At times it was soft as blossoms falling - the myriad of emotions that would drift through the ether as one by one, the tired crew crawled into their beds and passed into an easy sleep. There were nights when she would sit in the dark, tired and silent, but not asleep, allowing the soft-hued emotions to settle all around her. And they would oblige, touching her lightly as silken patterns of amber and plum-red. Their touch was a comfort, sometimes.
Just, not this time.
In accordance with the daily twenty four hour cycle of the Enterprise computer, it was early afternoon - barely two hours past what would have been midday. Who could say what time it was on the respective corners of every crew member's home world?
Well, there was always Data. It was possible that he…
Counsellor Deanna Troi smiled quietly to herself, glad for the break in her schedule. It was unlikely to last for long, but long enough - with luck - for a cup of hot tea and a brief chance to relax before commencing with her next appointment. She sighed deeply as the heat of her drink released the accumulated ache from across her shoulders. Hands folded loosely around the steaming mug, she closed her eyes.
"Picard to Counsellor Troi. Please report to my ready room."
Well, perhaps a moment's peace had been too much to hope for after all. "I'm on my way, Captain."
His back was to her as she entered the room, hands clasped tightly behind him. She studied the high, pale dome of his head, ringed as it was by a barely visible layer of thin, white hair. Frowning quietly, she cast her mind closer to his, hoping to find what she couldn't see in his face. She sensed hesitation. And she sensed concern. Concern for…
…For her. Why?
"Captain?" With the stream of feelings that she received from him, Troi was nearly as reluctant to ask.
Captain Picard turned around to face her. His expression was stoic, although there were deep creases around his mouth, and the skin between his brows was furrowed. "Counsellor," he began - slowly, as though cautiously avoiding several rows of needle-sharp prickles across the surface of each word. He paused, and sighed. "Deanna. I have bad news."
Yes. She could tell that much. Uncertainty radiated from him like heat from a fire. There was reluctance in his thoughts, mingled with a touch of strong anxiety. She knew that he had little experience with being unsure of what to say.
"Captain? Whatever it is, you can tell me."
He jerked his face towards her again as though her words had startled him. But then, his head inclined briefly in a barely perceptible nod. "I thought you should be among the first to know." His voice was steady - few people would have noticed how he forced his words. "Before this gets around to far, and you have to hear it from some loose-tongued ensign. I recently received word from Starfleet Command. They…"
His shoulders heaved in a still reluctant sigh. "Deanna, Betazed has fallen to the Dominion."
There were times when the floor seemed to open up beneath her, drawing her downward and turning as insubstantial as fine, dry sand. There were times, when the certainty of her universe would slip away until she was left with nothing to stand upon but the scattered remnants of dreams already crumbling into dust.
Counsellor Deanna Troi was in a corner by one high view port, seeing but not really noticing the trickle of patrons who were eager to enjoy the bounteous recreation time at Ten Forward. Voices multiplied to a steady, constant murmur - their laughter rising and falling in a mildly syncopated pulse. And with the crowd came a new cocktail of emotions. Loneliness and frustrated hopes blunted by the overtones of excitement and faithful camaraderie.
"We should…" Troi recalled her faithless half-gasp, thinking hard as she glanced at the drifting Terran lionfish in a case set into the opposite wall. For a moment she had envied the captain's peaceful aquatic pet - oblivious as it was to the troubles of these alien beings that populated every deck on the USS Enterprise. "Isn't there anything we can do to help?"
Her mind had reached far in a desperate search for those she knew. Childhood friends still living on the planet. Her mother, or possibly her younger brother - who was still so tiny, as pale and dark-eyed as she, and barely even a toddler…
…And she'd received little but a whisper in reply, so soft that she could not have said for certain that it was real. They were too far away, and how many people knew for sure at that moment, that the ones she'd so wanted to reach were even still alive. No, she told herself, more forcefully than she had originally intended. They are alive. You must never allow yourself to believe otherwise.
"Captain," Troi started to suggest. "What if we…?"
For a long time afterward, an image lingered in her thoughts. Captain Picard was shaking his head, stopping every protest before it had a chance to take on a recognisable shape.
"No," had been his final response. "I wish there was something, Deanna, but we won't arrive in time to make any real difference. Aside from that, the orders from Starfleet Command will take us in precisely the wrong direction. I'm sorry."
"You look as if you could use some company."
A drink was set in front of her as the speaker laid claim to the opposite chair.
"Guinan." She sighed, looking down at the light shining through the translucence of apricot-orange liquid in her glass. Gradually, she sensed that her own head had begun to shake. "Sorry, but no. Not right at the moment."
"You're sure? This isn't a place where people come to be alone."
Troi opened her mouth to offer a reply, but closed it without a word, and briefly rested her head against her hands. Guinan was a good listener - it was the mark of her species, after all, the very core of the El Aurians' reputation - and in many ways, the Enterprise's counsellor longed to speak. But the woman in front of her was not a telepath. There was so much that she would never sense as a Betazoid could - never truly understand.
"Thank you for the offer," she said. But I have a lot to be getting on with right now. I really should be going."
Guinan nodded, dark eyes sparkling as her expression shifted into its usual knowing smile - with far more hidden behind it than showed on her face. "Well--" There was a scarcely distinguishable whisper in her words, which were spoken deliberately slowly. "If you need to talk, or vent - or punch someone, you know where to find me."
"I'm not that far gone." Troi laughed sadly.
"That's always good to hear," responded Guinan. Her smile faded, and her next words were so intensely quiet that the other woman had to strain to listen. "I know it doesn't make a lot of difference right now, but I do remember how it feels to worry about my home."
The counsellor looked up. But of course - Guinan's world had been destroyed long ago, its people scattered and displaced. "The captain has promised to tell me as soon as he has more news."
It's just that... She couldn't finish the thought. She watched Guinan's face as it changed just subtly, her attention shifting to this latest arrival at the bar.
A flash of colour at the edge of Troi's vision confirmed who it had to be, before she even turned to look. Data, his golden face gleaming with reflected light, was easier to sense since he'd started using his emotion chip, but the feelings she received from him were still a little distant. She forced a polite smile.
Troi had no trouble recognising the distinctly throaty voice at her shoulder. Seeing Data's uncanny yellow eyes make contact with hers, she barely held back a sigh, and indicated the chair between herself and Guinan. Data sat down, glancing first at one of his companions, and then at the other.
"A question, Counsellor," he ventured.
"I'm sorry, Data." The counsellor's smile was heavier than before. "I really don't…"
She rubbed her face with one hand, and looked again to see that the android had cocked his head - and was continuing to stare. He would not prompt her to finish, but he was unlikely to stop watching before she did.
"Sorry," she conceded wearily. "What did you want to know?"
"You are an Empath, are you not?" the android began. "Then your knowledge of emotions is primarily telepathic?"
"Yes, Data. That's true," responded Troi, intuition and experience telling her that he would expect a response. Her own expression slipped quickly into its most attentive pose. Beside her, Guinan watched the exchange with increasing interest, but never losing her veneer of quiet serenity.
Data spoke again with only a momentary pause. "I am attempting to refine my recent programme on the appreciation of humanoid emotions. And I would appreciate your insight in this matter."
Oh, really? But instead of giving voice to this sarcastic remark, she knitted her fingers together atop the table. It's not his fault, she reminded herself. No-one on board the Enterprise had invaded her home planet. They were not the ones who had caused the pain now concentrated in the very centre of her chest.
"Data, what exactly are you trying to ask?"
"In that case, Counsellor." The android continued to blunder forward in his usual even tones. "For those without your telepathic abilities, how is it possible to identify the thoughts of other beings?"
Closing her eyes, Counsellor Troi massaged them slowly with a thumb and finger. "Sometimes--" She shook her head. "It's not."
Shouldn't he know that already by now?
She sensed Guinan's attention intensify, even without seeing the bartender's calm, dark face. Data's mouth opened again. "Nevertheless…"
No. Troi's chair made a long grating sound across the floor as she sprang to her feet, head shaking in spite of herself, and with a mild ache coming to the back of her neck as she transferred her weight briefly to both hands upon the table. But… It was her job to be available for others - to answer every question they threw her way. But not any more. Not on this day.
"Excuse me," she told them hurriedly, trying not to choke on the distant cordiality that she'd forced into her voice. Whatever control she had managed to gather now threatened to shatter like a crystal façade. "Perhaps it would be better if… Data, can't this wait?"
The golden-skinned Commander cocked his head. "Of course, Counsellor. But…"
As she strode away, increasing the distance between herself and the others as hastily as she could without breaking into a run, Troi caught the voice of Ten Forward's unassuming hostess, so clear and deep that her words cut through even the shapeless flow of background chatter.
"Stay for a drink, Data," she said. "My best bottle of Saurian brandy. And in the meantime, you and I can discuss some of the merits of appropriate timing."
The door to the Counsellor's quarters chimed once, followed by a short, anticipatory silence. The, the persistently melodious chime sounded again.
Deanna Troi's eyes remained just as stubbornly closed. But she frowned in a moment of passing irritation. Or was there not just a hint of anger? That was strange, she reflected. She had spent so many years learning to chart the course of others' feelings, and yet there were still times like these - when she was hardly sure that she would ever really understand her own.
What chance was there for anyone else, then, to see the thoughts that raged within her head? They were isolated from her, every one empty, distant and blind.
She had used every available moment since leaving Ten Forward, to contact all those she could think of - that she knew on Betazed. Even at a distance, she'd sensed as surely as if by telepathy, that her old friend from university was desperately anxious. His face was paler than she ever remembered it, his once bright eyes now hollow and shaded. But then he had gasped, flinched away from a sudden loud crash, and their subspace link had sputtered to nothing.
At the third chime, her scowl returned, but then she paused long enough for a single deep breath - and opened her eyes. The meditation programme playing in the background did remarkably little to distract her. Even with continuously renewed attempts to focus, all she could see in the scented darkness were bursts of expanding flame, buildings cut down to rubble and ash, and stern-faced conquerors on every remaining corner.
"Computer, halt relaxation programme," she muttered, and finally raised her voice to an audible volume. "Come in."
"I thought I might find you here," said a voice.
Rising smoothly to her feet, Deanna turned around to see who it was now stepping through the entrance.
The lights were still too scarce to reveal much more than shapes and outlines. With a start, Troi suddenly realised that she had neglected to return them to full power. There were only thinly spread filaments of illumination to dilute the surrounding darkness. But it was impossible to mistake that voice for any other - as much as it was the figure of the man who moved forward several steps and paused a moment to look into her eyes.
"Is there something I can do for you, Commander?"
The details of Will Riker's face were softly defined in shades of silver blue. He stayed in place, making no move to get any closer, or to back away. Seconds stretched to an odd sort of infinity before Troi noticed that she had not moved either.
She had never wished for her voice to sound so cold. But Riker broke the silence between them, rising to the challenge with no outward sign that she had fazed him at all. "Actually," he said. "This is more about what I can do for you."
"Thank you." Deanna spoke curtly as she started turning towards the window. "But there's nothing. I'm fine."
The man in her quarters nodded slowly, and Troi turned again to regard him sidelong. "What are you doing?"
"It's all right. Honestly."
"Then convince me."
"Convince me," he repeated. "If everything really is as fine as you say, if there's no problem, and if we really don't have anything to talk about, then I'll leave."
Troi gasped, sudden, inexplicable terror grasping with no warning at her chest. He couldn't do it - not this way. Not to leave her alone in the darkness.
But she recoiled. "Will, you don't understand…"
"Who counsels the counsellor?" His response was swift, almost cutting her off - but quieter than anything else he'd said since entering her quarters.
Troi span around, and stared, searching with little result for any indication that he might be expecting a reply.
The challenge was returning to Commander Riker's voice. "That's your question, Deanna," he persisted. "Not mine. And I'm willing to bet that you've been asking the very same thing all day. And you don't think you'll ever find the answer, because no other person on this ship could possibly understand what you're going through. Because none of us has the slightest chance of knowing what we can never sense from you."
"Will, stop this…"
"And what's more--" He continued without a pause, as though he had never even heard her protest. "There isn't a single person on board who can figure out how you're feeling right now. Not in the same way that you can sense these emotions from us - and perhaps you might even occasionally come to resent us for that?"
"I mean it, Will." Deanna's throat and stomach were tight, and her head ached with the pressure of unshed tears. "Stop."
Sighing noiselessly, the Enterprise's second in command resumed his advance in a slow, anticlockwise arc around the circumference of the dimly lit room. But he was no longer trying to challenge her. There were no expectations or demands in the gleam of his eyes. No rising storm of words unspoken - not even a change in the shifting hue of his emotions.
Deanna discovered that she was echoing his sigh - but all that she had wanted to say in return was halted prematurely by the first shy hints of a sob.
I can't reach them, Imzadi. I can't reach any of them. It's my home - I have to know what's happening.
Will Riker's arms were soothingly tight across her shoulders, closing around her as he drew her to him. The breadth of his chest was a haven, safe and strong enough to absorb every tear that soaked the fabric of his uniform front.
"Help me," she whispered.
He held her still tighter, ready to take her in his arms; to show her that place where she could find even a temporary peace, and make no demands of her in return. But perhaps this was something she had known all along. There were moments, sometimes, when even the limits of non-telepaths were not enough to keep them from their power to understand.