The Mercenary


"THE MERCENARY" -- (Voy/TNG, Paris/Ro) -- RATED PG-13. Not for young children or the squeamish. Gentleman Tom Paris is not much in evidence in this story, and if you dislike implicit male/female sex, violence and profanity, this story is not for you. You have been warned.

GENERAL DISCLAIMER: Possession is supposedly nine-tenths of the law, and Paramount and Viacom have the law on their side when it comes to Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: the Next Generation. The characters and backstories are theirs. No infringement of their rights is intended. In this story I speculate about what may have happened during a period of Star Trek history that has not been described in any great detail in any of the episodes aired to date. This story was written just for fun -- for love, not for money, and no monetary gain will be realized. The story elements and characters not otherwise the possession of Paramount/Viacom are copyrighted by J.A. Toner, August, 1997.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Trying to make sense of stardates is a losing proposition because they were never developed as a coherent way of showing dates, only as a way to show the general passage of time. For instance, Molly O'Brien was born in the TNG episode "Disaster" on stardate 45156.1. In the Deep Space Nine episode, "The Nagus," which takes place around 46578.4, she is said to be three years old. If the difference in the numbers each represents one day, Molly should be over four years old. If 45000 through 45999 equals one calendar year, she should be one and a half. Unless Molly has the dreaded "Soap Opera Child Growth Hormone" Syndrome, therefore, both methods present problems.

Writing a story about Tom in the Maquis presents other difficulties. No one knows when Tom joined the Maquis, how long he was in prison before Janeway obtained his services, or why he appears not to have known B'Elanna in the Maquis but knew Chakotay. TPTB like to keep things vague; it gives them flexibility for future stories; but it makes it hard on fanfic writers. TPTB have also been known to play fast and loose with stardates themselves when it suits their purposes.

Some stardates important to this story are known, however. "Preemptive Strike," in which Ro goes undercover against the Maquis, has a Stardate of 47941.7 and takes place in 2370. "Caretaker" carries the Stardate of 48315.6 and occurs in 2371. The time span between them could be as little as four months or over a year.

Since this is my story (Paramount/Viacom can write their own version whenever they want), I arbitrarily decided to convert the events into our own calendar, using the following time line: Wesley Crusher's adventure in "Journey's End," which occurs after the Cardassian Treaty, takes place early in February, 2370; Ro defects during "Preemptive Strike" in mid-April, 2370; Ro meets up with Paris on Delistor in early June, 2370; Tom is captured by the Federation in mid-July, 2370; and Captain Janeway shows up in New Zealand at the end of June, 2371, to ask for his help against the Maquis at the beginning of "Caretaker."

Of course, all fan fiction really takes place in an "alternate universe" from the actual series since it can be contradicted by an episode at any time. If you prefer, treat this one like that from the beginning.

ANOTHER NOTE: A story about Ro Laren and the Maquis has been written by L.R. Bowen, called "The Resignation," in which Ro meets up with Chakotay. In this story, Ro has a degree of sexual dysfunction due to her early history. Because of that story and how well it agrees with the character as written in TNG, I have been unable to think of Ro as being anything but sexually mistreated as a young woman since I read it. To whatever extent this story reflects that view of Ro, I acknowledge my debt to L.R. Bowen.

I shamelessly beg for FEEDBACK! EMAIL me at Jamelia 116@aol.com.

Since my husband does not mind reading something with a little sex, violence, and profanity in it, I am dedicating this story to my Bob, who truly is my Best Friend.

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The Mercenary
by J. A. Toner
*******************


He was lucky that the fist to his gut did not have a knife in it. In the grimy port of Hakkarond on Delistor II, the lack of a well-equipped physician, not to mention the general aura of filth, could have easily consigned the tall young man to an early grave if his abdomen had been pierced.

His female companion, who was actually in league with the one with the fist, quickly searched the fallen man's garments, removing anything of value that she found on him. As she examined her booty, Garinta sneered in disgust. There was little money and even less of anything else to be found on his person beyond his pleasant face, firm, if somewhat undernourished muscles, and golden body hair. Rolling him had not even been worth the time she'd spent humoring him in the bar -- the expense of the raw hooch with which she had plied him was more than the little she and her accomplice could steal from him. The entire enterprise had been a complete waste of time and money.

Angry at herself for being taken in by the sparkling blue eyes the young man now turned beseechingly at her, Garinta kicked him unmercifully in the stomach. The liquor he had consumed was quickly regurgitated out of his skinny stomach, spilling all over his clothes and into the muddy ditch in which he lay. Garinta felt perversely better. Why should he have the benefit of being drunk if she couldn't even get enough back to cover the cost of the drinks?

The young man was spared any further tender mercies from Garinta by the approach of another figure. A female dressed in the voluminous robes of a Bajoran vedek was picking her way down the dirty street, avoiding malodorous puddles of unknown, undoubtedly unwholesome liquids and the scattered debris, barely visible in the dark, that lurked to trip the unwary. Garinta and her accomplice slid rapidly into the shadows, but not before attracting the Bajoran's attention. Hearing the quickened pace of the footsteps coming from the vedek's direction, the two cutpurses disappeared down a nearby alley, heading to another bar that might have a better-heeled outworlder prime for the plucking.

Groans of pain coming from the ditch made it easy for the Bajoran cleric to find the victim. When she turned him face up to check on his injuries, she was glad to see that there was no blood, at any rate. From a distance, she had thought she had seen the metallic flash of a knife in one of the attackers' hands.

The light of the three small but full moons illuminated the young man's face. He opened eyes which pleaded with her to stop the pain.

No one could have been more surprised than the woman wearing the robes of a vedek. The face of this victim belonged to someone she had known for almost ten years, at a place very unlike Delistor II.

"Thomas Eugene Paris, what in the Names of All the Prophets are you doing here?"

In between moans, Tom squinted up at his benefactor.

"Laren, Ro Laren, is that you?"

*******

. . . oh my God, my head, my pounding head, aching stomach, sour taste, light shining in too brightly, too brightly, God in Heaven, am I going to be sick again, oh my God, no, please don't let me be sick again, help me, God, help me . . .

Tom Paris tried to pry open one eye, but the double sun shining through the open window and glowing bright scarlet through his eyelids was much too powerful for him to chance it. His 191 centimeter frame was sprawled on a sagging mattress that was too short for him by a head, at least. Both feet were hanging outside of the blanket. From the stale smell of vomit, his covering could probably stand a good washing. As he lay there, eyes fastened shut, Tom found himself hoping that he was not responsible for the smell of the blanket; but the more he gathered his thoughts together in his throbbing head, the more he was sure he was to blame. Vomiting his guts out seemed to be the last thing that he could remember doing. No wonder his stomach hurt.

A groan escaped his lips. Clenching the blanket between his balled fists, he tried to make sense of what had happened to him, without much success. And how the hell did he get in this bed, anyway?

At the sound of rustling in another part of the room, Tom turned his head away from the light and cautiously opened his eyes. After managing to convince the room to stop spinning around in circles, Tom was able to focus his eyes on a long, lanky figure seated next to a small metal table across the room. The crook of her left arm held her leg tightly against her body, foot perched upon the seat of the rickety chair in which she sat. Her dark hair was cropped short all the way around. As her head turned, silvery Bajoran jewelry attached to one shapely ear reflected a flash of the light flooding through the window. Her dark brown eyes were watching him intently, but through her crooked grin, she said breezily, "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to sleep the rest of your life away, Paris. It's about time you got up."

Despite the physical discomfort he was in, Tom Paris' face broke out in the most genuine smile that had played across it in at least three years. "I thought I must have been dreaming last night, Laren. Unless I'm hallucinating."

"You keep drinking the stuff you threw down your throat last night and you'll be getting delirium tremens as well as hallucinations in no time. But you're not dreaming this morning. It's good to see you, Hotshot. Although I'm not sure I want to ask you how you've been doing."

The tone of her voice was light, mocking him to take what she said as more than a joke. Even though it had been six years since he'd heard that voice, Tom was not fooled. She was worried about him.

"As well as can be expected under the circumstances. I don't suppose you've heard about Caldik Prime? It seems that everyone else in the Alpha Quadrant has, to gather from the looks I get whenever I introduce myself to anyone. I guess I'll have to wing out to the Beta Quadrant soon to get away from myself. Assuming they haven't already heard about it there, too."

She got off her chair before saying anything more to him. Sitting carefully on the edge of the bed in consideration of the wince he made when she first made contact with the mattress, Ro took both of his hands in hers. The headline of the first newsnet report she'd seen screamed back into her memory. "Admiral's Son Disgraces Family Name." It had made her ill to see it. She only said to Tom, however, "It was hard not to hear about it. I even heard about it in prison."

He squeezed her fingers back. "I'm sure glad Picard got you out of there, Laren. You didn't deserve for that to happen."

"Quite a pair we are, Tom. The cream of the Class of '64: The 'Most Likely to Do Something Wonderful,' and the 'Most Likely to Piss Everybody Off.' Never could figure out which one of us was going to do which while we were in the Academy. Now it seems we both managed to specialize in 'Pissing Everybody Off' instead of doing 'Something Wonderful.' "

He tried to laugh, then winced again as his stomach muscles protested. He managed to grunt out, "There's still time," before moving his hands, still grasped by hers, to his abdomen. She released his hands then, moving hers down to barely touch his sore flesh.

"Take it easy with the laughing, Tom. You've got some nasty bruises from those drinking buddies of yours. I'm not sure how many times that guy hit you, but I saw the woman kick you in the stomach when you were already down. If I had a med kit and a tricorder here, I would have scanned you to make sure there were no internal injuries. Can you get up to go to the bathroom? That name's much too good for it, in my opinion, but we need to check for blood in your urine."

"If you help me, I think I can. Wait a minute, I'm naked. How'd I get naked?"

"Just noticed? You must be more hung over than I thought. How do you think you got naked, Hotshot!" she laughed openly now. "Do you think I have a maid or a valet in this dump?"

He stared into her eyes, looking for signs of any uneasiness. "So, you undressed me?" he asked hesitantly.

"I thought I just said that. Who else? Don't tell me that Tom Paris, Mr. Smooth, is shy? You don't have anything that I haven't seen before, trust me."

"You never saw mine before."

"That's not strictly true, as you well know."

"Hey, if you go poking around in the bushes when a guy is trying to relieve himself, you shouldn't be surprised by what you see!" Looking into her still smiling face, his nervousness eased. It was good she could joke about it now; she had not been able to back then. The sight of an obviously shaken Ro Laren backing away from Tom after she had blundered into him urinating against a rock was something Tom had never been able to forget, any more than he could forget the horrific explanation for her behavior she had shared with him afterwards.

Ro was smiling. She had never done enough smiling, as far as he was concerned. He offered her a crooked smirk back. "So, this time you want the full view?"

"I got the full view last night, Tom. Like I said, nothing special. And anyway, no scales, no problem." His smirk faded. He did not believe for a minute that she had really gotten over what the Cardassians had done to the young Bajoran orphan of the refugee camps, but at least sexual jokes didn't upset her any more. If Ro could keep it light she must still trust him. He wondered if she would still trust him if she knew what he had become.

Ro prompted another smile from him by poking him playfully and gently on his fuzzy chest between the nipples, well away from his bruised abdomen. Getting to her feet, she held her arms out for him to pull himself up, carefully, to a seated position. He took a pain filled breath, then just as carefully placed his feet on the floor and stood, swaying a little, before leaning on her to walk the few steps to the curtained alcove that, from the sharp smell of urine, had not been cleaned for a while.

At first the arm she had held around his waist during the walk over to the alcove supported him as he stood by the receptacle. After a few moments, however, Tom muttered, "Uh, Laren, maybe you should go. I might have some difficulty here with you standing so near me."

"What's the matter? You don't want an old buddy to help you?"

"The problem is, you're an old, female buddy. I'm not sure my 'equipment' will work properly if you're too close to me."

"Why, Tom, I never knew you cared!" She backed off, however, laughing again, strangely pleased by what he had said.

After a few long minutes of silence, the sound of a stream of liquid dropping into the receptacle, followed by silence, brought her back to his side. "Clear, no sign of blood. That's good; at least your kidneys weren't injured. Need help getting back to bed?"

He would have preferred to make it back on his own, but Tom allowed her to put her arm back around him as they moved back to the bed. Getting in again was no easier than getting out had been. As he settled back against the pillow, Ro pulled the blanket over his chest and patted it smoothly around his body. Sitting down on the edge again, she asked, "Do you want anything to eat? I can get you something from downstairs if you want. The food is better than the room in this place. That's why I stay here."

"You always did favor your stomach over other comforts, Ro," he smiled. Then he rocked his head back and forth against the pillow. "I don't think I'm ready to eat. Probably just throw it all up again, the way my stomach feels. You don't have anything for my headache?"

"You don't deserve anything for that hangover, Tom Paris," she replied severely, calling his headache by its true name. Her voice softened as she went on, "I don't have anything here with me now, like I said, Tom, but I have to go out this afternoon. I'll bring a med kit back so I can really check you out. Maybe I'll find something for all your aches and pains if I think you've suffered enough to mend your drunken ways by then. I'll be gone a few hours first."

He reached out to her, his right hand stroking her forearm. "I'll live."

After patting the back of the hand that rested on her arm, Ro stood erect. Moving to the wall where a peg held her vedek's robes, she grabbed them and pulled them over her tightly fitting jumpsuit. Watching her dress, an odd look appeared on Tom's face as a thought occurred to him. As Ro walked over to the door to leave, he suddenly said, "Laren, I'm not going to jeopardize your mission by being here, am I?"

Ro looked back at him, eyebrows raised and an indulgent expression on her face. "Mission? What mission?"

He looked at her in surprise, then whispered, "Starfleet. For Picard, right?"

The only part of her expression that changed was the eyes, which went from open to guarded in a second. "Oh, my, Tom, you have been out of touch, haven't you? I'll tell you all about it when I get back. There's a jug of water on the floor beneath the window sill. Try to drink some of it. And rest."

After she had gone, he lay for a long time, looking up at the ceiling, wondering why that wariness had entered her eyes. A pain that was not physical twisted his gut. Please, God, don't tell me that she messed up her second chance. Please, not that.

*******

Footsteps echoing between the masonry and plasticrete walls of the warehouse district, "Vedek Larys" strode toward the building that contained her reason for visiting Delistor. The back streets of this area of the port were connected by a warren of alleys between warehouses that contained all manner of goods, contraband as well as legitimate. The Maquis did what shopping they could afford to here. The area had had a long history of dealing with freedom fighters.

Delistor II had no indigenous humanoid population. Of the beings of varied races that had settled on the planet, almost 25% of those who were now permanent residents were of Bajoran or part Bajoran extraction. A cold world with a relatively narrow temperate zone near the equator, Delistor had had limited natural resources to attract those seeking their fortune. The one thing the planet near the edge of the Terikof belt could offer outworlders was a terrific location, easily accessible to several major trade lanes. Captains needing repairs on their vessels knew that what was needed was almost certainly available at Port Hakkarond, grim though the environment might be. Being located close to the Badlands was good for business.

Unappetizing as the planet was by climate and resources for a colony, the refugees from Bajor had been willing to settle here during the Cardassian occupation in order to be free of "Cardie" rule. Many Resistance cells had been active out of Port Hakkarond. Now that Bajor was independent again, many of those who had fled the occupation had chosen to remain, unwilling to give up the lives they'd made for themselves and their families on Delistor during their exile with conditions still so uncertain on their home planet.

Pushing an anti-grav pallet loaded with crates, the tall, slender Bajoran woman turned down an alley lined with warehouses that were interspersed with hangers, buildings which, on the far side away from the alley, abutted the shuttle and small craft landing field. Here, shuttles and suborbital vehicles could land, having easy access to where the craft could be unloaded, serviced and housed temporarily. A month before, a ship sitting unused and untended for more than a year in one of the hangers had been "bequeathed" to the Maquis, in "as is" condition.

After entering the doorway of the combined hanger/warehouse that was serving as the Maquis dry-dock, Ro touched the pallet's controls to settle it safely on the floor and divested herself of the clerical vestments she wore when walking on the streets of Hakkarond. The robes were becoming to her tall figure, but they were very confining to one with as much energy as Ro. They were a necessary evil, however. A woman walking alone was assumed to be a prostitute in this section of the 'port, and not without reason. Many "working women" plied their trade in the bars that were sprinkled among the buildings of the district. The members of Bajoran religious orders, however, were respected by the inhabitants of all the races on Delistor for their charitable works. Ro was willing to use this fact for her own ends. Besides, the robes helped disguise her face.

No one was visible around the cargo ship that sat in the middle of the cavernous area that Ro entered, but the presence of at least one person inside the vessel was obvious. The stream of Klingon epithets floating out of the open hatchway pinpointed the location of the person Ro had come to see.

"Trying to curse the ship into repairing itself, Torres?" yelled out Ro.

At the sound of Ro Laren's voice, B'Elanna Torres crawled out of the console that housed the life support system controls. Pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes, she managed a smile that was half grimace. "Whatever works, Ro. It would be easier if you'd bring me the parts I needed," the young engineer called out.

"I've got some of them, B'Elanna. We're still working on getting decent replacements for rebuilding the magnetic constrictors and the sensor array." Ro entered the cargo ship that B'Elanna was turning into a sleek Maquis warship using spare parts, ingenuity, and more than a little elbow grease.

"Chakotay gave me three weeks to fix this ship, but without the parts, I can't get the thing up and flying anytime soon! What does he think I am? A miracle worker?"

"Hey, I told you not to fix the Zola so fast last month. I knew he would think you could conjure up a starship out of thin air for him if you did."

The younger woman, the Klingon half of her ancestry plainly marked by the ridges on her brow, shook her head sharply and scowled. "The job takes as long as it takes, you know that. I don't lie about things like that -- but I have to have the parts!"

"We'll get them for you, B'Elanna. Just think of this as a little vacation from running under the noses of the Cardassians and the Federation. And such a lovely place for a visit this is, too!"

"I can't stand this place. If one more bum comes onto me, Ro, you're going to have to bust me out of jail to finish working on this ship, because I swear I'm going to kill someone."

"Wouldn't be the first time I've busted somebody from a jail," the Bajoran said laconically.

B'Elanna looked sharply back at Ro to see if she were joking. In the seven weeks since Ro had burned her bridges with Starfleet irrevocably, she had been a bitter woman most of the time, yet from time to time a flash of wickedly sarcastic humor would erupt from her to brighten her entire demeanor. Although B'Elanna could tell there was much she did not know about the Bajoran, she recognized that they shared the same sense of humor. B'Elanna wasn't sure that Ro was pulling her leg.

"Come on, B'Elanna, before you get that Klingon temper up, why don't you check out what I've brought you. I think you'll keep busy for a while."

The two women exited the cargo ship and walked back to the entrance to move the pallet nearer to the ship. The pile of crates that awaited B'Elanna mollified her somewhat. Impatiently tearing them open to evaluate their contents, the young engineer sniffed, "Well, you did find some of the stuff I need. I guess I won't have to rip out your heart this time."

"So charming, as always, B'Elanna," Ro smirked. She caught herself and tried to smile normally. Damn! Only with him a few hours and already I'm picking up all his bad habits again!

Remembering Tom reminded her of her other errand. Picking up one of the shipping boxes of parts, Ro walked into the ship, emerging a moment later with a med kit. "What do you need that for?" asked B'Elanna.

"I ran into an old friend who needs a little doctoring. I'll bring it back as soon as I can, B'Elanna."

"No need to right away. We have another one. Are you going to be at the Point tonight?"

"I don't think so. I have to take care of my friend. I'll be by tomorrow. You know how to reach me if you need me." B'Elanna nodded. That kind of communications system had been one of the first things that they had agreed upon after arriving in Hakkarond two weeks before to begin work on the cargo vessel.

The pallet Ro had brought with her was soon emptied of the parts it had carried. Ro's small scout craft The Eye of the Prophet rested on the other side of the spaceport, well away from the warehouse, minimizing the chance that anyone would make a connection between the two ships. The Bajoran had gone out of the system for a few days to retrieve parts from the Maquis base commanded by Chakotay on the other side of the Terikof belt. It had been too late when she had gotten in last night to do more than arrange for the use of the pallet. Arousing suspicion with a late night delivery in the warehouse district had been inadvisable, and, as it turned out, lucky for Tom Paris.

They were all but finished when Michael Jonas and Lon Suder finally strolled into the warehouse, having left B'Elanna to work while they ate lunch. They all joked for a few minutes about the men's "perfect timing," although Ro's comments were rather sharp, before discussing the latest news from the outpost. It wasn't particularly good news, but then, when had it been since hostilities with the Federation and the Cardassians began?

Having imparted what information she could, Vedek Larys reassumed her habit for the trip back to her temporary quarters. B'Elanna dispatched the men to begin dismantling the shield generators to permit the incorporation of new parts before stepping outside of the ship again to speak privately with the "vedek."

When the half-Klingon engineer and renegade Starfleet officer were out of earshot of the men, Ro asked, "Seriously, B'Elanna, are those two any help to you? They aren't leaving you alone like this all the time, are they? And how do you get your own lunch, with all of these letches wandering around Port Hakkarond?"

The bristling answer was, "It's all right, Ro, I can take care of myself."

"I know you can take care of yourself. I just don't think you should always have to do everything alone. I know damn well this isn't the only time those two had 'perfect timing' when you could've used their help. They're taking advantage of you. And frankly, Suder gives me the creeps."

B'Elanna met her eyes without speaking. He gave her the creeps, too, but she would never be able to admit it to anyone. Fortunately, Ro would never expect her to. It was one of the reasons Torres felt comfortable with the Bajoran. Finally, she replied, "I can handle it. But if I do need help about something, I WILL holler for you. OK?"

Ro smiled. "OK, B'Elanna. I'll be listening. Just in case."

The two men poked their heads out of the hatchway, calling out that they needed B'Elanna's help. She rolled her eyes, which made Ro laugh. A wink back to B'Elanna, a wave good-bye, and Ro left Torres and her companions to the task of refitting of the vessel. The Maquis needed it. Desperately.

Ro knew that they needed something else, too: a pilot who could fly this lovely little menace against the Cardassians. And she knew exactly where to find him.

*******

By the time Ro reentered the dingy boarding house and ascended the steps to her room, the double sun had moved to the other side of the building, no longer bathing the bed with its harshly bright light. Dropping off the old chair she carried by the door and walking over to check on Tom, Ro was struck by how young he looked asleep. All tensions smoothed away from his face, he appeared no more than twelve years old and as sweet as -- she had to grope for the Terran word for it -- an angel, that was it. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful face could belong to a man who had messed up his life as badly as Tom had; but, then again, Ro sometimes still had trouble believing how badly she'd screwed up her own.

Satisfied that he was sleeping easily and pleased to see that the water bottle was half empty, Ro deposited the bundle she was carrying on the table. The "vedek" had had no trouble scrounging up donations of clothing for a poor, injured man. His own had been ripped so badly by his attackers in their vain search for something worth stealing that the decision to throw most of them out rather than salvage them had been an easy one to make. His briefs, socks, and boots were all she had retained. Ro had hand laundered the socks and briefs in the morning, before Tom had first awakened, but they were still damp when she checked them.

Ro wondered if he had a bag of his own stashed away somewhere. As down on his luck as he obviously was, Tom should have at least some other garments and belongings to his name. She resolved to ask him when he returned to consciousness and to fetch whatever he might have later. He needed his sleep more now.

Before removing her vestments, Ro moved to a battered chest of drawers standing against the wall near the curtained alcove that housed the water closet. Taking three large votive candles out of the top drawer, she kneeled down on the middle of the floor and carefully arranged them in a perfect triangle. Lighting them and steepling her fingers before her, Ro silently chanted her prayers: for those who were oppressed, for Bajor, for the continued safety of her colleagues in the Maquis, for the repose of the souls of her long-dead parents, and, finally, for the healing of the injured friend in her care.

Lost when she had been raped repeatedly as an adolescent in the camps run by Cardassian overseers and largely ignored during her days at Starfleet Academy, Ro's religious feelings had returned with a vengeance during her imprisonment on Jaros II for disobeying orders at the massacre on Garon II. Deliberately downplaying them during her time with Picard, Ro had kept her devotions strictly private and simple on the Enterprise. Lately, however, she seemed much more drawn to the rituals of her faith than she ever had before.

Perhaps it was the vedek's robes she wore. There was something about acting the part of a vedek that make Ro wish to perform the devotions one would as part of their everyday life's work. The people who had given her clothing for Tom looked upon her as the real thing. She may have "borrowed" the clerical role as cover, but the people who did her honor as a vedek deserved her prayers.

It never ceased to amaze her. Ro Laren, member of a religious order? Hysterical. Yet as she leaned back on her heels at the conclusion of her prayers, not knowing if any of the Prophets could hear her -- but not particularly feeling that she needed confirmation that they did, anymore, either -- Ro thought sardonically that this was not the first time she had "entered" a religious order. For many, Starfleet was a sort of religious order, not that any of the 'Fleeters were likely to acknowledge that.

Pulling off the robes and returning them to their peg, Ro Laren spared a moment to look at Tom again. He was still asleep, although he had begun to snore lightly, his head thrown back and his mouth agape. Maybe the noise would wake him -- it had once when they had been out on their Survival Test together.

Bringing the second chair, not any sturdier than the first, over to the table, Ro sat down and remembered: that first day at the Academy, her belligerent self, and Golden Boy, the admiral's son whom she had disliked intensely on first sight. It did not help that they were placed in the same platoon and had been assigned to the same study group of eight cadets in the dorms. They found themselves following the exact same schedule of classes, too, as both were in the command track.

Those first days in San Francisco, she had wanted to quit, but she had had no idea what a 19-year-old Bajoran orphan would do with her life if she did. Desperately struggling to adjust, Ro had found what others might feel to be a simple irritation soon became an intolerable insult: every single person she met butchered her name.

For decades, a name was about all any Bajoran could call her own. At the Academy, everyone, from instructors to commandant to fellow students, had persisted in calling her "Cadet Laren." She corrected them, of course, but after the first week of roll calls during orientation and by the beginning of her third class of the term, she was royally sick of hearing the litany. "H'a-La'Vet, Kovara, Laren . . . "

Having to say, "Sorry, sir. I am Cadet Ro. The Bajoran custom is to put the family name first. Sir."

"Oh, well, then. Mabar'Ral, Novotny, Paris . . . Paris, are you the son of Admiral Paris . . . " And having to see that smirk appear on his face as he nodded his head in assent. The insufferable snob. She thought.

Before the fourth class, she had seen Cadet Paris talking to the professor. He wasn't even going to wait for the roll call to rub it in about being the admiral's son this time.

And then the roll call: "H'a-La'Vet, Kovara, Mabar'Ral, Novotny, Paris, Ro . . . " She had already opened her mouth to correct the instructor before realizing that there was nothing to correct.

Cadet Ro cornered Cadet Paris as they left class. "Are you responsible for the roll call? For them getting my name right, I mean?"

"Hey, I figured the rest of the class must be getting pretty bored hearing that same thing every time. Correct a name. That bull about an admiral. I thought I'd just get it out of the way beforehand. Isn't that OK with you?"

"Well, yeah, it's OK," she had said, trying to figure out what to make of Golden Boy. And every time after that, for the rest of her days at the Academy, whenever there was a new instructor and a new class, the "correct a name, that bull about an admiral" had never come up again.

Then there had been the holiday thing. A hard time for any one without a family, like Ro, let alone one from a different culture. Thanks to the chip on her shoulder that, she could now admit, was as big as a shingle and had prevented her from making any friends, Ro was the only cadet with no place to go. It had promised to be a very long, bitterly lonely three weeks, spent in the company of two proctors that were being forced to forego their own holiday plans to stay with her. They had made it very clear how they felt about her because of it.

Except the admiral's son refused to go to the admiral's home for the big "Holiday Season" school break if Ro would be the only cadet left on campus. Ro had been stunned. While his helpfulness in regards to her name had been appreciated and she felt more at ease around him than with anyone else, she'd never thought of Paris as anything other than another one of her classmates. For him to stand up for her like this was remarkable, something she had never before experienced.

It wasn't any secret, of course, that Cadet Paris carried a chip of his own on his shoulder. The privileged son of an admiral -- how could he have anything in common with the Bajoran orphan? Yet even that early in their first year at the Academy, snide remarks were being made about the "Attitude Twins."

She initially suspected that Tom's true purpose had been to harass the Academy "bigs," including his father, rather than because of any true feelings for Ro's predicament. Somewhere along the line, however, she realized that his motives were genuine. He could not stand by while his classmate was alone during a time of year that was as notable for the sharing of peace and good will towards others as it was for fun and feasting -- much like the Bajoran Gratitude Festival, as Ro came to find out. Cadet Paris was pressured intensely by his father to change his stance, she knew, although he would never tell her how much. She guessed it must have been a lot.

Cadet Paris was quite adept at putting the screws to his father's conscience, however, as he had had plenty of practice. In the end, Cadet Ro Laren had accepted the admiral's sincere invitation to spend the "Holiday Season" with his family.

It probably had been a difficult thing for the admiral to do, in retrospect. "The Bajoran Question" was much on everyone's minds in those days; the Cardassian Conflict was a hotly debated topic; battles were frequent and hard fought. For one of Starfleet's top admirals to invite a Bajoran refugee-turned-cadet into his home must have been less than politically correct, given the diplomatic situation that existed at that time.

The Paris family had been gracious to her, however. Tom's mother was an extremely warm and friendly person; his older sisters had asked intelligent, pointed, but not insulting questions about Bajor's situation and her life in the camps. The admiral had been nicer to her than he had been to his son, which she had thought surprising at the time. Later, Ro realized it was just part of the pattern. Tom Paris was going to do Great Things, by God, and being the best pilot he could be was not going to be good enough for his father. A demanding man, but a pleasant one -- as long as you were not his son.

Every "Holiday Season" after that first one, Cadet Ro had been a guest at the Paris residence. Ro and Tom had spent entire nights talking about anything and everything that came into their heads. The "acquaintance" and "fellow attitude case" would become the "good friend."

"Best Friend," after the Survival Training exercise. She had run from Tom, shaken by seeing him perform a harmless bodily function. He had chased after her and, as the team leader, demanded an explanation. It all came out in a frantic rush: the degradation of being sexually abused as a youngster by a Cardassian overlord at the camp who liked little children, the younger and more likely to scream, the better; the repeated rapes she had endured by other Cardassian guards when she was an adolescent and had gained a womanly form; her isolation even after her rescue from the camp by members of the Bajoran Resistance; and finally, her grief over the loss of her father, who had begged for life before her eyes even as the Cardassians killed him. She had not recognized until many years later that she would have been killed before his eyes if he had not begged as he had been ordered. When the realization had come, Ro had been shamed that she had ever doubted his courage and his love.

He had let her spill out the bitter memories, not touching her until she let him, and then only to hold her shaking hands. No comments of disbelief; no, "There, there, it can't have been that bad;" no attempts to cheer her with a joke. Just complete acceptance of the truth and a promise to always be her friend.

She had never forgiven the admiral, who had been their instructor for Survival Training, for giving Tom a "B-" for the course when the rest of their group, including Ro, had received an "A." Tom had not seemed surprised, even though no explanation for the curious grading had been given. Ro assumed that Admiral Paris wished to prove he would not "play favorites" when dealing with his own son. In Ro's opinion, however, since Tom had been their leader, he'd deserved the same grade the rest of the group had been given.

The unlikely friendship of the blunt-spoken Bajoran refugee and the cocky admiral's son soon became a constant in Ro's life. Their relationship had been a completely platonic one by mutual consent, and Tom was the only person she honored with the permission to call her by her given name of Laren. They soon found that women wanting to date Tom made a point of cozying up to Ro, as if by being friendly towards her, Tom would be more likely to notice them. It had made both of them laugh --"Laren, My Love Screener," he'd called her.

He hadn't had many opportunities to return the favor. Cadet Ro Laren avoided relationships like the plague. Most people attributed it to her nasty disposition. Only Tom knew the truth.

When a mandatory reception requiring a date was held, however, Cadets Paris and Ro went together, no matter whom Tom was dating at the moment. His girlfriends may not have been happy, but those that complained too loudly became ex-girlfriends.

There were few people that Ro Laren would trust with her life. Chakotay, perhaps. Torres was getting there. But even Picard, in the end, had betrayed her and she him. Thomas Eugene Paris, though, she would still trust, no matter what had happened to him, what he seemed to have become.

Somehow life had turned the admiral's son into a refugee, just like her. They had always felt a kinship; now, in an ironic way that would be unbelievable in a holonovel, they were kin. Years ago, they had agreed to be "like brother and sister." Their friendship would stay platonic. Sex might sully the purity of their bond, they had decided. Ro thought about that decision now and wondered what might have been.

The room was getting dark from the approaching evening when Ro yanked herself back from her reminiscences. She checked Tom again. Still asleep! She would have to shake him awake, apparently. First, though, Ro slipped her robes on long enough to go downstairs to the kitchen to fetch food for the two of them. Her landlady inquired after Vedek Larys' patient, and the vedek assured her that he was on the mend.

Returning to the room carrying a tray laden with covered dishes that exuded a pungent, mouth-watering aroma, Ro set her burden down on the table before picking up the med kit. She passed the tricorder over Tom to make sure that the "vedek" had not told a falsehood. As she had suspected, nothing serious was revealed, just extensive bruising and a constitution weakened by malnourishment. Too much liquor, too little food.

The beeping of the tricorder finally penetrated Tom's fatigued brain. His crystalline eyes fluttered open, filled with confusion for a few seconds before that dazzling smile lit up his face again when he recognized Ro.

"You sleep more than a hibernating lycitha. How's your headache?"

"Still there, but not so bad now. What's a lycitha?"

"A large omnivore on Bajor. Sleeps half the year away. Here, let me give you this for your pain, you poor, dear, sleepy lycitha." Ro gave him an analgesic. Rummaging around in the med kit, she found another hypospray filled with anesthetic to soothe the soreness of his bruises. Only time would heal them. "I've got some dinner here for you. You should eat something now, Tom. You haven't been eating enough good food lately. The tricorder doesn't lie!" she added, severely.

"Yes, Mother. It's a bit hard to eat regularly when you haven't any money."

She ignored his prevarication. Tom seemed to have had enough money to drink himself into a stupor. "I swiped another chair. Come over to the table."

"Laren, I don't feel like eating in the nude. You wouldn't mind giving me some of my clothing back, would you?"

"Clothing? Is that what you were calling those rags you were wearing? I had to throw them out," she teased.

"Laren! What am I going to do? I can't stay in this bed forever!"

"Relax, Tom. Vedek Larys, a very, very close friend of mine, scraped up some clothes for you today. Would you like to put on some briefs, at least? I wouldn't want you to expose your Orbs of the Descendants for all our dinner guests to see."

Tom tried to control his laughter, as every shake of his body caused his tender stomach to shriek at him to Stop, now, this second! "Is that what the Bajorans call them?"

"Among other things. The Glory of the Generations is another favorite. Then there's the Tower of Joy, or the Profound Shaft of Pleasure, if you prefer." As she listed the Bajoran euphemisms for the male parts, Ro brought a pair of clean briefs to the bed, slipped them over his feet and ankles, and helped him pull them up to cover the subject of their conversation.

Leaning against her as they walked, Tom made a stop in the alcove, inquiring on the way there, "So, just what is the equivalent term for where the Profound Shaft of Pleasure might want to . . . seek out a little pleasuring?" Tom leered. It was a friendly leer, but it definitely had a lecherous edge to it. She was a little surprised. Tom had always had an appreciation for women, but he'd been a gentleman about it, especially around her because of his knowledge of her history. Ro had been the one to introduce the subject, however, so she played along.

"Let's see. The Passage to Enlightenment, the Celestial Home of Delight, the Wellspring of the Prophets. Take your pick." She left him to his privacy in the alcove, and Tom managed the last few steps to the table under his own power. Ro pulled out the chair for him, which Tom plopped into with an audible grunt.

As she lifted the covers from the dishes and served up a little of each food onto their plates, he plowed on, "And those shapely twin mounds on your chest?"

Now she shot him a piercing look; he was really pushing it. Proceed along these lines any further at your own peril, Tom Paris, was the underlying message, but aloud, she merely said, "Breasts. Now SHUT UP and eat your dinner."

He sent her what he hoped was a chastened look. It was not a chaste one, though. Awake, he was incapable of that. "Sorry, Mother," he said.

She wanted to kick him but refrained. He already had enough bruises. If he kept it up, though, she would lose her scruples.

Tom glanced up at her to gauge Ro's mood. Time to retreat. Definitely. Their meal was consumed in silence.

*******

While Vedek Larys was returning the emptied dishes to the kitchen, Tom closed his eyes and contemplated his predicament. When they had resumed their conversation in a more sedate manner after eating, Ro had promised to get the duffel bag that he had left in the locker at the spaceport. He had no credits or latinum to his name, however. The little that he'd had on him had been stolen the previous night. No financial resources. No prospects. He had the uneasy feeling that Ro had little of either to offer him. They had avoided talking about what she was doing on Delistor, but Tom was not so gullible as to conclude that "Vedek Larys" was legit.

And if she wasn't undercover for Starfleet . . .

"God, I need a drink," he muttered.

He must have said it louder than he thought. As she swirled in, she commented, "A drink is the last thing you need, Tom Paris."

Tom tried to catch her eyes. She turned away and made an elaborate show of removing the robes that she usually whipped on and off her slender body in seconds. Once she had strolled across the room and firmly taken her seat at the table across from him, however, she met his gaze unflinchingly.

"All right, Tom. Question and Answer Time. What do you want to know?"

"What happened with Starfleet? The Enterprise? Please tell me that you didn't screw up."

"I did what I had to do, but screwing up is probably what everyone else would call it. They sent me to the Advanced Tactical Training Program. I was promised a lieutenancy. Me, after all that had happened. Picard sponsored me. He was so proud . . ." Ro inhaled, then exhaled deeply. "And then, when I came back, they sent me on my first mission -- to infiltrate the Maquis.

"I didn't have any qualms. I thought I could do it." She raised her face to the ceiling and laughed bitterly. "The tarnished Starfleet officer. The perfect cover, they all thought. Well, I was Bajoran, too, and I began to get pretty confused about which side was the right one. Tom, the Federation sold whole planets full of people down the river for a peace with Cardassia that isn't going to hold, mark my words."

"So you defected? Damn!"

"Yes, Tom, I defected. Deserted. Pick the ugly word. But not before I didn't try to get out of it with some shred of honor." She gulped hard, hand to mouth as if she felt ready to vomit, as she paused in her recitation. She still could hardly believe that it had happened the way it did herself.

"I was in contact with the Enterprise. Picard himself came planetside to meet me. I asked to be relieved of the mission. I told him my doubts, BEGGED to be allowed to come back to the ship, that it was wrong to do this to these people. He ordered me to finish what I'd started. There we were, in a crummy bar a lot like the one you were in last night, and he's ordering me to follow through on my promise to betray the Maquis while pawing at me and negotiating a good price for my favors."

"My God, Laren, he didn't . . . " Tom, of all people, knew how destructive being treated like a prostitute would be to her.

"Oh, it was all a ploy. He didn't really touch me. Not the almighty Picard. But it didn't matter. I felt like dirt anyway. I left that bar a prostitute, Tom, even though I left it alone. But when I was supposed to betray the convoy to Starfleet, I couldn't go through with it. I warned the Maquis ships of the trap and fled with them. I've been with the Maquis ever since. It's only been about seven weeks, but already it seems like a lifetime."

The face he turned towards hers was stricken with pain. This time, she was sure, his stomach and his headache had nothing to do with his agony. Ro felt the same way. Grabbing his hand, she went on, "Tom, I did what I had to do. I was glad to get out of prison, but the second chance wasn't worth it, not if I had to pay that high a price. Do you understand?"

He did, but the words would not come to tell her that. His feelings were too complicated by his own selfish desires, dashed forever by the tale she had just told him.

Finally, Tom managed to nod weakly. Squeezing his hands, she looked into his eyes shrewdly and asked him, "You didn't think that since I got a second chance, you might, too, did you?"

Again, he could not answer. He did not need to. "Oh, Tom, I'm sorry." She got up and stood by his chair, settling his head onto her breast and circling his body in a close embrace, returned gingerly because of his tender abdomen. Ro pulled his face up so that she could look into his eyes as she dragged her fingers through his tousled blond hair.

His expression was mournful even as he tried to smile up at her, admitting, with a catch in his voice, "I don't deserve a second chance anyway. The accident should never have happened. I should've been checking the warning lights, even with the others joking around with me. And I should've told the truth about what happened, right from the beginning. At least you told Picard the truth. It's on his head that he didn't listen to you."

"I wish Starfleet would agree with you on that, but I doubt it," she smiled, trying to ease the heavy moment. "So, I am Maquis. Now you know. What is Tom Paris?"

"Tom Paris is a drunk, a gambler, a gigolo, and flat broke." His laugh was brittle. "All I am is a damn good pilot without a job and no prospects of getting one any time soon. I'm a loser, Laren; I have no future."

"I might be able to help you with the future. Assuming that the booze hasn't stolen those piloting skills of yours."

"I'm still the best damn pilot you ever saw, Ro." Electric blue eyes flashed up at her. Good, he hadn't really given up, even though he was pretty much at bottom.

"The Maquis could use another good pilot, Tom. You'd be welcome. My leader is a good man -- ex-Starfleet himself. From one of the Native American worlds that the Feds handed over to the Cardassians. Not a bad pilot himself, as a matter of fact, although he'd never be able match you when you're at the top of your game."

"I can still do it, trust me. But. . . "

"But what, you aren't up to being a renegade? Because if you aren't, I understand. All I'd ask is that you don't tell anyone about me, and about the cover story that I. . . "

"Laren, Laren, Laren, I already am a renegade, in my own eyes, at least! That isn't it! I need to know if there's any money in this. I've got some expenses. Debts to pay."

"Mercenary!"

He laughed back at her. "Guess so. Really, though, is it possible for me to get something for my trouble? You would have the best pilot in the quadrant on your side." With his little boy/wheedling tone, a little of the old Paris attitude was creeping back.

Good for you, Tom. I was hoping that you hadn't been broken. That cockiness is part of your charm -- even if some people do hate you for it!

"I'll see what I can do. Now, I think you should go back to bed and get some rest."

"I've never spent so much time in bed without screwing in my entire life!" he complained. She raised her eyebrows at him. The body part comments were apparently not an aberration. There had been some changes she wasn't exactly pleased to see in him, and this was one of them. She would have to make sure she didn't give him the wrong idea when she joked around the next time.

Ro helped him stand up, but Tom made it back to the bed on his own, lowering himself carefully to the mattress. "Those hyposprays helped, Laren. Thanks," he said. Ro had started to turn away when he caught her by the hand. "Laren, where are you sleeping? In fact, where did you sleep last night?" For the first time, Tom realized he hadn't thought anything at all about using her bed without leaving her any place to sleep.

"The floor," she answered him simply. "It isn't the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I've slept worse places."

"I should be the one on the floor."

"Yeah, sure. You have enough trouble getting up and down from a chair or bed. I can just see you crawling over to the wall to drag yourself up to stand."

"Laren, this is your bed."

"Tonight it's yours. Freely given. Now go to sleep."

He looked at the bed. It was not particularly large, but it was almost as wide as it was long. Clearly, it was meant to sleep two, although not promising much comfort for a couple of tall people. "There's enough room. Why don't we just share the bed?"

"After that crack about never being in bed for so long without screwing? Am I supposed to take that as a proposition?"

He could still flush that bright red she had always thought was so endearing. All that attitude, but easily embarrassed, and a blusher to give it all away. "I would never think of doing. . . even now, you know I wouldn't. . . Damn. I really am a stupid idiot, aren't I?"

She gave him a quick hug. "It's all right. I trust you. I may crawl in later; let me think about it. I've got some things to read over first." Ro leaned down and gave him a soft brush of the lips on the forehead, the closest thing to a kiss she ever gave him.

Nodding, Tom pulled his feet up into bed. Moaning and groaning, he slid his body to the side of the bed nearest the window, leaving a prominent space for her to fit her slender body. " 'Night, Laren," he whispered, as he turned away from the room to face the window.

"Good night, Tom. Good dreams."

*******

Ro dragged herself out of bed the next morning more refreshed than she thought she would be. She hadn't spent too many nights in her life sleeping next to anyone. Despite the discomfort of his injuries, Tom had not been a restless sleeper. He hadn't snored during the night, either -- that she'd been aware of, at any rate.

By the time she had used the grungy receptacle and given herself a sponge bath at the tiny sink, she could hear Tom moving around in bed. Peeking out from behind the curtain, Ro saw that he was, indeed, awake. "Need any help getting up?" she asked.

"Let me see how I do on my own. Ouch . . . Unff . . . Damn . . . " Ro could follow his journey out of bed by the profanity that poured out of his lips. When she was ready to leave the alcove, however, he was standing in front of the curtain, waiting to enter it to use it himself.

"There you are. That's progress. Just morning stiffness. You'll be back to yourself in no time."

"Whatever myself is, anymore. Laren, what kind of clothing do you have in that bundle of yours?"

"More underwear, at least, so you can relax about that, three shirts and a couple of pairs of pants. The briefs and socks you had on the other night are dry now." She pointed up to the hook on which she had hung them after washing them. "I'll leave the bundle out on the table. The pants may be a bit short; I'm not sure if the men that wore them were as tall as you. Not many on Delistor reach your height. I'll bring your own bag to you before I go out tonight so you'll have more to choose from tomorrow."

"Can you take me with you? These walls are starting to close in on me."

"Not yet, Tom. I'll have to clear it with the others. In fact, the less you know of this operation, the better off you'll be for now. There's plenty of time." She quickly dressed in her clerical garb again. "I'm going to get us some breakfast. Be right back."

The door closed behind her, and Tom stepped into the alcove. His scraps of laundry were dry. Washing himself carefully, trying to avoid rubbing his bruises too hard with the washcloth, Tom tried to distract himself by thinking about what he wouldn't give for a nice hot shower now. Even a long soak in a bathtub would be great. He sighed. Maybe that Maquis outpost would have better bathrooms.

As he finished his oblations, however, Tom felt a contentment that he had missed feeling for a long time. He had a direction again; and he had rediscovered a friend, one of the truest he had ever had. Having always felt tremendous respect, admiration, and yes, even love for Ro Laren, Tom had wished he could have shown her how much love he felt for her. She didn't feel that way about him. Never had, and, when he thought about all that had been done to her by those bastard Cardassians, probably never would, towards any man. What a waste it was of a beautiful woman.

When Ro returned with their breakfast, Tom was seated at the table, as clean as he could manage within the means available, awaiting her with a genuine smile, not an off-kilter smirk. She had that effect on him. Laren returned his smile with a glorious one of her own. God, she has the most wonderful smile. She just never smiles enough.

*******

After bringing him his bag from the transient's locker room at the spaceport, Ro disappeared for a while, saying only that she was going on "vedek errands" when he asked where she was headed. She came back to the room in the afternoon to spend a few hours in his company. They chatted about some of their experiences in Starfleet, but both avoided the more painful topics. After a quick supper, she went out again until after midnight. He was worried the entire time she was gone even though she had warned him not to expect a return before midnight.

When they were chatting, Ro had let slip the real reason that she had assumed the persona of a vedek in Hakkarond. While he waited for her that evening, Tom worked himself into a frenzy, sure that some fiend had raped her and left her for dead in an alley. His opinion of the good citizens of Hakkarond had been lowered considerably by his own disastrous experience. It was not the first time he had been rolled leaving a bar, but he had never been hurt so badly before. Tom kept vigil at the table the entire time Ro was gone, praying to gods he did not even realize he knew to keep her safe.

When she finally came in, Tom got up to greet her with a warm embrace. Ro was surprised to find him awake, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was an old mother tickla. Without giving too many details, she told him she'd met with some engineers that she knew and a few "sympathizers," tsked-tsked away his concerns and bundled him into bed. There were no discussions about sharing the bed that night. Ro just crawled in after him.

The next morning, Tom finally got a chance to see the rest of the boarding house. All of the rooms were about as grim as the one they had been occupying, but the landlady was kind and solicitous of their welfare and was a very good cook. Her husband was taciturn but helpful, insisting on carrying their two bags of clothing out to the street and tossing them into the rented ground conveyance that had already been summoned for them. Their hosts wished renewed health to Tom and gratitude for the Vedek Larys and her good deeds.

Tom was ready to laugh at the good deeds part until realizing that her tender care of him would certainly qualify as a very good deed. Once on their way, Tom commented, "How far do you take this Vedek Larys stuff anyway, Laren?"

"They ask me to say a prayer for them, I say a prayer. If I find out someone needs help, I try to hook them up to where they can get it. They want someone to talk to them, I find the time to talk to them, at least for a little while. Most people really don't want that much from me, you'd be surprised. Just pay a little attention to them, tell them the truth, and they're happy. Of course, it helps that no one has ever asked me straight out where I took my vows as a vedek. Then I would have to lie, and I would prefer not to."

"What did you do yesterday afternoon when you were on your 'vedek errand?' "

"Lalley, our landlady, made some extra food for me to bring to a couple of invalids and to the local shelter. With the trouble in the Demilitarized Zone, there are a lot of refugees in Port Hakkarond again."

They traveled in silence for a while. He tried to fit her story in with what he had known of Ro before, and he realized that there really weren't any contradictions with the Ro Laren he had always known. It just seemed strange to him because he had never had much chance to see this side of her before. "Is this all -- I don't know -- kind of a payback for things that people have done for you?"

"You could say that. Taking care of you is certainly payback for all you did for me when we were at the Academy."

"Oh, Laren, that was nothing -- just good manners."

"Sure, if you say so. Good manners. Consideration for others. What's the difference?"

He opened his mouth to respond, but found that he didn't have anything to say. She laughed at his mouth hanging open, and then he did too.

They arrived at the spaceport in good time. Port Hakkarond had seen better days, but although the buildings were old, they were well maintained. The equipment for the repair of vessels was first-rate here. Had the Maquis possessed the funds, Ro could easily have gotten all the parts that Torres had needed for the cargo ship right in the 'port, and her group would have been long gone before Tom had been assaulted coming out of the bar. It wasn't anything that Ro liked to think about: Tom's lying in that ditch until someone came by to knife him, just for sport. And there was no use stewing over the availability of the parts so close to the dry-dock when there were no funds to purchase them anyway. More scrounging was needed, that was all.

Ro left Tom in The Eye of the Prophet while she made arrangements for their departure. A half hour of bureaucratic nonsense was necessary, requiring the pilot of a vessel to visit the Port Master in person before clearance to leave could be obtained. Tom used the time to explore the helm of the small vessel, checking over all of the controls and making sure that all was well.

The craft was old, but a beauty. He could tell that she would be fast. Taking the helmsman's seat, Tom closed his eyes and felt where every control was located. A wonderful ship. He hoped that Ro would let him do a little flying once they were underway. His last job, which had dumped him unceremoniously on Delistor, had been as a cook on a cargo vessel that had no replicators. He wasn't a bad cook, having had to take such work before; but the Bolian who had hired him found a Bolian cook when they landed at Port Hakkarond. Tom had been fired, not because he had done anything wrong, but because, "Bolians stick together. Find a human ship, Paris."

"Had to tell them you were going back to Bajor as a novice, Tom. Next time maybe you can wear a vedek's robes, too."

"Gee, thanks, Laren. I'd fit the part so well. A monk. Tom Paris, celibate . . .What, what's so funny?"

Ro had to stop her preflight check, she was laughing so hard. When she could finally speak, she gasped, "Tom, you don't know much about Bajoran religious orders, do you? Only a handful of what we call the 'eccentric orders' are celibate. Most have generations of the same family living in the same chapter house. Some are like family businesses! Bajorans don't believe that love and sex are incompatible with religious fervor!"

Tom laughed with her. "Well, in that case, sign me up."

*******

Their trip was pleasant. Tom's hangover was long gone, and his bruised stomach, while still sore, no longer limited his movements. The craft was fast for its size, as he had suspected. They could do Warp 7 if need be. Ro was willing to let him fly it when she wanted to rest, too. Once they were on their way, she plotted their course with him so that he would know their destination, a planetoid in the Terikof belt known as Takrin, where a small town called Malagra was really a Maquis outpost. Tom thought he may have found his niche at last.

His good spirits were to be short-lived.

*******

Agitated, Ro paced back and forth in front of the chair where the Maquis cell leader was sitting. "Chakotay, I can't believe you don't want to take advantage of Tom's skills! He's a good pilot, the best there is!"

"Caldik Prime says otherwise."

"There were nine people in that shuttle, Chakotay, only three died. Even the best pilot can screw up. If anything, he's less likely to ignore a warning light after what happened."

"Wasn't he involved in another accident once, too? Three dead again?"

"At the Academy, yes, but that wasn't his fault at all." She stopped pacing and faced Chakotay, who looked up at her grimly.

"Six people dead in two accidents. Not a good record. How can I trust him with our people? Our equipment? We have little enough now, and none to spare for an iffy pilot."

"I was flying in that formation at the Academy, too, but you trust me! Novotny's helm controls failed, and he took out Kovara and Ablimistara's ships. It was over in an instant, Chakotay. There was nothing anyone could have done. Tom and I were lucky we weren't killed, too."

Ro remembered the aftermath of that accident bleakly. The Board of Inquiry, sure that the two surviving cadets must have been in some way responsible or had been hiding something, had been brutal to them. Ro wondered how much influence this incident may have had on Tom at Caldik Prime. Might his not telling the entire truth be laid at the door of their ordeal after the training accident? Despite all their protestations, they had not been believed until one of their instructors had been able to discover a mechanical cause in the shards of debris from Novotny's craft. Their innocence had been established -- but not before Tom and Ro had been put through hell.

"Ro, I know he's your friend, but he isn't the same man you knew. His first stop here was the bar, and his second was a bunk with the woman he had picked up at the bar! He's a drunk and a womanizer, Ro. I can't trust him. And he's a mercenary. No principles. The first thing he asked me when he walked in the door was how much money could I pay him! I can't believe you're sticking up for him." Chakotay shook his head. When Ro had been in his class at the Advanced Tactical Training School, before he had resigned his commission to join the Maquis, he had been impressed by her ability to make tough decisions, even ruthless ones, and live by them. She was not objective about Paris. What she saw in the wastrel pilot, he could not see.

"I obviously know him better than you do, Chakotay," she said, storming past a grinning Seska as she ran out the door.

I hope I still know you, Tom. Drinking and picking up women as soon as you touched down! I'll kill you!

*******

She found him at a bar, as advertised. Tom didn't seem to be drunk, but he was much too cozy with Alana Loring for her peace of mind. Alana was young, younger than she looked or behaved, and she was not Tom's type. Would never have been Tom's type before, she amended mentally. Alana was known as the local nymphomaniac, and the new Tom apparently was something of a sex fiend. In the four days he had been at Malagra, he had been with three women that she knew of, and maybe more that she didn't. The man had amazing recuperative powers, she would grant him that much.

Ro would never have shared a bed with Tom in Hakkarond if she had known this.

Still, when she walked in, Tom waved to her, leaned over to give Alana a quick kiss, and sauntered over to Ro, drink in hand. "So, is the Chief going to let me fly, or not?"

"I don't know. He doesn't trust a womanizer with his ships."

"What does that have to do with anything? So I like a good time. Does he think I like to do it while I'm at the helm?" He was indignant, but his flushed face suddenly paled. "It's about Caldik Prime, isn't it? He figures I'm just dying to crash one of his precious craft so that I can go out in a blaze of glory."

Ro had nothing to say. The truth was there to be seen on her face.

Tom turned away, back to the bar, back to Alana, the only bloodsucker on the base worse than Seska as far as Ro was concerned. The Bajoran stalked out of the tavern, trying to ignore the sick feeling she felt in her heart.

*******

Chakotay and Seska sat in the corner booth of the Latinum Shrine, observing the patrons as they entered and left. "Some of the pairings tonight are interesting, aren't they, Chakotay? I heard that Paris had been very close to Alana this afternoon, but now there he is, hanging out with Sela Evaluon." Seska leaned back to give Chakotay a clear view of the table where Tom was sitting cozily next to Sela, along with Henley and Rogers.

Chakotay was disgusted. Paris hitting on Evaluon, the only one in the room who was too innocent to have any idea what he was up to!

He would not allow it to happen. As Chakotay stood up, however, the front door opened to admit Ro Laren. She stood there a moment, frozen in the doorway, absorbing the arm too intimately laid over Evaluon's shoulders, the aristocratic mouth a few centimeters away from the girl's lips.

Paris even had the gall to wave at Ro to join them! Chakotay could not stand it. He had to break it up.

He caught himself as he was about to step out of his booth, realizing that he would not have to do a thing. Ro had answered Paris' summons to the table; but when she got there, she pinched the erstwhile pilot's ear, fingernails sinking painfully into the lobe, to encourage him to arise from his seat.

"Ow! Laren! What the hell are you doing? You're tearing my ear off!"

"I need to borrow this ear for a while so that we can have a little chat, Mr. Paris. Now. In private." Ro gave his ear a painful squeeze before letting him go, pushing him out the door in front of her.

Henley and Rogers laughed. Evaluon looked confused. Chakotay strolled over to the table and bent down to Evaluon. "Sela, maybe it's time for you to go home. Alone."

She took the hint.

*******

"Ro, what's gotten into you? Why are you so mad?"

"If you haven't figured it out yet, Hotshot, then there's no hope for you after all."

"What, Laren, I was just having a little fun. Sela was willing. She's a great kid!"

"That's just the point, Tom. She's a kid. She may be as old as Alana, but compared to that whore, Sela is an innocent ripe for the slaughter. As far as anyone around here knows, she's still a virgin. She was really sheltered by her parents. Sela slipped aboard a transport one step ahead of being tortured and raped to death by the Cardassians, right after she found her parents' broken bodies. She's vulnerable, Tom. She isn't ready for a romantic involvement, if anyone can call what you do romance."

"I'm sorry, I didn't know. She didn't tell me, and no one else said anything."

"Henley and Rogers would love to see you mess up. They live for gossip. And they aren't very fond of me, so your acting like a jerk after I had spoken up for you would be a bonus. As it is, I'm not sure how long it's going to be before Chakotay hauls your ass onto a freighter and ships you out of here. You may get your chance at the damned Beta Quadrant any minute now." Arriving at the door of her quarters, Ro was seething so much she could barely enter her code to unlock the door.

Once she had shoved him inside, she locked the door behind her. "You aren't going to be serving anyone's sexual needs tonight, Tom. We are going to have a little talk, and then I'm going to decide if your damned ass is worth saving. I am not going to speak up for you anymore with Chakotay if you really are the liability he thinks you are."

"Laren, I swear, this has nothing to do with what kind of pilot I am! Pilots have always had a reputation for being good with the opposite sex. It doesn't mean anything. Flying a ship is a whole different thing. I'm not a liability in the helm chair. You know me!"

"I thought I did. You were a hotshot pilot in the Academy, and I know very well that your girlfriends satisfied you sexually. You'd be amazed at what they told me when they were trying to be my friend so they could get closer to you! None of them really believed that we'd never slept together, by the way. One thing about you then, though: you had one girlfriend at a time and you were faithful to her for as long as it lasted. A new woman every day, maybe two -- what the hell is that ABOUT, anyway? You can't possibly have any affection for them! What in the Names of All the Prophets are you doing to yourself?"

"Trying to forget."

"What?" Ro stared at him. His face was pale, and he was breathing as hard as if he had just run a few kilometers. The bar had been only around the corner from Ro's quarters, and she distinctly remembered that he had not been puffing from lack of breath when she had shoved him through her doorway.

Tom lowered his eyes to the floor so he would not have to look into her eyes, those dark needles probing into his soul. His empty, lost soul. What could he say to her? His only friend, and now he had managed to alienate her, too, as he had everyone he had ever loved.

She wasn't going to let him get away with silence. "What do you mean, you're trying to forget?"

He snorted an ugly chuckle, totally humorless. "My life is a waste, Laren, you know that. There isn't much that gives me joy anymore, except my 'Tower of Joy' filling up some woman's 'Passage of Enlightenment.' It's the only time I feel good, Laren. The only time I can feel like somebody again. Like an actual human being, for a few minutes. And then I look for somebody else, because the woman doesn't want me a second time.

"You're right, Ro. The women worth being with want a man who cares about them, who wants to make love to them, not some bum taking their bodies for a good, hard ride and then leaving them alone again. Except for the Alanas, of course. They're just female Tom Parises, screwing to fill the emptiness in their souls."

Tom knew how miserable he sounded, but what else could he say? He knew it was the truth. "Laren, I don't have a clue about who I am or what to do with myself anymore."

He circled the small room, not really seeing anything in it. Then he was standing in front of Ro again, and Tom knew he could no longer avoid her gaze. He would have to meet her eyes again, read the hate, the loss of the only friend he had.

Tom found his courage and looked at her, seeing only sympathy in her eyes. "It sounds like you know exactly what you've got to do, Tom. Stop screwing shells of women and find a whole one that can love you back. Find someone who will be your friend, as well as your lover."

Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He shook his head, before choking out, bitterly, "I don't exactly have a long list of friends, Laren, male or female. You're just about the only one I've got. You're my Best Friend now, by default."

"Well, then, Mr. Paris, you just think about that for a while. If that's the case, instead of doing your damnedest to screw over your Best Friend, maybe you should be making love to your Best Friend."

Ro opened her mouth as if she had more to say, but after working her jaw from side to side for several seconds, she just shook her head and walked to the tiny kitchen area to grab a glass of water. Tom stood in the same place, dumbfounded, as he went over what she had said. Was he catching her meaning? Did she just say what he'd thought she'd said? He was conscious of his chest rising and falling, of his pulse pounding in his throat, as he felt Ro's eyes boring into his back.

He turned. He was right; she had been staring at him. Glib Tom Paris could think of nothing at all to say to his Best Friend, the one with whom he had spent hours on end, whole nights until dawn, talking about anything and everything. He swallowed hard.

"Ro Laren, are you going to slug me if I ask you what you mean by that?"

Her mouth twitched up crookedly, the smile never reaching her eyes. "Right about now you deserve a slug in the gut no matter what you ask me." Dragging in a deep breath that she exhaled slowly, Ro paced back to face him. "My point, my handsome, debauched young friend, is that using sex as an anesthetic is too damaging to the other people you're doing it with for it to be healthy for any of you. Do you really feel good about what you do with those women?"

"No."

"Then all I'm saying is that you need to find a better way to 'feel like somebody again' than the way you have been. Some things are better kept . . . between friends."

He gulped. "Laren, you're my friend. Are you saying that we . . ."

"I'm saying that you should feel for the one you sleep with at least as much as you feel for me! How radical a concept is that for you, Tom? That you at least like your lover! You didn't used to need a map like this."

Tom wavered a little on his feet. He had been mistaken then, she was not offering herself to him. Paris, you really are a jerk if the only thing you can think of when a good friend tries to talk some sense into your thick skull is that maybe she wants to sleep with you. Despite his tough talk to himself, all he could think of was how beautiful Ro Laren was, whether she was smiling or glaring at him.

Those warm dark eyes were studying him, and again, he felt a wave of desire wash over him that could only disgust her. He knew she could not give him what he wanted. And yet, what did she mean by making love to her instead of screwing her over? Tom had had just enough liquor to dull his wits without having had enough to block his self-disgust. He looked sadly at her. "I guess I should be going, then."

Ro took a step forward and pounded him in the center of the chest, shouting, "Fine, go, you dumb jerk! If you can't figure out what it is I'm offering you, then you deserve to go to hell!"

"Why are you getting so hostile with me? You aren't making any sense! One minute you're talking like you want me to be with you, and the next you're throwing me out! You're making my head spin, Laren!"

"Maybe Chakotay is right; you have lost too many brain cells to booze. Let me spell it out for you. If you are my friend, if you really care for me, then I'm the one you should be putting that Profound Shaft of Pleasure into, not every female that walks into the nearest bar that you don't care anything about. Clear enough?" Ro stepped back, crossing her arms and glaring at him.

Astounded, Tom involuntarily stepped back, but he did not break contact with her eyes. She was deadly serious. "Laren, I thought you didn't . . . well . . . you didn't sleep with anyone. Any men, any way." He knew that on a few occasions, Ro had sought solace in the arms of a woman, but as far as he knew, she had never been with a man unless she had been forced.

"Tom, it's been six years since we left the Academy. I have had a chance to have a few experiences with the opposite sex since then that turned out halfway decently."

"I didn't think . . ."

"Obviously. You might have asked." She shook her head, thinking what a fool he was. What a fool she probably was, for even being interested in him after what he had been doing to every woman he could get his hands on. Foolish or not, with those stunned blue eyes fastened upon hers, she couldn't help seeing the kind, vulnerable, decent man that she was convinced still lurked inside him -- if she could break down that piggy exterior he had been exhibiting so prominently to everyone at the outpost.

Ro went back to her eating area sink to get herself another drink of water. She half expected to hear her door close behind her back, but when she pivoted and walked over to her small wooden table to sit down, Tom was still there. He almost looked like he was ready to cry, in frustration or joy, she could not tell.

"Want some water? You've had too much of the other already."

He nodded to her. When she handed a glass to him and took a seat at the table, he sat down across from her, saying softly, "Ro Laren, I'm so sorry. I never thought you would be interested in me, so I blocked any feelings that I had for you away. I was afraid if I didn't, I would do something to hurt you. We were friends. We are friends, I hope."

His apology was accepted silently. There was a long pause before she said, "I guess we both should've filled in the gaps a bit better. Six years is a long time. And yes, of course, we're still friends. Unless you're mad at me for grabbing you by the ear."

That prompted a chuckle. "I was beginning to wonder if you were trying to pierce my ear with your fingernails for one of those fancy Bajoran earrings."

She laughed back, then took his hands in hers. "You would look good in one. Perfect for someone taking the vows of a vedek."

He flushed, then cleared his throat before saying, "Well, Laren, I think you have a pretty good idea of the way I've been spending my time since I was cashiered from Starfleet three years ago. Get a job for a while to try to pay off some bar bills. Find someone to sleep with. Get as drunk as possible on as little money as possible. Get a job again. I've been in a brutal rut." He paused, then looked at her with a puzzled expression. "So, what about you. I mean, if you can even think about me as a possible bed partner, there's been quite a change in you."

"Not so much a change as a healing. It's funny, the man that really made a difference is almost as much of a sex addict as you are."

Tom squinted so that his eyebrows dipped closer to his nose as he shook his head, saying, "I think I've just been insulted. And, uh, I don't want you to be embarrassed, or anything, but . . . well, if you want to tell me the story . . ."

"William T. Riker. Commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise and self-appointed gift to females of almost all humanoid species. There may be some that he wouldn't do, but not many. And the funniest thing is that he has the perfect woman for him living on the same starship. They were even lovers once. You ever hear the Betazoid term Imzadi? 'More than lovers, more than friends'. Soulmates, I think is the closest translation. And does he make it with her? Oh, no. Can't commit. Or maybe she can't, I could never figure it out." Ro paused to take a sip of water, then leaned her head on her hand and scratched up her crop of hair before continuing.

"Anyway, one time a couple of years ago, there was some alien species that wanted Enterprise to kill off their enemies. It's a long story that I'm not going to bore you with right now, but the main thing is they found a way to wipe out everybody's memories on the ship, expecting Picard to just go along with orders without thinking. They obviously did not know everything there was to know about Picard. The personnel logs were tampered with, too, so we had trouble even figuring out who we were.

"So there we all are, trying to figure out what's going on, and, I've got to admit, I got really hot for Riker. Normally we could barely stand one another. Tolerate, maybe, but become lovers? No way, or so I thought. But with no memory of what a prick he could be to me, I come in to seduce him, and -- get this, because this is really funny -- Riker and Deanna Troi are looking at this book, and there's an inscription in it that makes it very clear that the two of them have some kind of attachment to one another. But when I come onto him, who does he sleep with? Me!"

Ro rocked back in her chair, face glowing, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "So when we all get our memories back, Deanna is furious at him! And he deserved it, in my opinion. I think she took up with Worf to get back at him!"

Tom looked at her in some confusion. While he'd had some trouble with the dramatis personae, his greater problem was comprehending how this had made any difference to Ro. "I don't get it. What does this have to do with your 'healing?' "

The smile faded a little, but she did not look sad or unhappy. "Tom, I went to bed with Will Riker, and, I have to admit, he's good. No wonder Deanna was so mad at him afterwards. And all that night that we were together, I had no memories of what had happened to me in the camps at all. None. It was just Ro Laren's very own normal, sexual appetites having a chance to express themselves with this man that she was really attracted to. And I loved it, Tom. I had never . . . I had just never been able to let go like that in my life, with anyone. I never realized . . . how much . . . it just FELT so good . . . "

There were tears in her eyes, now, something which Tom Paris had only rarely seen before. His own eyes stung him, seeing the emotion on her face. Their eyes met, and Ro smiled the sweetest, gentlest smile he had ever seen from her. "Tom, I guess I'm not a woman who really likes to be with women after all. I'm not surprised, because I could've had my chances with women lots of times, and I always held back. When it did happen, I can't say I really enjoyed it much more than I had with the guards. Since Riker, I've actually made love with men a few times, and it really feels right. But . . . "

Reaching across the table and interlacing her fingers with his, she looked into his face. "But, I know that what I really need is to sleep with someone I really like, who really cares for me. Haven't you been listening? I've been trying to pound it into you since I dragged you in here. YOU are my Best Friend, Thomas Eugene Paris. If I can't make love to my Best Friend, who belongs to the gender I'm really attracted to, then who?"

"Laren . . . " His reply stuck in his chest, as if his heart were swelling up inside and blocking his ability to breathe or to talk. Tom leaned across the table, taking Ro's face into his hands and softly tracing her lips with his right thumb. His left hand crept around to the back of her head, combing his fingers through her mussed hair. Pulling her face towards his, he kissed her fully on the lips, for the first time in their lives.

Ro's lips quivered but answered his kiss tenderly before she parted them to permit Tom to slip his tongue inside her mouth. The kiss became more intense as he trailed his hand along her jaw. Dropping her hands into the open neckline of his shirt and pulling it open, Ro stroked the downy hair that began at the base of his neck and spread all over his chest. Their breath became ragged as they ended their kiss and gazed back into each others eyes. Instead of kisses, their lips shared smiles.

Getting up from his chair, Tom moved around the table and knelt down before her, holding his arms out to pull her into his arms. Leaning forward to hold him tightly and shaking a little in his embrace, Ro felt like she was standing at the edge of a precipice -- to fall to oblivion if she were wrong about this -- but it did not feel wrong.

Their silence was broken, finally, by Tom. "So, does this mean you don't mind if I do service someone sexually tonight?"

She felt like kicking him again, then shook her head, laughing. "You really are incorrigible, you know that, don't you?" Ro smiled as she bent down to give him another kiss.

As their lips parted again, his voice became husky with emotion as he said, "Let me rephrase that question. Do I get to make love to my Best Friend tonight? Even though, God knows, I don't deserve it."

Barely nodding her head, Ro caught his hand in hers and pulled him away from her table and into her bedroom. It wasn't any bigger than the room that they had shared in Hakkarond, but it smelled of cleanliness and soap and Ro Laren. Falling onto Ro's bed, they began to kiss and embrace each other as they pulled off each other's garments. Tom's hands cupped her jaw, then moved slowly down her body, barely grazing her flesh as they fluttered their way down to her hips. Kissing her on the mouth again, deeply, Tom moved his lips down Ro's body in much the same way as his hands had moved moments before. Tears came to her eyes as her Celestial Home of Delight throbbed, verifying to her how very appropriate that name was.

His own eyes filled with tears. She had been right. Making love to her, bringing her to fulfillment was more exciting than having a dozen women. Tom knew that he had always felt a kind of love for Ro Laren; now he knew he needed no qualifiers. This was what he had been searching for: a woman of toughness, spirit, and a hidden vulnerability that could bring him passion as well as peace. He smiled as he thought of the Bajoran nickname for that part of him that was surging for her. Tower of Joy, indeed. Joy for him. Joy for her.

Tom was almost undone by the look of ecstasy on her face, but as he leaned towards her face again to kiss her, he was able to control himself. Ro's hands stroked down his chest and body as they kissed, feeling his tight muscles and kneading his flesh with her strong fingers. They were both moaning and writhing now. Ro's fingers dragged through the fine downy mat of hair on his chest. She opened her mouth and softly grazed on the trail of hair that led to his navel. Beyond that, though, she did not go. When she hesitated, Tom gently cradled her face so that he could look into her eyes.

His heart ached at what he could see there. She was not ready yet for some of the ways a man and a woman bring pleasure to each other, he knew. Things had been done to her by scaled masters with the intention of bringing her pain instead of pleasure, for their own sick amusement. For this first time with him, he knew, she should not be reminded so harshly of those other times, experiences which might have ruined a weaker person. He would find another way for them to join together.

Fortunately, Tom was well-versed in pleasuring a woman, and never was he more grateful of the vast extent of his experience than now. With his help, they both found what they longed for.

After, Ro found herself wanting to wilt into sleep. His hands encouraged her to rest her head against his shoulder, her fingers entwined in the soft waves of hair on his chest. Sighing contentedly, Ro felt safer than she ever had in his snug embrace. "Sweet Prophets, Tom. That was so good." A sexy growl entered her voice as she went on, "I guess I can see now why you've been so popular."

His laughter rocked her where she rested upon his chest, but then his voice took on a serious tone as he replied to her, "And now I can see why it's better to make love with your Best Friend."

Her eyes glowed with happiness, although the smile she bestowed upon him was a typically crooked Ro Laren smile. "I'm glad, Tom. I do, too, Best Friend."

After a while, Tom pulled her around to lie on her side as he faced her. There were things they would have liked to have said to each other, but a shyness came over them suddenly, as if the years they had known each other had never been. What they could not say in speech, they instead said with hands and lips. Stroking each other gently, they shared more soft kisses before falling asleep wrapped in each other's arms.

In the morning, they made love again. Slowly, savoring every moment, every touch. The taste of his skin, the flavor of her flesh. Afterwards they took a long hot shower together, Tom declaring that the height of bliss was Ro's strong hands scrubbing his long, lean back for him. Ro's response was to laugh in his face. "You are so full of it, Paris. We both know what you really think the 'height of bliss' is."

"OK, so I exaggerated a little. But it's second on the list," He turned around to kiss her, but as his body moved away from the stream of rushing water, it poured over their faces. The inadvertently inhaled water made them sputter before both collapsed against the wall of the shower stall, lost in laughter.

Following breakfast, Tom dressed and went to pack up the quarters he had been occupying alone. Seska was passing by as Tom, duffel bag in hand, skipped back into Ro's rooms, enveloping her in a huge hug as he walked by her at the entrance.

Seska's startled look of shock sent a thrill through Ro. That's it, go run to Chakotay, Seska, you leech. Tell him your tale.

Everyone whom Seska told about the scene was as shocked as she had been -- except for those who refused to believe it at all, until they saw Ro and Paris together.

*******

"Chakotay, what's your problem with this? You aren't jealous, are you? You've got Seska, after all. I didn't think you cared that way about me." Ro sighed noticeably. Men.

"Ro, it isn't that, of course." Chakotay fidgeted in his chair, worrying that she had hit too close to the mark. Seska was a difficult woman to live with, not that he thought Ro would be very malleable, either. Still, he had an uneasy feeling that Paris was enjoying himself much more with Ro than Chakotay was with Seska. "I'm just worried about you, that's all. With his history. . . "

"That 'history' you know is not the real Tom Paris. I told you that weeks ago. He's a good man. A brave man, kind-hearted. Can you tell me that he's been unfaithful in any way to me since we moved in together?"

"No, I haven't heard anything."

"Isn't it better that he isn't hanging around the bars anymore? That the other women aren't arguing about him? That he hasn't been harassing every female within reach?"

"Yes, of course, but Ro . . . "

"Has he ever done anything since he's been here to justify your distrust of him, other than the drinking and the womanizing? Which he admits himself he did, and he's stopped doing now."

"Ro, just because he's stopped for a few weeks doesn't mean he's stopped forever. I don't want you hurt by him."

"Chakotay, you have no idea of the hurts I've suffered in my life. He's helped me get past them long before this, if you want to know the truth. I'm not going to burden you with my long, sad story. A Bajoran orphan raised in the tender care of the Cardassians. Do I need to spell it out for you? All you need to know is that Tom knows my story, all of it, and he's never let me down yet."

Ro paced the small room next to Chakotay's and Seska's bedroom that served as his office. Finally she turned towards him and admitted, "I'm not going to pretend that he may not leave me someday. I just trust him to do it right, if it happens. I'm sorry, Chakotay, you've never known this man the way I've known him -- all right, I'm not talking about sex here, stop rolling your eyes! -- I mean, I know his soul, his true spirit, and he knows mine. I trust him to be truthful with me. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"

"I understand. I just don't believe I'm hearing you say it."

"Don't try to understand, then. Just believe me when I say it's true."

The cell leader shook his head. "Since you're determined to stay with him no matter what, I can only say it's your decision. I just hope that this 'cure' he represents isn't worse than the disease itself."

Despite her frustration, Ro looked at him with pity. Chakotay didn't have a clue, really, about what had happened to her. In so many ways he was surprisingly na´ve about life, trusting those he shouldn't. Like Seska, for instance. She considered asking him about his relationship with his Bajoran girlfriend. How could he trust his own lover, who was as underhanded and devious as they came? Ro could see right through Seska, but Chakotay was a fish well-hooked. He wouldn't listen until it was too late, and it was a waste of time and energy to try.

"All I'm asking is that he be allowed to come with me to Delistor when I deliver the last of those parts to B'Elanna. He's a good pilot, and we need two to ferry both ships here. If you don't want him piloting the new ship, he can pilot The Eye of the Prophet. I just want him with me."

"So, you don't trust him here alone while you're off on an errand?" Chakotay asked pointedly.

Ro glared at her leader. "That's not it, Chakotay, and I think you know it. You want to know the truth? Fine, I'll tell you. I don't want to miss out on having Tom bang me for even one night; he's that good. Now, aren't you glad you asked?"

Her sarcasm had the desired affect. He was at the point of giving up when he thought of one more objection. "We've had a leak, Ro. How do you know he isn't a Federation spy? Disgraced Starfleet officer -- it's the same cover story they used for you. . . "

"That leak started well before he got here, Chakotay. He's not the spy. How do you know that I'm not the spy? That whole thing with the Enterprise could have been an elaborate ruse to place me more deeply into the Maquis hierarchy." Ro was almost shouting now. How could the man be so dense?

Chakotay was confronted with the livid countenance of a very angry Bajoran. He had to admit that the leak had been a problem for a few months, yet he could not bring himself to discount Paris as a danger. "Your coming upon him just then could've been a set up, you know."

"There's no way, why, I never went that way to the boarding house any other time! And I had only been at that boarding house for those few days before then! Who could have known I would go back to as crummy a place as that one is? I didn't even know myself until I got back to the 'port. No one could possibly have predicted I'd be there that night, just at that time. Someone beat him up badly, too, Chakotay; I saw them. I swear to you, he is not a spy. I just know it. Now, can he come with me on this mission, or can't he?"

What a headache this Paris was! His best operative, besotted by love. It irked Chakotay, too, that he had no solid evidence against Paris; yet the cell leader was certain the young pilot was a disaster waiting to happen. He could order Ro to leave her paramour home, but Ro's almost total lack of a social life since she had joined them had bothered him. Chakotay was glad that she'd found a little happiness, but for it to be with a man like this -- to take up with such a loser just because the two of them had been chummy in the Academy! Ultimately, he realized it simply wasn't worth the bad feelings it would cause to deny her request, uneasy as it made him feel.

"All right, he can go, but just to fly The Eye of the Prophet back for you. He's not to go to the warehouse, and don't tell him anything about what we're doing with that cargo ship to refit it for ambushing the Cardassians. Especially, don't tell him the names of the engineers who are working on the ship. If he does well on this mission, and maybe a few others, he might be of value to us in our fight. But mark my words, Ro, he's going to break your heart, and when he does, I'm going to say I told you so."

"IF he breaks my heart, you'll be the first person I give an apology to, Chakotay. That's a promise."

As Ro went to the door she passed her Bajoran compatriot Seska coming into the room. Smiling in an irritatingly pleasant manner in response to her fellow Bajoran's glare, Ro stalked out of the room.

"What was that all about, Chakotay? Were the two of you cooking up something for the Cardies?"

"It's nothing. Just more about Paris. Forget about it," The Maquis leader grunted, cursing the day he had ever heard the name of Tom Paris.

*******

"That's quite a view of you, Tom." Ro was still strapped into the bunk on The Eye of the Prophet as Tom, as naked as the day he came into this life, floated over to the control console to turn the artificial gravity back on. Holding carefully to the grab bar above the console so that he would not drop and hurt himself when up and down reasserted themselves in their proper places, Tom switched normal gravity back on the ship. His feet were immediately planted on the floor, and other parts of his anatomy felt the tug and were also pulled down after bobbing around enticingly in zero gravity.

"Don't get any more ideas, Laren. I'm used up for the time being. Sorry." Leaning over the helm chair, Tom checked the readouts at the navigation station. The auto pilot had done its usual good job, and they were still on course for Delistor. Patting the back of the helm chair as he turned to start back, Tom said, "Maybe we should make love in the helm chair next time. That way we can really piss off Chakotay. We can tell him we were doing it while we were trying to land. He expects me to do something like that."

Ro answered him by tossing a pillow into his stomach, encouraging him to return to bed. Instead he pulled her out of the bunk and onto the floor, entangling both of them in the bedding. He wrapped her up into his arms while she laughed in his face. Ro was enthusiastic when she was enjoying herself, having had little of it in her life before.

"So, what is this secret mission I've gotten myself into?" he asked, as Ro held onto Tom tightly. She began to kiss him again, but he pushed himself up on one arm. At her continued silence, he said, "You can't tell me, can you? The bastard still doesn't trust me."

"No," was her simple reply.

"What the hell do I have to do to get him to believe I'm sincere?"

Ro sighed, "It isn't just that. There's a security leak -- it started before either one of us got to the Maquis, but it's made it much harder for me to get comfortable with most of them. It'll be even worse for you."

Tom lay back to think a moment. After a big sigh of his own he said, "I see, Laren, and I guess I can't really blame anyone but myself for his not being able to trust me. From the first minute I met Chakotay, I did everything exactly the right way to offend the hell out of him. I'm going to have to earn his trust, I guess, but it won't be easy if he won't let me do anything."

"Learning when to keep your mouth shut might help."

"Now that may be impossible," he growled softly, grazing her jaw with his teeth.

"Not if it's done the right way." She bent down to his mouth and kissed him, slipping her tongue between his lips and enjoying the feel of him responding to her. Their kisses became more passionate, but it quickly became clear that Tom had been correct about his being "used up" for the time being. Eventually she abandoned her designs on his body and settled for cuddling. In a tumble of arms, legs, sheets and skin, they held each other for the few minutes that remained before they had to arise and clean themselves up. Delistor II was only a few hours away now. It was time for business.

*******

Port Hakkarond's appearance was no more pleasant than the first time he had been here, but Tom was content. He was with the woman he had come to love deeply; he had a job to do, even if Chakotay's suspicions had narrowed its scope; and he only expected to be staying here for two or three days. Tom hoped that those nameless engineers of Ro's were as good as or better than advertised. He had no desire to extend his stay on Delistor.

Mindful of their cover story, Tom was in the loose pants and tunic usually worn by a novice in the religious orders on Bajor. A silver chain suspended from a clip on the top of his right ear ended in an earring at the lobe. A novice was not expected to wear the robes of a vedek, but the earring and simple clothing were expected. No special additions to his nose were needed, however, since a number of humans had sought "enlightenment" by studying Bajoran religion in the last few years.

Ro thought he looked good enough to eat in the outfit. Of course, she was always thinking that, no matter what he was or was not wearing.

After helping her to arrange for a pallet to bring the remaining supplies to what Tom was referring as the "Vedek's Project," Ro led him to a small, dark bar called The Balance Point for a quick meal. While they were eating the tasty stew -- Tom was right, Ro was willing to put up with bad atmosphere if the food was good -- a pair of males, Betazoid and human, walked in. She did not look in their direction, yet a stiffening of her shoulder and the tightening of her lips told Tom that there was something about the men that Ro recognized. When he saw the two of them look their way several times, he was relatively sure that the problem was his presence with Ro. Either they were two of the engineers working on the "Vedek's Project," or they were from some sort of security force. That would mean trouble.

Tom leaned over to Ro. "I think I have to use the facilities, Vedek Larys. Do you mind?"

"Not at all, Supplicant Partom. It's that way."

Tom walked by the two men. The Betazoid's eyes were chilling. Tom had always thought of Betazoids as a warm, sensual people. This guy could give anyone nightmares. Despite his concern for Ro, however, he suspected that she would have asked him not to leave her if she had been made uneasy by them; and he knew that she had seen them.

When Tom reached the door to the rest room, he glanced over his shoulder. The human had walked over to Ro and sat down to talk while the Betazoid still stood at the bar, scanning the crowd with his baleful onyx eyes. Tom slipped into the room before the Betazoid could see him lurking in the shadowed hallway.

When Tom got back to the table, the two men were gone. Ro was relaxed and laughing for the rest of the meal. She apparently had received good news. Tom decided not to ask her about it. He obviously was not supposed to know.

*******

"Oh, Tom, yes! Please!" Ro groaned. The early morning sun was shining on her; her beautiful face was contorted with passion and glazed with sweat. "Oh, Sweet Prophets, Tom!"

They surged together as they joined, two souls riding the same current, his body in rhythm with hers.

Quiet. Stillness.

Their sweat-slicked bodies pressed together, Tom draped over her, his face buried into her shoulder, as their breath began to ease back to normalcy. Their thrumming pulses still raced; but with each second, they were also slowing to a more reasonable pace.

At last, Tom lifted his head to look into her eyes, which were closed against the light of the dawn streaming through the window. He exhaled contentedly, "I must be heavy on you like this."

"No, stay, your weight feels good. I like it." Pulling her arms slowly up from where they were resting below his waist, Ro caressed his long back, ending with her arms encircling his neck to encourage him to stay on top of her longer.

The feel of his flesh blanketing her was an unexpected pleasure for her. She had never thought she could be at peace while being pinned down beneath a male body, yet with Tom over her, she knew tranquillity as well as passion. Ro stroked the skin on the side of his neck and his shoulders. "You're so smooth, Tom. Except where you're fuzzy," she murmured, chuckling from deep in her throat, as her hands glided over his broad shoulders, down the smooth upper arms to the fuzzy forearms, and eventually slipping in to touch his firm, gold-napped pectoral muscles.

Ro had no need to tell him that her hands were glorying in his Bajoran-like human form. Cardassians were neither smooth nor fuzzy. Ropy cords of cartilage fanned out the neck and down the back; patches of embossed scales were all over the body; what hair there was on the head was bristly and coarse; and much of what was allegedly lovemaking was painful for a human or a Bajoran to experience. Although her abusers' bodies had been very different from his, Tom was amazed she could even tolerate being on her back beneath him after all that had been done to her.

The guards had abused her in the night, had forced her to do things that revolted the sensitive child and adolescent. The memories of their actions were still present. Sometimes, he realized he had inadvertently done something to upset her by the veiling of her eyes, but they were determined to hold nothing back from each other now. There was nothing that either would not do if asked by the other, but some things, he knew, needed the light, so that Ro could look into the face of her lover and see Tom's face looking upon her. The sense of sight reassured her that it was Tom who touched her, not some abuser from a nightmare childhood.

After languorously cradling each other for several minutes, Tom started to roll out of bed. Ro caught him and kept him locked in her arms. "Not yet, Tom," she whispered.

He stayed.

"Tom, I've wanted to ask you, how do you know when I'm really . . . you know?"

"You tell me."

"I do? How?"

"You usually shout, "Sweet Prophets."

She laughed. "I had no idea I yell out like that."

"I love to hear it. I know I'm making you happy when you do that." Tom slowly traced her face with his fingers, drawing his thumb along the jawline, before leaning in from where he was lying to kiss her forehead, eyes and mouth. He sent his forefinger along her "eagle," the bit of cartilage above the bridge of her nose, before giving it a great deal of attention from his narrow, sensitive lips. In shape it did resemble the Earth bird as it might look gliding high along the air currents of Tom's home world. His tongue began to caress the wrinkled bridge of her nose, licking and tickling her, before moving down to kiss the tip of her nose and back up to the brow again.

"There you go again. You must really like crinkly-browed women!"

"I do. It feels so fascinating to touch you there. Much more interesting than smooth noses or brows could ever be."

She chuckled. "I'd better keep you away from my Klingon engineer, then. She's got ridges all over her forehead."

"Sounds beautiful."

"She doesn't think so. She hates them."

"She just needs to find the right man. He'll help her learn to appreciate them."

"I'll definitely have to keep you away from her."

"Will this intriguing engineer have the engines raring to go today?"

"I'm sure of it. We'll be leaving this afternoon."

"Once we get back to the Malagra Outpost, will I finally get to meet them? Except for the Klingon, of course?"

"If you're very good, maybe her, too."

"I will be very good. I always am," he said, with exaggerated innocence.

"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," she purred, snuggling further into his chest for a few minutes before finally sighing, "I'm afraid it's time for 'Vedek Larys' and her novice to wash up before going out in public."

"Yes, ma'am!"

She patted his belly affectionately despite his insolence as they rolled out of bed. Getting washed and dressed took little time, but Tom had to have some help with his Bajoran earring. He still could not get the knack of getting the dangling chain onto his ear.

"Here, like this," she showed him, deftly attaching the ear lobe piece before placing the chain with its clip near the top of the ear. When she finished, Ro cupped her hand around his ear, her eyes closed.

"Feeling my pagh?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. I feel all the rest of you, why not that, too?"

His Laren opened her eyes to him then, and he recognized that despite her joke, the spirituality of her people was engrained within her. To rip it out would destroy her, no matter how tough she appeared on the outside. At the core, Ro Laren was Bajoran, with all the sensitivity that implied. She might say prayers for the departed and light candles in the evening, but in the morning, moments like this reminded him of how she had managed to pull herself out of her bitterness and back into life. Even in the worst of times, her sense of her identity with her own people had sustained her until the healing could begin. Answering to an irresistible impulse, Tom wrapped his arms around Ro to pull her into his lap while her hand still rested on his ear.

"What's wrong, Tom? You look as solemn as an old vedek looking into one of the Orbs for the first time."

"Oh, it's nothing. I only wish I believed in anything the way you do your faith. No matter what's happened, I can feel that strength you get from believing in something other than just yourself. I'd love to find something like that. Don't think I ever will, though."

"Maybe you can. Since a man from Earth's turned out to be our 'Emissary,' human beings aren't exactly rare among the 'seekers' on Bajor. You know, maybe 'Supplicant Partom' is the same kind of lie that 'Vedek Larys' is. There's a grain of truth buried in that pose of yours."

"Vedek Paris? I don't know about that, Laren. Somehow I don't see how I could ever get away with being a holy man, the way I've lived!"

"You've always been kind to others, Tom. From the first time I met you at the Academy, you were always trying to help me. And I know it wasn't just to get me into bed. You never would've been the friend you've been to me if you weren't a good man."

"Yeah. Good to every woman I could be," he admitted ruefully. "Woman after woman after woman . . . "

"Oh, Tom, forget about that. They were all willing, I'm sure. It's a wonderful thing for two people to share with each other. I always knew that, even when I was too wrecked by what the Cardassians did to me to share myself with anyone. And I don't know how you humans ever got sexuality mixed up with sinfulness, anyway."

"Just lucky, I guess," he laughed, a little bitterly. Ro stroked her hand from where it still lightly rested against his ear to the back of his head. Tilting up his face to kiss his forehead, Ro waited before his brow smoothed into acceptance and she had softly stroked the smile into reaching his eyes before climbing out of Tom's lap.

Together, they set the table for their morning meal.

When breakfast was over, the vedek and the one following in her footsteps went out to greet the day in their own way. Supplicant Partom went to the place where people who had nothing could find shelter during the night and someone who would feed them in the daytime. Tom Paris, charity worker. How Dad would laugh if he could see me now. While he distributed food, the vedek went on an errand of her own to see the Klingon woman who was master of an errant space vessel. She hoped to learn that the repairs to the ship were finally going to be finished, and that all of the vedek's charges would be able to escape the place that was called Delistor II in safety.

*******

In the mid afternoon, Tom went to meet with Ro at the Point. The word was good. "Get our bags, Tom; we're going home!" A quick, clandestine kiss, and Tom was strolling back to the boarding home in fine spirits.

As he drew near to the boarding home, Tom noted a cluster of people at the front door. Lalley's husband, whose name Tom had never learned, was gesturing to three men dressed in the loose clothing worn by the local inhabitants. As he drew closer, however, Tom was sure that they were not locals. He could not say what it was, exactly. Posture, maybe. The people of Port Hakkarond, used to dealing with crushing problems, were not noted for their straight backs. All three of these men stood tall and proud.

Instead of walking into the building, Tom sauntered by as if he were headed further up the block of buildings. Before he passed them, Lalley's husband was called inside while the three other men still occupied the stoop outside. One man turned. On the right side of his face, his sideburn was short and square. On the other, it came to a point. A Starfleet point.

Casually, Tom kept strolling at an easy pace until he reached an alley, which he used to hurriedly double back toward the Point on a street parallel to the one on which he had been traveling. Lalley and her husband knew that Vedek Larys went to the Point often, Tom knew. He had to get there before Ro did.

*******

When Tom arrived at the Point, the Betazoid who had been with the human the first night Ro and Tom were in the bar was leaving by a side entrance. Deliberately bumping into him, Tom found himself staring into eyes like black holes. Apologizing loudly, he added in a whisper, "Get word to the vedek. There's trouble. Tell her to come back here, and the rest of you, get ready to leave immediately!"

The Betazoid stared at him. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Just tell her that Supplicant Partom told you that the 'Fleet is in.' She'll know what I mean. Go, now!"

The man looked around uneasily. "She has to go to the Port Master as pilot to take the ship off planet."

"Send someone else. There's no time!"

The black eyes became troubled, and the man nodded as he left.

*******

Minutes later, Ro appeared, angry and upset. "What's going on? Suder was going on about the Fleet . . . "

"I don't want to know his name, Laren. We've been betrayed, and I may have been followed. Even if I haven't, it can't be long before they come here. You have to get your people out immediately. I saw three men, and I know they were Starfleet."

"Where?"

"They were talking to our landlord and landlady. One of them forgot to shave off his Starfleet sideburns on one side. You have to go now, let me draw them away from you."

"Tom, you'll be arrested. You'll go to prison!"

"Laren, there were lots of people who thought I got off easy after Caldik Prime, that I should have gone to prison then. And besides, if you let me have The Eye of the Prophet, maybe I can still escape myself."

"And maybe you won't! Tom, you haven't even had a chance for this cause to mean anything to you!"

"You mean everything to me, Ro Laren. That's the cause I need. I need to know you're safe. Even if they catch me, what will they find out? The names of two Starfleet officers that resigned to fight for the Maquis? Big surprise there. The name of one planetoid hideout? If you get away, that will be old news because you'll be gone and will never go back. The name of a Betazoid engineer who'd make a good Bogeyman to scare bad kids into good ones? Terrific intelligence, just what they're looking for, I'm sure. Don't you see, I don't know anything, Laren. It's no liability if I'm caught. Can you say the same? I don't think so."

"No, I won't let you do this. You go back to the . . . "

He put his finger on her lips to shush her. "Don't say it, don't let me know what it is you were working on, names, anything. Can you imagine how pissed they're going to be when they get a cashiered nobody when they were after Lieutenant Ro Laren, deserter? Don't kid yourself, Laren. It's you they're after. You'll serve a deserter's sentence. Twenty-five years to life, if I recall, and in a hellhole, I bet. Me, what will they give me? The admiral's son will get five to ten in a country club of a place. I'll be out in three. Hell, I may get back before the whole thing is over to fight next to you again!"

His false bravado did not fool her for a second. His eyes told a different tale. He was frightened to his soul, but unbelievably brave. As Ro fought him, fought herself, she knew she fought the truth. They were after her; he was right. And Tom was expendable in a way she was not.

Her heart tore in her chest. Those blue eyes gazing into hers -- she would never see them looking at her again that way. The feel of his golden body would be lost to her forever. If by some miracle they ever met again, it could never be the same for them. She knew it, a sure and certain knowledge in her shattering heart.

Ro Laren wanted to run from her mission again, fly away somewhere with Thomas Eugene Paris where no one would ever find them, to hold him close to her and never let him out of her sight again. Even to be taken with him and sent to prison -- there were some that let a couple be together. Better that than a lifetime without those eyes, that smile! She had been to prison; she knew she could bear it, probably more readily than he.

But she knew she wouldn't run. Not willingly. People were depending upon her. And those trusting eyes looking at her belonged to one who was willing to sacrifice his entire future, his life, if need be, for her. Even as she struggled to try to find an answer that could enable them all to escape together, Tom said the one, last thing that sealed both of their fates.

"For once in my life, let me do something important for somebody else. I have a debt to pay for what I did at Caldik Prime. I can never bring those people back to life. Let me at least give you your life, give those engineers their lives back. I can do this, Laren. Please, let me."

His eyes were tearing up, and her own were misting over. Ro threw her arms around him, hugged him tightly, and kissed him deeply, knowing that it was for the last time. At his bidding, she numbly removed the vedek's robes and handed them to him. "Hey, like I said, maybe I can do some really fancy flying, Laren, and I'll be back with you in no time. But these robes I can use . . . "

In complete silence Tom reached out and stroked her face. Gently, he traced along the side of her jaw, her nose, finally her mouth, grazed by his thumb. The softest of touches. Good-bye, Laren, they said. I love you, Laren, they said. She brought her hand up to stroke the back of the hand touching her. I love you, Tom. Good-bye, Tom.

Without a backward glance she slipped out the back door in her skin-tight jumpsuit. Her long stride lengthened; her hips began to waggle in the "working girl strut" as Ro Laren fought off the tears that threatened to pour down her cheeks.

She had a job to do. Tom's sacrifice would be wasted if she did not get B'Elanna, Jonas, and Suder away to safety. Ro's throat and chest were painfully tight as she held back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. If they did, it would be for the first time in her adult life. While she had shed tears, Ro Laren had never broken down and lost control since the day the child Laren realized that the more she screamed in terror, the more excited the abusive commandant became. Even as her heart protested the pain she felt, Ro Laren strolled down the narrow streets of the 'port, the perfect "working girl" on the prowl, headed for those for whom she was responsible so that she could get them all on their way.

All, except for her love.

*******

He was lucky. He didn't have to wait long. A "working girl" close to Ro's height, although a good fifteen years older, strolled in about ten minutes after Ro had left. She was even part Bajoran, mixed with something else. Ktarian, probably -- he could not tell for sure. In the robes and peaked veil of a vedek, however, she would pass.

The half strip of latinum he would be able to pay her normally would not be enough, but when Tom told her what he had in mind, it was just kinky enough for her to give him a discount. Besides, she had always wanted to do it in zero gravity at least once.

The "vedek" and her "novice" took a leisurely stroll out of the Point. Taking a circuitous route to The Eye of the Prophet to increase the chances that the watchers he knew were there would pick up their trail, Tom gave her a quick tour of the small ship when he stopped to pick up an important data padd. The woman did not wish to leave The Eye, but he insisted she accompany him to the Port Master's office. The data padd, one of five which Ro had prepared for Tom on their trip in case of an emergency, gave instructions to the Port Master to permit her novice, Supplicant Partom, permission to leave Port Hakkarond with one guest whose presence was urgently needed on Bajor.

The Port Master never noticed that the guest had not been mentioned by name, as The Eye of the Prophet was the second ship that would be leaving the 'port in less than an hour. He had been busy finishing the filing of the paperwork for the tajtIq, a rebuilt cargo ship of Klingon Empire registry bearing the name of a kind of dagger, bound home for the Klingon border planet of mI'voq. The pilot/owner was a young woman whose features were characteristic of the inhabitants from that world, softer and less detailed than those of most Klingons. Belrath had been somewhat nervous. This was, as she had said "the first ship I can call my own."

The Port Master had wished her well, although he was concerned about her odd traveling companion, her Betazoid navigator, a man who projected a most unusual air of menace for one of that race. Of course, Klingons and Betazoids were not frequently seen in each other's company anyway. Perhaps the man's odd demeanor was a result of having lived among Klingons for a long time. The Port Master did not think he would be happy living with Klingons for long. Too intense.

As Vedek Larys' charming young novice was finishing the pilot's papers and filing the flight plan for his journey to Bajor, the sound of a cargo ship lifting off from the 'port could be heard. "That must be the tajtIq, the Klingon woman's ship," said the Port Master with satisfaction. "Good journey!" the bureaucrat said, just as he said every time he heard a ship lift off from his spaceport.

A strangely melancholic look passed over Supplicant Partom's face at this, as he added softly, "A very good journey, and a safe one." The Port Master noted the young man's reverent face. Such a sensitive young man would be a credit to his order when he became a vedek, although the female vedek he was bringing to Bajor seemed rather coarse. Not from the same religious order, perhaps.

*******

"Oh, Partom, this is exciting. I've never been off planet, can you believe it? And me born in Port Hakkarond, the biggest space port on Delistor! When do we get up to orbit. Can we go to zero gravity right away? I heard that orgasms can last for five times as long in zero gravity. Have you ever . . . "

As he manipulated the controls of The Eye of the Prophet, Tom tried to figure out how he could survive the company of this example of the flower of Port Hakkarond's native female population long enough to do what he had to do. The tajtIq must have been the Maquis ship, piloted officially by the Klingon woman, although Ro was no doubt doing the real flying. I love you, Ro Laren, he thought again to her, even though now, with any luck, her ship was already at warp and would soon be long gone from the Delistor system.

Once he had attained orbit, Tom had to decide what to do next. He had hoped to find a way to leave the "vedek" behind him at the 'port, but she'd stuck too closely for him to be able to slip away onto The Eye of the Prophet alone. Tom would risk being charged with the crime of abduction if he fled the system with his passenger. Any slim chance he might have had to get away himself evaporated when this woman climbed into the scout ship.

Tom also knew that he would not be able to keep his companion happy for long without "performing," and for the first time in his memory, the thought of having sex revolted him. He was half-hoping the 'Fleeters would capture him before it came to that, even though he doubtlessly would be spending several celibate years in prison once they did. Tom would rather have the memory of Ro's hands as the last to touch his body, even if his celibacy were to last decades, than for this shrill woman to grapple with him.

"So, when are we going to do it. Are there straps, or are we going to just float around. Do you want me to get you started? I don't do whips, but . . . "

"Garinta, that's your name, isn't it?"

"Yes, sweet thing. That's what they call me."

"I have several things to do to make sure all is well before we can have that . . . celestial experience that I promised you. Do you think you could let me concentrate for a few minutes on those things so that I can concentrate on you when the time comes?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Sure sweet thing. It's your latinum."

Tom turned back to his controls. It was funny, but this Garinta seemed familiar to him. Must remind him of somebody he knew, although off-hand, he couldn't think of whom it might be. It wasn't important anyway.

First, he set the helm controls to head them out system. Half-impulse was fast enough. Next he set up a cascade failure in the navigational computer. Once the console lights were blinking rapidly, warning of imminent collapse, Tom turned his attentions to the comm system. The logs from all of The Eye of the Prophet's journeys had to be totally erased; Tom had no way of knowing how many Maquis strongholds the ship may have visited long before Ro had started to fly it.

Finally, when the entire console was glittering with blinking warning lights that the pilot had to grit his teeth to ignore, it was time to dump the warp core. Tom's fingers flew across the controls. The entire ship thunked solidly as the core was released.

Now that they were headed outsystem in a disabled ship without navigational systems or communications, the only way that Tom and this Garinta would survive would be if Starfleet were to show up. Or the Cardassians. In his present mood, the Cardassians might be better. They would probably kill him quickly once they recognized the ruse.

Tom turned back to Garinta. He could no longer delay the inevitable. His last act of sex, possibly for the rest of his life, would be with a woman who disgusted him. His just desserts, perhaps, for his own behavior for the last three years. The woman was looking at him oddly, however. He peered into her face. "Do I know you from some place?"

"I know I did you before, Sweetie, but I just haven't been able to remember when we . . . wait a minute. You!" she shrieked. "The blue eyed pauper! I thought we'd ended you! Stole my liquor money on me, you did!" She raised her hands and started swinging at him.

Grabbing onto the bar above the helm chair, Tom punched the gravity control buttons. As Garinta launched herself across the craft, she suddenly lost her footing at the loss of gravity and shot across the vehicle, screaming all the while. Tom's grip on the bar helped him control his own movements, but the hand of the angry prostitute/thief caught him on the mouth as she flew by him, cutting a gash across his lip. Her head landed on the support strut next to the viewscreen, partially knocking her out. Although Garinta bounced a bit from wall to wall, she was no longer a profanely cursing missile headed straight for Tom.

The whine of the transporter a few seconds later was almost a welcome sound. The Starfleet security guards were rougher than he had expected, perhaps because of the unexpected zero gravity conditions. In seconds, however, Tom found himself face down on the floor, normal gravity restored, with the full weight of a security man on his spine. Tasting his own salty blood in his mouth, Tom resignedly listened to the words, "You are under arrest for treason."

*******

"It's not her, I tell you."

"But you said she would be dressed like a vedek."

Commander Wilton looked at Ensign Farhourtka with an amused air. "Do you have any idea how many vedeks there are on Delistor II, let alone in this sector? This is not Ro Laren, I tell you, vedek robes or not. This fine specimen of humanity, however, is the pride of Caldik Prime, Thomas Paris. How wonderful to make your acquaintance, Mr. Paris. Mr. Admiral's Son Thomas Paris. So you landed with the Maquis, too. Why am I not surprised?"

"What are you talking about, Commander? I've been studying Bajoran religion with the vedeks of . . . "

"Don't bother, Paris. You're a Maquis, too. We have information that proves it without a doubt. You aided and abetted the escape of a deserter from Starfleet, former Lieutenant Ro Laren, former Lieutenant Paris. That Eye ship will yield lots of DNA evidence linking you with Ro. Lying is a waste of breath."

"I don't deny I was with Ro. We're old friends from the Academy. She rescued me from the streets of Delistor when I was beaten up a month ago, and she's been caring for me from then on. Ro's a vedek, now. Check with the landlady, Lalley, in the boarding house at the edge of the 'port warehouse district. They'll tell you. Vedek Larys is known for her good works there. I was working myself in the . . . "

"Shut up, Paris. You've been seen consorting with the Maquis. Your ass is ours."

Any other choice comments the commander had for him were never heard by Tom. The interrogation was interrupted by a young lieutenant, resplendent in his red and black uniform, who entered the brig. Looking distastefully at the scowling prostitute and a grim-faced Tom, the lieutenant said, "Commander Wilton, a Cardassian ship is hailing us. Gul Evek is demanding custody of the prisoners for crimes against Cardassia."

Wilton laughed mirthlessly. "Tell the Gul that their interest in the prisoners is duly noted, but that their source will just have to be a bit quicker to notify them next time. Oh, and you can also tell them that the 'Big One' got away."

Turning back to Tom after the lieutenant's departure, the commander sneered, "Of course, sending this 'Little Fish' to prison will be very satisfying to me, personally. Lock him up, Ensign. And put his paramour in her own cell."

As Ensign Farhourtka pushed the controls that locked Tom up in his cell, he was silent. They really hadn't had a chance. Not just one leak -- at least two sources were sending out information: one to the Federation, the other to the Cardassians. Tom did not bother to speculate on whom they might be. What did it matter to him now? He was caught, and he would rather not think about what was going to happen to him, or about anything else, except that Laren and the others had apparently gotten away. At least he could be grateful for that.

Anyone looking at Tom would have had trouble ascertaining his true feelings. His face bore a smirk, the kind Tom Paris could almost sustain in his sleep. His heart ached, though; and the pit of his stomach was sore from clenching the muscles tightly to keep his carriage proudly erect, his arrogant posture a match for the expression on his face. As the forcefield of his cell in the brig shimmered brightly, beginning his incarceration for who knew how long, Tom's mind was on Ro. Be safe, Laren, just be safe.

He walked to a wall of the cell and leaned against it, both hands high above his head. Closing his eyes, he called up her image to his mind. Beautiful Laren. He was sore in heart, remembering her, recalling one thing he wished he'd done.

My God, Laren, I forgot to ask you to smile for me. Just one more time, to smile. You never smiled enough.

*******

"Ro, aren't you ready? Chakotay is leaving in twenty minutes! You have to come now!"

The Bajoran looked up at B'Elanna Torres as she whirled in, a dynamo of energy and ferocity. Ro would miss her.

"I'm not going with you to Langaredoc, B'Elanna. I'm taking the freighter back to Bajor. I have some unfinished business there." Ro picked up the last of the clothing in her bottom drawer and threw it into a large duffel. B'Elanna looked at it in surprise. Men's underwear. The half-Klingon shook her head.

"You aren't bothering to take his stuff, are you? He's not coming back, you know."

Ro shook her head sadly, a short sound that could be either a chuckle or a sob issuing from her throat. "Oh, yes, B'Elanna, how well I know he won't be back. He'll be spending the next couple of decades in prison, serving my sentence." When Ro's eyes met B'Elanna's, the engineer saw that they were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying. But Ro Laren never cried. Ro had said it herself -- she never cried.

"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Ro. Chakotay is sure that he was a spy. That's why we're bugging out of here!"

"A spy. Chakotay still thinks he's a spy, after all that's happened? By All the Prophets, B'Elanna! If he were a spy, the Federation would have arrived hours ago and cleaned us out of here! Why can't he see that!" Ro's forehead was furrowed in irritation.

"Seska said that he was a drunk and a womanizer . . . "

Ro interrupted B'Elanna forcefully. "Seska says a lot of things that are complete crap, Torres. Watch your back around her. She's a snake, I swear by the Prophets. She'll do something to destroy you all some day if you aren't careful."

"Ro, I know you're upset. He was your friend. But taking it out on Seska isn't going to help. Come with us, Ro; forget about him. He isn't worth it. We could use your help. You're a good pilot."

"So was he, B'Elanna."

B'Elanna silently cursed at herself for being so hard on Ro. She obviously loved the bum. Seska had admitted to that. Even if Paris had been a total pig, Ro's feelings should be respected. Would she ever learn to control this wild Klingon side of hers?

The Bajoran was not really upset with the engineer, however; what B'Elanna had said barely registered. Ro's heart was heavy, missing Tom. She turned back to her packing. One more shelf, then she could go to the freighter, go home to Bajor. Vedek Bariel had offered her sanctuary when she was struggling with her conscience while undercover against the Maquis. Ro would take him up on it now. He was a good man, true to his word, unlike some vedeks that she had known. If anyone could help her out of the morass that was her life, he could.

Holding the satchel up to the shelf, Ro scooped off the contents into the bag. Odds and ends, mostly. A few data padds. One, she noted, did not appear to be hers. After the shelf had been cleared, Ro sat down on the stripped bed and poked around in the bag, finally locating the odd one she had not recognized. Ro did not recall borrowing one from anyone since coming to the Maquis.

Then, it hit her: Tom. B'Elanna was still chattering to her about coming with her to the next Maquis hideout when Ro turned the padd on. It was a list. "Watering Hole: 25 credits, 15 paid. Coranda Rest: 43 credits, 20 paid. Tidiliclickso Room: 28 credits. 17 paid. Latinum Shrine: 21 credits, 18 paid . . .

Ro stared at the padd for a long time, digesting the contents. The Latinum Shrine, credits owed, credits paid. "Bar bills. His debts. That's what he wanted to be paid for. So he could pay his damned bar bills at places he would never go to again! Tom, you idiot! Tom!" Her heart cried out louder than her voice did as something broke inside of her. A torrent of feelings that had long been buried within her erupted, torn free by the honorable act of a man of worth she could never expect to see in this life again.

As Ro began to cry, hoarse, wracking sobs coming from a throat that hadn't known how to make those sounds in almost twenty years, B'Elanna backed up a step. She had never been good around this kind of raw emotion. This was incredible -- Ro Laren crying! And over a man who was a mercenary, without any principles he was willing to fight for -- only fighting for the money to pay off his bar tabs!

B'Elanna did feel somewhat uneasy as she recalled that her own escape had been achieved at the cost of his capture; but it wasn't as if someone she knew had been caught. And Chakotay was sure he had been an agent. Chakotay knew about these things, while Torres was not knowledgeable about stuff like this. Warp cores were more her style.

Confused, B'Elanna did not know what to do at that moment. She knew that she could not leave Ro like this, but she had no idea what to do for her, either. "Ro, are you OK? I'm going to have to go now myself. Ro?" B'Elanna gingerly touched the shoulder of the crying Bajoran woman, who turned her tear-stained face toward the engineer.

Gasping for breath, Ro grasped B'Elanna's hand to hold her near until she had smeared the back of her hand over her face to wipe away most of the tears and had calmed down enough to tell her in a broken voice, "B'Elanna, I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to get to know you better. You're a good kid. Remember what I said about Seska. And help Chakotay. He's just too trusting. He's got a blind spot about Seska. He'll need to have someone like you around."

Relieved that Ro seemed to be getting a grip on herself, B'Elanna nodded her head. "I will. I have to go now, Ro. Are you sure you're going to be all right?"

"Yes, B'Elanna, I'll be OK. And B'Elanna, can you give a message to Chakotay for me?"

"Sure I will. What is it?

"Tell him he was right. Tom Paris did break my heart. But tell him I was right, too. He said good-bye to me. He did it right. Can you tell Chakotay that for me?"

B'Elanna Torres tried to absorb the message as she left Ro's quarters and ran to Chakotay's ship. She did not remember Ro's message until later that night, but she relayed what she remembered of it to him. Ro had said to tell Chakotay that Tom had broken Ro's heart, but he'd done it the right way. B'Elanna was not sure what that meant, but she passed it on, hoping that the Maquis cell leader would know.

Before Ro Laren left Malagra, a few hours before Starfleet forces descended upon an abandoned Maquis outpost, she completed an errand.

Stopping by the Latinum Shrine, Ro paid the barkeep the last three credits Tom had owed for his bar bill.

*******

A month later, a message was delivered to Chakotay's rooms at the Maquis base at Langaredoc. It contained a newsnet description of the conviction of Admiral Owen Paris' only son, Thomas Eugene Paris, who had been cashiered from Starfleet for falsifying reports after a fatal shuttle crash. Young Paris had been given a sentence of seven to fifteen years at Auckland Rehabilitation Colony for the crime of treason. A known member of the terrorist group the Maquis, young Paris had been instrumental in the escape of a Starfleet deserter who was also wanted for treason. The newsnet piece included a visual log clip of Paris as he was led out of the courtroom, arms and legs encircled by electronic shackles. A man in the uniform of a Starfleet admiral was visible behind the convict, comforting a distraught, hysterically crying woman.

The message included a short addendum from Ro Laren: "So, do you still think he's a spy, Chakotay?"

The message was retrieved by Chakotay's housemate Seska, who smiled secretly to herself as she punched "delete."



***THE END***





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