This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
One of Odo’s maxims was that the harder someone tried to be inconspicuous, the more they should be watched. So the instant he spotted a cloaked figure leaving the Pacifica passenger liner, he decided that a bit of discreet surveillance was in order. The constable followed the stranger through customs and toward the Promenade.
Glancing around, Odo stretched his form up to the second level and quickly reformed into his everyday shape. The new vantage point would aid him greatly in tracking the suspect, and it would also keep him out of sight. With his unique appearance and reputation, a single glance back would have warned the stranger and caused her—the suspect was definitely female, based on the general body outline and gait—to change her plans and try to elude the constable. With the considerable crowd that was milling in the mercantile area, that tactic wouldn’t be too hard to execute and it would have a high probability of success. So for now Odo chose aerial surveillance.
The suspect stopped at a kiosk and purchased a treat. A glint of silver flashed from the shadows on the hood’s left side. Odo wondered if his quarry was Bajoran; earrings were generally worn on the right ear, but there were some, mostly exiles, who defied the traditional custom. Her robe’s color and style were similar to those worn the Ghenee, a small Bajoran sect. And the Ghenee were firm believers in keeping one’s face concealed as an act of humility toward the Prophets. Trouble was, the Ghenee also believed in cloistering themselves. Frowning, he strode to the next walkway and watched her pass below. She munched contentedly at her treat, apparently unaware of Odo’s surveillance.
She was heading toward Quark’s bar, which roused Odo’s suspicions and hopes. The Ferengi had been lying unusually low lately, a fact that had been gnawing incessantly at Odo. Experience had shown him that whenever a Ferengi seemed most innocent of wrongdoing, invariably the greedy alien was up to no good. Perhaps this furtive newcomer was on her way to deliver some priceless stolen artifact into Quark’s hands. Or she might provide him some inside information on a potential crime.
But no, the woman walked past the bar and continued down the corridor. Odo grunted in disappointment and continued his surveillance from his perch, wondering if perhaps he was getting a bit too suspicious of anything new or unusual around the station. Then again, years of trying to pin something, anything on that damnable Ferengi would drive the sanest man to paranoia...
The suspect walked into a shop. Odo scurried over to the side of the pathway and peered down. It was the ticket office for a shuttle service that flew back and forth between Bajor and DS9. There was a great deal of traffic between the planet and the station, enough to generate a strong competition between the companies; it was common practice for Bajorans to play one shuttle line’s rates against the others in hopes of getting the best possible price.
The woman emerged a few minutes later but instead of going to a competing service, she retraced her path and went into Quark’s. Odo smiled grimly and followed her until he was sure the woman was definitely going into the bar. Then he hurried toward the nearest staircase, descended, and walked into the office the suspect had just left.
A young woman sitting at the front desk looked up at him but did not smile. Few people were happy to see the constable drop by, given the implications of his sudden appearance. “A woman in a beige cloak and hood came in here a few minutes ago,” he said.
“Yes, she did,” replied the receptionist.
“What did she want?”
The clerk shrugged. “Passage on the next available shuttle to Bajor, the same as everyone else who comes here.”
Odo nodded thoughtfully. “Which flight will she be taking?”
“The next one—it leaves in about two hours. It’s heading for Telantra.”
“I see.” Odo started to leave, then turned around. “How did she pay for her ticket? Did she use a credit voucher?”
“No,” the clerk said, shaking her head. “She paid with cash.”
A slight stab of frustration passed through Odo, but he quickly dismissed it. “Thank you,” he said before leaving. “You’ve been of great help.” Sighing, he headed over to Quark’s bar and took a position directly opposite the entrance, then molded his form into the shape of an empty kiosk. All he could do now was watch and wait.
An hour and a half later, the hooded suspect left of the bar and walked briskly toward the shuttle docking bays. Odo shifted back into his normal appearance and followed close behind. Technically, Odo could not stop the woman and question her; there was, regrettably, no law against walking around the Promenade mysteriously. But on the other hand, once she entered that shuttle she would be beyond his jurisdiction. Odo realized that he was going to have to decide on a course of action, and quickly.
But just then, fate intervened. Miles O’Brien was walking toward them, his attention focused on a PADD report instead of where he was going. Most residents of the station knew of the Chief’s bad habit and would get out of his way; the suspect, however, continued on her collision course with the Starfleet officer, perhaps lost in her own reverie. As Odo watched, they smacked into each other and tumbled to the floor with a great deal of noise. In the melee the woman’s hood fell away; Odo hurried over, ostensibly to lend a hand, but the shocked, surprised look on O’Brien’s face made him pause. He was staring at the woman in disbelief, while she simply sat there with a pained expression on her face.
“Ro?” asked O’Brien. “Ro Laren? What the hell are you doing here?”
* * * * * *
“Odo to Kira.”
Major Kira Nerys lifted one baleful eye toward the ceiling and sighed; it never failed. “Kira here.”
“There’s someone in the holding cell that you need to see.”
Kira glared irritably at the ceiling. “Can it wait?” Sisko would have to go running off to that Starfleet conference on the Maquis, leaving her in charge and having to handle every little problem that came up. And just when she thought she’d get a few hours to herself, the Prophets sent another annoyance her way.
“Her name is Ro Laren.”
Kira’s eyes went wide with surprise as she jumped up into a sitting position. “You’re sure?”
“Everything matches her Starfleet profile,” Odo confirmed.
“All right,” Kira said. “I’ll be right down. Kira out.” She sat there a moment or two longer, turning this new turn of events over in her mind, then looked over to the other side of the bed and smiled tenderly. “Duty calls, I’m afraid,” she said gently.
“I understand,” Bareil said sleepily. “I was going to have to get up sooner or later anyway, so that I can lead the evening services. But,” he added ruefully, “I had been hoping for ‘later’ than ‘sooner’.” He pulled Kira down against him and kissed her long and slowly.
“Keep that up and we’ll both be late,” Kira warned as she reluctantly pulled away. She rolled off the edge of the bed and started to dress; Bareil propped himself on an elbow and watched her.
“So what is so important about this ‘Ro Laren’?” he asked.
“She’s a former Starfleet officer.” Kira looked at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her short-cropped hair. “Do I look all right?”
“You look...breathtaking,” Bareil assured her, smiling as he reached over and pulled her back to the bed, wrapping his arms around her waist from behind. “So what is so important about a former Starfleet officer that you have to leave this minute?”
“She deserted Starfleet a few months ago and joined the Maquis.” Kira turned around in his arms and kissed him. “See you later?”
“Do you have to ask?”
* * * * * *
Odo rose from behind his desk as Kira strode into his office and offered her a PADD. Jadzia Dax, the ranking Starfleet officer in Sisko’s absence, was standing nearby, studying their new arrival courtesy of the security monitors. “What’s her story?” she asked as she glanced at Odo’s report.
“She won’t say,” the constable replied. “In fact, she hasn’t said a word since she was brought in.”
Kira turned to Dax. “Have you contacted Starfleet yet?”
The Trill shook her head. “Things have been busy in Ops this afternoon. I thought it might be better if I came here and talked to her first, just in case she’s in on something Starfleet needs to know about.”
“All right. Well, let’s go and greet our new guest,” Kira said as she headed for the detention area, Dax following close behind. Ro was in the cell farthest from the door, sitting on her cot with her back to the wall and her eyes closed. She looked slightly thinner, a bit more worn and weary than the picture on the Starfleet warrant profile, and there was a tension drawn tightly across her features that Kira could not help but notice. Not surprising, really. Kira remembered a few times when she’d been captured by the Cardassians and had been given plenty of time to think about what was coming. The anticipation was almost as bad as the actual event.
Kira announced her presence by clearing her throat; Ro’s eyes opened slowly and focused on her visitors. “Well,” Kira said as she leaned against the interrogation table. “This is a very unexpected surprise, Ensign...oh, sorry. Lieutenant.” She pretended to consult the PADD. “ You went up in the world, didn’t you? My mistake.”
Ro sighed, rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and turned away from Kira. “Just bring the Starfleet security officers in here and get it over with, all right?”
“I’m Lieutenant Dax,” Jadzia said, stepping forward. “I’d like to know what you’re doing here first.”
“Especially since you haven’t set foot on Bajor in over twenty years,” Kira added.
Ro sighed heavily and leaned her head back against the cell wall. “I am not here on any Maquis assignment. This is something personal. You have my word on that.”
“Your ‘word’ doesn’t carry much weight these days, Lieutenant,” Kira pointed out. Dax winced and shot her friend a warning glare, then returned her attention to Ro. “Ro, I don’t have to tell you how much trouble you’re in. A little cooperation could go a long way at your hearing...”
“Court-martial,” Ro corrected sardonically. “No, Lieutenant, you don’t have to tell me. I’ve already been court-martialed once. I know the routine.”
“So you aren’t going to explain why you’re here?” Dax pressed.
“I told you, it’s personal. My friends think I’m scouting around for a new base of operations. They know nothing of this.”
“I see. Major, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll make that call to Admiral Nechayev.” Dax turned and walked out of the room, leaving the Bajorans alone. They regarded each other silently for some time, each sizing the other up. Kira had read Ro’s record—it was on the PADD Odo had given her—and quite frankly wasn’t very impressed. The only thing she seemed to be good at was abandoning her comrades unexpectedly...
Ro smiled at Kira. “Didn’t take them long, did it?”
“I beg your pardon?”
The renegade officer smiled slightly. “Starfleet. Didn’t take them very long to make you an obedient little servant. You or any of the other Bajorans here. Then again, you all probably got used to taking orders from the Cardassians, didn’t you?”
Kira’s face flushed, and she balled her fists, taking a step or two toward Ro’s cell, then she abruptly paused and smiled. “Nice try.”
“I wasn’t trying anything. Merely pointing out that there might have been a time, not too long ago, when you would have helped a fellow resistance fighter instead of turning them in.”
Kira snorted in derision. “I fought the Cardassians since I was old enough to hold a gun. You ran away from Bajor the first chance you got. You’re no ‘fellow resistance fighter’ in my book.”
“I’m fighting the Cardassians now,” Ro said quietly. “That doesn’t count?”
“Not really, no.” Kira turned to leave.
“Wait!” Ro rose to her feet and stood by the edge of the force field. “Is there a Vedek aboard the station?”
Kira turned slowly. “Yes.” There was an odd, ominous tingling in her stomach...
“Good. Then I wish to speak to him or her as soon as possible. I’m requesting Pahn-rasa.”
The major’s face tightened. “You can’t,” she said quickly.
“Any Bajoran can request Pahn-rasa, and you know it,” Ro said smugly. “And only a Vedek can choose to grant or deny it. So get your Vedek down here and let me submit to the test.”
* * * * * *
Kira found Dax and Odo behind the constable’s desk; the Trill was staring at his monitor screen and looking uncharacteristically frustrated. “I can’t believe this,” she muttered, her fingers flying over the panel controls. “I’ve never had so much interference getting an open line to Starfleet before...”
Kira took a deep breath. “We have a problem. Odo, I need you to bring Vedek Bareil here. He’s...” She flushed involuntarily. “He’s in my quarters,” she finished lamely. The shapeshifter regarded her curiously for a moment, then nodded and hurried out the door; Dax, on the other hand, had a bright, knowing smile on her face, one that only made Kira blush all the more.
“Nice going,” Dax said slyly, then sobered up. “What’s wrong?”
“Ro’s requested Pahn-rasa.” At Dax’s mystified gaze, she sat on the edge of the desk and explained. “It’s a very special form of...well, parole,” the Bajoran woman said. “Long ago, Bajor was divided into various sects of worshippers...a lot worse than what we have today, under one Kai,” she hastened to add upon seeing the amusement on Dax’s face. “Some of the schisms were pretty bloody, and feuds between factions were common. At the same time, though, we were still a very religious people, and every so often someone would have to make a pilgrimage to one of the temples. And sometimes that meant having to go through an enemy faction’s territory.
“So eventually a process developed where a pilgrim could be brought before a Vedek and his or her pagh examined. If the applicant was truly on a holy pilgrimage, the Vedek would proclaim him or her to be safe and free to pass through the land. If not...” Kira shrugged. “That’s how Pahn-rasa came about. That’s what Ro is claiming, and why Bareil has to come down here.”
Dax frowned. “And if Bareil finds she’s deserving? If he grants her this privilege?”
“Then, by Bajoran religious law, I have to...” Kira made a face “...release her.”
“Ro Laren is a wanted fugitive by Starfleet,” Dax began heatedly.
“This is a Bajoran station. Subject to Bajoran, not Federation laws,” Kira reminded her.
“Benjamin will have a fit if he finds out you let a Maquis agent go!”
“Do you think I want to?” At that moment Odo returned with Vedek Bareil, who looked somewhat rumpled and sleepy but as placid as ever. “Vedek, we have an applicant for Pahn-rasa,” Kira informed him.
“What?” Bareil said, gaping slightly. “But that’s...it’s been a long time since anyone’s claimed that.” But he quickly recovered and nodded to the two officers. “Very well. Constable, if you’ll accompany me, I will perform the judging of the applicant.” He nodded to Odo, who gestured towards the doorway leading to the holding area. Dax and Kira watched them leave, then glanced uneasily at one another.
A minute later Bareil returned, deep in thought. “Well?” Kira prompted.
The Vedek looked up. “Pahn-rasa has been granted,” he said simply, then walked out the door.
“Lovely,” moaned Dax. “Just lovely...” She put her head against her hands and groaned softly. “Now what?”
Kira had no immediate answer.
* * * * * *
Chief O’Brien was taking a slow walk around the Orinoco, carefully checking the exterior for any potential trouble spots. Admittedly, the bay crews had already given the runabout a thorough going-over, but the engineer in him insisted on a personal inspection. Besides, there was just something about these ships that made his heart leap every time he got saw one sitting there, just begging him to come over and take it out on a quick run around the station.
Mind you, he hadn’t the slightest idea what was going on—he’d been working on Lieutenant Dax’s perpetually broken molecular analyzer when Major Kira called and curtly ordered him to report to Docking Bay Two, no further explanation. He had his suspicions, of course—probably had something to do with Ro Laren’s unexpected appearance—but it would have helped to get some sort of idea. Keiko hated it when he worked late and didn’t tell her. And she’d arranged for Molly to stay with the Coreys tonight so that they’d have some time alone...
He glanced up from his pre-flight checklist and saw Kira approaching, Dax and Ro right behind her. None of the women looked particularly pleased, which boded ill. But what really surprised him was the lack of restraints on Ro—there wasn’t even a security escort! And when O’Brien suddenly noticed that the Bajoran officer had a tote bag slung over her shoulder, his confusion deepened even more. What the hell was going on? “All set to leave when you’re ready, Major,” he reported, struggling to contain his curiosity.
“Thank you, Chief,” Kira replied. She turned towards Ro and nodded toward the doorway of the Orinoco. “Go on in and get settled,” she said. “We’ll leave as soon as the checks are complete.” The renegade Starfleet officer nodded and hurried inside; once Ro had vanished from view, Kira turned back towards Dax. “We’ll make this as brief as we can,” she said almost pleadingly.
Dax shook her head. “I still don’t like this one bit.”
“I’ll be with her every minute we’re down there. Plus, Bashir’s subcutaneous transponder will track her down in no time if she tries anything. And as soon as we’re gone, you can notify Starfleet about the situation—when we get back, they can take her off our hands.” Kira sighed and bit her lip. “I’m really sorry about this, Dax, but under Bajoran law, I have no choice.”
“Benjamin is going to have a fit when he hears about this,” Dax said, but finally nodded. “Be careful, Kira.”
“I will. Chief?” O’Brien nodded and followed Kira into the runabout; Ro was hunched over the pilot’s console, her fingertips drifting over the controls as her eyes drank in every minute detail. A dark glare crossed Kira’s features as she cleared her throat.
Ro jumped and turned around, startled. “Sorry,” she said with a nervous smile. “I never got to fly one of these. I heard a lot of good things about them.”
“I’m sure the Maquis would just love to have a few,” Kira said curtly. Ro took the hint and headed over to a side console, which Kira wasted no time in shutting down from her co-pilot’s position. O’Brien took the main chair, and the two station officers quickly finished the preflight checklist. “Major, I need to enter a flight plan,” O’Brien said, calling up the standard route for the closest Starbase in anticipation.
“We’re going to Bajor,” Kira replied.
“What?” O’Brien yelped. “But...” He turned towards Kira, who had turned toward him and was gracing him with one of her “do you have a problem?” expressions. “Yes, sir,” he finished lamely. “Plotting course for Bajor.” He quickly cleared his original entry from the screen. “Specific destination?”
“Telantra,” Kira answered. O’Brien called up the preprogrammed flight plan from the computer and made a few adjustments, then gave everything a final once-over before nodding confirmation. “Orinoco to DS9, we’re ready for launch,” Kira announced.
“DS9 to Orinoco,” Dax’s voice returned. “You are clear for launch.” O’Brien guided the graceful craft off the landing pad and aimed it at Bajor. Ro stared in dumbfounded awe at the station’s harsh, angular beauty as the runabout performed a long arc around it before shooting towards Bajor.
The trip was made in silence, save for the occasional pilot patter between O’Brien and Kira. Ro said nothing but folded her arms around her chest and concentrated on the planet that was growing ever larger before them. She was almost grateful when they established orbit around Bajor.
“Here we are,” O’Brien announced. Ro and Kira rose from their seats and took positions beneath the transporter unit. “Ready when you are, Chief,” Kira announced. “We’ll contact you when we’re ready to come back.”
Ro smiled tentatively at O’Brien. “Good to see you again, Chief,” she said.
“Uh...yeah,” he nodded uneasily. Then came the sudden familiar tingle of transporting, and the women found themselves standing outside the main transportation terminal at Telantra. They turned toward one another and regarded each other uneasily.
Ro regarded her reluctant companion’s uniform. “Did you want to change clothes?”
Kira frowned. “What? Why?”
Ro shrugged and looked around. “Well, this is the western continent, and it’s summer. I just thought you’d be more comfortable in some lighter clothes.” Her long sleeveless skirt flapped about as a gust of warm wind played with the fabric.
“I’m fine,” Kira growled, wiping sweat from her forehead. “Let’s run this little errand of yours and get back to the station. What do we need to do?”
Ro squinted into the late afternoon sky. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Had I kept to my original schedule, I’d already be where I want to go.” She sighed and shook her head. “But even with a landrunner, we wouldn’t get there until long after dark.”
Kira’s mouth fell open. “Then why didn’t you tell O’Brien to take us to this mysterious destination of yours in the first place?” she demanded hotly.
Ro smiled. “Because I don’t like the idea of your being able to whisk me back into that cell any time you want. Besides—why didn’t you fly us here yourself and leave the runabout on autopilot until we were done?”
“Because I didn’t like the idea of going anywhere with a Maquis terrorist without any backup!” Kira didn’t feel obliged to add that since Sisko had taken the Rio Grande to the Starfleet conference, and the Ganges was undergoing routine maintenance, they were a bit short-handed in the transportation department. “Anyway,” Kira snapped, “since I’m stuck with you until this little quest of yours is finished, I think I’m entitled to know where we’re heading, don’t you?”
Ro shook her head; Kira opened her mouth to argue the point, but the renegade officer cut her off. “You’ll understand why when we get there.” She looked around and bit her lip. “Well, I guess we’d better rent a runner, then find a place to stay for the night. This is going to kill my savings...” She started walking toward the main terminal; Kira sighed in exasperation, wiped the sweat from her face again, and trudged after her.
As Ro led the way into the main port terminal, Kira shook her head tiredly. “There is no way you’re going to get any lodgings this late. Let’s just get the damned runner and go to this mysterious site. I don’t care how far away it is. I’ll help drive, I’ll push, I’ll carry you on my back, but for Prophets’ sake, let’s get this over with!”
Ro ignored her, walking over to a computer terminal and punching in her request for a two-seated landrunner. She frowned as something came up on the screen, then issued a few more requests, none of which brightened her expression. “Well, you were right about one thing,” she sighed as she turned toward Kira. “There’s a springball tourney going on in Telantra. All of the lodges are full, and every landrunner’s taken until tomorrow. We’re stuck.”
Kira rolled her eyes. “Lovely. Just lovely,” she groaned. “I knew this was a mistake. I should have just pretended that you’d never asked for Pahn-rasa and let Starfleet take you away...”
“A little less bile and a little more thinking would go a long way, you know,” Ro growled, finally losing her patience with her guardian.
Kira thought about it a bit, then bit her lip. “Let me make a call,” she finally said, a tone of great reluctance in her voice. “I might be able to persuade a friend to put us up for the night.”
* * * * *
“This,” Kira announced, “is Mullibok. Mullibok, this is Ro Laren.” And may the Prophets have mercy on me, she added silently as the burly old man in the doorway grinned delightedly and shook Ro’s hand heartily. While Kira was pleased to see her friend full of life and obviously thriving, the idea of putting him in the same arena with Ro was somehow disquieting.
“Come in, come in,” Mullibok urged, all but dragging Ro in and giving Kira an irascible grin, one that confirmed her worst suspicions. “Make yourselves at home,” he urged, waving his hands around the spacious, cluttered house. “I was just starting on dinner when I got your call. Should be done soon, if I got the recipe right.”
“I hope we’re not putting you to any inconvenience,” Ro said, pushing a pile of wrinkled clothes off a chair before sitting down. Kira for her part was making a slow reconnaissance around the room, clucking in disapproval as a finger run across the fireplace mantle built up a small mountain of dust. The place looked as though a tornado had roared through then suddenly vanished, dropping everything into utter disarray. Typical old bachelor, she thought to herself as she shook her head and moved on.
“Inconvenience? Nah.” Mullibok sat down beside Ro and began to whittle away at a vegetable. “You kidding? My neighbors just saw two beautiful women come in here, and they’ll keep watching to see when you leave. I’m gonna be the most envied man around here for the next two weeks.” He looked up and glanced over at Kira, who had picked something up from a corner of the room and was studying it intently. “Say, did she tell you about the tree yet?” he said to Ro in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
“No, I don’t believe so,” Ro said, glancing nervously at Kira.
“Well, see, when she was a little girl, there was this ugly old tree outside her window, and no matter what she did she couldn’t get it to budge. So she set it on fire and transplanted what was left of it on Bajor...”
“Mullibok!” Kira yelled from across the room. “Enough with the tree.”
“Well, I thought it was a nice little story, myself,” the old man finished, flashing an unrepentant wink at Ro. He examined his collection of vegetables critically. “Hmmm. You think this is enough for three, Laren?”
She blinked in surprise at his use of her name. “I...I suppose so.”
“Good, good.” He began picking up the vegetables one by one, giving them a critical final examination before tossing them in his stew pot. “Hard for me to tell sometimes. I don’t get much company these days. Oh, every now and then I’ll invite one of the ladies in the neighborhood over for dinner...”
Suddenly Kira marched over to the table and flung a large white bundle down on it. Ro’s eyes widened as she realized what it was—a woman’s brassiere, one of decidedly impressive dimensions. “Well?” Kira demanded imperiously.
Mullibok looked at the lingerie, then at Kira, and shrugged. “Sometimes they stay for dessert.”
* * * * *
Dinner had started out awkwardly, but the old man teased and flirted shamelessly with Ro, eventually drawing her out of her quiet and even getting Kira to smile a few times. After dessert, Kira had gone outside, returning a few minutes later with a look of grim satisfaction on her face. Ro sighed softly and worked on her second piece of sharok pie.
“Problem?” Mullibok rumbled under her breath.
“She’s probably checking to see if I can slip out of here tonight and leave her behind,” Ro replied.
“Why?” he asked. “Not that I wouldn’t blame you, the way she can be sometimes...” Ro shook her head and smiled, but declined to elaborate, especially since Kira chose that moment to return to the table. Not long afterwards, Ro pleaded exhaustion and went to bed, leaving Mullibok and Kira alone for the first time that night.
Mullibok sat in an oversized chair by the fireplace and watched Kira fold his now-clean laundry into neat little piles. “I can’t believe you live like this,” she grumbled as she placed the final pile of clothing on the dining table. “You need a woman around here.” She heard his deep rumbling chuckle and shook her head. “For more than that, Mullibok.”
“Hey, they come in here, see what a slob I am, and take pity on me,” the old man grinned. “And once they get a bite of my sharok pie...”
“It was delicious,” Kira admitted as she sat down in a chair opposite his. They stared into the fire for some time, content to let the silence grow. “It’s good to see you,” she finally said.
“Yeah,” Mullibok nodded. “I’ve been wondering how you’ve been.”
“I’ve meant to come,” she apologized with a pleading look. “But things get so busy up on the station, I never seem to have enough time for anything.”
“Ah, it’s okay,” he said with a wave of dismissal. He glanced toward the closed guest room door. “So what’s the story with Laren?”
Kira sighed. “That’s a very long story that I’m not sure I want to tell.”
“I take it she’s not exactly an ‘old friend’ of yours,” he commented.
“No, she’s not.” Kira got up and went to the kitchen to fix herself some tea. “She’s a former Starfleet officer who defected to the Maquis.”
Mullibok raised an eyebrow as he considered the information. “So why’s she here instead of a security cell?”
“Because she claimed Pahn-rasa for some damned quest of hers, and Vedek Bareil had to grant it.” Kira grit her teeth as she saw the sudden interest in Mullibok’s eyes, and she wondered how much gossip about DS9 he’d heard—or how much gossip about the Vedek had been flying around on Bajor.
“Bareil?” the old man mused. “Lucky for Laren he happened to be on the station, hmmm? I hear he’s been making a lot of trips up there lately...”
“Mullibok,” she pleaded, “enough. I’m tired and I’m not in the mood.”
“All right, all right,” he chuckled. He stared into the fire for a few moments before speaking again. “So she’s on a religious quest, and you’re here to make sure she doesn’t escape along the way.”
“So what happens when she finishes this quest?”
Kira bit her lip. “Then...I take her back to the station and remand her to Starfleet’s custody.”
“Just like that.”
“Well, yes.” Kira glanced over at the old man. “She’s a deserter,” she said tightly. “She abandoned Starfleet and joined a terrorist organization...”
“...which is fighting the Cardassians,” Mullibok finished. “You and she ought to get along, Nerys. You’ve got a lot in common.”
“We have nothing in common!” she snapped. “I’ve fought for Bajor all my life. She escaped a work camp and ran straight for the Federation, and ended up getting a court martial for some botched-up assignment! And then she got a second chance to prove herself, and just as quickly abandoned Starfleet for the Maquis! I never abandoned my comrades or my duty, no matter what! Never!”
Mullibok nodded to himself. “I thought you didn’t care for Starfleet too much, Nerys.”
She opened her mouth to reply, then caught herself. “I...see things a little differently, now.”
“Maybe she does, too.” He let that sink in for a time, then smiled. “You know what I think, Nerys?”
“No, but you’ll undoubtedly tell me,” she sighed.
“I think Laren bugs you because you’re far more alike than you’d care to admit. There’s a part of you that understands why she’s with the Maquis, and you admire her for joining them, and you wish you could join them too.” He leaned toward her. “You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re hoping she finds away to get away from you, either.”
Kira snorted softly. “Right.”
“Suit yourself, Nerys.” The old Bajoran rose to his feet and stretched. “It’s late, and I’m an old man who needs his sleep, so I’m turning in. How about you?”
She shook her head. “I’m staying up...just in case.” She glanced over at the closed door to the guest room.
“Whatever. I’ll be up around sunrise to fix breakfast. Remind me if I forget to put on a robe, okay?”
The old man grinned lustily. “’Cause I sleep naked. Good night, Nerys.”
“Good night, Mullibok.” She waited until the old man had shut the door to his bedroom, then sighed and sat back in the chair, lost in thought as she stared into the flames dancing in the fireplace.
* * * * * *
Kira awoke to find herself curled up in the chair, wrapped in a heavy blanket. The fireplace was dark and cold now, the blackened wood smoldering quietly. Cursing herself for her weakness, she quickly rose to her feet and peered out the nearby window; to her relief, the runner was still there. She heard a pair of voices coming from the dining room, and so, running her fingers quickly through her hair, she threw her shoulders back and walked into the room as nonchalantly as she could.
Ro and Mullibok were sitting at the table eating breakfast. From the look of things, they’d been up for some time and had been having a fine old time without her. Mullibok drank a deep gulp of juice and suppressed a belch. “About time you got up,” he commented. “Laren’s all set to go, but she says she can’t leave without you.”
Kira’s eyes scanned the table: eggs, polaku sausages, bread, cheese and fruit. Her stomach growled in anticipation as she sat down opposite Ro. “Good thing she didn’t leave,” she commented as she filled her plate. “Then I’d be stuck here with you all day, Mullibok, and what would your girlfriends do then?”
“Spy on us and gossip, probably,” Mullibok replied. “Now that I think about it, though...you sure you two have to leave today? My rep could use the boost around here.” Kira smiled and shook her head, choosing instead to attack her meal. Nothing else was said for a time as everyone concentrated on eating. Then the old man looked at Kira. “Just how well do you know Vedek Bareil?” he asked.
Kira glanced up from her plate. “Why?” she managed to squeak evenly.
“No real reason. You were just saying his name in your sleep when I put that blanket around you, that’s all.” Nearby, Ro sipped at her juice and tried to hide a smile.
Kira felt her cheeks growing red-hot. Damn, she thought to herself. “I’ve...met Vedek Bareil, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Huh.” Mullibok leaned closer. “He’s the good looking one, isn’t he?”
“I suppose he might be considered handsome,” Kira conceded.
“You sweet on him?” the old man asked.
That did it. “No, I’m not ‘sweet on him’!” she shouted. “Vedek Bareil is a very religious, very honorable man! He saved my life during that mess with the Circle and helped us out when we needed assistance. He’s very nice, and yes, he is handsome, but I am NOT. SWEET. ON. HIM.” She shot the old man her most scathing glare and finished her tirade with a very audible snort.
Mullibok glanced at Ro. “I think she’s sweet on him. What do you think?”
“That is ENOUGH!” Kira yelled. She rose to her feet and threw her napkin down, then turned toward Ro. “I’ll be waiting outside. Finish up and let’s get this damned thing over with!” Ignoring Mullibok, she then turned smartly on her heel and stormed out the front door.
Mullibok watched her go, then grinned and resumed eating. “I think she’s sweet on him,” he chuckled.
* * * * *
Kira tried to ignore the steady blast of hot wind slapping her face and squinted toward the horizon as Ro guided the runner toward her secret destination. Even with sunshades over her eyes, the relentless glare of the sun made her instinctively furrow her brow. The air was arid and dusty, parching both her lungs and her throat, and as she sipped at her drink Kira again thanked the Prophets that she’d had the foresight to buy it at lunch, along with the lighter, more appropriate clothing she now had on in lieu of her uniform.
Lunch seemed like an eternity ago; the desert could do that, make time stretch out like an elongated elastic band. Kira remembered times with the Shakaar when the afternoons seemed to drag on forever as they waited for nightfall and the chance to attack. And there were days in the work camps when only the monotonous routine kept her from going insane under the sun, the heat, and the Cardassians who never let her out of their sight.
Cardassians, she thought to herself. Something had been tugging at her memories for the last hour or so, something connected to those soulless bastards. Frowning, she tried to remember the Shakaar mission planning meetings, tried to recall if anything important to the Cardassians was in this region...
And suddenly everything seemed to fall into a neat little picture for Kira. She turned toward Ro, whose gaze was fixed straight ahead. “Just where in the hell are we going?” she yelled over the roar of the wind, wishing again that they’d been able to rent a runner with a roof.
“There,” Ro replied. She removed one hand from the controls and pointed, and Kira gasped as her guess was confirmed. There it sat, a forlorn, abandoned outpost in the middle of nowhere, seemingly forgotten by the universe save for its name...and its reputation.
“Teracco.” Kira shivered in the heat as the name slipped past her lips.
Ostensibly Teracco was a Cardassian mining camp, but the mines had long since been stripped barren. But the place still had its uses—most notably, it was the perfect place to work Bajorans to death. So the Cardassians kept Teracco as a going concern, and as each laborer collapsed and died, the body was thrown into a huge empty pit. And when the pit became full or the smell of rotting bodies became too great, the hole was covered with dirt and a new hole dug. There were many mass graves at Teracco; the camp had done its grisly work well.
The Bajoran Resistance had long wanted to liberate Teracco, but it was so far out in the desert that air assaults could easily be detected and stopped, and ground assaults would have required far too much planning and allocation of resources. So easier targets were hit, and Teracco continued unmolested. There were a few escapes, here and there, but the Cardassians never went after them—there was no point in it. The sun and the land would kill the escapees just as quickly, and frankly it was far too much work for so little profit. Just another body in the pit, so far as they were concerned.
When the Cardassians finally left Bajor, they left Teracco as well, simply taking what they wanted and leaving everything else behind with the few Bajorans who were still alive in the camp. Unfortunately, among the things they’d taken were all the food and water. Of the five dozen Bajorans who were still alive when their captors abandoned the camp, only a handful were left when the Resistance finally arrived.
The provisional government didn’t know what to do with Teracco. Some wanted it razed to the ground, others wanted it kept as a memorial. But there were far more important priorities—food, water, clothing, and of course, power. The fate of one deserted death camp in the middle of nowhere simply wasn’t that important. So Teracco continued to sit in the desert, abandoned save for the ghosts of its dead.
Until now. Ro had stopped the runner just in front of the main gate; she got out, picked up a rock and casually tossed it through the opening. “No force fields on,” she said.
“There wouldn’t be,” Kira replied. “The Resistance shut down all the power relays when they liberated the place. Cut down on potential booby-traps. The Cardassians had all kinds of surprises lined up in their other camps.”
Kira shook her head. “No need.” She turned toward Ro. “Why are we here? What’s so important that you would risk being caught and imprisoned for it?”
Ro lifted a hand to her eyes and squinted at the sun. “It’s going to be dark soon,” she said. “Let’s have dinner now, then go inside. I’ll explain everything then.” At Kira’s exasperated sigh she added, “I promise.”
* * * * * *
“I’m waiting for that explanation,” Kira said. They were walking slowly toward the southern edge of Teracco, where a long line of mounds was coming into view. The sun was sinking lower and lower into the horizon, and with it sank the temperature. It was pleasant now, but the evening air held the promise of brisk cold.
Ro nodded and sighed. “It’s a long story. I’ll try and keep it brief.” She stopped and looked back at Kira. “I’m here to perform the Chant for my father.”
“Here?” Kira echoed surprised. “You went to all this trouble just to chant....” Realization suddenly struck her. “You mean that you...”
“My father and I were imprisoned at Teracco, yes.” Ro glanced at the battered, weatherworn shacks behind her. “I wasn’t more than seven. We came here and we worked every day in the desert, until one day one of the officers took me into a room where my father was being held. And I watched his men beat my father to death.”
Ro’s voice was soft, almost whispering. “They probably just threw his body into one of the graves; it was their standard operating procedure. And of course no one chanted. It wasn’t permitted. Might take someone away from work.
“The same officer who’d allowed me to watch his men kill my father took an ...interest in me. Not long after, he was transferred to another work camp off-planet. The Gul in charge there took a dim view of his new subordinate’s...tastes and sent him back to Cardassia Prime. I was tossed in with the other Bajorans. Eventually I saw a chance to escape, and I took it.”
Kira shook her head. “You could have returned to Bajor. Why didn’t you?”
Ro laughed. “For one, I was on a freighter bound for one of the non-aligned worlds. I couldn’t be choosy about where I was going.” Her face grew somber. “Besides, there was nothing left for me on Bajor except bodies and memories. And the Resistance was a joke.” She glanced over at Kira, who was frowning. “What did you accomplish, really and truly?”
“We had our moments,” Kira said quietly.
“Moments. But everyone knew you couldn’t win. I didn’t want to be on the losing side again. So when the opportunity presented itself, I requested and got asylum with the Federation, and eventually wound up in Starfleet.”
“And got yourself in trouble.”
Ro gave that odd sardonic smile of hers. “Word gets around, I see. Yes, I got in trouble. But that’s in the past, and I don’t believe in dwelling in the past—not now.”
“Then why are we here?” Kira demanded softly.
Ro glanced up at the sky and started walking again, heading toward one of the taller mounds. “Not too long ago, I had an experience where I thought I’d died. Turns out I hadn’t, but it got me to thinking about our faith. So I began to study, trying to pick up everything I’d been taught and go farther with it. It felt good. For the first time in my life, I started feeling like a real Bajoran.” She glanced back at her companion. “Not that you’d agree, of course.” Kira bit her lip and said nothing, merely followed as Ro reached the top of the mound. The sun had just about finished setting, and the sky was now a mixture of colors as the stars and moons began to appear. Ro took in the view for a few moments before speaking again.
“When I infiltrated the Maquis, I met a man named Macias. He was a kind, old man who smiled and joked around a lot, and he had this taste for spicy Bajoran food.” She smiled at the memory. “He took me under his wing, made me feel at home. He even conned me into fixing him dinner one evening.” Ro’s grin faded slowly. “He trusted me. Said that when one person left, another would take their place. And here I am, a Starfleet spy, learning all their secrets so I could betray them later, and this old man trusts me.” Her gaze fell to the dirt at her feet.
“And?” Kira quietly prompted.
Ro’s head snapped back up. “And …he was killed during a Cardassian sneak attack on the base.” She bit her trembling lip and took a deep breath before she continued. “I didn’t really know him that well. I didn’t know him at all. But when he died in my arms that evening, I cried. I cried all night. I cried for him as I’d never cried for my father. And so I sat on the floor of my room and I performed the Bajoran Death Chant for Machias.
“And when I was done, I realized that I had chanted for someone I’d known just for a brief time, but never for my father.” She looked at Kira. “There are some faiths that believe the Chant serves to release a pagh from the body as well as honor the dead. The more I thought about it, the more it gnawed at me. Finally, I decided to come back to Bajor and do my duty, as a daughter...and as a Bajoran. And that’s why we’re here.” She sighed. “Told you it was a long story. Pretty stupid reason, huh?”
Kira looked away. “No. It’s not stupid. Not at all.”
Ro sighed again and sat down lotus-style atop the mound. “This might take a while,” she said a bit too loudly, as she’d been doing all along—as if the volume might keep the ghosts at bay. “You might want to get some blankets from the runner.” And then she paused, took a deep breath, and began the Chant.
The syllables poured out from her like water, rushing out into the night sky and echoing through the emptiness that surrounded her. Ro felt them leave her one by one, and yet they filled her as well, making her feel as though she could keep this up for all eternity. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness in her voice; the Chant had become her, and to release it into the night seemed like the only logical thing to do. Ro let her heart fly with her voice and became one with her world—scarred, scared, but determined to heal no matter how long it took.
It took the longest time for her to realize that she did not chant alone.
* * * * * *
The next morning, they returned to Telantra. Silence filled the runner all the way back. Both Ro and Kira knew what was going to happen—what had to happen—but neither of them wanted to destroy the tentative bond by speaking. So they stared straight ahead at the growing outline of the city and remained quiet.
They reached the main terminal by midday, and Kira watched as Ro returned the runner and paid the rental fee. The dark-haired woman paused at the desk and eyed Kira momentarily, then sighed, squared her shoulders and rejoined her companion. “Well, that’s taken care of,” she said a bit too breezily. “Time to go back?”
Kira nodded and gestured toward the communications center. They walked side by side in awkward silence. Then Ro glanced briefly at the ceiling. “I...wanted to thank you.”
“It’s no problem,” Kira said, her eyes fixed on the commline cubicles.
“I know this hasn’t been easy for you, but I appreciate your letting me do this.”
“I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
“Last night you did.” Kira turned her head to look at Ro, her face unreadable. Ro didn’t let it deter her. “Thank you.” The Bajoran officer nodded and guided her companion-now-prisoner over to the main desk. “I need a commlink to Deep Space Nine,” she ordered curtly. The receptionist nodded and directed her to a cubicle in the far corner of the center. Kira let Ro take the lead as they walked to the enclosed area.
And then Kira gently nudged Ro out of the way and entered the tiny room first.
Ro seized the opportunity.
When Kira’s head exploded into consciousness ten minutes later, Ro was long gone.
* * * * *
Back on the station, Kira sat on the biobed and tolerated both Bashir’s and Sisko’s examinations. “You mean to tell me you turned your back on a Maquis agent?” the station commander declared angrily.
“I was tired,” Kira said simply. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Please hold still, Major,” Bashir said. “This is quite a lump you’ve got, and I want to make sure I get it all.” Kira winced as his probe touched a sensitive area, but obeyed the physician’s order. Sisko looked exhausted; he must have left the conference the instant Dax had told him about the Ro situation. That meant that he and Jake didn’t get any time together, either. Kira felt a twinge of guilt but said nothing further.
“Will she be all right?” Sisko asked Bashir.
“Well, I’d prefer she take the day off—while there’s no concussion, a blow to the head can scramble things a bit until the brain’s had time to recover. But yes, she’ll be all right.” Bashir favored her with a smile and offered a hand to help her off the biobed; Kira waved him away and did it herself.
“If you wouldn’t mind, Commander, I would like to take today off,” she said. “I’m tired and frankly, my head does hurt.” Bashir lifted his hypospray and raised his eyebrows in an unspoken offer; this time Kira nodded and accepted. A quick hiss later, her headache had shrunk to more tolerable levels.
Sisko nodded curtly toward the door. Kira followed him as they left the infirmary and walked through the bustling Promenade. The commander was silent until they reached a turbolift and went inside. “I’m not happy about this,” he said quietly. “Starfleet is livid.”
“Good thing I’m not a Starfleet officer,” she replied.
Sisko glanced over at her, then sighed. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“I...am sorry she got away, sir,” Kira began.
He silenced her with a look that could freeze the sun. “No, you’re not. No more than I was to see Cal Hudson escaping.” At that moment the turbolift reached Ops, and Sisko prepared to exit. “You have the rest of the day off, Major. I expect to see your report by the end of your shift tomorrow,” he ordered quietly.
Kira nodded and watched him leave; Dax, sitting at her post, looked up and smiled at Kira. She returned the smile, and then Ops vanished as the turbolift descended. Kira got off at the Promenade upper level and headed for the habitat ring, but she paused at one of the many windows that lined the outer walls of the station and stared out into the stars for a very long time.
“Walk with the Prophets, Ro Laren,” she said quietly, then turned and headed for her cabin.