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“Data contact the Panther and have Commander Malek transport over and meet us in the Observation Lounge.”

Picard ordered over his combadge as he and Riker walked toward the turbolift. The door slid shut. “Bridge.”

“Aye sir.” Data replied.

Picard looked to his First who understandably looked confused and overwhelmed. The last time Riker had laid eyes on his double was the first time they had met. His head must be swimming! Picard knew he had to have him re-focus but wasn’t sure how he could help him. “Number One,” he started slow.

“Yes sir.” He answered but Picard could tell it was an automatic response because Riker never lifted his eyes from the floor of the turbolift.

“He’s not you. You’re two completely different men.” He tried to reassure him.

Riker allowed a small grin and stroked his absent beard. “Believe it or not, that’s not what I was thinking about Captain.”

Picard let his eyebrows rise. “Oh?”

Riker leaned back against the wall of the turbolift as it shifted directions. “I see him laying there…scarred…torn. I can’t even comprehend what he might have been through and find myself wondering…whether or not I could…”

“Will.” Picard stopped him. “You may be different men, but you’re made from the same…” Picard smiled, “…cloth. You have strength. You should know that I admire you. You never fell into the same traps he did. You are an outstanding officer and honorable man, Will.”

Will breathed in with the compliment and nodded briefly. “Thank you, sir.” he sighed heavily. “I still can’t even imagine what he’s been through.”

Picard let his stomach lurch. I can.

The door opened and the two walked out onto the bridge. Data stood from the command chair and Picard waved to him asking him to remain. “Report.”

“Admiral Jellico and Captain Hunter are in Obs. Commander Malek has beamed to transporter room four and is on his way.” Data confirmed.

“Thank you Mister Data.” Picard accepted the report then began to move for the Observation Lounge when the door to the lift opened once more and Commander Malek stepped out, his look of concern apparent. “Ah! Commander, good.” Picard stepped forward to shake his hand. “Your Captain has asked that you attend this briefing in her stead. I’ll explain more in the Observation Lounge.”

“Aye sir,” he nodded briefly, his antennae reverently dipped and he made eye contact with Riker. Malek saw Riker’s concern and drew himself closer to his counterpart and followed Picard into the lounge. Malek was about to quietly question Riker when he was surprised by the sudden rush upon Picard by Jellico.

Jellico moved straight into Picard’s face. “Captain Picard! Do you think orders are merely suggestions?! Well I’ll tell you…”

“Are you quite done Admiral?” Picard interrupted quietly and continued to walk into the lounge towards his usual seat at the head of the table.

Malek’s eyes flew wide and his antennae spiked, he looked to Riker who responded with pressed-lips and raised eyebrows as if to say…just lay low. It was a lead that Malek was all too happy to follow.

“You disobeyed a direct order Captain!” Jellico roared.

Again, Picard did not rise to the bait and he kept his voice calm and monotone. “No Admiral, I simply chose to acknowledge the fact that the Seldonis IV Convention supersedes your orders.” Picard stoically walked past Jellico and took his seat.

“The Seldonis IV Convention applies to citizens of the Federation and organizations who are a party to them Picard.” Jellico retorted. “Riker is neither!”

Picard let his fury fly and he stood from his chair and leaned over the table. “No you don’t Admiral! NO SIR! Don’t you dare twist the definition of our own rules to justify the mistreatment of another!” Picard could feel the heat emanating from his own face. “I will not allow us to stoop to that level…or did my reaction to Ba’ku teach you nothing?!” He shook his head, “It’s a horribly convenient definition to say he’s no longer a Federation citizen when it’s the Federation that needs him most! No sir! NEVER!” Picard slammed his hand down on the table and it rocked the room. Riker tried to reassure Malek with a look when he jumped back. “We are citizens of the Federation and the Convention applies Admiral! It applies to us! We must adhere!”

“Thomas Riker requires representation Admiral, and I’ll be damned if Picard stands alone in this!” Hunter barked.
Jellico spun, looking around the room looking for support. He only saw Riker and Malek with concerned stares resting on their faces. He spun back to Picard. “Where’s Steele?!”

Picard breathed in deeply and invited all to sit with a wave of his hand. “Admiral, please have a seat and I will try to explain what happened.”

“Where’s Thomas Riker, Picard?!”

“Admiral!” Hunter glared at him. “Yelling will not make this easier. Let the good captain speak.”

Jellico huffed heavily and took a seat with the others.
“Thank you Admiral” Picard said calmly. “Captain Steele remains in sick-bay pending a check-over by our physician. She was rendered unable to attend this meeting due to an incident that occurred in the sick-bay…”

“I knew it! Riker tried to break free didn’t he?” Jellico roared.

Picard closed his eyes in frustration. “No Admiral...”

“She saved his life!” Riker interrupted. “He was going to die and she saved him and any possible testimony he might be able to provide!”

Picard always appreciated Riker’s ability to cut in at the precise moment he wanted him to, just so he could catch a breath – just so he could keep from reaching across the table and grabbing his superiors by the throat.

"What do you mean?” Jellico retorted.

“Admiral. If you would let me finish, I will be happy to inform everyone here what happened. It’s especially important for Commander Malek to hear.” Picard acknowledged him once more with his eyes, and Malek sat forward at the table at full attention.

Jellico huffed once more and leaned back heavily in his chair. “What happened Picard?”

“Thomas Riker, known member of the Maquis, was received in extremely poor condition on the Starbase as a party to a prisoner exchange with the Tholian Assembly.”

Malek nodded, his antennae bounced rigidly. “That’s why they were here.”

“Yes Commander.” Picard confirmed. “Riker was cleaned and placed under anesthesia so several Cardassian pain control devices could be removed.” Out of habit, Picard drew his hands across his bald head once more. “Unfortunately, a hidden device was triggered, we believe remotely, which forced him out of the anesthesia causing him… severe pain. That device was meant to have and would have caused Riker’s death had it not been for Captain Steele’s intervention.”

Malek’s antennae drooped substantially and his facial expression and body language told both Riker and Picard that he understood exactly what that meant. “She took his pain,” he stated softly. “Didn’t she?”

Picard nodded. “Yes Malek.” he tried to sound supportive.

“Will she be okay?” Malek looked to Riker.

Riker sighed with worry, “I think so Malek but I won’t lie to you. She took a pulse of pain that was meant to rip him apart before it killed him. Not only did she feel the pain the device was causing but she must have been able to feel the pain of the open surgical wound and removal of the device as well. It will likely take her quite awhile to shake it off.” Riker replied.

“What do you mean, took his pain?” Jellico asked.

“Admiral, Captain Steele is one quarter Deltan.” Picard responded. “When Riker was forced out of anesthesia, she intentionally absorbed the pain Thomas Riker was suffering long enough for the doctor to surgically remove the hidden device and get him back under anesthesia.” Picard said factually, happier now that Jellico had calmed. “Dr. Crusher informed me that she is convinced that if Captain Steele had not jumped in like she did, she would not have been able to remove the device before it killed Riker. She remains in sick-bay and Thomas Riker remains under sedation. He will require additional treatment to heal several fresh wounds.” Picard looked to Jellico.

"Remotely?” Jellico stood with the comprehension. “The damn Tholians never intended for him to live!”

“It must have been how they were able to get Riker from Cardassia to begin with – a promise that he would die before being handed over to Starfleet.” Hunter surmised.

Picard and the others could see Jellico’s mind spin into a frenzy. Hunter allowed himself to smile slightly and Picard could tell that Hunter was very familiar with his former CO’s idiosyncrasies. “This may play well for us.” Jellico finally stated. “Commander Riker – how many people know of Thomas Riker’s presence on board the Enterprise?”

“Ourselves, the guards, Captain Steele, Lieutenant Commander Worf and Commander Troi, sir.”

Jellico seemed pleased. “That’s all?”

“Yes sir, Captain Picard had Worf assure sick-bay would remain off-limits for the time being.” Riker responded.

“Good. I want to keep it that way. I wouldn’t mind if we let it slip that Thomas Riker died from the Tholian device and that we became the victims of their deception.”

Picard nodded in agreement. “It could only help in the ease of our transport to Earth, but only for awhile. The escorts will still tip our hand.”

Jellico nodded, “Yes Jean-Luc, but I don’t want them too far away either. I still don’t trust this situation and don’t believe for an instant those who still control part of the Cardassian fleet won’t take advantage of this.”

“Why don’t you transfer Riker to one of the Cats sir? It would be easier to send one of us home more casually than it would be for the Enterprise.” Malek offered and Riker smiled.

Jellico’s eyebrows lifted. “Not a bad idea Malek.” he stood from his chair. “I want to think over my options for a bit but my first instinct is to have him remain on board Enterprise.”

“Thomas Riker will still require intensive medical and psychological treatment.” Picard pointed out. “Both of which he can receive easier on board the Enterprise than on either of the defense ships.”

Jellico stewed. “Agreed but I don’t want to delay this trip Picard. The faster we get him to Earth the better. We have to pass right by Cardassian territory and if any of them even catch a whiff that Thomas Riker is on board, I’m afraid that we’ll be right back where we started with them.”

“Admiral…that is one fact with which I wholeheartedly agree.” Picard conceded and glanced to his superior officer with a serious stare. “Captain Steele can remain on board the Enterprise until she is released. She has faith in Malek to command the Panther while we move forward.”

“Agreed.” Jellico stated. “Admiral Noyes will also be joining me.” He turned his eyes to Malek, “Commanders, Captains, I’ll provide you with further orders once Admiral Noyes and I have had a chance to discuss things. In any event we may have just bought ourselves a little time. I want to use it. Please be prepared to depart SB 214 at 0900 hours tomorrow morning.”

Picard felt his empty stomach lurch again. “Fine Admiral. Commander Riker please assign quarters to our guests.”

“Aye sir.” Riker nodded.

“What about representation Admiral?” Hunter challenged him and Jellico’s face flushed to a beet red. Picard allowed himself to smile as he looked to his counterpart. Antoinette was right; Hunter was a very good man indeed.

“I will assure a representative is brought on from the Starbase Captain.” Jellico groaned his surrender.

“Excellent.” Hunter nodded.

The group all stood from their seats and Jellico left the room quickly. Picard let his eyes fall to Hunter. “Thank you Captain.”

Hunter shook his head. “I already told Ed he blew it. He knows it and he’s just mad. He’ll get over it and I don’t expect any more grief. He’s always been that way. He hates being wrong and he stews.” Hunter smiled. “I was under his command long enough to read him.”

Riker shook his head. “I don’t know you did it Captain. I was under his command for all of two weeks and I ended up butting heads more than I care to remember.”

Hunter grinned outright. “Yeah, he told me all about that Riker. I think you actually did pretty well.”

“Liar.” Riker responded with a laugh.

Hunter smiled and nodded. “Maybe so Commander,” he moved alongside Riker, “…but Jellico really is the best when it comes to matters involving Cardassia. Never forget it and always respect it.”

“Captain Picard?” Malek interjected.

“Yes Commander?”

“I would like to see Captain Steele, if I may.”

Picard smiled and rested his hand on the XO’s shoulder. “By all means Commander.”

“Come with me Malek. I promised her I’d be right back.”

Riker replied. Malek agreed and the group exited the lounge.

“Report when ready Number One.” Picard offered and received a non-verbal acknowledgement from Riker. Data stood from the command chair and Picard happily sat. Relief swept over him. The horrible hurdle with Jellico was over and he was relatively unscathed. The thought that there were many other hurdles yet to jump made him feel tired all over again. Maybe retirement is a good idea…


__________



“So how do you like serving under Captain Steele, Malek?” Riker asked him as they exited the turbolift.

Malek’s smile told him already, “Very much. She’s an outstanding CO. A little bit like your CO, very passionate about her point of view but honestly, she’s just a lot of fun to work for. Very different from my last CO.”

“Fun?” Riker asked.

“Yes. She’s also very funny on the bridge sir. Always jokes with the crew. There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t do anything for her.”

The thought of openly joking on the bridge seemed foreign to Riker. “I would have thought she would have been a little hard-edged considering the type of ship you’re on.”

Malek nodded. “To tell you the truth Commander, I thought the same thing when I accepted her offer as XO. But I’ve come to find out it’s exactly the kind of camaraderie that’s required on a defense vessel. Our job is serious enough.” Malek’s antennae twisted then stood straight up, “When we’re in battle, she’s dead serious…and so is the crew.”

“I have no doubt of that,” Riker confirmed. The thought that a lighthearted attitude would be required on a fighting ship seemed to make sense for the same reason Picard liked his ship to run a little tighter, a little more formally. The balance was necessary.

Riker led him to sickbay. As they entered the room, Riker could see Crusher and Troi talking quietly to one side. Thomas remained on the biobed attended by both guards. Steele appeared to be resting on the bed next him. Malek moved forward directly.

“Captain…” he spoke softly.

Steele tried to lift herself slightly to greet him but winced. “Commander…good to see you.”

Malek shook his head gently. “You just can’t seem to stop putting yourself in harm’s way Captain. Am I going to have to lock you up on your own ship?” he scolded.

Riker smiled. It was exactly the type of thing he was about to say to her.

Steele let herself drop back down to the bed. “Maybe Commander,” her eyes turned serious. “How did the meeting go? Jellico behave himself?”

Riker moved in. “He was upset at first, but I think Hunter and Captain Picard were able to straighten him out. He and Noyes will be coming back on board for our transit to Earth.”

Steele nodded weakly. “What about him?” Her eyes drifted to the bed next to her.

“Jellico is bringing a representative for him for the debriefing.” Riker confirmed.

“Excellent,” she exhaled with relief.

“Hey! Don’t get my patient all flustered now!” Beverly admonished in a hushed tone. “I just got her to the point where she’ll put her head down.”

“Sorry Doctor,” said Steele, “She’s mean Will. How do you handle it?”

Riker smiled and laughed as he looked to Crusher who pressed her lips in that don’t push my buttons look. “I listen to what she says. Keeps me from getting hurt.”

Steele shifted uncomfortably. “Probably good advice.”

“Still in pain?” Riker asked.

Steele nodded. Crusher looked up to the monitor above her head. “I want you to stay with me awhile Captain.” She turned to look at Malek and Riker. “I couldn’t give her anything for her pain without it overwhelming her,” she sighed with frustration.

“I tried to tell her…” Steele groaned.

Riker nodded and Malek also seemed to understand. “It’s just something she has to go through Doctor.” Malek shook his head. “She told me that the day I started working for her, just in case something like this happened.”

Crusher nodded. “Yes. The physician on the Panther provided me with all of her records.” Her eyes met Steele’s. “Does she make this a habit?”

“No Doctor.” Steele sighed with a smile.

Malek addressed her, “Admiral Jellico has approved my command of the Panther until you are released Captain.”

“Good.” Steele nodded. “I shouldn’t be too long, Commander. I’ll beam back over as soon as I can.”

“I know you will Captain.” he patted her leg gently and smiled. “Kiley is going to get a real bang out of this when I tell her.”

“Tell Kiley she can go screw herself,” replied Steele with a grin and Riker’s eyes widened with her language. “She’s my Second,” She explained. “She’s Zaldan.”

Riker nodded with comprehension. Zaldans abhorred etiquette so Steele’s comment would only be deemed honest and appropriate.

“I will Captain. She’ll be glad to hear it.” Malek turned to walk for the door. “Oh, and Captain?”

“Yes Commander?”

“Since you’ll be out for a little while, I just wanted you to know, don’t be surprised when I have that hideous painting in the ready room removed. It’s an affront to Andorian sensibilities! All that dirt…nasty, wretched place.”

“Just because you come from a place that’s covered in ice…” she grunted, as she watched Malek smiled impishly as he walked from the room. “Don’t you touch that painting!” She threatened but Malek laughed loudly as the door whooshed closed behind him.

Riker shook his head. “Malek said you had an unusual command style.”

“Ah…” she winced again. “Maybe I do. This crew is as good…no…maybe better than the Yeager’s. We’re a team. We live together and will die together if necessary.” She stated.

Deanna moved back to the biobed where Steele lay. “How are you doing?”

Steele exhaled deeply. “A little better.” She took Troi’s hand. “You helped a lot Counselor. Thanks.”

Riker smiled as he looked to the two of them. He was happy to see that they were getting along so well. “See Toni, I told you she was pretty special.”

Steele smiled and gently nodded then slowly reached her hand out for Riker’s face. He brought his head down so she could touch him. She slapped his face curtly.

“Hey!” he pulled back, rubbing his stinging cheek. He really did miss his beard. “What was that for?!”

“For not introducing us years ago!” Steele barked. “You are in deep trouble now Commander!”

Riker’s eyes widened when he saw that Deanna’s expression contained the same look. “Oh...oh no. See? This is why. I didn’t want to get double-teamed.”

“Too late, Will.” Deanna smirked back. “You are far, far too late.”

Riker backed away slowly from the biobed as the two women stared him down. He turned to look at Crusher and realized that she had also been privy to some conversations that occurred while he was in Observation. “Don’t tell me…you too?”

“Seems as though you didn’t want us to meet her Will. Why were you so afraid…?”

“Uhhh…thanks Doctor. I think I’m needed back on the bridge!” he barked as he backed quickly towards the door, his hands raised in a self-defensive posture. “You three have a lovely day…”


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