universal traits everywhere.

Discreetly, he held the squelching, wet bag away from his uniform to keep himself dry. Woven plant life made up its construction. A form of dark turquoise seaweed, he guessed. The weaving as well as the leaves felt strong and well-made like those materials could last for decades or even longer. Even so, muffled clanking inside the bulky shape suggested precious objects were hastily stuffed into it during the height of the terrifying chaos. Somehow holding the last vestiges of a two-thousand-year-old society yanked at an emotion he didn’t want to go through in that moment. He thought of the locked case in a storage compartment under his bed where the relics of Betty Riker were kept. Immediately he shoved the thought aside.

“I’ll take this to her now,” Riker said abruptly, pushing off the floor to his full height.

Stalking through the ship toward Sick Bay with a wet bag trailing the replicated Vamari Sea behind him did little to shake off his ghosts or his agitation. He jammed fingers through his hair and rolled his shoulders for relief once he got into the turbolift.

The trouble with stress on the Enterprise for Riker was he couldn’t seek counsel while the counselor caused it all. He needed to deal with it on his own and get on with his work. Deanna becoming involved with Worf may have put a crack in his foundation that still hadn’t repaired after weeks, but the young Vamarian queen witnessing the violent death of her mother kept battering away at the long-ago loss of his own mother too. He knew it wouldn’t have gotten under his defenses so easily if he wasn’t already so worn down by lack of sleep and the dawning knowledge that he didn’t have everything as together as he thought he did. He felt like he’d gotten knocked off his trajectory. Clearly, he didn’t really love Deanna if he couldn’t put aside his own ego long enough to choose her when he had the chance, yet he couldn’t stomach her with other men either. It only meant she knew her place in the universe and that her identity extended beyond her job, while all he had at the end of the day was the Enterprise.

Riker’s posture straightened, feeling the turbolift come to a smooth stop. An impassive mask covered what remained of his face above his beard. It helped, that beard, to conceal the hard line of his mouth when he couldn’t be made to smile. At least no one guessed how badly he needed some kind of relief—shore leave, getting lost in the wilderness for a month, a real bottle of whiskey, a healthy fist fight—anything to let off the powder keg building up in his chest. He prided himself on his cool, professional reserve. It made the crew trust him under pressure. They never needed to know what made him suffer.

And the Queen of the Vamari never needed to see the hints of suffering in his mannerisms either. His sad little woes paled in comparison to the trauma she endured.

“Get over yourself,” he muttered to under his breath.

Bypassing the bulk of Sick Bay, Riker passed the dripping cargo from one hand to the other as he headed for Dr. Crusher’s office. He found her seated at her desk with the clip in her hair that usually meant she was deep into her research.

“Commander,” she greeted in a distracted voice without lifting her eyes from a screen.

“Am I interrupting?”

“No, I was just reading about species with severe reactions to the electromagnetic radiation put off by almost every sun out there. I haven’t encountered it often. It’s uncommon among humans and easily treated since we discovered causes and cures for autoimmune diseases. This case is different, though. It’s suppressing Loire’s immune system more than I’m comfortable with.” As if she heard the way she rambled, Dr. Crusher tore her attention from the screen and finally looked up at him. “What can I do for you?” Her eyes narrowed at the dripping bag. “What’s that getting my floor all wet?”

“One of the Vamarians asked me to return some of the queen’s belongings now that she’s conscious. They’re very eager to see her.”

“I know,” replied Dr. Crusher, rising to her feet. “Let me see it. I need to make sure there’s nothing to cause an infection since she has open wounds. Oh, wow. Let me just … dry everything off. I can’t have such wet things in Sick Bay.”

Riker leaned on the edge of her desk, a hand planted on his thigh. “Is she fit for questioning yet? The captain will want to know.”

“For short periods, I don’t see why not.”

“Any improvement in her condition?”

“It’s going to take time. She’s in pain. We’re still looking for the most effective pain medication but some of them are providing marginal relief and so is keeping her body covered in wet rags.”

“Is it a burn?”

Dr. Crusher shook her head. “Not exactly. It’s a slow progression from a simple rash to blisters that increase in severity with more exposure to the suns until the skin rips open, all of which is accompanied by swelling in the breathing passages, fever, and lethargy.”

“Her mental state?”

“Veering between sorrow and rage.”

Riker averted his eyes. He knew that all too well.

“All right, here you go. Dry as I can get it. Most of it looks like jewelry and religious items.”

“Thanks,” said Riker as he took the woven seaweed bag strap.

With a gesture to follow, Dr. Crusher led the way through a short corridor opening to a series of private rooms where the most severe patients were housed. Only one bed was occupied, however, and Riker counted his lucky stars that none of their own people were severely injured in the Romulan attack. He swung the bag behind his back as he entered the medic room in case he found the wounded queen too unstable to tolerate reminders from home.

“How are you doing, Loire?” Dr. Crusher asked.

“Very tired,” the small, musical voice replied.

“That’s a good, believe it or not. Sleep promotes healing.”

“I need to tend to my people.”

The doctor nodded patiently as if it was the same conversation they’d already had. “We’ll get you out of bed as soon as you’re stronger.” Stepping aside, she glanced over her shoulder and beckoned Riker closer. “Loire, this is Commander Riker. He’s our First Officer. He was here when we took you in from the attack and he’s been assisting the other refugees all night.”

“Oh, it’s night?”

“It’s a little after twenty-two-hundred hours,” said Riker as he stepped up to the bed. “Hello, Loire. I’m sorry we couldn’t meet under better circumstances.”

“Tell me of my people, Commander,” she pressed.

He leaned over a bit more. “They’re all being looked after. None of them are critically wounded. We’ve arranged a place for them to swim in replicated Vamari water in peace when they want it.”

“Good. I need a list of my refugees.”

“I’ll have it done.”

Wide, silver eyes edged in pale violet peered up at him from an elegantly round face. Yes, even through the angry red splotches and swollen blisters marring her face, he found the contours and lines quite elegant. Awake now, her skin thrummed with human coloring beneath the pearly white Vamarian complexion as if all her secrets lived just under the surface. If the rest of her body looked as raw and abused as her face, it was no wonder she couldn’t get out of bed yet. A woman who nearly sacrificed her own life on just the possibility of saving other people from being slaughtered was the epitome of a queen. Vamari was going to survive because of her no matter where they settled afterward.

Lowering her voice to a whisper, Loire asked, “Why are you helping us?”

“We heard a distress signal. Only the completely heartless would ignore a plea for help.”

She drew her lower lip between her teeth, regarding him with as much dignity as could be mustered from a medic bed. “Not because of my father?”

“No. We weren’t aware of your parentage until you were already here in Sick Bay.” This was the opening Riker needed though, so he plunged ahead. “I understand you’re refusing to give us your father’s identity. I think that’s a mistake. After everything you’ve been through, you need someone to give you more support than we can as strangers.”

Loire’s eyes snapped shut and she shook her head quite hard. “I can’t.”

“Listen to me, Loire.” His hand extended over her shoulder covered by the wet cloth Dr. Crusher mentioned. The gesture was meant to be comforting but she flinched as if he meant to strike her. “Starfleet is having trouble finding refuge for you that will meet your needs. Contacting your father will be beneficial. He’d be more familiar with your people than Starfleet and he could help us solve the problem of where to take you until you can begin rebuilding your society. It’s important that you let us help you.”

“He’ll be court martialed,” she said stubbornly.

“Not if Captain Picard and I take up his cause.” It was impulsive putting an idea in her head that probably couldn’t be fulfilled but sometimes people needed to be pushed harder.

Yet instead of folding when faced with Riker’s strong will, Loire’s jaw clenched as she gripped the edges of her bed and dragged herself to a sitting position. Angry glowing eyes met his head on, making him back away before he could stop himself. Even sitting, she was so much taller than most of the women he knew. Blazing hurt and fury intensified the soft violet color overlaying the silver.

“Hear my words, Commander. You have to do everything in your power to protect your people. So too must I do everything in my power to protect mine. I will tell my father what he needs to know on my own time far away from this Enterprise when I’m certain he won’t suffer for having the audacity to love my mother and me. I’m not a little girl. I don’t need my daddy to hold my hand through this disaster.”

“No,” Riker said calmly. “You need a weapon and a target.”

Something in Loire calmed a fraction. Tension lines between her straight-swept brows relaxed and her tight mouth softened. Unblinking, Loire and Riker stared each other down as he waited out her burst of rage and she waited out his pressure for answers.

“Yes,” she finally murmured, “that’s exactly what I need but I can’t have it.”

“Not yet, at least. Soon.”

Loire’s eyes cooled to their softer silver shade just as her strength gave out. Her body, swathed in wound blue cloth soaked in seawater, slumped over to one side. Both Dr. Crusher and Riker lunged for her before her head struck Sick Bay’s monitoring equipment at her bedside. Riker dropped the woven seaweed bag and, possessed of much longer arms, snatched Loire around the back of her shoulders. Limp, her head fell against his shoulder as he slid his other arm beneath her knees for a sturdy grip to better position her in bed. He laid her down on the pillow, unaware of his wet uniform and Dr. Crusher buzzing around the bed armed with instruments and medication.

“She’s cold,” he said to the doctor absently, bewildered, “but her skin’s on fire.”

“It’s the reaction to electromagnetic radiation,” replied the doctor just as absently. She pushed Riker’s hands away. “Step back. I need to stabilize her blood pressure.”

Staring at his own arms, extended and soaked through the sleeve fabric, Riker obeyed.

Chapter Text

Putting it off all morning meant Riker had time to eat his fill of an enormous breakfast and stand in a hot shower much longer than necessary. Hot water soothed the tension from his shoulder and back, which wasn’t something a sonic shower could do.

Arms stemmed against the wall, Riker stared at the floor, focused on the shower spray pelting him between the shoulder blades, and tried to shake off the heaviness of sleep. Four hours hadn’t been enough. Not nearly enough. Even so, he’d gone into his duties with much less before. He could do it again. And yes, he could meet with Deanna about the Queen of the Vamari that morning. It wasn’t about them. It was about their job. Both of them were possessed of professional reserves to draw from in less than great conditions. Every Starfleet officer knew how to work through personal trouble. It would be fine.

Besides, Deanna wasn’t the one struggling. She was happy.

Confidence boosted Riker’s lagging energy. He dressed and combed his hair, almost convinced that today was the turning point, that he overcame an internal obstacle. Fake it until you make it, as they used to say.

The confidence lasted precisely until he walked into Deanna’s office and she looked up at him through her luminous black eyes. He nearly stumbled over his carefully constructed walls when she smiled. She looked great in the morning. Really great. He knew she’d just put up her hair since none of the curls hanging down around her shoulders had begun to frizz yet. And her lip color seemed brighter than yesterday. Flushed lips signified a woman in a sexual moment, she’d once told him. All sorts of humanoid species colored their lips to make a male think of sex, she’d said. It was for Worf, not him.

“Good morning, Will. I expected to see you after last night’s scare.”

“Hi,” Riker said, moving past her to a chair at her desk without looking her in the eye. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything but I need some information about our guests. Captain Picard wants my report.”

“Of course. First, how are you?”

He stilled for a second. “Fine, thanks. You?”

“I’m fine.” She said it with a slight upward inflection like she waited for him to extend the small talk. Then she observed, “You’re not getting enough sleep.”

“Four hours last night. Headaches. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“You should see Dr. Crusher about it.”

“I’m headed there after you tell me what you’ve learned about our guests,” he said pointedly. Anything to steer her away from analyzing him.

Righting himself internally was vital to keeping Deanna’s Betazoid mind from knowing the truth. She had that way about her, feeling out every little nuance about him with those little thought tendrils that felt like the softest brush of energy in his brain. He eyed her, searching out any sign that she knew anything while she brought up Queen Loire’s file on her PADD.

Deanna shot back her own pointed look, yet she had an instinct for not pushing him into a temper and he was thankful that she obeyed it. Her presence shifted to the work. “Regarding Queen Loire specifically, I can talk to you about anything in relation to the attack but her personal counseling has to be confidential unless she gives permission.”

“What can you tell me that might help convince her to tell us who her father is?”

Deanna draped her hands on her desk. “Are you certain that’s necessary information?”

“If we can’t find refuge for these people, her father might have ideas. He’s had much more extensive exposure to their culture and physical needs.”

“On the surface, above water,” said Deanna as if he was missing a bigger point.

Riker’s expression narrowed into a questioning look.

“I believe we might be putting all our eggs in one basket about Loire’s father. His status as a Starfleet officer could possibly be clouding our judgment as fellow Starfleet officers.”

“Meaning?”

“Being a human man puts him at a disadvantage. He may know more about the Vamari and their culture than we do but not by much if he isn’t able to actually live in their undersea world. The truth is this mystery man is just as limited as we are, so chasing him down in Starfleet might actually do more harm than good for both him and Queen Loire. From what I’ve gathered, not everyone in her world is pleased with a half human ruler. It might add another element of danger that she cannot handle right now. I can tell you the most prominent emotion I sense in her is fear. She truly believes acknowledging her father will put him in danger.”

“Hm.” One corner of Riker’s mouth turned downward. “You make good points. I still don’t like the idea of this woman going through the death of her family without the only family she has left.”

“Her father might not be of help at the moment while she is suffering from an enormous amount of survivor’s guilt,” said Deanna in her calm tone. “Part of her subconscious mind is absolutely certain the fault for the attack rests on her shoulders. It may lead to self-destructive behavior if it isn’t resolved before those thoughts really take on a prominent role. None of the other refugees are afflicted with these psychological symptoms but I’m still working on evaluating all of them.”

“And do you sense any reason to believe she might really be at fault?”

“None.”

“Does she know why it happened? Data seems to think Romulans were after a new energy source.”

Deanna nodded and tapped manicured fingers over her PADD. “Data was right. When she described the attack to me, she said they were loading crystals into their ships.” As she spoke, Deanna flipped over her PADD to show Riker an image of a smooth crystal. Where her eyes were black and luminous, the crystal was white and luminous. It emitted its own light. “These crystals can only be found on this specific planet, mined inside of sea caves that go miles deep. The Vamari used them to light their homes and public buildings in underwater towns and cities all over the Oceanne Basin. However, these crystals also contain extremely powerful chemical compounds that can fuel very dangerous weapons.”

“But the Vamari never used them for defense,” Riker supposed, rubbing his beard in thought.

“They’re a peaceful species. Most of their culture centers around spirituality and intellectual exploration. Everything they do as a collective people is decided by signs and veneration of the dead. They are guided by ancestor spirits. In other words, it would never have occurred to them to use their most valuable natural resource to make war or cause destruction.”

“They didn’t stand a chance when the Romulans showed up, then.” The entire sequence of events took on a new, darker cast for Riker. He shook his head. “We have a bigger problem on our hands than a displaced endangered species if the Romulans are putting together new weapons systems. We need to find them and stop them before they kill more innocent people.”

“I can’t tell you why they’re doing it.” Regret edged in on Deanna’s cool reserve. “Neither can Loire. She said her mother, the former queen, never saw any of this coming.”

Squinting, Riker said, “Matriarchal society?”

Deanna nodded.

“That explains a lot,” he mumbled, gaze drifting.

A smile threatened to pull at one side of Deanna’s mouth, though she didn’t seem to put any effort into hiding it. “I heard about the skirmish last night.”

“She told you?” Riker’s brow furrowed.

“No, I couldn’t talk with her this morning. She was asleep. I spoke to Dr. Crusher instead. She was a bit surprised that you got so close to an aggressive form of interrogation with an innocent woman.”

Riker resisted his impulse to squirm uncomfortably in his chair. “I ... could have—“

“—handled it better?”

“Maybe.”

Falling into silence, Deanna studied his eyes in a manner that definitely made him want to squirm in his chair. She allowed silence to draw out the poison in a myriad of species on the Enterprise when they suffered emotional distress. He’d watched her do it more times than he could count and now she was doing it to him. The sick part was, it was working. Words rose in his throat, choking him, and then poised on the tip of his tongue.

I was wrong to be aggressive with an innocent woman. I went after the wrong information. I don’t know what’s got me so angry. You’re happy. I should be happy too. I’m going to be captain, maybe admiral, someday and you’re going to have the love you wanted. I’m lost. You’re found. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. This career isn’t enough anymore.

“Is she stable enough for a visit?” Riker said instead.

A pause stretched out. Deanna clearly knew he was avoiding her counselor tactics with the business of a First Officer. Finally, she said, “Her blood pressure is sometimes unstable. She went upright too fast while you were questioning her.” Because you made her angry, Deanna didn’t say. “Last I saw, she was sleeping peacefully. You can see her. Don’t you dare interrogate her though. You’re a good man, Will, but you can be intimidating to those who don’t know you. If you can’t keep yourself in check, then you give me the questions you need to ask her and I’ll take over. Do you understand me?”

“Loud and clear,” he said with a mock salute.

A clean getaway was in sight. Riker tugged on the hem of his uniform shirt as he stood, allowing himself a small victory in not making a complete mess of the meeting. It was only Deanna, after all. They’d been the closest of friends for much longer than they were lovers. His jealousy would subside in time. It had to. As for his disillusionment with himself, well, that was another story.

“Let me know if you find anything important among the other Vamarians today,” he said, striding for the door.

“I will,” Deanna replied. “Worf has been asking about the next poker game. You know how he is. He likes his schedule mapped out well in advance and he knew I’d see you this morning. What should I tell him?”

Shoulders drooping slightly, Riker stopped in his tracks at the closed door. He let out a quiet sigh that might have sounded to Deanna’s ear like disappointment.

“Right, poker night. Geordi was asking too. I guess we all need a break,” he said in hopes of sounding casual or even indifferent. “I’m behind on administrative work with everything going on now. I’m planning to finish crew duty schedules while I have dinner tonight.”

The moment of silence said more between them than hours of yelling, cajoling, psychoanalysis, and promises to always remain friends. Riker didn’t look at her as he got close enough to the door to make it swoosh open.

“He’ll never say it but he misses your friendship, Will,” Deanna said. “Talk to him. Let him know it’s all right. Do it for me.”

Everything in Riker preferred the proposition of swallowing the warp core than going to tell one of his best friends that it was totally fine to be involved with his girl. Then she had to play her trump card, requesting the healing between men for her sake. She knew Riker couldn’t refuse a request like that and he found himself falling into irrational anger because she pressed on a vulnerability. He clenched a hand hanging at his side until it passed. In truth, Deanna and Worf weren’t the disease in Riker. They were mere symptoms. Remembering that made it easier.

“Sure, I’ll have a talk with him,” said Riker over his shoulder.

Chapter Text

“Tandy?”

Leaning over the medic bed, the blonde marine biologist smiled down at Loire. “I’m here.”

“Don’t you have your own family to tend to? Friends, even? I’ve heard them talking out there. The surface colony has been completely evacuated for fear of a second invasion. Surely you have more to do than watch me sleep and tell that hole in the wall what to feed me.”

“I don’t, actually,” Tandy said with a shrug.

“Why not?”

The lady perched on the edge of the bed. “I have no family left. My parents were killed in an explosion on Mars Colony when I was eight-years-old.”

“Is that where you were born?” Loire reached for her glass of water and stirred ice cubes (a new discovery) with a metal straw.

“I’m a Mars girl, yes.”

“There aren’t any natural oceans on Mars if I remember right. I’ve never been there.” A sheepish smile threatened to crack more dead skin around Loire’s mouth. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been anywhere. My father always said he’d take me to see Earth one day, of course. That can’t happen now, I suppose. A queen cannot leave her people.”

“Is that where he’s from? Earth?”

Loire nodded. “San Francisco.”

“Oh, yes. Starfleet. Of course. Well, you never know.” Tilting closer had Tandy offering a girlish conspiratorial smile. “Earth is a very oceanic planet. I got my education there. The Federation has wonderful science and biology programs in the Hawaiian Islands. Maybe you’ll resettle there. Or even San Francisco.”

“It depends on where the Federation decides to send us. Earth’s oceans may not be breathable for my people. I can live on the surface indefinitely but they can’t.”

The wheels in Tandy’s mind began turning. Loire knew that focused look in her eye by then. Perhaps the Federation should have consulted that lonely marine biologist all along about where to send the Vamari people.

“An oceanic colony could be adapted. The chemical composition of the sea altered. An enclosed body of water.”

Loire knew better than to interrupt Tandy when she talked to herself that way. The lady had all the hallmarks of a genius, including an utter lack of social awareness. She watched her peculiar human companion as she swiped the ice cup from Loire and began spoon feeding her ice cubes. Now that her skin was beginning to die as Dr. Crusher predicted, cracks split open her hands every time she flexed them. Sick Bay nurses were kind enough to explain that it was going to get worse before it got better. She appreciated forthright people now more than ever.

A thought stunned Loire in that moment. She eyed Tandy, curious. “Were you at the colony to study us?”

“Not only you. Vamari is an untouched planet for the most part with only two land masses. Even with your kingdom using a lot of resources, the marine life in the Oceanne Basin is thriving. I wanted to know how it worked. I’m part of a project team set to restore the marine ecosystems on Earth that our ancestors destroyed. I’m hoping to apply policies from your world to mine.”

“You’re speaking of Vamari as if it hasn’t been destroyed.”

Tandy’s eyes widened. She froze. “I’m sorry. Force of habit.”

“No matter. We will rebuild,” mumbled Loire noncommittally with a vague dismissive wave. “I suppose I can’t be angry at you studying us for a good purpose either. Did you learn anything useful before it happened?”

“Some, yes. It’s difficult to get our two kinds together to talk though.”

“Colonists think we eat their babies.”

“I know you never did.”

Hesitant knuckles rapped the medic room’s door frame. Both women looked up from their conversation to find the First Officer almost resembling a dog with his tail tucked between his legs. Tandy smiled right away, made of that friendly, trusting spirit that had taken a hard beating in Loire. She slid off the bed and put the ice cup on the table beside Loire’s bed.

“Morning,” said Commander Riker in a distinctly chastened tone. “Can I come in for a minute?”

As Tandy took a step back, Loire curled a limp hand to beckon him forward like a bored queen. She felt like she was play acting and she really didn’t know what made her put on those airs except maybe her wounded pride needed a little avenging. A man like him had to be put in his place before he could deal with a woman of power. Her mother had taught her that lesson years before and it came naturally in response to that man.

“Are you feeling any better?” Riker asked.

“I’m quite well, Commander. I thank you for your concern.”

The awkward silence pointed directly to her lie. Almost three-quarters of her body resembled shattered white marble splotched red as the sun’s damage ravaged her skin deep enough for the cracks to show evidence of frequent bleeding. Describing herself as quite well amounted to describing ancient plague as a cold.

Loire cleared her throat and compulsively smoothed her sheets. “I mean I’ll be fine. Dr. Crusher says it’ll get worse before it gets better but the good news is all of this—“ she ran her hand in a circle around her cracked face “—will come off completely in about a week’s time. This is not what I look like.” Why did she add that so hastily? It didn’t matter what that man thought of her appearance.

“I’m glad to hear you’re on the mend,” said Riker tactfully. He came fully into the room and occupied the bedside chair Tandy normally used. “Loire, I came to apologize for my behavior last night.”

“Hm,” she sniffed before she could govern her reaction.

He hesitated and then carried on with an obviously rehearsed speech. “Upsetting you so deeply had an affect that I never planned nor wanted to happen. If I had known you couldn’t take my questions, I wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Bigger than that, I realize now that my line of questioning was not the best way to help you or your people. I should have gotten more information before I chose my course. It was hasty and wrong. I hope you can forgive me and allow me to find a better way to help you.”

Loire’s brow arched. It stung but she held the expression for a moment. “I’m pleased you’ve seen the error of your ways.”

It was Tandy’s turn to clear her throat, avoiding looking at either of them as she maneuvered for the door. “I’m just going to check on your hydrabandages. It’s almost time. I’ll be back in a while.” And she bolted before her amusement went on full display, although Loire spotted the flash of a smile.

“Hydrabandages?” Riker glanced over his shoulder at the empty doorway and back at Loire again.

“Dr. Crusher designed a better way to soothe my skin than wet cloth. It’s a concentrated form of the seawater I need. Thicker and sticky. More of it gets absorbed into my skin and it doesn’t drip all over the floor anymore.”

Impressed, Riker nodded. “She works fast.”

“I don’t think she slept. I saw her once in a while out there during the night.”

It disturbed Loire how quickly Commander Riker drained all the queenly airs out of her performance by treating her like any other person. By the time she realized they were speaking as casual equals, it was too late to go back without looking like she really was pretending to be a queen. He’d dismantled a wall around her without truly trying. Worst still, she’d already forgiven him for the previous night. She was the weakest sort of ruler.

“What news of my people?” She sought a safe topic while she found her balance.

“Oh, there’s good news.” A smile appeared through Riker’s beard, startling white teeth surrounded by rich, dark hair. “Moh’ee asked me yesterday to come and tell you that his wife is going to have a baby. I’m sorry we didn’t get that far last night. Apparently it happened before the attack but she wasn’t aware of it until we brought her aboard the Enterprise.”

“Ancestors alive,” breathed Loire, stunned into silence for a long time. She stared at him and wondered if she imagined what he reported. “Which wife?”

Riker blinked. “Pardon?”

“Which wife has the new life?”

“There’s more than one?”

Loire nodded impatiently. “Of course. A man of your standing must have—what—four or five wives by now? Moh’ee is respected but only a leader of the palace guard. He has three wives.”

The way Commander Riker’s astonished expression failed to shift into comprehension told Loire she made a catastrophic blunder somehow. Two things occurred to her as she searched his bright blue eyes. One: multiple wives was not a symbol of respect or wealth in the Federation. Somehow she always assumed her father had other families. And two: Moh’ee might only have one of his wives left after the violence. Loire’s heart thudded just thinking about the confusion of grief and joy at losing and gaining all in one day. Underneath, a sense of embarrassment rippled as it dawned on her that Commander Riker didn’t understand the concept of multiple wives in his own world.

Loire felt herself flushing from head to toe, so she lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, Commander. I know almost nothing about human marriage customs. I assumed they were like our own since my father never questioned it.” Father only married Mother in Vamari, however. She should have guessed.

“Don’t worry. There’s no need to be sorry. I’m just surprised your culture embraces keeping multiple wives. I was told you have a matriarchal society,” Riker said as he leaned forward in his chair, hands braced on his thighs.

“It’s by our design,” she explained. “It’s so uncertain when we have our young whether they’ll survive to see their moon ceremony. Bringing more life is important but so is the right of our females to choose when they wish to do it. We solved this problem centuries ago by instituting this marriage practice. Our females enjoy so much more freedom this way. We’re happiest when we are free to choose, are we not?”

Riker admitted it, although she noticed the battle going on in his mind. It was a peculiar thing to him. She knew it.

“Now tell me, what does the breeding female look like? Maybe I can identify her.”

Blue eyes turned up to the ceiling as he thought about it. “She’s smaller than your other women. That was the first thing I noticed. I wasn’t close enough to get a good look at her but she kept to herself. Not like she was forced to but because she was content on her own. It was obvious Moh’ee loves her very much though.”

“That’s Amiyah.” With a deep breath, Loire braced herself for the question she had to ask. “Did you not see two other females? Did he not speak of them?”

A level of softness came to Riker’s eyes that told Loire everything before he responded. “I’m afraid I didn’t see or hear of other wives.”

Loire deflated. A fresh tearing pulled at her heart with the truth that the long process of putting faces on the insurmountable Vamari losses was going to feel like going through the invasion all over again. She sank into her pillow with a long hand shielding her eyes. Hundreds of men, women, and children flashed through her mind. All but eleven were gone unless the ancestors gave them a blessing like they’d never seen in the past.

In the blackness of renewed grief, a warm hand shocked her cold wrist. A soft, almost hesitant touch brought her back from spiraling into someplace dark and empty where no one could help her. She realized Commander Riker bent further forward in his chair to comfort her. He’d probably killed people with that hand, yet his thumb gently caressed her wrist bone like she might shatter into his palm. Surprised, Loire felt her heart slow, hitch, and then it settled into a new rhythm altogether. A deep breath cooled the tension through her long limbs.

She was a queen now. She couldn’t afford to shatter.

Letting her other hand fall away from her eyes allowed her a glimpse of the First Officer’s sincere, concerned expression. New wrinkles emerged across his forehead, which only exacerbated the worried light in his eyes.

Loire sat up straighter against her pillow, unable to take in another person’s pity for her people. Everybody looked at her that way. Not him too. “Did you get me a list of my refugees?” She pulled her wrist away from his touch as she asked the question. “I need to know what their injuries are too. And I must insist on twice daily reports on anything your crew learns about these Romulans.”

“Moh’ee insisted on compiling a security report himself. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll bring it to you. He takes his duties very seriously.” And, recognizing her sudden mood shift, Riker retracted the bridge he’d built between them just as he retracted his physical presence.

“Are we still in Vamari’s orbit?”

“No. We’re still close by though. Some of the colonists are still down there and we’ve been ordered to stand guard until they’re ready to be evacuated.”

“What?” Loire replied. “Why are they still there?”

“Time sensitive science research. As soon as their work can be moved, we’re taking them to a star base.”

“Science? They could be killed! There’s no way the Romulans stole all of the illumination crystals the first time they invaded. If they’re looking for new weapons fuel, I’m certain they’ll be back for more. You have to get those Federation colonists out of there. I won’t have more blood on my hands!”

Riker squeezed her hand again. “The Romulans can’t hurt the remaining colonists without getting through us first. You have the Federation’s help now. You’re not alone.” He drew his thumb over her knuckles. “Take a deep breath. We can’t have your blood pressure going haywire again.”

Loire hated him for being right. Absolutely hated him. As Riker read her vital signs on the wall screen, she squeezed her eyes shut in hopes of making the dizziness pass.

“Slow down your breathing,” he encouraged in an unobtrusive voice.

“More people can’t die because of me,” she whispered.

“Why do you think it was your fault?”

“I don’t know.” Uncontrolled tears spilled from the corners of Loire’s eyes, which felt like cutting tracks through her destroyed skin. “Ancestors save me.” The muttered plea under her breath did little to stop the emotions running rampant in her. She’d been in control that whole time since being rescued by the Enterprise and she couldn’t understand what forced the dam open then. They weren’t even her people. She didn’t have the strength to worry about them, and yet she wept.

On his feet in an instant, Riker stood over her, although she turned her face to the opposite wall. Cloth patted her cheek up to the corner of her eye in a cautious path. She opened her swollen eyes and found the First Officer drying her tears with the edge of his uniform sleeve tugged down over the heel of his hand.

“It looked painful,” he said by way of explanation. “I should get Dr. Crusher. Counselor Troi can be here right away too.”

Loire shook her head wearily. “I’ll be fine.”

“You should rest. I have work to do,” he said after a moment of peering down at her.

“Will you come back?”

Riker hesitated but she didn’t see discomfort in his face. “I have to bring the list you asked for and news on the Romulans. I’ll be back when I have those things.”

“I know,” she said, taking her own piece of hesitation. “Tandy is going to your Ten Forward for dinner. She needs to get out of this room for a little while. Being a nursemaid to me isn’t fair. The problem is I—“

“—You don’t want to be alone in a strange place.”

Loire released a breath and her body went limp with relief in her bed. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

“If I’m not needed elsewhere,” he said with the kind of indifference that looked like a lie, “I’ll come by around nineteen-hundred hours with the things you asked for.”

He upset her both times they’d conversed, yet it was clear he’d come into a situation he couldn’t understand and he was only trying to find his way to help her and her people. If she wasn’t so raw and beaten, she might have been able to hear the sincerity clearer without bursting into tears. Queens never cried. She couldn’t control it though. She was already failing in her duties but that Riker man along with Tandy didn’t seem to judge her for it.

It hurt to smile but Loire managed a small one as Riker took his leave.

Chapter Text

A four-hour shift manning the bridge felt to Riker like slamming on the brakes after a 48-hour high speed chase. He watched the viewer for any signs of planetary distress, of course, but part of him hoped the Romulans would take another swipe at them while he held command. It was so dead out there that he was able to spend time scanning the region himself for unknown vessels rather than assigning the task to someone else.

Riker needed action in the worst way.

“Mr. Worf, run a scan of weapons functionality,” he said a third of the way through his shift.

He felt dark Klingon eyes boring into the back of his head with unasked questions poised in the man’s clenched mouth.

“Just routine checks now that we’re stopped for the moment,” added Riker, not that he owed any explanations.

“Yes, sir,” Worf replied. “Scanning now.”

“Riker to Engineering.”

“La Forge here, sir.”

Riker asked the voice, “Where do we stand on ship functionality?”

“Functioning at 94%, sir.”

“And the damaged decks?”

“Repairs are more than half completed. It was mainly structural damage. Life support systems didn’t sustain any damage. Shields over the decks that took a direct hit are being repaired at the moment.”

“Thank you, Mr. La Forge. Run ship wide scans of shield function. Take a look at the ship’s engines and warp core too,” Riker ordered. “We don’t want to be caught unprepared if the Romulans come back for more.”

“Yes, sir. On it now. La Forge out.”

None of the scans came back with problems, although Riker hadn’t expected anything serious. Still, an unresolved sensation in him needed a tangible problem to fix if he couldn’t fix the impossible. A cycle of checking a wider and wider range beyond the Enterprise for unexpected vessels almost turned obsessive as his shift wore on, yet he kept his outward demeanor collected and unconcerned. He never had a problem in that regard even if he lectured himself for quite literally searching for a fight.

Once he handed command over to Data at the conclusion of four hours doing precisely nothing important, Riker retreated to his quarters. Finishing the report on the Romulan attack was the reason for his half shift, after all.

“Hot coffee. Colombian. Black,” said Riker to the replicator.

With his coffee mug materialized, Riker sat at his desk. He reviewed what he’d written the night before in the delirium of no sleep while sipping the hot liquid. It burned his mouth, not waiting for it to cool, but the pain reminded him of what the Vamari people endured without a choice. It reminded him of Queen Loire lying in Sick Bay with her crackled dead flesh and the fever wreaking havoc on her blood pressure. Letting the coffee burn his mouth was good for keeping him focused. He swallowed another mouthful and put his feet up on his desk, ankles crossed, and rested the PADD on his lap.

The problem in his sphere of duty was twofold. He needed to investigate exactly what the Romulans were building with the Vamarian crystals and, thinking deeper, he realized he needed to investigate how they found out about the crystals in the first place. Vamari was not a Federation planet, although a small scientific Federation colony existed on the sparse land masses. Surely the Federation colonists knew about the crystals even if they never visited the aquatic native population who used them. Scientists and researchers generally didn’t involve themselves in interplanetary politics, however, unless bribery uncovered less than scrupulous motives in them. The native Vamarians kept to themselves for centuries, he knew, although something about a union between a queen and a Starfleet officer tugged at something in his mind that bore further investigation.

The conclusion for the moment was there was no conclusion. That irked him but it had to be. He wrote down a few probable theories in his report along with a plan for further investigation. One thing felt absolutely right in the end. If he discovered how the Romulans found such an obscure energy source, he suspected the other unanswered questions would fall into place as well.

Outlining a plan of action made him feel better at least. He suspected Captain Picard would approve it without even reading the whole thing, such was his inherent trust in a Riker’s judgment.

The more dangerous question was why the Romulans needed a new energy source. Difficult and explosive as their species could be, they’d been relatively quiet in the last decade or so. He made a note to himself to review Romulan clashes with other planets in that time period just to see if any patterns emerged. The fact was certain corners of the Federation were beginning to openly suggest it might be time to further piece with the Romulans and clear the road to welcoming them into the fold. Countless other peoples, specifically the Klingons and the Vulcans, voiced serious concerns about such action much louder than its proponents. Riker didn’t see the Romulans joining the Federation anytime soon, especially if this incident led to more Federation deaths. He truly didn’t think they wanted to be part of the Federation either.

The report as finished as he could make it with so many unanswered questions, Riker drained the coffee mug gone tepid and left his quarters with his PADD. Staying still wasn’t good for him. He hoped the captain would verbally approve his investigation proposal right away so he could begin interviewing Federation colonists and Vamarian natives before returning to the bridge for his next four-hour command shift.

“Computer, locate Captain Picard,” he said just outside the turbolift.

“Captain Picard is in his quarters,” the computer replied instantly.

Odd. The captain rarely stayed in his quarters when he was on duty. Riker abandoned the turbolift and made his way to his captain’s quarters, a sense of urgency propelling his boots faster along the corridor.

*****

“Nightmares are often the subconscious mind’s way of releasing stress that the conscious mind isn’t ready to process yet. It’s not unusual for you to relive what happened to you in your sleep.” Counselor Troi upturned her hand and tilted her head. “That’s not much comfort right now, I know. You’ve been through something terrible. Just as your body has to heal from the trauma, so does your mind. I’m afraid it’s just going to take time and patience.”

Loire gave a reluctant nod from her bed. “I shouldn’t be concerned about myself though. I have duties. People are depending on me.”

“That may be but it’s important to forgive yourself too. You’re only one person. Being of real help to your people won’t work unless you’re willing to help yourself first. There are dozens of good, capable people on this ship looking after your loved ones while you heal.”

Averting her eyes to the hypnotic colored screen monitoring her body, Loire thought about what the counselor said. “Are they disappointed in me?”

“Not at all. They’re worried about you and hoping for your complete recovery.” As if Counselor Troi knew what Loire needed to hear, she added, “Your authority has never been questioned. I can sense what people are feeling and whether they’re being honest. None of the refugees appear to question your new position as queen.”

“Are you counseling them too?”

Counselor Troi confirmed it.

Letting out a long breath, Loire slumped over and cradled her face in her long, slender hands. “I’m so tired. I try to sleep but I keep seeing their faces inside those horrible masks. My mother cries out to me to save the babies in the nursery caves.” Gentle rubbing over her forehead only reminded her of the pain as her flesh died, so she dropped her hands and looked up again. “I feel like I could get my mind around what’s happened if I could sleep without fear. I don’t know if it’s more frightening being awake or not.”

“This I think we can help you with, Loire,” replied the counselor with a helpful pat of her knee through the sheet. “Let me speak with Dr. Crusher. There are sleep aides that take a person deeper than the dream state. Once you’ve had some rest, I’ll begin teaching you meditation techniques to cope with your involuntary memories.”

Loire vehemently shook her head. “I don’t want anyone to know. I have to appear strong and fit to rule.”

“No one has to know what I prescribe just like no one has to know what you tell me during your counseling sessions. Dr. Crusher abides by the same confidentiality standards.”

Everything inside of Loire was desperate to hang onto something—someone—who could be trusted. Losing her ladies-in-waiting to the Romulan barbarians caused a delayed sense of grief overpowered by witnessing her mother’s death. She was beginning to feel the loss cut open her soul, however. A woman was only as strong as the women with whom she surrounded herself. Left adrift in a foreign world, Loire struggled to find her footing without their hands holding her up and their encouragement giving her courage. The reality of her new life was that she had to dig deep and find courage on her own.

“All right,” Loire said with an acquiescent nod. “I’ll do what you say if you think it’ll help.”

Counselor Troi’s unusual black eyes softened. Loire tried not to stare, of course, but she had never before looked into eyes darker than space flying by the ship outside those windows.

“One more thing before I go.” The counselor leaned over and felt under her chair. She produced a folded length of gauzy silk in a soft, watery color caught somewhere between lavender and blue. “The dress you were wearing when you were brought to Sick Bay couldn’t be repaired, so I brought you something new. This was mine and I’m not as tall as you, but I think it’ll generally fit. It’s very soft and shouldn’t irritate your skin. See?”

Fingers so much whiter next to Counselor Troi’s olive complexion reached out to hesitantly brush the fabric. “I couldn’t take something that belongs to you.”

“Consider it a gift,” replied Counselor Troi with a smile. “We seem to come from similar cultures and our people dress in similar styles. Besides,” she went on in a conspiratorial tone, “a queen can’t stay covered by a bedsheet alone forever.”

Flushing, Loire offered her own smile. “Will you help me dress?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Together, the women retreated from their official roles of monarch and Starfleet counselor, and simply became one woman helping another find her identity again.

Loire felt no shame in her nakedness as Troi slipped the periwinkle silk over her head. A woman like her wouldn’t be repulsed easily by dying flesh that had yet to give up and fall away. A bright white scar cut a jagged path through the bumpy, red, blistered skin encasing her abdomen. The doctor had said all traces of being impaled by metal would disappear within a month. Splotches of angry flesh made her arms and thighs look like someone had thrown a dark liquid on her. All of it was supposed to heal no matter how hard Loire found that to believe.

The sleeveless dress fit snugly around the bust and waist with a low neckline forming a deep V. At the waist, it flared out into a loose liquid skirt that came halfway down Loire’s calves. She stifled a smile thinking it must have been almost floor length on a tiny human female like Troi.

Without prompting, Troi withdrew a hairbrush from the bedside drawer and set to work on Loire’s neglected hair. Her eyes widened for a moment as she unwound the pale blonde knot medics put at the base of her neck to keep it out of the way. The length spilled free in her hands down below Loire’s waist if she stood.

“Have you never cut your hair?” Troi asked.

Loire shook her head. “It’s good for warmth when the pole currents come.”

By the time Counselor Troi departed that afternoon to deliver her prescription for sleep aides, Loire reclined in bed in her new dress and newly smoothed hair wound in a prettier pattern at the nape of her neck. It never occurred to her that reclaiming some of her individuality would improve her spirits. It did enough for her mind that she picked up the PADD loaned to her and began teaching herself how to use it while she waited for Tandy’s return.

“I thank you, ancestors, for the healing women you’ve placed in my path,” she whispered to the stars outside of her window. “They will strengthen me for the fight to come.”

Chapter Text

Allowed entrance into Captain Picard’s quarters, Riker immediately passed an observant eye over the sitting room. He found the captain standing ramrod straight and unmoving before one of the windows in a long row. A half-empty cup of Earl Gray sat abandoned on a glass top table. The room only had half light as well. None of those signs proved hopeful. Riker knew his captain.

“Captain,” he said in a purposefully lowered voice, “I’ve completed my initial investigation of the Romulan attack on Vamari.”

When Picard didn’t immediately acknowledge his presence despite allowing him entrance, Riker stepped forward. He allowed the captain to see his reflection in the window. They met eyes through the reflection as stars glided by in their slow, wide orbit around the battered planet. He’d heard Riker. There was nothing to do but wait out the captain’s pensive mood and give him space to work out whatever weighed on his mind. He placed the PADD beside the abandoned teacup.

“We should have gone after the Romulan ship,” said Picard in monotone syllables.

Riker’s blood stilled. “Sir?”

A dark look passed over Picard’s features as he turned to face his First Officer. “Five and a half hours ago, an unidentified ship attacked Starbase 367. Starfleet just sent me images of the vessel. It’s the same one that attacked Vamari two days ago.”

Riker’s fist clenched at his side, the only outwardly sign of his rage. “Survivors?”

“None.”

A tight breath expelled from Riker’s chest. His eyes flickered down to nothing, trying to piece it together, and then focused on Captain Picard again.

“The Romulans are now in control of the starbase for unknown purposes. It’s not a stretch to believe it has to do with building their new weapon. If they don’t have the technology in their empire, they’ll take it from somewhere else.”

“Starbase 367 is mainly for ship maintenance, repair, and refitting, isn’t it?”

“Precisely.”

“They got the fuel from Vamari. Now they’ve found a place to build.” Mind racing through possible courses of action, Riker felt his body trying to go into combat stance. He fought it. “We need to go take back the starbase and put an end to this insanity.”

“We’ve been ordered to stay where we are until we collect the remaining colonists from Vamari. Then we’re ordered to take those refugees to Starbase 515. Starfleet will not allow us to engage the Romulans with innocent refugees aboard.” The stern expression gripping Picard’s face suggested he hated the idea as much as Riker did. “They’re sending other ships to deal with the situation. I argued our knowledge of their ship and accounts of their tactics from our refugees but Starfleet wouldn’t budge. They can’t afford more civilian deaths.”

“We may not be allowed to fight but we can certainly work diplomatic channels from here,” Riker countered. “Has Starfleet contacted the Romulan Empire?”

“They claim no responsibility for this ship. In fact, they claim it’s manned by a combination of rogue secret police and civilians displeased with their government’s slow progress in rising to higher power. It seems they want a bigger piece of space than the Federation maintains.”

“What better way to do it than by destroying the planets most likely to join the Federation in the next few decades and reclaiming those planets for themselves,” said Riker, his tone blackening.

“Which means—“

“—They’ll be back to scavenge Vamari after they think we’re gone. Or they’ll send new Romulan rebels.” Ideas began spinning through Riker’s mind. “We can catch them.”

Picard’s eyes twinkled for the first time. “Our ship repairs might take a bit longer than expected, Number One.”

A chilling smile came over Riker as he thought of giving Queen Loire the chance to make the Romulan answer for what they did to her people. He wasn’t a vengeful man by nature, nor by Starfleet training, but slaughtering thousands of innocent people jabbed at a dark part of himself. No matter how wrong it was to indulge in that black spot in his soul, he knew he was going to enjoy watching Queen Loire take back her power over what they did to her. If he got to bloody those murderers in the process, all the better.

The officers spoke briefly of the investigation report and Riker’s plan to question all of the Vamari and the Federation colonists. Captain Picard scanned through the report while they talked but Riker knew the captain’s approval came through the trust they shared rather than his skills in regulation bureaucracy.

By the time they parted ways, he absorbed the resurgence of his purpose. Now he had things to do that actually meant something useful.

Initially Riker began with questioning the Federation colonists. Most of them were scientists in various fields. Dry personalities greeted him in the cargo bay. It had been emptied and converted to temporary group sleeping quarters since there weren’t enough guest quarters to accommodate thirty-seven families along with the Vamari natives. Those planetary natives who endured the direct Romulan violence were given quiet guest quarters with one still set aside for Queen Loire when she was released from Sick Bay.

One by one, Riker began interviewing the Federation colonists. He hadn’t any idea where to start, so he moved clockwise through the cargo bay. There was no way he’d make it through thirty-seven families before his next command shift even if he requested to report late for duty. In truth, it would take a few days. And that was only if he didn’t uncover anything suspicious.

“Tell me what you were doing and where you were when you first realized something was wrong,” Riker said as his first serious question beyond names and professional positions.

A vaguely humanoid man calling himself Nikko blinked at Riker with a third horizontal eyelid. “I was dissecting a Vamarian White Crested Eel and I heard thunder in the distance. I thought it was thunder. So I got up to look out of my laboratory windows and I saw an immense column of steam and fire rising about three kilometers distant out to sea.” He paused, eyes drifting downward to an empty middle distance. “People outside ran to the shore. They pointed and shouted about strange ships in the sky. They weren’t Federation.”

Riker asked what time those events occurred and took notes. “Did you see the ships?”

“I saw six.” The third eyelid blinked again.

“Can you describe them?”

Nikko described various sizes of the same ship that attacked the Enterprise but Riker was careful not to reveal anything in his expression. He took the questioning a different route at that point the way he had with four colonists before that humanoid scientist.

“Had you heard any strange talk in the days leading up to the invasion?”

“Strange talk?” Nikko tilted his head.

“Oh, you know,” replied Riker, adopting a conversational tone, “strange talk like rumors around the colony of approaching visitors or maybe someone looking to sell unique Vamarian items off planet?”

“No, sir. Nothing like that. I didn’t hear a thing in town.” Tilting forward, Nikko dropped his voice as if sharing an important secret. “But those fish people probably know something. They’re wickedly secretive. We had a meeting with them a couple of years ago. You know, three from our side, three from their side. They weren’t too friendly and we haven’t had too much contact with them since. Some of the women stopped letting the little ones swim in the ocean because someone started saying those fish people would eat the babies. They’ve got those extra pointy teeth. What else are those things good for but tearing up baby meat?”

Riker winced before he could stop himself. That didn’t fit at all with the people he’d been talking to on the guest quarters deck. “Did you know of any Vamarians in particular that caused problems?”

“No, not me. You should ask—“ he leaned far to one side and pointed some distance behind Riker “—Kissan over there. She has a story.”

Riker curled his body around in his chair, spotting a black-haired human woman with blue streaks talking to an excited cluster of four children. She held up one finger and the four expectant faces stilled into angelic perfect behavior. Then she began handing out treats to each child who said thank you in well-rehearsed voices.

“I’ll be sure to talk to h—“

“—Bridge to Riker,” said Data’s voice over the comm.

“Riker here.”

“Sir, three more Vamarian survivors have put out a distress signal from the planet’s surface.”

Blood rushed past Riker’s ears with the realization that they might have left the system without knowing there were more survivors down there. “Beam them directly to Sick Bay. I’m on my way now. Riker out.” He waited a second for the comm to clear and then said, “Riker to Sick Bay.”

Dr. Crusher answered the comm.

“Three new Vamarian survivors have been located. They’re being beamed to you now.”

“Understood. We’re ready. Crusher out.”

Already on his feet and closing up the interviews on his PADD, Riker said, “Thank you for your assistance, Nikko. I have to go. Please ask for me around the ship if you think of anything else that might have bearing on this investigation.”

With that, a Riker bolted from the cargo bay. He all but ran to Sick Bay, eager to find the new survivors in good condition and even more eager to give Loire good news for once.

Chaos greeted Riker in Sick Bay. Medical personnel ran back and forth and shoved him aside as if they had no idea they put their hands on one of their commanding officers. He ignored the infraction as he took in the scene before him.

“Get cardiac rhythm going again!” Dr. Crusher shouted in her controlled manner.

A marble white body lay seven feet long on the medic bed used for the worst cases. Riker himself had been on that bed before. The Vamarian man was the largest example Riker had seen so far, yet the eerie stillness in his battered body stood at odds with his impressive size.

A Vamarian woman wobbling on unsteady feet clutched a blinking, silent toddler to her chest as she wailed. Face contorted in anguish, her own wounds dribbling red from a gash in her temple and from a hole torn in her shoulder. It took her wailing steadily sliding into a melodic chant for Riker to wake up from his daze. There wasn’t anything he could do for the man on the table but he went to the wounded woman and wrapped a blue Sick Bay sheet around her shoulders.

“You’re safe here,” he murmured, catching her eye. “Is this your ... your other heart?” He nearly said husband but Moh’ee had said no such word existed in their language.

Eyes so pale silver that they were almost translucent turned to Riker’s face. He’d gotten her attention.

“Vee’han. My ... other ... heart,” she replied in a halting voice broken by exhaustion, pain, and prolonged terror.

Riker nodded. “Vee’han. Our doctors will do everything in their power for him. I’m Commander William Riker. Tell me your name.”

Distracted, she mumbled, “Seela.”

“Seela. Okay, Seela. Let’s back up a bit and let Dr. Crusher work.”

Seela let Riker guide her backwards a few steps, albeit no more coherently than a woman deep in shock. Her arms trembled, weak from blood loss he guessed, and so he offered comforting words as he slid the child out of her arms. The solid weight of the little one nuzzling his chest in search of safety seemed to calm the lady a fraction and bring her around a bit more. Riker propped his forearm under the toddler’s bottom and spanned his back with the other hand. He didn’t quite know what to do with a naked little guy but he was too afraid Seela would drop him.

“Mokan,” she said, indicating her son as the toddler yanked Riker’s insignia—three collar buttons—toward his mouth.

“Mokan looks like a strong boy.” Distracting her seemed the most prudent course at the moment.

Riker peered over Mokan’s head at his father lying on the table. His eyes darted to the screen displaying faint blips of life still thrumming through his body. There wasn’t much of a chance. He didn’t need a medical degree to know that. Even so, he hoped the man survived for the sake of the child presently chewing on his Starfleet collar and flexing little fingers through the strangeness of his beard.

Bloody bruises had torn open Vee’han’s knuckles and one of his wrists showed a horrifying 45 degree bend where the bone should have been straight.

Dr. Crusher worked on closing the gash running along his inner thigh that must have been the same length as Riker’s forearm. Blood flow slowed to a trickle the more her handheld instruments worked to mend the ripped flesh. Another doctor at the head of the table worked on neck arteries and restoring blood flow and electrical rhythms in the heart. If they could get it all to line up and work together again, Vee’han could make it.

In the meantime, Riker kept an eye on the Vamarian man’s wife. She was bleeding. Medics hadn’t gotten to her yet. He went over basic combat medicine in his mind in case she went down.

Rustling and soft footfalls drew Riker’s attention to the corridor behind him. Holding onto the toddler like a fragile piece of art, he craned around to see Loire’s long, elegant figure and her hands grasping the doorway to keep herself upright. His throat tried to close, recognizing the sheer lavender dress hugging her figure from Deanna’s wardrobe. Confused emotions flooded his body. He hasn’t yet seen Loire on her feet and her bearing struck him as regal and assured despite her injuries. She’d redone her hair in a becoming series of braids and knots in a round mass low on her skull. Of course he recognized Deanna’s touches on her, yet she wore the sheer dress without fear as if she routinely wore graceful, sheer fabrics that showed her figure, the suggestion of breasts and a shadowed dip below her waist at home on Vamari.

The child slid a few inches in Riker’s arms before he came back to himself.

“Seela!” cried Loire, shattering Riker’s dumbfounded state.

Weak and wincing in terrible pain, Loire rushed to the newest refugee but stopped short of embracing her in that bloody condition. Her eyes filled and so did Seela’s as they spoke endearments in their own gentle, musical language.

Finally, when Loire looked over at Riker—not up at him—unspoken questions filtered through her eyes.

“Another distress signal just a little while ago,” he told her. “I immediately had them beamed here and I’m glad I did. We had no idea of their condition. They’re doing everything they can for Vee’han but I don’t know anything more.” His eyes passed between the two women clutching each other by the hands. “I take it you know this family.”

Loire stared at Vee’han on the table, not responding right away. She snapped out of it a moment later. “Seela is my cousin. She’s a Princess of Vamari. I didn’t think any of my family made it out.” Tears spilled from her unblinking eyes until the pain hit her again and her expression soured.

Shifting the child to his other arm, Riker tugged his sleeve down over the heel of his hand. He patted her cheeks dry with his uniform sleeve just the way he did the last time she wept.

“This looks painful,” he said quietly once again, feeling like the rest of the room faded into the background.

A small smile dotted with matching but cracked dimples answered him.

Overcome by weakness, Loire’s fingers wrapped around the back of his arm without a word. Her eyes slipped closed and she allowed his arm to be a pillar of support. Even through his uniform, he felt the coolness of her body temperature seeping through to his much warmer skin. Every muscle in Riker’s body urged him to wrap his arm around Loire but duty kept him still. It wouldn’t do for a First Officer on a rescue mission to be perceived as taking advantage of a victim of a Romulan attack even if she gripped his arm like a life preserver.

The Queen, Princess, and small Prince of Vamari stood with Riker as if he could guide them through whatever became of the unconscious man on Dr. Crusher’s table.

Chapter Text

The second Riker’s door swept closed, he peeled off his uniform and threw it across his quarters. He should have known a small toddler would eventually urinate all over him without a hint of remorse if he didn’t have a diaper. Naked and feeling guilty for being so annoyed, Riker stalked into the bathroom for a fast sonic shower. There wasn’t time to indulge in hot water this time.

Someone rang his door as soon as he opened the shower stall. He groaned inwardly but allowed them entrance while keeping his bathroom door cracked.

“Will?” Deanna’s voice called from the next room.

“Shower. A Vamarian baby pissed on me,” he called back from the bathroom.

Faint giggling in the next room reached his ears. He mocked her laughter to himself but ended up smiling against his will as the sonic waves worked over his body. The smell began to fade, thankfully.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I wanted to stop here and find out what happened before I go to Sick Bay.”

An image of Deanna standing at the foot of his bed, arms crossed, and her back turned to the bathroom filled Riker’s mind. He didn’t know if it was his imagination or hers. Even after so many years, the way one mind bled into the other still startled him. One thing struck him harder than that, actually distracting him from her question. It didn’t cut as deep to be in her presence as it did even the week before. She was just Deanna. He was just Will. It was fine, at least for that night.

“Uh...” he stammered, jolting back into himself. “Data located three more distress signals on the planet and I had them beamed directly to Sick Bay. I met them there. It was a young family of Vamarian natives and one of them is still in extremely critical condition. He might not make it through the night. Queen Loire identified the woman as Princess Seela, her cousin. So we have more of the royal family. What time is it?”

A pause. “Almost twenty-hundred hours.”

“Damn it. I’m late,” Riker mumbled to himself.

“Are you on overnight?”

“No, I promised Loire I’d bring her some things she asked for and this is the only time I have to eat dinner. Then I have more survivors to question and—“

“—You mean you’re having dinner with Loire.”

Riker froze in the bathroom, one leg jammed into clean uniform pants. “What?”

“It sounds to me like you’re mentally dancing around it by sandwiching it between your duties,” said Deanna in her clinical voice. “I think it’s lovely to visit her. You both could benefit from the friendship. There’s no need to sidestep it.”

Poking his head through the cracked sliding doors, a half dressed Riker caught her eye. “Deanna?”

“Hm?” She turned around to face him.

“I’m not one of your patients.”

An indulgent, sweet smile creased her lips. “You are serving aboard the Enterprise; therefore, your mental health is my duty.”

“My mental is healthy,” Riker replied, wrestling into his uniform shirt.

Deanna stepped forward and expertly spun Riker around to pop the zipper up his spine to his collar. “The shirt looked like it was winning,” she teased and then her tone shifted. “You need to slow down before you develop high blood pressure. Sick Bay has everything under control where the refugees are concerned. I’ll help you do some of the questioning if you brief me on what you’re after.” She grabbed his comb off the bathroom counter and handed it to him. “Learn to ask your friends for help once in a while. Take tonight and be a good friend to Loire. She needs all the support she can get right now.” Her eyes flickered over his face. “And it seems to me that you need to sit down for more than five minutes. Get back to work in the morning.”

“The Romulans—“

“—probably aren’t coming back until they think we’re gone. Captain Picard briefed me. Nothing is going to happen tonight. Go have dinner with your new friend and then get some rest.”

Riker bristled and his eyes narrowed at her. Still, there wasn’t any fight in him when he dug deeper to unearth something clever and biting to say. Expression cooled, Riker peered down at the unused comb in his hand and the bottles of cologne on the counter beyond. Wanting to see Loire again wasn’t the problem. The fact that the wanting gripped him in the chest only hours after medical personnel put her back to bed was the problem, however. He caught himself before saying it out loud to Deanna, yet he suspected something in her already guessed. It was in the way she kept referring to Loire as his new friend.

All right, fine. He gave himself a hard look through the mirror and scraped the comb through his dark hair. A night off didn’t sound like the worst idea in the world to the part of his brain treading water in utter exhaustion. Duty seized the other part of his brain in a panic as he squirted the faintest hint of cologne at his chest. Those anxious thoughts depicting calamity coming to the ship had him giving his reflection another hard look.

“I know this one,” commented Deanna as she picked up the square bottle Riker had just used. Black eyes slid to the side and studied him with all the silent observations of a former lover witnessing an old ritual. “Good choice. Not too overpowering.”

Riker sighed aloud. “Does Worf know you’re here? I don’t think he’d be too pleased with the idea of you lingering around my bathroom.”

It made Deanna smile. He knew he appeared far more exasperated than the situation called for but, like she’d guessed, exhaustion was taking a toll on him. The amusement in her eyes never ventured into teasing beyond what he could tolerate in the end, of course, and he was thankful for that sensitivity in her.

“Worf isn’t jealous with his friendships. I’m helping a friend to both of us. He wouldn’t find fault in that. His loyalty is one of the things I admire most in his character.”

Riker gave a sharp nod and nothing more. Even if he felt more at ease about the things between him and Deanna that night, it didn’t mean he could listen to all of the great qualities she found in Worf. He wasn’t willing to relinquish the good feelings trying to take root in him that night, nor was he willing to part with Deanna feeling regret again. They had to bridge the divide that he’d created somehow. The sharp nod of acknowledgement was all he could muster. Maybe in time they could all sit around a table and drink together and it wouldn’t matter anymore that they used to call each other Imzadi. Someday.

Deanna took her leave before Riker did on the pretense of last minute crew requests to approve before calling it a night. In truth, he wanted to make sure she was entrenched in her counseling work with the new arrivals before he too arrived in Sick Bay. It went down easier to slip in to visit Loire without other officers watching.

At the last minute, he decided to change out of his uniform into civilian clothes. People were less likely to stop him around the ship when they saw that he wasn’t on duty. He waited a few minutes for Captain Picard’s approval for a night off duty to flash on his PADD screen before changing into charcoal, high-waisted pants and a vivid blue shirt, both garments cut looser than his uniform. It felt utterly foreign asking for time off but he also knew better than to ignore Deanna’s advice.

The chaos and heartache Riker found when he walked into Sick Bay before had completely disappeared when he walked in again. The Vamarian family were removed to one of the private rooms—Riker didn’t know which one—while they waited for Vee’han to live or die.

Loire’s room was enveloped in the same cushioned quiet all sick people needed for their recovery. He found her reclining against her pillow, knees drawn up, with a PADD on her lap. The swiping motion she made told him it was a book she’d learned how to use. Reports from other Vamarians had illuminated the lack of modern technology in their kingdom, a fact that they preferred yet delayed any real discussion of entering the Federation for decades.

“Care for some company?” Riker asked in the doorway.

She turned silver eyes up to him without fully looking away from the PADD. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me.” The queen in her spoke then.

“Impossible,” he said with a hand on his chest.

“Dr. Crusher has been trying to make me eat but I told her I had plans with you. She said sometimes you get so wrapped up in your job that you forget your promises. Workaholic was the word she used. A peculiar word.” She shrugged. “Only an hour late. I should have made a wager with her. I would have won.” The queenly attitude faded a bit with her smile, hinting at her true pleasure to see she hadn’t been forgotten after all. Recognition made her eyes drop from his face. “You’re not wearing your regular clothes.”

“I don’t like to wear my uniform if I’m not on duty or I just won’t stop working. Maybe there’s some merit to that peculiar word. And you,” he said as he sat on the edge of her bed, “aren’t wearing your regular clothes either.”

“The bedsheet? I haven’t got any clothes anymore. Counselor Troi gave me this dress today.”

“It’s beautiful on you.” And Riker knew he meant it, which came as a relief. He saw the soft fabric on her skin alone without seeing Deanna in his mind’s eye. “How’s your cousin doing since I left?”

Loire’s lashes fell with her mood. “Her other heart suffers. He’s in a coma on Dr. Crusher’s orders. Seela has the baby to watch over, otherwise I think she would lie down and go with him to meet the ancestors if he’s meant to die. The two-hearts have been known to will themselves into meeting the ancestors together if one is sure to die. But she has the baby.” She set aside her PADD on the bedside table, affording a Riker an unobstructed view of bubbling rash stretching upward from the crook of her arm. “I don’t want to talk about anything sad or frightening tonight. I’ve had about all I can take.”

“All right. You say you haven’t eaten yet? I haven’t either.” Riker rose from the bed and made his way to the replicator. “What kind of food do you like?”

“I eat Vamarian shellfish mostly,” said Loire. “I haven’t been exposed to much else.”

“Have you tried Earth’s shellfish?”

Loire shook her head. “My father used to describe the old fish markets in San Francisco when I was young. He never brought any for me to eat though. Synthesized fish isn’t the same for him.”

“We don’t use any animals for food anymore,” said Riker.

Her face tilted in curiosity. “Are you from Earth, then?”

“I’m an Alaskan by birth.” To the replicator, his voice became more commanding. “Two traditional New England lobster bakes. Two Coca-Colas with ice.”

It took some maneuvering but Riker set up their feast on the bedside table pulled closer to both of them. He took his place on the edge of the bed again and inwardly hoped the replicator had a good grip on the dinner he’d ordered. Sometimes one couldn’t tell the difference between replicated and real food. Sometimes it came out like flavored rubber.

“Dr. Crusher is going to have me drawn and quartered if she catches me giving you a sugary drink like this but it’s one of the best things to come out of ancient Earth.” He dropped the metal straw from her drawer into the glass. “Try this. It’ll knock your socks off.”

Loire looked at him like she didn’t know what he meant by knock your socks off but she gamely accepted the glass anyway. She pulled a sip through the straw, considered it, blinked, and a wide smile came over her until her skin cracked around her mouth. A hand covered the fresh crack and she winced, but carried on like her wounds had no power over her.

“It’s very....”

“Fizzy,” Riker supplied.

She smiled more cautiously. “I like it.” Pale fingers encircled the glass like it was a precious thing to huddle close to her chest. “You say it’s from Earth?”

“Ancient Earth, yes,” said Riker as his hands expertly broke into lobster shells. “Let me do this for you. I don’t think you should exert yourself.”

A passing glance at the lobster, clams, mussels, potatoes, and corn only held Loire’s attention momentarily. “Tell me about Earth.”

“Where should I start?”

“Alaska.”

“Hm. It’s cold there. Very remote, even now when people can easily travel anywhere. You have to be tough to live in a place that’s dark and snowy for months and months at a time. It’s quiet too. If you don’t like quiet, it’ll drive you crazy. Luckily I’m just crazy enough to like the cold and the solitude.”

Loire’s arm unfolded and her fingertips ruffled the dark beard along the edge of his jaw. “Is that what this is for? Alaska?”

A smile curled one corner of his mouth as he unconsciously rubbed the sensation of her fingertips off his face. “Not directly. Years ago I had shore leave on a planet with very similar topography to Alaska. Same kind of cold and everything. I spent time hiking and surviving alone out there and this happened. When I came back to my duties, I decided I liked it, so I kept it.”

She accepted the plate of food he’d dismantled for her and balanced it on her lap. “You must miss your home very much if you look for it in other planets.”

Riker shifted uneasily and chose his words like avoiding mine fields. “Some things about it, yes. Not everything was idyllic.”

“Which means what?”

Impulse had Riker looking at her head on with that question, searching for evidence that her curiosity was anything but innocent. He bristled if anybody poked too hard at his childhood. Only empathy and tenderness appeared in the way she tilted her face to look at him. It was an earnest desire to understand him the way a woman did when she encountered an unhealed soul. She couldn’t have known what soreness she poked at, of course, but it didn’t seem to matter in the face of honesty.

“I was on my own a lot and I had to learn how to hunt and clean animals to feed myself. I spent a lot of time in the mountains. A place like Alaska forces you to grow up fast or die trying.” Pausing to wipe his buttery hands on a cloth napkin, he decided he sounded too pessimistic about it. “I think it’s one of the few wild places left on Earth. Growing up there probably made me want to become the explorer I am now. Even though I sometimes hate the way I grew up, I remember how the sun set over the mountains and turned the snow into hundreds of different colors the closer it got to darkness. That’s something I miss out here.” He popped a piece of lobster meat into his mouth and caught the butter before it slid into his beard.

“Why were you alone so much?”

Riker considered how to answer that question. “My father had a lot of work to do.”

“Did your mother not look after you?” Her eyes were so wide and alive with sincere curiosity that he couldn’t be angry. He tried. It fell apart in his mind as he watched her pull apart lobster meat with her fingertips. Some delicate manners were inherent to all queens. “I’m uncertain of how things are done on Earth but our young can never be left on their own.” She sampled a piece of potato next. “Too many predators.”

Without looking at her, Riker took a lobster claw between both hands and crushed the shell. “My mother died. I was very small. It was just my father and me until it wasn’t him at all.”

Loire’s entire body stilled in the bed beside him. He didn’t have to look her in the eye to know her mind in that moment. Instant regret, remorse, and on its heels, thinking of her own dead mother. It’s where his own mind went all the time when he encountered a person who also suffered that kind of loss. Studying his plate a little too hard, Riker scooped corn onto his fork and stabbed a potato chunk on the end of it.

“Do you get any vegetables on Vamari?”

Of course she must have recognized his tone as too practiced, too casual. She was well on her way to covering over her own wounds with that sort of outward dismissal if only to keep people from looking at her so pitifully.

The wounded queen leaned up, braced on one hand behind her, and draped the other hand over his shoulder. She studied his profile. He felt that too, along with cool puffs of her breath on his cheek. Though her face was less than a foot from his, Riker kept his body rigid and his eyes on his plate. Letting her know about his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment was a selfish move on his part given everything she had been through in a matter of days. He didn’t even know how she got it out of him so fast. A dozen women came and went over the years without ever stopping to think that he once had parents.

“I broke my own rule without knowing it. Nothing sad or frightening,” Loire whispered. “Forgive me, Commander.”

And just like that, Loire pulled away and reclined in bed with her dinner plate as if she never got so close and touched his collarbone to the crest of his shoulder. He felt the unexpected loss of her proximity. Salt and sweet lingered faintly around her like she carried the sea and bright Vamarian flowers in new skin, ready to emerge once her wounds healed. It smelled vaguely like a promise.

“My name is Will,” he said after a moment. “Call me Will. My friends do.”

“Are we friends, Will Riker?” Dimples tried to appear underneath Loire’s injured skin when a new, somewhat hesitant smile appeared.

“If I may be so bold as to count the great Queen of Vamari among my friends, yes,” he replied with a dramatic flourish. “Of course, I may never be worthy of such an honor. Perhaps I appeal to your sense of charity.”

She laughed. She actually laughed. Had she done that at all since they found her?

That small laughter snapped him out of his melodramatic teasing. His clown-like smile softened into a thoughtful expression that equaled the way she looked at him. Quiet slipped into the dimly lit room, dinner plates and shellfish remains scattered between them, and her salty sweet scent lingering just beneath the surface. Too many sensations fought for control of Riker’s awareness. He dragged his eyes away from her face and busied himself with cleaning up their finished meal. Suddenly he watched his body from the outside as it fought to put physical distance between the two of them.

“Tell me about you,” he said in a lighter tone, his back turned.

“Oh, well, I don’t really know what to tell.” Loire fell into silence and stared out of the window at the stars. “Would it surprise you to know I was in an apprenticeship? All my work is gone now but I was. I was good at my field too.”

Interested, Riker crossed the room and sank into the chair at the head of her bed. He crossed his ankle over his knee. “What for?”

“I chose the history of my people. Keepers of our history are storytellers and teachers all in one. We learn all of the noted families and what their accomplishments were for the last two thousand years. We learn how all of our cultural developments came to pass. And of course we learn how our ancestors become exalted spirits, why they guide us, all of the rituals we’re allowed to know. Much of the ancestor veneration is known only to the temple priestesses, of which I am not. Eventually I would have gotten my own apprentice to pass on the knowledge. It’s tradition for all Vamari princesses to occupy this position.”

“You’re a queen now,” said Riker quietly.

Loire rolled on her side and tucked her legs up against her body. Hands curled under her chin made her appear much younger and more vulnerable. The slow way she blinked at him added a catlike air to her presence.

“I don’t feel like a queen,” she confided.

“The way you care for your people tells me otherwise,” Riker replied. “No matter how much pain you’re in, I only see you worried about them. You risked your life to make sure they had a chance to escape. Now you can be assured that Vamarian history is preserved because of your education. You’re a queen of the highest order in my eyes.”

Lips smoothed into a pleased smile but her eyes carried more sadness than he could erase with a few compliments. One of the hands folded under her chin slid across the bed and opened to beckon him. Riker leaned forward, not that he couldn’t reach her from where he was, and took her hand. It seemed natural for him to be drawn into her. That, however, he didn’t want to think about too hard.

“You’re only at the beginning of a long road,” said Riker, his voice lowered in intimacy, “but I promise you everything will be all right.“

Skin around Loire’s eyes crinkled with her barely perceptible smile. “You don’t know that, but thank you for trying, Will.”

Long into the night they talked without awareness of time sliding by. Outside Loire’s room, Sick Bay settled into final examinations, medications, and making sure the sick and injured went off to sleep. Neither of them realized the lights out there went into night mode and the medical personnel changed out shifts again.

Riker told Loire about Starfleet Academy to give her an idea of what her father’s youth might have been like, although she ended up more interested in what he studied instead. Still wary of pressing her for her father’s identity now that they’d figured out how to communicate without arguing, he stowed away little details to investigate later. It may have been a little deceptive on his part but sparing her the loneliness of going on without both parents the way he did overrode her need to protect the mystery identity. He alleviated the deception in his own mind by swearing to himself not to make contact until he researched how to go about engineering a reunion without getting her father in hot water with Starfleet.

The hushed conversation drifted from Starfleet Academy to some of the more interesting places Riker had seen in his travels. She wrinkled her nose and called Risa a selfish place, yet acknowledged a little taste of it on shore leave from time to time wasn’t so bad.

She was surprised to learn about another aquatic civilization on Pacifica. The people there sounded far behind Vamarians in their intellect and culture. Riker made a note of that too. Starfleet might suggest Pacifica as a new home planet but the Queen of the Vamari thought it was a bad idea. Her people might ruin their ecosystem if they became too dominant in a short period. It sounded to him like she’d been consulting Tandy as a marine biologist about where they might go. He decided he’d better do the same after the danger passed.

One subject they never touched nor even glanced at was the Romulan Empire. A mutual decision, unspoken at that, to keep the enemy off the table suited them for the night. If the Romulan attack was all they had to talk about, then the empire won. He simply refused. So did she. They enjoyed each other’s company as people tossed together under strange circumstances instead.

Deep into the night, Riker noticed Loire’s body starting to go lax in the bed. Her eyelids blinked slowly, heavily, in that feline way that—if he admitted it to himself—made her more attractive to him. That thought took him by surprise and he sat straighter, looking away sharply as if someone took a hot poker to his backside.

It roused Loire from her drowsy state. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s late,” he whispered as he patted her hand, “and you need your rest.” Smooth, he decided. It was the best way to cover up such intrusive thoughts.

When he let go of her hand, Loire tucked it back under her chin and made no effort to roll onto her back. She whispered, “I feel better.”

“That’s good,” he whispered back. “Keep it up into tomorrow, hm?”

“I wonder where Tandy went.”

He smoothed back loose strands of hair from her cheek. “Probably having a good time in Ten Forward. Sometimes there’s live music. People play games there too. You’ll have plenty of quiet to rest tonight, I think.” Careful not to irritate her skin, Riker pulled the blanket bunched around her waist up to her shoulders.

“Come back tomorrow, Will.” Loire’s whisper drifted into a distant place as if she already set one foot in a dream.

“You know I will.” Lowering to her face, Riker dropped a kiss on her cheekbone. “Good night.”

God, what the hell did he just do? Nothing showed in outward demeanor as he slipped out of Loire’s room, head ducked, and passed through Sick Bay. Inwardly, Riker stormed in absolute incredulity and shock that he let himself touch a victim of Romulan terror that way. He was second-in-command. He was a man in power. She was virtually alone in the universe and relying on people like him for survival. Taking advantage of that, even just kissing her cheek or holding her hand, seemed like an abuse of power to him. True, he had put the moves on women visiting the Enterprise before but this ... this seemed different.

Riker stumbled into his quarters and fell back against the wall. He scrubbed a hand over his face, exasperated at himself. Through all of it, however, he couldn’t tell if he was more exasperated that he allowed it to happen—feeling something beyond professional interest—or that he wanted to kiss her properly.

“What are you doing, you absolute imbecile?” Riker muttered to himself.

A thought occurred to him as he changed his clothes and crawled into bed. Loire was half asleep when he let his attraction rise to the surface. Maybe she wouldn’t remember the intimate way they’d said good night after all. Maybe she was already too far gone.

That didn’t feel any better either.

“Lights off,” Riker said to his quarters.

Chapter Text

Keeping the Enterprise in limbo just outside of Vamarian orbit gave Riker plenty of time to interview survivors. They all gave him the same story, yet the monotony of it all actually helped him regain focus. His morning rose up hard and fast from the depths of sleep with her scent still in his memory but the comfort of duty set him straight.

If he was a better man, of course, he wouldn't keep trying to find a reason to stroll by Sick Bay. And he certainly wouldn't be looking through the antique books on the shelf in the observation lounge for something to entertain the queen. Maybe he wasn't such a great man after all.

Presently, he leaned against a cargo storage bin speaking to the woman with blue streaks in her hair. Kissan was her name. She wasn't a scientist at all but a schoolteacher who volunteered for such an outpost so the Federation children living on Vamari would have some guidance. The woman spoke at length about how learning from PADDs wasn't enough for any child and teaching was still a noble if not ancient profession. Far be it from Riker to argue with a woman like that.

"Have you noticed anything suspicious about any of the parents?" he asked when a natural break in the conversation occurred.

Kissan's iridescent eyes narrowed. A thought occurred to her and she averted her gaze to nothing in the next second. There was something there. The biologist Nikko had been right about her.

"One of my littlest had been falling asleep during story hour for a couple of weeks before the attack. I tried to find out why. He said his father was taking him out to watch the fish people at night. Apparently they worship the four moons on the surface or some such nonsense, and the father liked to watch. He said his father would go all the way to the end of the dock to talk with one of the fish people."

"Is that unusual?"

Kissan wrinkled her nose as if Riker was being deliberately obtuse. "Nobody has relationships with them. They stay to the sea and we stay to the islands. It's the natural order of things."

Riker chose to ignore the prejudice in her attitude. It wasn't pertinent to his investigation even if it was categorically wrong. "Did this child survive the attack? I'd like to speak to the child along with our ship's counselor."

"He did," she replied, "but his parents are missing. Technically I'm his guardian for the moment, I suppose."

"May we speak with him?"

"Not now," she replied with her chin tipped up. "The little ones are having breakfast and then we have our lessons, lunch, and the smallest ones have their nap. You may speak with him after that. Normalcy and routine are very important to children after they've been through such a trauma."

"I understand," said Riker, although he much preferred getting on with his leads while they were still fresh. "Thank you fo--"

"--You know, if anybody caused this to happen, it was those fish people."

He blinked at her. "What do you mean?"

"It just isn't right keeping themselves so isolated all these centuries. When you don't let anybody in, then they'll come in by force. It's a universal truth that people want what they can't have. They did this to themselves."

Riker nodded noncommittally and thanked her again for answering his questions. As he left the cargo hold turned refugee camp, he weighed whether her information was going to prove useful given her obvious prejudices against the Vamari kingdom. She was partially right about keeping a society so isolated. They invited more trouble than not and it all began with little rumors like the Vamari people eating surface children. Completely untrue, of course, but it could invite violence if enough people catch wind of it. It made deals with violent societies much easier to come by.

On his way to the bridge, Riker made some adjustments to the notes in his PADD if only to keep people from making small talk as he stalked the corridors. It was an old trick but quite effective.

*****

Dragged upward through deep, drug-induced sleep brought Loire to the conscious reality of eyes swollen and skin painfully dry. She'd been weeping in her sleep again despite the sleep medication Counselor Troi prescribed that was supposed to keep her from experiencing nightmares. Haziness shrouded her, at least temporarily blocking the pain of her dying flesh. It was only a matter of time before it all came roaring back.

She forced her eyes open enough to see that Tandy never slept in the cot provided for her at the opposite side of the room. Squinting, she struggled to sit up in bed and, momentarily giving in to habit, rubbed her face with long, aristocratic fingers. A ripping sensation made her yank away, revealing shredded bits of crinkled, bloody flesh in her hands. Extending her hands outward, she examined her inner forearms, which were beginning to bubble and rip just like her face. It disgusted her but she knew it was supposed to be part of the healing process as Dr. Crusher had described. It hurt. Burning, raw pain rose to the forefront of her senses.

Well, she couldn't dwell on it. That would only make time draw out in miserable hours while her body emerged from its broken shell.

Loire peeled back her bedsheet and swung her legs over the side of the bed. The bathroom door taunted her from the far corner of the room but she couldn't wait for Tandy to decide to come back. Wall monitors beeped with the exertion it took for her to walk across the room. Her thoughts swam. Swollen eyes wanted to fall shut but she fought to keep her vision straight. Something felt worse than yesterday - something like lava burning in her limbs and over her skin. Her legs felt heavier, her arms less inclined to obey her brain's orders.

Blackness edged in on Loire's vision. She nearly made it to the bathroom. Just a few more steps. Then the rim of darkness around her vision turned in on itself. A sour bubble of nausea gurgled in her stomach just as her legs gave out beneath her.

Loire collapsed across the bathroom threshold. Sensors blared from the wall viewer, alerting Sick Bay staff to the sudden emergency. Unconscious, she didn't hear a thing.

*****

"This is ridiculous. We could be doing something useful instead of standing guard over a destroyed planet," Riker said over his untouched meal. He pushed the beans around with his fork, watching the stars go precisely nowhere outside of Picard's ready room window.

"You're unusually eager to charge off half-cocked into an unknown situation, Number One." Appetite unaltered, Picard chose a bite of chicken nearly submerged in a puddle of white wine sauce.

Riker shifted in his chair. "The whole thing doesn't sit right. Something bigger is happening here than just stealing natural resources for a new weapon. The way the colonists and Vamarians distrust each other - something's going on there too. All the puzzle pieces are on the table. I just haven't put it together yet. Sitting here eating white wine chicken and beans a few days after a whole society is wiped out just seems ... insensitive."

"You need to eat to survive, do you not? It's a basic biologic function." Pausing, Picard seemed to choose a different track. "Be cautious of getting too emotionally invested in this incident."

"I'm fine, Captain."

A silent interval passed between them. "It'll cloud your judgment getting too personal. I don't need to spell that out for you. You're one of the best first officers in Starfleet. You already know."

"I do know, sir." To prove it, Riker forked a bite into his mouth.

Watching him across the table, Picard asked, "What has your investigation revealed so far?"

"A lot of discriminatory attitudes from the Federation colonists against the Vamarian people. Sorting through a lot of rumors, really. The colonists actually believe the Vamarians eat their children if they get too close to the shore." He chewed a moment to give himself time to sort through his thoughts. "I'm interviewing a small child later today about a possible meeting between his father and an unidentified Vamarian man."

"For what purpose?"

"The teacher described the child falling asleep during class in the last couple of weeks before the attack and when she asked the child about it, he indicated his father had been taking him out during the night to watch some kind of religious ceremony on the ocean surface. He also described his father having conversations with--" Riker scrolled through his PADD and read aloud "--a large Vamarian man at the end of the longest dock."

Picard made a noncommittal sound low in his throat as he considered the implications. After a moment, he said, "Councelor Troi could conduct the interview on her own."

"Sir, I'd rather continue leading this investigation myself. I'm far enough into it that handing it off to someone else now would probably derail any trust I've built with the colonists and the Vamarians."

"Indeed," Picard said with a nod, acquiescing.

Grabbing the cloth napkin off his thigh, Riker took a polite swipe across his mouth and rose to his feet. "In fact, I need to get back to it."

"Of course."

"And I'll have the crew schedule and the cargo reports finished tonight."

"Certainly." The captain watched Riker turn to leave, studying him. "Number One?"

At the doorway, Riker looked back. "Sir?"

"You haven't spoken a word about their queen."

A hot flush swept through Riker's chest as if he'd been caught doing something wrong. He forced himself to remain completely impassive on the surface right down to the careful tone in his voice. "Their queen continues to recover. Dr. Crusher tells me the worst injuries amount to something like radiation burns that can't be rushed to heal. It's best, I've been told, to let her body heal itself under careful observation. Last I heard, she was stable."

Being under the Captain's scrutiny occasionally felt like Deanna slipping inside of his mind and unearthing his secrets. Remembering Loire's sleepy expression as they talked long into the night made Riker's body go deeper into stillness as if Picard might smell the reluctant attraction on him.

"You've been to see her, of course."

"Yes." He didn't elaborate.

Picard leaned back in his chair, apparently not suspicious of his First Officer. "As soon as Dr. Crusher indicates she's well enough, you'll give me an introduction."

"Of course, sir."

Riker bolted like a complete coward before his impassive mask began to slip. He had it under control. There was no reason anyone had to know anything about it. He was a goddamn Starfleet officer.

Chapter Text

Another horrendously useless shift manning the bridge. More scans of the vicinity. Further searches for survivors on the planet. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Riker remained a powderkeg sitting too close to a torch but he didn't know what to do about it. The repetitive cycle of self-analysis only broke up like cotton in water when her face rose in his thoughts. He was definitely in trouble. Part of him wanted to laugh out loud at the way the universe so neatly diverted his problem from Deanna to Loire. He found the whole thing bitterly funny. It was, after all, his habit to attach to completely unavailable women. He attached quickly, too. Every time.

"Sir, an unknown vessel has come to full stop behind Vamari's fourth moon," Worf announced, cutting into his thoughts.

"Behind?" Riker asked.

Worf's fingers tapped his station's screen. "Behind from our vantage, sir."

"They're trying to hide from us." Standing abruptly, Riker squinted at the purple moon on the viewer as if he could see through it. "Are their weapons armed?"

"No, sir."

"Shields?"

"Not activated, sir."

Possibilities ran through Riker's mind, splintering off in different directions at once. "Yellow alert. Hail the vessel."

Seconds passed.

"No response."

"Hail them again." Riker wrapped an arm around his chest and propped his other hand on his chin. He walked the width of the bridge floor in a slow gait, his entire focus centered on the back of that moon.

"Still no response, sir."

Riker's eyes narrowed to thin blue slits. "Ensign, swing us around to get a visual on the ship. Keep your distance. Worf, be ready to arm us just in case."

The Enterprise glided along and took a wide arc around Vamari's fourth moon. Silence bore down on the bridge. Simultaneously, the sickening green corner of a Romulan ship came into view as Captain Picard returned from a subspace call with Starfleet.

"Red alert! Shields up!" came out of Riker's mouth like a reflex without looking away from the viewer. He tossed a quick glance at Picard. "Romulan ship's hiding behind the fourth moon. Not armed, no shields. It's just...."

"Watching us," Picard finished for him, eyes looking beyond Riker to the viewer. "Hail them."

"Sir, I've hailed twi--"

The Romulan war bird sitting there like a spider, drifted away from the moon and then disappeared into space in a burst of light. The entirety of the bridge crew stared at the void on the viewer unable to believe what they witnessed. They'd been observed, openly so, and they disappeared before it could come to blows. It always came to blows with Romulans in the end. Hair stood up on the back of Riker's neck thinking of how obvious the encounter was, almost like there was a message in it.

"Mr. Worf, where did they go?" Picard asked.

A moment passed as Worf ran the scanners. "They're gone, sir. They've left the system."

"What do you make of it, Number One?"

"They wanted us to see them here. Maybe a show of defiance like they're not intimidated by us standing guard. Or maybe they were testing to see how quickly we'd fire on them."

"Agreed." The captain let it pass into consideration in his quiet way. "Stand down to yellow alert until further notice. Commander, step up your investigation. There's something they know that we're missing. Make the queen talk if you have to."

"Yes, sir," said Riker, though he was certain Loire didn't know a thing about Romulan dealings with her people.

Interviewing the colonist child wasn't supposed to happen for another two hours. Working around a child's schedule irritated Riker's sense of urgency but he had a few other avenues to pursue first. As he left the bridge, he diverted to his quarters and collected the Vamari royal artifacts he'd forgotten to give Loire during the chaos of it all, and the book he'd chosen from the small collection in the observation lounge. He tucked the book in his elbow and slung the seaweed woven sack over his forearm. Grabbing his PADD as he left his quarters, he immediately took the corridor to the guest quarters.

Moh'ee answered his door, looking pale and stern as always. He was half a head taller than Riker standing there on two feet. The men nodded polite greetings at each other as Moh'ee stepped aside to let Riker pass. He made a vague gesture for Riker to have a seat at the table across from the single surviving, pregnant wife.

"Is everything all right here? Do your people have everything they need?" Riker asked as a matter of course.

"We are well cared for. Thank you."

The wife - Riker couldn't remember her name - cracked open a lobster tail with her bare hands. She met his eyes over her food and dipped her face. Not quite a nod but certainly a silent greeting. He didn't know if he'd ever heard her speak since meeting her.

"I'm on my way to look in on Loire - pardon me - the Great Mother, and I wondered if you had the report on your refugees ready."

"Yes, it's here." The way Moh'ee walked across the guest quarters looked awkward, though Riker couldn't quite put his finger on it, except perhaps gravity out of the sea made him struggle. Moh'ee brought a PADD to him. "My written English is not so good and your technology knows nothing of our language. If the Great Mother requires explanation, she need only send for me."

"I'll make sure she knows that."

"How is our queen, Mr. Riker?"

"I saw her last night. She's getting the care she needs. Our ship's doctor assures me it's only going to take time for her to heal."

A light, musical voice too young for the body spoke up over the lobster. "What you knew Princess Seela?"

Moh'ee covered her hand. "My other heart speaks less English than the rest of us. She came from a traditional family. Very isolated in the Oceanne Mountains. She wishes to know the condition of Princess Seela because they apprenticed together."

"Ah," said Riker, nodding. "Princess Seela and her son will survive. There's no need to worry." Carefully, he excluded Seela's husband from that promise, not knowing if the man was still alive at all. Then his brain took a hard left. "How did your wife - your other heart - know we brought Princess Seela aboard the Enterprise?"

"Medical person looked through her at the fetus with a light tool this morning," replied Moh'ee with a long finger extended to his wife's abdomen. "He told us of the princess's safe arrival. Ancestors bless us."

"Mm," said Riker in his way of acknowledging different beliefs without committing to them. To be polite, he asked, "Is everything all right with the baby, then? No complications?"

"Our child will grow strong. The ancestors won't let more evil come to us now that we've been blessed with their favor. Vamari will go on even without our home seas. The ancestors have told us so." Just like that, Moh'ee split his mouth open in a smile. Small, pointed teeth that Loire didn't possess had him looking a bit more on the frightening side to human eyes but Riker recognized fatherly pride in any species.

Riker returned the smile before steering the conversation elsewhere. "Have you heard any rumors among the refugees?"

"Such as?"

"I'm investigating possible dealings with the people who attacked you. Secret or otherwise."

Although Moh'ee shook his head, Riker knew it got his brain thrumming. That was what he intended. A man like Moh'ee was naturally inclined to suss out any potential threat to the royal family he served.

"Talk to the refugees. Don't let them figure out there's an investigation. Can I count on you?"

"I will do this thing you ask in honor of the Great Grandmother they murdered and the new Great Mother on our throne. If our own people were involved, I will know." The most serious expression came over Moh'ee as he reached a hand across the table. "Your people grasp hands when they make agreement."

Riker reciprocated. "That we do. Thank you, Moh'ee. I knew I could count on you. The Great Mother will know about your devotion."

He couldn't be sure but he thought he saw the blood move faster under Moh'ee's near translucent skin as if the compliment made him flush in pleasure. The silent pregnant wife at his side looked over at him as if she'd just realized what a great man she'd married.

"If you'll excuse me," said Riker as he rose from the table.

The three of them parted ways with all the practiced cordiality of foreigners trying to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.

At the end of the line of guest quarters, Riker requested the turbolift. His mind was so thoroughly centered on Sick Bay that he came to an awkward, abrupt stop in the turbolift or walk straight into Worf. They eyed each other cautiously - not in animosity but the uncertainty that comes when a woman disrupts the bond between men. Righting himself, Riker stood to one side and put in his request for the turbolift to take him to Sick Bay.

Neither of them spoke for several seconds.

Worf shifted his weight and clasped his hands behind his back.

Finally, Riker cleared his throat. "Are you on tonight?"

"No, sir," said Worf.

So much for small talk. Deanna had told him that Worf was hoping to get back to the normal dynamic in their friendship but he had to wonder about the validity of it. He scowled down at the book in the crook of his arm. A woman who's planet was eviscerated was less trouble for him than Worf and Deanna at that point. He wanted to bridge the gap for Deanna's sake but Worf wasn't exactly the easiest man to talk to outside of his duties.

"Data said there will likely be a break in all of our scheduled duties in eleven days," said Worf, turning toward Riker a fraction. "Poker night?"

A slow, subtle smile crept over Riker's face. "Absolutely."

It was a relief. He couldn't deny it.

A person never knew what they would find when they walked into Sick Bay but Riker immediately sensed something off as he came into triage. Some personnel were missing and the less serious patients were left completely to their own devices. Silence drilled right through his brain and circled back around to an alarm deep inside. It was so quiet, in fact, that the relief over Worf's olive branch drained straight down his body and out through his feet, forgotten. Hair stood up on the back of his neck the exact way it did when the Romulan ship appeared and disappeared barely an hour ago. Something was wrong.

The bag of Loire's remaining possessions banged against his thigh as he stalked deeper into Sick Bay where the worst patients were given private rooms. Before he rounded the corner to her room, high-pitched beeping triggered something urgent in his brain. There, through her doorway, he saw Tandy barefoot and stricken against the far wall with a pair of old-fashioned high heels hanging from her fingers. Medical officers moved around the bed as she watched.

Riker approached the room but Dr. Crusher spotted him before he crossed the threshold. "No further, Will. Not right now."

"What's going on?"

If Dr. Crusher was able to leave the head of the medic bed to speak in discreet tones, he decided it couldn't have been that bad. Recognizing the opportunity for information had Tandy joining them outside of the room, still clutching her shoes.

"Early this morning, Queen Loire developed a high fever due to an infection that set in once her blisters began opening. We don't know exactly what happened but apparently she got out of bed to use the bathroom and the fever affected her blood pressure. She lost consciousness on her feet and one of my nurses found her on the floor." Dr. Crusher's calm, soothing voice only provided marginal comfort as the story unraveled.

Tandy gulped on sudden tears and pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. "I wasn't here. I went dancing last night and I met someone who works in engineering. She told me to enjoy myself, that she had plans of her own. I wasn't here. I should have been here. It's my responsibility."

That explained the high heels in her hand and bare feet.

"Tandy, there was nothing your presence would have changed. The infection would still be there and you would not have been able to stop it." Gently, Dr. Crusher rubbed her arm until she had the young woman's full attention. "This isn't your fault."

Faintly, Riker rolled one shoulder to get a better grip on his composure. "Where do things stand right now? The Vamarian people won't make it without their queen. They're barely holding on by a thread as it is." He heard himself starting to ramble and slide into an overly monotone voice. Jaw clenched, he bit back the rising anxiety before somebody began to suspect anything more than duty.

"The infection is easy enough to deal with and we took care of that not long after she was found unconscious," said Dr. Crusher.

"Then what's the urgency about now?" Riker replied with a look in the room.

"Seizure activity."

Both Tandy and Riker went very still.

"In two-and-a-half hours, Queen Loire has suffered four seizures. The severity is tapering off with each one and our treatment appears to be working. I believe she was poisoned. Or at least someone attempted to poison her."

"When?" A new edge hardened Riker's voice.

"Not here. Probably right before the attack. Whatever it is - we don't know yet - it only affects the hypothalamus, which is responsible for functions like the natural sleep cycle, body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. Basically the hypothalamus keeps the ship running smoothly, so to speak. Once we isolate the poison, it should be easy enough to undo the damage."

A thousand ideas all fused into one pinpoint in Riker's mind. The Romulan invasion was done from the inside and the players got to Loire too. "Were they trying to kill her or was this temporary?"

"They were attempting to sedate her. It's much harder to sedate aquatic species even if they are half human and they were sloppy about it."

"Can you trace the origin of the poison?"

"I may be able to identify where it came from by its molecular structure if I can separate it out from her system," Dr. Crusher said.

Tandy swiped a hasty hand over her eyes. "What about the here and now? Is she going to be all right?"

A slow nod answered her. Dr. Crusher always made sure to look people in the eye. "I believe she'll make a full recovery but her brain needs time to rest. I've ordered a 48 hour period of total sedation while we run tests and let her body recover." Her eyes slid to Riker, including him, and back to Tandy again. "Give it time. I'll keep working on identifying the source."

"I don't want the Vamarian refugees to know. Same goes for the Federation colonists," Riker said. "We don't know who did this or if they're still close by."

"I understand. Authorized personnel only," Dr. Crusher replied. "I need to get back to it."

Tandy straightened. "I'm staying with her."

With a nod, Dr. Crusher disappeared back into Loire's room.

An impulsive sense of fear had Riker grabbing Tandy's elbow to stop her from disappearing too. Her eyes flashed wide until he loosened his hand. She appeared to search his face for some truth that he smoothed over with his usual impassive mask.

"Keep all this for her, please," said Riker as he transferred his burden into her arms. "I was supposed to bring these things to her but clearly I can't do that now."

"Sure," she said, confused. "What is all this?"

"One of the refugees was a guard to the royal family. He managed to save some of their more valuable possessions. She asked for a report on the survivors and that's on the PADD. Don't let her have that right away if she wakes up before I come back."

Tandy's brow lifted just a bit. "And the book?" She looked down at it. "An atlas of Earth. Nineteenth century. Impressive."

"The atlas," said Riker, swiping a hand over the back of his head in an an unexpected nervous gesture. He shrugged. "I thought she might like it."

Quiet and, he knew with that stupid gesture, knowing what he was about, the corner of Tandy's mouth flickered. He couldn't discern whether it was almost a smile or almost a grimace, but he was sure then that he gave himself away.

"Just keep her possessions safe."

"I will, Commander," she said. And then she was gone.

Everything in Riker wanted to go into that medic room just to see with his own eyes that Loire was still alive. Even his calf muscles tensed, ready and pleading to take those few steps into the room. But there was no official reason for him to be there even if he had gotten used to visiting her every day. Disappointment began to seep into his bones. He'd wanted to show her the atlas and talk to her about the Earth half of her heritage - a heritage they shared. Instead, poison was running through her body the whole time and he never knew it.

Heels banged on the sterile Sick Bay flooring as Riker turned his back on Loire's room. There wouldn't be any sleep for him that night. He was going to find answers if he had to conduct interviews three or four times over on each survivor to uncover some minuscule blip of truth.

But first, Riker needed to research known poisons used by the Romulan Empire. Call it a hunch but he knew where to start.

Chapter Text

"Will, we have a problem." Whispering outside of Deanna's office, she looked up at Riker through concerned black eyes. "The boy is barely school age. Kindergarten. Maybe first grade if we're lucky. I don't know how successful you'll be at getting useful and accurate information out of him."

"I have to try."

"What's so important about him?"

His fist clenched and released at his side. "I'm beginning to think someone in the Vamarian kingdom made a deal with the Romulans to sell their natural resources for building weapons. This boy told his teacher about his father meeting a Vamarian man in the weeks leading up to the attack."

Deanna considered it and gave an acquiescent shrug. "Can't you talk to the father?"

"He's dead."

She nodded slowly and took a deep breath. "All right. Don't press him too hard. Make your questions friendly and conversational. I'll be there to help when you get yourself backed into a corner."

Brows creeping higher on his forehead had Riker looking mildly offended. "You don't think I can talk to a child?"

"You're big and intimidating, Will." A half-smile softened the truth.

As Deanna turned to open her office, Riker muttered, "I'm not that big," and she tossed a skeptical glance over her shoulder. He allowed himself a small measure of comfort in how easy they were together.

A quiet little boy with curling sandy hair presided over a variety of holographic and old-fashioned toys in the middle of the floor, while the teacher with blue hair streaks sat in a nearby chair. Although she peered up at Riker and Deanna, she gave no indication that she had already been questioned by him. He nodded a greeting that she only vaguely returned. Something about her lack of reaction tugged at the back of his mind, something he stashed away to chew on later. For now, he chalked it up to her desire to keep a calm environment for the child.

Deanna sank to the floor effortlessly and still managed to look elegant leaning on one hip with her legs tucked to one side. "Timo, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine."

The child lifted his eyes to her face but not his full attention.

"This is William Riker but you can call him Will. All his friends do."

"Hello, Timo," he said softly.

A hard yank had Deanna pulling Riker to the floor by his hand. It was his usual impulse to go for a chair, but of course, following her direction was the right thing to do. Getting on a child's level made communication easier. He should have known better even if lowering to the floor and mimicking the boy's cross-legged position tugged at an old combat wound low in his back.

"What have you got here?" asked Riker, hoping to make conversation.

The boy called Timo hesitated, watching Riker, and began pushing a series of colored stones along a twisting, winding track. "A maze."

Nodding, Riker hoped to arrange his expression into something impressed.

"Gotta get all the colors from one side to the other," Timo volunteered.

"I'm betting you're great at it."

"Getting there."

Impatience fought with Riker's better judgment. They didn't have time for toys and mazes with the Romulans breathing down their necks, but he chanted to himself that this was a child, this was a child, this was a child. A child that lost both of his parents a matter of days ago, no less. Riker pulled himself into his center and forced Loire out of his mind if only for her own good. He slid himself into the shoes of his boyhood at that age when he just began to realize the impact of his mother's death when he was even smaller. For a moment, he allowed himself to touch the pain that came with remembering all the mothers bringing their boys to school when his father dumped him on the neighbors most of the time. Empathy for Timo bloomed.

"Timo, is Miss Kissan taking good care of you?" Riker asked.

He nodded. "Dad said she'd be my new mom if the bad thing happened."

Riker's eyes flickered up to the teacher who showed no reaction. To the boy, he said, "What's the bad thing?"

"Don't know." Timo shrugged and switched to flying a hologram ship.

Exchanging looks with Deanna made Riker try to convey a need for help. She leaned forward with her warmth opening to the boy. "Was your father unusually scared or angry in the last few weeks?"

"Mom yelled a lot. She was mad. Dad just stayed quiet most of the time."

"Do you know what your mom was yelling about?" asked Riker.

"Fish people."

Everything in Riker wanted to burst forth with a hundred questions in that moment but he maintained his reserve. It was a hard fight, keeping still and quiet for the child, but his gut told him they were on the right track. He rubbed his thighs in a nervous tick that only Deanna recognized, and she gave his knee a discreet nudge to stop.

"Is it true your father was taking you to the docks to watch the Vamarian moon ceremonies? That must have been interesting, huh?" Talking to a child sounded strange to Riker's ears. He didn't quite recognize his own voice.

Timo, on the other hand, lit up and showed some life for the first time. "They swim in circles." Small hands gestured to punctuate each word. "Sometimes they throw their arms up in the air like this and they sing to the sky--" he switched to a well-learned melodic chant in the Vamarian language "--and then a girl does a big jump and twist out of the water for every birthday. Dad said she grows up when they do that but I didn't see her grow any."

"That sounds like a beautiful ritual," Deanna said sincerely.

"I didn't like it at first but it was better than Mom yelling."

It was a careful moment and Riker knew it. He didn't have time to allow the interview to drift back to emotional problems with the boy's mother, although he knew Deanna was going to pounce on it. That kind of thing was in her nature.

"When your father took you to watch those ceremonies," Riker began, choosing his words carefully, "did either of you ever talk to the Vamarians?"

"Fish people?"

It made Riker cringe like ancient racial slurs on Earth. "Yes, the fish people."

Timo's eyes turned to one side and toward the ceiling in the overdone mannerism of a young child. He pondered the question until the hologram ship collided with an asteroid. "I didn't talk to those fish people. Maybe they'd eat me, y'know? One of them was Dad's friend. Kinda. Don't know. Sometimes they showed their teeth at each other." The boy's nose wrinkled. "Never liked that, really. Looked mean."

"Who were they?" asked Riker.

"Don't know."

Frustration boiled. With a subtle deep breath, Riker forced his racing thoughts to slow down enough to maintain an even tone.

"Don't worry," said Deanna. "You're doing just fine, Timo."

Two sincere eyebrows lifted into half moons. "Am I helping?"

A warm smile brought out Deanna's flushing skin tone and Riker had to look away. She squeezed the boy's hand. "You're being very helpful."

Riker leaned to one side on the floor but it didn't alleviate his back pain. "Timo, you're a very strong boy. And it's fine that you don't know who the Vamarian was. Can you tell me anything about their appearance?"

"Like what?"

"Well, let's start with whether the Vamarian you saw was male or female?"

"Oh, he was always the same man." Apparently convinced that he wasn't in trouble, the boy started a new hologram flight simulator game. "Definitely the biggest fish man I ever saw. Scary too. His eyes were silver but they were green like glow in the dark. You ever seen anything like that?"

"Can't saw that I have," replied Riker. "Did anything stand out about the way he looked?"

Timo considered the question. "Don't know. He said drawings on his shoulders."

"You mean tattoos?"

"Yeah, that. But it was like his skin raised up. Lots of circles inside of circles."

Of course Riker knew about a variety of body modification practices in different cultures but he couldn't remember seeing anything on the Vamarian refugees. The probability of the suspected deal-maker having survived at all was quite low if the boy's parents didn't even make it out alive. And as much as he hated to admit it, there was a certain probability that he was following the wrong trail completely. Still, something nagged at him to stay the course. He committed the boy's description to memory, afraid to take out a PADD in front of him in case it intimidated him.

"Oh," said Timo, sitting straighter, "the fish man talked about a princess once."

Riker froze. "What did he say?"

"Don't know." Somewhat deflated, the child's eyes darted to Deanna, back at his silent teacher, and back to Riker again. His bravery wavered along with his chin in the universal sign that a child was about to start crying. "He smacked the dock with that huge hand and it was scary. I ran away."

"It's all right," Deanna said as she reached for him. "You're safe here with us. Nobody will scare you now." Maintaining the same tone for the child, she looked at Riker. "I think we've had enough for today, hm?"

He nodded and patted Timo's arm. "Thank you for talking to me. I'll come back and take you to see the bridge another day if you'd like that."

One wide eye appeared from his face snuggled to Deanna's shoulder. He blinked solemnly at Riker and gave a faint nod.

Two things occurred to Riker as he took formal leave of the women in the counseling office. The boy called Timo hadn't yet begun to understand that his parents weren't coming back, and the teacher left to care for him possessed so little maternal affection that she couldn't even embrace him as he wept in confusion and sorrow. She left it to Deanna, a stranger, to cuddle and soothe the boy. No signs of cruelty, of course, and Deanna would sense that right away, but he couldn't help but feel a newly orphaned child deserved more affection. Still, it wasn't his province of duty. It was up to the ship's counselor to determine who needed what emotional support.

Riker's province was the investigation as ordered by Captain Picard and now he had a few new leads to explore. He entered notes of the questioning session into his PADD while it was still fresh, walking aimlessly through the corridors until he gathered his thoughts. It was an old habit to appear like he was headed somewhere important when in fact walking helped him think.

The desire hung low in his belly to rush back to Sick Bay. He fought it, knowing the work he did was going to help Loire much more than sitting by her bed while she lingered in Dr. Crusher's deep sedation. Tandy would find a way to let him know if anything changed. Of that he was certain after she clearly began to suspect something different in his motives for hanging around that private medic room every day. The conflict of interest weighed heavily on his conscience, as did the possibility that Tandy might verbalize her suspicions to the wrong people.

Redirecting his thoughts to the investigation had Riker redirecting his walking path around the ship as well. He had a physical description of the suspicious party but he wanted to keep those cards close to his chest. So he made his way to the recreation lounge under the pretense of looking in on the refugees and their comfort.

Riker found only five of the Vamarians utilizing the pool under the curved starry window when he arrived. It was close to dinnertime, he surmised with only marginal concern for his own growing hunger. He strolled a slow, wide arc around the enormous pool and observed the lithe bodies gliding through the water. There was no way to determine whether any of them had circular body modifications on their shoulders but it seemed fairly evident that none of them were large enough to fit the child's description. He wanted to ask if any of them knew of a man among their kind by that description too, but without Moh'ee there to assist, he couldn't be sure if they spoke enough English for clear communication. It would have to wait for the time being.

There was, however, something else he could do.

Leaving the recreation lounge, Riker tapped the comm on his chest. "Riker to Captain Picard."

"Go ahead, Number One."

"Requesting permission to form an away team to continue my investigation on the planet."