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"Fall in love and
you won't regret it,
It's nice work if you can get it,
and you can get it if you try."
- George and Ira Gershwin
Smoke, garish red light, and dark - the type of room one could disappear into, where the shadows were long and the memories short. In sum, the perfect place to steal a few moments of anonymity.
He sat at his usual table, back in the corner, as far as he could get from the lackluster band. He ran his finger around the rim of his glass. He was on his third beer, and as he tipped his head back, he could see the bottom of the mug; he raised his hand to signal for another.
"Rough day, Will?" the waitress asked as she placed another beer in front of him. "I hope you don't have to work tomorrow."
"I'm fine," Will Riker said. He dismissed the waitress with a wave of his hand, but she ignored him.
"You don't look fine, Riker," she said.
"Lindy..." Riker said, his voice drifting into a sigh. He shook his head. "What's a nice girl doing in a place like this?"
"I could say the same about you," Lindy replied. "You sure you don't want something to eat?"
"From this place?" Riker shook his head. "No, thanks."
"I'll make sure Jackie washes his hands before he starts on the grill," Lindy said. "He will do it for you, you know."
"I really just want to be alone."
"Sure thing. Suit yourself."
Will Riker pushed his chair back, letting his legs sprawl out. It was rare he could kick back like this. So many times, he was simply 'on.' Had to be on - after all, he was the first officer of the Enterprise, serving under the legendary Jean-Luc Picard. Dear God, how many years had it been now? And damn if Lwaxana didn't remind him of his "lack of ambition" on every visit...
Riker glanced up. The speaker was a young man - at least, these days everyone looked young to Will Riker.
"Depends," Riker said. "And you are?"
"Harry Kim." Riker cocked his head to the side. "I know that name." He tried to remember. Riker prided himself on never forgetting a name or a face, but in this case, he was drawing a blank. Harry Kim, Harry Kim...
"Can I sit down?" Harry nodded at the empty chair opposite Riker's.
"I really want to be alone."
Harry Kim looked slightly disappointed. "Sorry for disturbing you, sir."
"No, no," Riker said, guilt suddenly striking him. The kid looked friendly enough. Besides, there was no reason to take his bad mood out on Harry. "Have a seat."
"Did you come looking for me?" Riker was curious; many young Starfleet officers often searched Riker out, soliciting advice. Most of them were looking for a posting to the Enterprise. It was rare, Riker thought, that a Starfleet officer just starting out came by for a simple talk. No, that was more Deanna's area of expertise - somehow, the friendly ones gravitated towards her, leaving Will with the ambitious ones.
"Not really," Harry admitted. "I happened to come by and I recognized you through the window."
"This isn't the type of place people 'come by,'" Riker observed. This much was true; Riker himself had found this joint when he was a cadet. Back then, this particular bar - the Speakeasy - had featured some of the best in big band music. In those days, the place had been overflowing with cadets jostling each other to get the best place on the dance floor. Now, other than Riker and young Harry Kim, there were only three people in the bar. Riker regarded the young man pensively. "Are you going to sit or not?"
Harry Kim sat. Riker tapped his fingers against the thick glass of his beer mug.
"You really shouldn't wear your uniform when you come here," Riker said. He indicated his own clothing - dark tunic, loose pants. "Or at the very least, don't forget your phaser. The management has changed from its heyday. Starfleet is served under duress."
"I'm not afraid."
"If you ate here, you would be." Riker glanced towards Jackie, who was wiping his hands against his grimy apron. He shuddered.
"Didn't plan on eating." Now the kid sounded defiant. Riker tipped his head to the side. He had seen Harry Kim's type before - eager and enthusiastic, with just the barest touch of bravado.
"Wise decision." Riker leaned back in his chair, pressing his broad shoulders against the narrow back. "So you just happened to be in the area?"
"A friend of mine told me about this place. Said it had the best music in the city."
Riker glanced towards the band, which was now struggling its way through an old jazz standard. If he concentrated enough, he could make out the melody line of "Moonlight in Vermont."
"Your friend has lousy taste in music," Riker said finally.
Harry Kim's lips turned upward. "Yeah," he said. "He does. He's a pilot, not a musician."
Riker finished off his beer. The kid looked familiar.
"Are you at the Academy?" Riker asked. Perhaps Harry had attended one of the guest lectures Riker was occasionally called upon to conduct. Yes, those guest lectures were fun. A group of twenty or so of Starfleet Academy's best and brightest, burning with the flame of self-righteousness and moral obligations. These were students who wanted to rebuild the Federation after the devastation of the Dominion War, the students who swore they would be the ones to make a difference.
Don't judge them, Will, Deanna had said many times, you were just like them not too long ago. But Will Riker couldn't help himself; he had seen too much, had done too much. There was, he knew, nothing shiny or fulfilling about going into battle, and there was certainly nothing romantic about rebuilding.
"No. Graduated. Eight years ago." Harry's voice jerked Will back to the present.
"Ah." Strike one, Will. And not for the first time, he wished Deanna was with him tonight. "My mistake."
"Not a problem. People tell me all the time that I should appreciate my 'youthful' appearance."
"They're right," Riker said. Without thinking, his fingers went to his beard. He noticed that the gray hairs appeared more frequently these days. "Appreciate it."
"Youth can work against you too."
Riker shifted his attention back to the young man and for the first time, noticed the single pip on Harry Kim's collar. Long time to be an ensign, Riker knew. Even if one was stuck at a desk job.
"You're an ensign," Riker said.
"Yes." Kim laughed self-consciously. "My friend calls me 'Ensign Eager.'"
"You don't like that," Riker guessed. He could tell by the way the young man squirmed in his chair. Poor kid, Riker thought sympathetically.
"No. I didn't mind at first, but now... it's been years. Kept waiting for a promotion, but nothing, nothing at all."
"No shame in being an ensign."
"No, but I'd like some recognition too for some of the things I've accomplished."
"It'll come soon enough, don't worry." Sometimes, recognition comes too soon, Riker thought, and that's when you find yourself nestled in among the shadows, hoping to hide even for a couple hours.
"That's what I figure, but I'm getting impatient."
Harry shook his head. "Admiral."
Riker chuckled. The kid did dream big. Nothing wrong with dreaming big, Riker thought. In fact, he realized, I used to dream big as well. And now... now I'm simply a shadow, a first officer whose loyalty to his captain has turned those aspirations of long ago into nothing. No, not nothing, Riker corrected himself, *something*. Too bad others couldn't see that. Riker pressed his lips into a thin smile; accomplishments, he had realized long ago, could not be measured by the number of pips on one's collar.
"Good luck to you then," Riker said. "God knows, our ranks have been decimated, thanks to the Dominion War. As the saying goes, Starfleet needs a few good men."
Harry pushed his chair back slightly, the legs scrapping loudly against the floor. In the background, the music changed to a tune Riker recognized as "These Foolish Things."
"Well, here I am." Harry held out his arms. "I have more experience under my belt than half of the commanders serving in the 'fleet now. Hell, until they've been up against the Borg, they don't know what it's like. Until then, it's all out of a textbook. I should know, that's how it was for me."
A whisper of a memory stirred in the back of Riker's mind. He eyed the young man speculatively and unbidden, the image of an enthusiastic Reg Barclay sprang into his head. Reg and Deanna, taking off in the middle of the day, both of them talking a mile a minute. At the time, Riker had been particularly amused by the degree of Barclay's animation. There was only one obsession that could stir up such passion within Reg Barclay.
"Voyager, right?" Riker asked finally.
"Yeah, Voyager," Kim responded. He sounded flat, unenthusiastic, and Riker knew that feeling exactly. Coming home, no matter how anticipated, invariably ended as a let-down after the ticker tape parades, after the grandiose speeches, after the fame. After all, Will Riker had been there himself. But this wasn't the Enterprise, but Voyager, a ship which would go down in history books for its achievements and the tenacity of its crew.
"Now that was a true diplomatic and scientific mission," Riker said in admiration. "However inadvertent."
"It had its moments."
"I've read the logs. Good stuff. Reads like the very best in sci-fi literature." Riker raised his hand to summon Lindy. "Want something to drink? I'm running a tab."
Harry shook his head. "I'm on duty first thing in the morning."
"No, desk job. Got to stay here for six months before I can think about going back up there."
"Starfleet will drive
you crazy in the meantime with paperwork. I know, I've been there
before. Dull stuff."
"You?" Kim looked genuinely surprised. "I wouldn't think they'd make you push paper."
"It happens to the best and brightest of us," Riker said. He flashed a grin at the young man, the one Deanna Troi swore had broken at least a heart or two. "Not that I'm necessarily putting myself into that category."
"I've heard nothing but extraordinary things about you, about Captain Picard-"
"Of course you would. There is a certain amount of respect accorded to Starfleet's flagship," Riker said. Lindy brought over another beer and a bowl of peanuts. "I think you can believe about thirty percent of what you read. The rest is fiction, glorious fiction."
"You could say the same about Voyager."
"I thought that might be the case," Riker said, but his tone lacked bitterness. He eyed Harry Kim speculatively. "What really brings you down to these parts on a night like this? This isn't exactly a hotspot for heroes."
"I can't say I expected to find someone like you here either," Harry said easily.
"Touché," Riker said. He gazed at his beer, suddenly losing all desire for it. He didn't really want to be here either and not for the first time this evening, he wondered what Deanna was up to. "So why are you here? The truth, this time."
Harry shrugged. "A buddy of mine told me this was a good place if you need to disappear. Sometimes, you just want to be invisible."
"I know that feeling. Is this same buddy who liked the music?"
Harry's lips curved. "Yes."
Riker said, "He is right about one thing. If you don't want to be found, this is the right place to be."
"The media attention since coming home has been overwhelming. At first, it was flattering, but now..." Harry's voice drifted off. "I'm sure you know what I mean."
Riker looked over Harry's shoulder towards the band. They were still playing and someone was off-key. Jazz indeed, Riker thought. No sense of syncopation, no swing to the notes, this wasn't music, noise was more like it.
Kim glanced back at the band. "Terrible, aren't they?"
"Yeah. Do you know something about jazz?"
"I play the saxophone and the clarinet."
"I'm a trombone man myself."
"Actually, I think I remember reading that somewhere. 'The Musical First Officer.'"
Riker grimaced. He knew exactly which interview Kim was referring to; he had given it shortly after turning down the Aries command. He had explained his motivations then, but still the question came up constantly. Short memories, these journalists had, or perhaps, they were still searching for the right angle. The mystery of Will Riker and his perpetual first officerhood. Could be anything, journalists and Starfleet officers speculated. Incompetence, fear of command, loyalty to Picard, desire to command the Enterprise herself...
They had yet to hit upon the real reason and Riker was not about to spill the beans, so to speak; if they - that ambiguous they - couldn't understand what had taken him years to realize, he wasn't going to make it easy for them.
"You play poker too, if I remember correctly," Kim continued. "It was a good article, flattering."
"They are all flattering," Riker said irritably. He waved a hand, as if swiping at the thickening smoke. "No one would write an unflattering article about the Enterprise."
"Can I ask a personal question?"
"Depends. You can ask, doesn't mean I'll answer."
"Were you an ensign for very long?"
Riker tipped his head to the side. "No, not long. Just a couple years, but my case was unusual. Highly unusual."
Harry considered this statement. "Well, you know, maybe I do want a beer."
"I thought you said you had to work tomorrow."
"They cut ensigns more slack."
"That's a myth."
"Yeah?" Kim challenged. He got up. "I'm going to get a beer."
Riker sighed as he rubbed his eyes. It had been a long night and if he didn't get going, it would be a long day. He'd been here for a couple hours as it was and he didn't know how much longer he could wait. As it was, the smoke was burning his eyes. Plus, Deanna was waiting.
Kim returned, nearly slamming his beer down on the scarred surface of the table. Countless initials and various epitaphs had been carved into the wood, some expressions more polite than others.
"Do you come here often?" Kim asked.
"Enough." Riker shrugged. Enough so that I know the waitress by name, know that she's an engineering student at the Academy by day and works damn hard at night to make ends meet, Riker thought. And he glanced towards the kitchen, knowing that Jackie, the cook, would be doing his best to cook something dripping with grease - grease, it seemed, was Jackie's specialty.
"Why? I don't get it."
"Like you said, sometimes it's good to disappear. Be someone else for a while."
"You're not what I expected."
Riker scoffed. "Most people rarely are."
Kim's eyes narrowed. "I assumed you'd be a captain by now."
"You assumed incorrectly." Riker sipped his beer. Damn if the kid didn't ask a lot of questions. Again, Riker wondered what time it was. He thought about calling Deanna, seeing if she was home yet.
"With your credentials, I bet you could get a command anywhere," Harry said.
"I don't want a command just 'anywhere.'"
"You want the Enterprise," Kim guessed.
Close, Riker thought, but not quite.
"She's a fine ship, finest in the fleet," Riker said. He saw Lindy putting on her coat. Was it closing time already? "Anyone would be damn lucky to get her. And you're right about one thing, it would be an honor to command the Enterprise. Never settle for anything less than the best, Ensign. That's my advice to you."
"Is that what you're doing? Waiting for the best?"
"That would be one interpretation."
"I'd think that you'd take any command you could get."
"That's the difference between you and me." Riker leaned forward, closing the distance between him and Harry. "You think I haven't been offered a command before? You think I can't have any command I want at this point?"
"That's exactly my point," Harry said. "So why not?"
Riker smiled. Deanna would love this, he thought. This Harry Kim, with all of his baggage and eagerness tinged with bitterness, would make a fascinating psychological study. Still, the touch of bravado in Kim's voice rankled at Riker. He had had this conversation fairly recently - with his mother-in-law, as a matter of fact. Explaining his reasoning to Lwaxana had been next to impossible and Will had given up in a fit of frustration, storming off, leaving Deanna to minister to her mother. But it was one thing to have Lwaxana approach him in her sledgehammer manner, and yet it was another matter entirely when an ensign - an ensign! - whom he barely knew posed the same question.
"My guess is that you're not usually this bold," Riker said. He regretted the note of condescension in his voice immediately. He could see that the kid looked slightly wounded, so Riker changed his tone. "You're just feeling a little bitter because things didn't quite work out the way you wanted them to. Don't worry about it. Things come when they deserve to come. Sometimes, too soon."
Kim sighed and then shook his head. "I didn't think after seven years I'd still be an ensign," he said finally.
"I didn't think after fifteen years I'd still be a first officer," Riker said, almost jovially. Or that I'd be sitting in some seedy bar in the Red Light District, he thought. He could almost imagine Picard's expression if he mentioned this place to the proper and elegant captain; truly, Picard would be horrified by the places his first officer chose to frequent. But if you wanted to hide, it was necessary to fade into the shadows of the one place your seeker would never consider.
"But technically, isn't that your own doing? You could have had a command of your own long ago," Kim said. "The Aries, the Melbourne... as you said, any ship you could possibly want."
"I'm aware of what I could have had," Riker said. There was an arrogant edge to his voice, the one Deanna had often warned him to be careful about. "But there are other things to consider."
Harry did not look satisfied with Riker's answer.
"Plus, Captain Picard is the finest captain in the fleet," Riker went on. "I value my partnership with him."
"At the expense of your career?"
"Everything has a price, Ensign," Riker said sharply. He noticed that the band had stopped playing and were now packing up their equipment. "Depends on whether you want to pay up or not." He thought about Deanna, remembered what they had been through, and knew how lucky he was. "Command, you'll find, is somewhat overrated. I think I can wait."
"I think I'm ready," Harry said.
"You could be. I can't judge that," Riker said.
"So if someone offered you a command today, you wouldn't take it?" Harry Kim sounded baffled.
"I wouldn't say that," Riker said. "But it'd better be a pretty damn good offer to beat the one I already have."
With that Riker pushed back his chair. Lindy was standing by the door, waiting for him.
"Don't worry," Ensign," Riker said softly as he rose. He placed his hand on Kim's shoulder lightly. "You're going to do fine and one day, I'll be reading about your adventures."
With that, Riker headed out into the night, Lindy by his side; a light drizzle had settled over the city. Will Riker didn't look back as he slipped around the corner. They didn't talk much as they caught the transport back to the Academy.
"Working tomorrow night?" Riker asked as Lindy rose to exit the transport.
"No, but I will be working Thursday night."
"You've got someone to see you home?"
Lindy smiled gratefully. "Don't worry about me, Will. Jesse will pick me up."
"As long as you're set. Have a good night." Riker leaned back against the seat as the doors closed behind Lindy.
He arrived home some twenty minutes later and settled into bed next to Deanna.
"Did you have a good night?" Deanna asked as she pressed her slender body against his, her dark, silky hair smooth against his bare arm.
"Yes," Riker murmured against Deanna's neck. "I missed you tonight."
Deanna shifted in bed. "And Mother missed you. Too bad about that meeting coming up on such short notice." The mischief was evident in her tone.
Riker propped himself up on one arm. "You know, it's impossible to reason with admirals."
"Oh, I know," Deanna said, the barest hint of smile spreading across her face. Riker shook his head; he knew when he was beat.
"Maybe we could do dinner with your mother another time," he said pleadingly, trying to turn on that irresistible charm he was famous for. He leaned over to kiss those soft, full lips. Deanna's dark eyes widened in merriment. Riker grinned, aware that Deanna knew he had deliberately avoided Lwaxana's visit. Her hand curled around the back of his neck, pulling him down to her. He also knew, as his lips brushed against hers, that he was forgiven.
Yes, Will Riker thought, there were certainly things better than command.
~ end ~
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