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Divergence

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“So, tell me, Jean-Luc, are the rumors true?” Will Riker reversed his chair and straddled it in his usual way and sat down. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, and observed his former commanding officer. In the background, the light twinkling against the champagne glasses and the clink of silverware punctuated the dull murmurs around them. Conversation at official Starfleet galas always seemed muted to Will. Perhaps it was the environment in the aftermath of the Dominion War; no one was willing to call too much attention to themselves and the extravagance was decidedly muted in deference to the austere budgetary measures that had recently been enacted due to the high cost of post-war reconstruction.

Jean-Luc Picard arched an eyebrow but kept his expression maddeningly neutral. “There are all always rumors, Number One.”

Will bit back a smile. He’d had been in command of the Titan for more than a year now, but old habits, like nicknames, died hard. “You know which rumor in particular I’m talking about.”

“Perhaps you would like to enlighten me.”

Will glanced around nervously. Clearly Picard was not going to make this easy on him. “I heard they want you to run for office,” he said in a low voice. “Is it true?”

Picard tipped his head to the side. “Outside,” he said, indicating the French doors on the east side of the ballroom. “I need some fresh air.”

Riker followed Picard out the door, exchanging a quick look with his wife, Deanna Troi, as he passed her; she was deep in conversation with two other counselors. Outside, a cool breeze off the Bay chilled the September air. The city lights twinkled in the darkness. Picard stepped to the edge of the stone patio and stared across the water to the hills of Sausalito.

“Well?” Riker said as they stood shoulder to shoulder.

“There are conversations,” Picard said carefully. “That much is true.” He turned to look at Riker. “Where did you hear this?”

Riker shrugged. “From a friend who heard it from a friend. You know how it is.”

“I was hoping to keep it quiet for a little bit longer.” Picard pressed his lips into a thin line as he stared into the distance. “How long will the retrofit of the Titan keep you and Deanna in San Francisco?”

Riker’s lips twitched into a smile. “You’re trying to change the subject.”

“Perhaps.”

“I assume you’ve discussed this with Kathryn.” Riker was damned if he understood the relationship between his former captain and Kathryn Janeway. They seemed to move in and out of each other’s orbit, one following the other on a trajectory destined to never meet. The last he’d heard – via Deanna, who’d likely gotten the information from Beverly Crusher – was that Admiral Kathryn Janeway had been instrumental in negotiating reparations between the Federation and the Cardassians as well as the Breen. The details of the settlement had been quiet, given the sensitivities, not to mention the ongoing tribunals trying Cardassians and Breen for war crimes, but Janeway had apparently won accolades for her diplomacy, her ability to keep calm in the most trying and delicate of situations, and reach consensus in a situation where emotions still ran high.

Picard sighed. “No.”

Riker turned his attention back to the city lights blinking white across the dark expanse of San Francisco Bay. “I noticed she wasn’t here tonight. Where is she?”

“Vulcan, visiting Tuvok.”

“Lucky for you, Vulcans don’t gossip, so if the rumor mill has gotten that far, Kathryn won’t hear it through the grapevine,” Riker said easily. He clapped his former captain on the shoulder. “You never answered my question. Are you running for office?”

“It depends how the conversations go.”

Riker narrowed his eyes. “That’s a yes, isn’t it?”

Picard turned to look back at the ballroom, the crowds of uniformed personnel mingling inside. “I did not say that.”

“But you implied it.” Riker cleared his throat. Even after all these years, he could never quite read his former captain. On the one hand, rank and protocol had always stood between them, and on the other, there were times when Riker genuinely thought they were friends, not just colleagues. He had so many questions dancing at the edge of his tongue and without Deanna’s gentle hand exerting pressure on his, reminding him to be careful, Riker felt free to challenge Picard. “Are you really that unhappy that you’re willing to leave Starfleet?”

“Not ‘unhappy,’ Will,” Picard said, with characteristic sharpness. “Rather say, I’m looking for a new opportunity, something to work for.” He sighed. “The Dominion War has decimated our fleet and the deaths of seven million troops has created a void in those who are both capable and willing to lead; it will be another generation, perhaps two, before we completely recover from that loss of life. Now we’re in a rebuilding phase, both physical as well as perspective. There’s a lot of free-floating uncertainty, and dare I say, paranoia. This idea of what enemies still exist, how we can fight them, how can we prepare for the unknown.” He took a deep breath. “This isn’t Starfleet, Will, and you know it. Our mission to explore new worlds is now subservient to the fear of the Other.”

“But during the war, the fear was very real,” Riker said. He remembered the widespread blood tests when intelligence reported that a changeling had infiltrated Starfleet. Any deviance in behavior or personality seemed to be an opportunity to look at a friend or colleague with suspicion. Deanna had been exhausted with the effort of trying to discern what was real, what was not. “You can’t discount what we went through.”

“Not at all, Will,” Picard said. “I don’t mean to downplay the possibilities of additional security risk from threats we are aware of and those that we are not, but we also cannot forget what our primary mission is either. Progress is necessary.”

“I don’t disagree with you but you can’t just steamroll over what people feel or that we have so much work to do just to get the Federation back to where we were before the war.”

Picard’s expression was pensive. “I believe there can be, should be, a better way, and if anything, that is my motivation.”

“So that’s it, is it?” Riker couldn’t keep incredulity – tinged with intense disappointment -- out of his voice. “You’re tired of the rebuilding effort so you’re just going to leave when we need you the most.”

“That’s not fair, Will, and it’s certainly not what I said.”

“It’s not?” Riker’s eyes flashed. “What do you think it’s going to be like in government? You think it’s any less bureaucratic?” He tried to imagine Picard sitting in the hallowed office of the Presidential mansion in Paris; it was an impossible task. “If anything, I would think it would be even more frustrating. The Jean-Luc Picard I know would never be happy in a bureaucracy, pushing paper and posing for photographs, shaking hands or kissing babies’ cheeks.”

“I told them I was willing to listen to what they had to say,” Picard answered evenly. “No commitments. Just listening.”

Riker narrowed his eyes as he looked at his former captain. “But you’ve already made up your mind.”

At this, Picard sighed and then his lips turned up into a rueful smile. “I suppose you know me better than most.”

Even though he’d anticipated the acknowledgement, Riker still felt as he’d gotten a punch to the gut. Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the legendary USS Enterprise, leaving Starfleet. It seemed inconceivable and yet, here it was. In a way, Riker understood. Sitting at a desk as a member of the admiralty, had not suited Picard. Picard was a man of the stars, of action, and the idea he could be happy reviewing reports had always seemed preposterous to Riker. Making a change made sense, but this seemed drastic. Riker looked over his shoulder, but it was impossible to make out where Deanna was in the ballroom. Perhaps later, he could send her out to talk some sense into Picard.

“Starfleet has been my life for so long now. It will be a difficult transition,” Picard said thoughtfully. He gave a small laugh. “I’m not even sure what it means to be a civilian.”

“You may be a civilian if you resign from Starfleet to do this, but you’ll never be a private citizen,” Riker said gently. “You’ll still have the welfare of a lot of people on your hands.” He tipped his head to the side. “But I suppose you’d never be content just sitting at home, would you?”

At that, Picard smiled. “No. It would be a new phase in my life, perhaps not one I anticipated, but a challenge I think I would relish.”

“‘Challenge’ is an understatement.” Riker stroked his chin thoughtfully. He’d often wondered what he’d do if he ever left Starfleet and every possibility – from journeying from planet to planet as a traveling musician to retiring on Betazed – had never seemed satisfying. Starfleet – with all of its rigors and protocol – was so deeply entrenched in his blood that he didn’t think it would be possible to break free. And here was Picard, Starfleet to the core, suggesting he might do exactly that. “You’re sure about this? Once you give up all of this—” he jerked his thumb back toward the ballroom “—there’s no turning back.”

Picard’s smile was uneven. “It’s as unnerving as making first contact.” And then he looked sternly at Riker. “It was Beverly who told you, wasn’t it?”

Riker shrugged. The cool night air seeped through the thick fabric of his dress uniform. “I don’t reveal my sources.” Another beat and then he said, “I always thought when you retired from Starfleet, you would go on an archeological dig, maybe try your hand at winemaking. But politics?” Riker shook his head. “Admiral—”

“You know I’ve always preferred ‘Captain’.”

“Is that what this is all about?” Riker asked. “You accepted a promotion to the Admiralty, and now you have second thoughts, so you’re going to retire to run for office? That doesn’t sound like you.”

Picard’s expression was tinged with sadness for a moment. “Perhaps I’ve changed.”

Riker sucked in his breath. “So it seems.” He turned back to look at the Bay. “If you’re certain, then maybe this change will be good for you.”

 “I hope you are correct.”

Riker decided not to push the subject any further. “Come, let’s go inside before Deanna wonders what we’re up to.”