Battles


Thanks to Marianne, Michele and Junior for the beta reading.  Special thanks to Marianne and Michele for the endless story bouncing that helped me get this one done.

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive scenes.

As always, they belong to Paramount.  Except for K'Leena, Lucas, Kyle and Robbie.

___________________________________________________________


Klingon Hearts--Enterprise

Battles--The Ones You Lose

by: Tracy L. Sobieski



"Oh, hell!" Commander Tom Paris swore vehemently.  "Red Alert!  All hands to battle stations!  Captain to the bridge!"

"What's the matter, Helmboy?  Aren't you happy to see me?"

Tom glared at the female Q.  He didn't need this today.  Half the ship's systems were down due to the gel-pack conversion, Command was all over him because of the incident with the Zularians and B'Elanna was still mad about the damn t-shirt.  

Tom Paris had one hell of a headache. He was in no mood for Q-games.

Captain Riker stalked out of his ready room.  "Who the hell are you?!" he barked at the stunning woman sprawled in his chair.  

The statuesque red-head wore a Starfleet uniform and a wicked smile.  Raising an eyebrow she stood up slowly.  

"I see Q wasn't exaggerating for once in his miserable existence...," she said imperiously.  "You -are- more annoying than Helmboy here.  If I didn't have more important matters to deal with this could almost be fun."

"Well,"  Tom drawled, crossing his arms in front of him and leaning back against the console.  "Don't let us keep you from your hair appointment."

Riker struggled to keep the grin off his face.  Leave it to Paris to insult a Q.

With careful deliberation she turned back to Tom.  "I do so enjoy your company, Blue-eyes," Q replied with an evil smile.  "Where is that charming wife of yours, by the way?"

The Commander's eyes narrowed.  "Are you here for a reason?  Or is this a social visit?  Because my schedule is pretty full this week.  Maybe I can squeeze you in sometime later next month?"

Will groaned silently.  This is it.  We're all going to die because my first officer is a smart ass.

The Q threw her head back and laughed, much to Riker's surprise.  She glanced over at the captain.

"Staff meeting, boys," she chuckled gleefully and snapped her fingers.

An instant later the entire Senior Staff was seated around the Briefing Room table.  Q had commandeered the captain's regular spot.

B'Elanna bolted out of her chair in shock.

"What the hell...?"

"Settle down, my dear," the Q told her in a bored, condescending tone.  "This won't take but a minute."

Tom cringed inwardly when B'Elanna took a step toward their uninvited guest.

"I should have known," the chief engineer sighed dramatically.  "What's the matter?  Q run off with a younger, prettier omnipotent and leave you home alone?"

<<B'Elanna!>>

Commander Torres turned to her husband, her face one of complete innocence.

"What?"

"Enough!" Captain Riker exploded.  "Commander, sit down!"  Will waited for B'Elanna to reseat herself before continuing.  "What is going on?"

"I'm here to deliver a message," Q told them.

"A message?"  Tom almost snorted.  Things were never that simple with the Q.

Will silenced his first officer with a look.

"What kind of message?" The captain asked.

"A warning," she replied.  "Things are not as they appear.  Lives are at stake and reality as you know it is in danger."

"Well, that's rather cryptic," Deanna Troi said, crossing her arms in front of her and leaning back in her chair.

Q met her intense, searching gaze with mocking arrogance.  

"Be careful where you tread, little empath.  I might just let you in," she warned ominously.  

Riker stiffened at the veiled threat to his wife.  "Back off, Counselor," he instructed her tersely.

"What's in this for you?" B'Elanna demanded.  "What are you getting out of 'helping' us?"

"Personally, I could care less," she told them honestly.  "But the Continuum feels it owes you.  It's a repayment of an old debt."

"So," Tom began thoughtfully.  "You're warning us out of the goodness of your heart?"  He didn't believe it for a micro-second.

"Listen, Helmboy," the Q drawled lazily.  "I don't much care what you believe.  I'm here to deliver a message.  Take heed, this is not a game.  If you don't understand what is happening, it will be over before you know it and then -nothing- can help you."

"All right then," Will said calmly.  "What's your message?"

Glancing down the length of the table, her gaze came to rest on Tom.

"When evil lurks and darkness reigns, it will be the new generation that will save you.  Don't let your narrow minds blind you to what -must- be done.  All will be lost if they cannot fulfill their destiny."

"That's it?!" Tom demanded.  "What the hell is that supposed to mean?!"

"When the time comes, you will know."

With a brilliant flash, she was gone and they were all back at their duty stations.

Will turned to his first officer.  "Do you believe her?"

"Hell, no," Tom told him without pause.  "A compassionate Q?  Not a chance.  I think the warning was genuine, but I don't buy her motives.  Something more is going on here.  I'd bet my life on it."

Will nodded in agreement.


*****

"Sir," the helmsman called to the captain.  "We're picking up a distress signal.  On an encoded Federation phased carrier wave.  I've never seen this type of configuration before, Captain."

Riker looked up from the PADD he was reading.  "An encoded carrier wave?"

"Yes, sir."

Tom stood up and walked to the Science Station with Riker fast on his heels.  When he pulled up the signal, his breath caught.  

"I'll be damned," Tom whispered to himself.

"Son of a...," Riker bit off the rest of the expletive as he looked over Paris' shoulder.

"Helm, set an intercept course," Will commanded.  "Warp eight."

"Course set, Sir."

"Engage."

Captain Riker turned to his first officer.  "My Ready Room," he ordered as he turned on his heel, heading for his office.

Tom hesitated for a moment, then followed with resignation.

Will gestured for Tom to take the seat across from his desk before taking his chair.

"You have something you want to tell me, Commander," he asked.

Tom groaned silently.  "No, Sir."

Will leaned back in his chair, silently viewing his first officer for a long, tense moment.

"There was a time," Riker began thoughtfully.  "When a former captain of mine put me in a very difficult position with Captain Picard.  I made the wrong choice when push came to shove.  I hope you don't make the same mistake I did, Commander.  So, I'll ask again.  Is there something I should know?"

Tom met Will's gaze head on.  "I'm not a liberty to say, Captain."  Damn, he hated this, but he had no choice.

Riker let the tension in the room stretch a little more before he surprised Tom and smiled broadly.  

"Computer," Riker called out.  "Recognize authorization Riker: Alpha Team, one, one, four."

Paris' head snapped back in surprise.

--Authorization recognized.--

"Identify the other occupant in this room with me and list his Alpha Team status," Will instructed the computer.

--Thomas Eugene Paris.  Commander.  Federation Starship Enterprise.  Alpha Team, status: inactive.--

Will smiled broadly over the top of his desk.

"So, Commander Paris, how long have they had you?"

Tom shook his head, returned the grin.  

"About fifteen years too long, I'd say.  You?"

Will grimaced.  "More than twenty now."

"That signal is coming from deep in Cardie space.  Could it be a trap?" Tom asked.

"I doubt it's a trap.  Alpha Team has used that signal in emergency situations for years and it's never been compromised.  There aren't that many ships that can even detect the damn thing, it's encoded so specifically.  The only reason the Enterprise can is because I'm her captain."

Tom nodded.  "Agreed.  We've got an agent in trouble."

Will informed Command of the distress signal and updated their status to search and rescue.  It wasn't a half hour later when the Enterprise was hailed by Fleet Admiral Dyneb.

Captain Riker took the priority one message in his Ready Room.

"You are ordered to halt present course, Captain, and return to your previous position and status," he was told.

"Pardon me, Sir," Riker replied.  "But we are pursuing a -distress- call.  I can't stand down."

"I'm not asking, Captain Riker.  I'm ordering."

Will gritted his teeth.  "Can you, at least, give me a reason?"

"You're chasing an echo not a distress call, Captain Riker.  There is no need to waste Federation resources on a pointless search and rescue."

"An echo," Will repeated grimly.  "Very well, Sir.  The Enterprise will stand down and return to her prior position."

When the Captain stalked out of his Ready Room, Paris stood up from the command chair with an eyebrow raised high.  

"Captain?" he asked.

"Commander," Riker replied grimly.  "We've been ordered to stand down and return to our assignment."

Tom viewed Will thoughtfully for a long moment.  

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Sir," he informed his Captain with a casual tone that belied the glint in his eye.  "We are experiencing a cascade failure in the Nav Control due to the gel-pak conversion.  Engineering needs us to maintain present course and heading to correct the problem."

"Hmm," Will sat down slowly.  "For how long, Commander?"

"Oh, at least eight hours, Sir."

"Very well," Riker picked up a PADD and viewed it nonchalantly.  "Inform Command of our status, Commander."

"I'll notify Command as soon as the cascade failure in the Communications system is fixed, Captain."

"Very good, Commander Paris."

Two decks down, Counselor Deanna Troi paced around her office in frustration.  She'd cancelled all her appointments for the day.  Deanna was so distracted she couldn't concentrate on her patients.  Even though she was 'technically' still on maternity leave, she was coming in to see patients a couple of hours a day.

Something wasn't right.  Something so out of place it just wouldn't leave her alone.  A feeling.  A sensation that just shouldn't be there.

There.  She felt it again.  Familiar but different.  Calling to her.  Touching her mind.  Closer.  She knew this.  She'd felt this before.  It was -familiar-....

"Tom," she whispered.

Will was on the bridge, leaning over a science station console when she arrived.

"Counselor?" he glanced up at her.  "Is something wrong?"

"Can I speak to you...privately?" she asked.

Will nodded and followed her into his Ready Room.

"You okay?" he wanted to know the minute they were alone.

"I'm fine," she assured him.  "What's going on up here?"

"Why do you ask?"  Will turned his back to her, making a pretense of straightening out the computer interface on his desk.

Deanna's eyes narrowed.  "Don't play coy with me, Will Riker.  Why are we in Cardassian space...and why am I sensing Tom's presence?"

"Tom?" Will's head jerked around suddenly.  "Are you sure?"

She crossed her arms in front of herself.  "It's pretty hard to miss.  One of you is difficult enough to ignore.  Two of you is impossible."

Will pulled a tired hand over his face.  "Damn!"

"What?" she demanded.

"We picked up a distress call earlier, deep inside Cardassian space.  Once Command learned we were going to investigate, Admiral Dyneb couldn't contact me fast enough to order the Enterprise to stand down and return to our prior coordinates."

"So, naturally," she drawled.  "We're still in Cardassian space headed for the source of the signal."

He had the grace to give her a sheepish grin.

"Why do I get the feeling you're leaving something out, here?" his wife wanted to know.

"I have no idea."

"You're impossible," Deanna grumbled as the comm system crackled to life.

--Paris to Riker.  We've arrived at the coordinates, Captain.--

"Acknowledged.  On my way.  Riker out."  Will looked at Deanna sharply for a moment.  "Do me a favor?" he asked.

"Anything."

"Take the rest of the day off.  Get the boys from the nursery and go home, you look like hell."

"Gee, thanks, honey," she drawled with an angry glint in her eye.  "All these compliments are going to go to my head."

Will sighed.  "I didn't want you going back to work this soon to begin with.  Neither did Dr. Bashir."

"It's just a couple of days a week."

"And you're exhausted.  Admit it, Deanna."

"All new mothers are tired," she said defensively.

"Most new mothers are a little bit younger than you, too."  The second the words left his mouth, he knew he'd pay for that.

Deanna froze, her hands planted firmly on her hips.  "So, now I'm too -old- as well?!"

"Dammit!" he swore harshly.  "That's not what I meant, and you know it!  The pregnancy wasn't easy, Deanna.  Neither was the delivery.  I just want you to take time to fully recover .  Didn't you learn anything after Lucas?"

Her eyes widened.  "What do you mean?" she bluffed.

Will's expression hardened.  "Just because you weren't here, doesn't mean I didn't know what was going on," he told her pointedly.  "I received weekly reports from Reg after Voyager got home and you were temporarily assigned to Pathfinder.  I know everything, Deanna."

"You never said anything."

Will shrugged.  "It wasn't my place.  We were separated."

"But checking up on me was?"

"You were still my wife, legally.  The mother of my son.  It was my responsibility to keep you safe.  It still is."

"That was an entirely different situation," she told him.  "It was only a week after I had Lucas that I took that assignment.  Kyle is almost two months old."

"Deanna, I don't care if you want to start back to work a little at a time.  I just want you to recognize when you've done too much and rest when you need it.  What is so damned unreasonable about that?!"

That deflated her anger a little.  She grimaced.  "Sorry.  You're right.  I am tired."

Will smiled.  "Then you'll take the rest of the day off?"

"Yes," she nodded.  "But just today."

"How about we talk more later," he suggested, his hand reaching out to cup her cheek.  "I need to get down to the surface and...."

"You shouldn't go on the away mission," she reminded him.  "The captain's place is on the bridge."

His hand fell away and he took a step back.

"I have to go," he said simply.  "That's my brother down there."

"Commander Paris will fight you tooth and nail on this," she warned.

Will smiled arrogantly.  "He always does, but I'm still going."

She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him swiftly.  "Don't do anything stupid down there, Riker."

"Nothing stupid.  I promise."  He leaned down and kissed her gently.  "Now, get out of here."  He pushed her toward the door.  She nodded and left his ready room.

Will waited a moment then strode purposefully onto the bridge.

"Away team assembled?" he asked his XO.

Tom nodded.  "We're ready to go."

Riker gestured to the turbolift.  "Lead the way, Commander."

Paris' eyes widened.  "You're not...."

"Going with you?  Yes, Commander, I am."  There was steel in the captain's voice.

Tom's jaw clenched.  "Can I speak to you in your Ready Room, Captain?"

Will grinned broadly.  "So we can have the same argument as the last time I wanted to go on an away mission?  Sorry, Commander.  This time I go.  There are things going on down there that you know nothing about."

"With all due respect, Captain."  Tom spoke with deadly quiet.  His eyes flashed dangerously.  "I think I have a pretty good handle on things."

"We'll see if you're still saying that in an hour, Commander."  Will chuckled.  "I'll meet you in Transporter Room Two in ten minutes."

"Yes, Sir," Tom said tightly as Will strode off the bridge into the turbolift.


*****


Deanna walked into the ship's nursery with a growing smile on her face.  The happy chatter of children echoed happily through the brightly colored room.  In the glassed-off area a few children napped in silence, but chaos ruled for the most part.  She sensed both her sons, one sleeping, the other playing, and her smile grew.  As she stood there, B'Elanna came up behind her and stood silently.

"Good afternoon, Commander," she greeted the other woman without turning around.  She heard B'Elanna's soft chuckle.  "What brings you here?"

"K'Leena and Robert have checkup appointments."  Her voice held a slight note of irritation.  "Tom was suppose to take them, but...."

"Ah," Deanna sighed knowingly.  "I'm surprised he didn't take you on the away mission."

"He wanted me on board because of the problems with the gel-packs.  Besides, the new Chief of Security went with him," B'Elanna smirked.  "She can handle any engineering problems they might have."

Deanna laughed.  "Poor Harry.  I thought he was going to lose it when Will promoted Seven on the spot."

"Tom said he grumbled on the bridge all day.  Just kept saying 'Eight years, eight years to make Lieutenant J.G. and she does it in four months!'"

"But he was promoted to Full Lieutenant two years later."

"I know," B'Elanna smiled.  "We just love to tease him about being the 'eternal ensign.'"

"Lt. Hansen is doing a remarkable job.  Will is very pleased with her new security protocols.  She's managed to tighten things up very...efficiently."  

B'Elanna rolled her eyes.  "Don't you start."  Deanna grinned.  "Why aren't you down on the surface?" B'Elanna asked suddenly.

"I haven't been cleared for full duty yet," Troi grumbled.  "The Commander took Dr. Bashir and Lt. Dax.  Ezri has been handling my patients while I'm on maternity leave."

"Okay.  Did Tom really take Will along?"  

"Yeah, but he wasn't happy about it," she laughed, glancing over to where Lucas was playing with B'Elanna's daughter.  "They're playing together again," she commented.  

Their children were working intently with an enormous set of small, colorful, interlocking blocks.  Tom Paris had replicated them for the nursery, saying there was nothing like Lego for building things.  It seems he was right.  

"Playing is better than fighting."  B'Elanna followed the counselor's gaze with a rueful smile.  "What are they building?"

"Who knows?"  Deanna walked over to her son and crouched down next to him.  He barely gave her a second glance.  B'Elanna did the same with her daughter and was rewarded with a tiny scowl.  "What are you building?" she asked Lucas.

"A ship," he replied, grabbing a block from K'Leena's outstretched hand.  "What're you doin' here?"

"It's time for you and Kyle to come home."  Deanna smoothed a hand over her son's dark, shiny hair.

"Why?" he asked.

Deanna laughed and shook her head.  "Because it is."

"I'm busy."  Lucas' attention switched back to what he and K'Leena were building.  Deanna gave B'Elanna a helpless look.

"K'Leena," B'Elanna crooned softly to get her daughter's attention.

"Huh?"

"Come on.  You have a checkup in Sickbay."

"Nuh uh," K'Leena stated firmly, stubborn defiance flashing in her clear blue eyes.

B'Elanna made a mental note to find something unpleasant for Tom to do when he got home tonight.  "K'Leena Isobel, you are coming with me."

"No," the child defied.  "I'm going with Daddy!"

B'Elanna smile almost sadly and quietly said, "Daddy is off the ship, honey.  You have to come with me and Robert."

"What 'bout our ship?" she whined.

B'Elanna exchanged a look with Deanna.  "We'll have your teacher put it away and save it for later since Lucas is leaving for the day too.  Would that be okay?"  B'Elanna looked over at Lucas.

The little boy bit his lip in concentration for a moment then nodded his head.  "'kay," he agreed.  "We'll do it tomorrow, 'Leena."

The two mothers rose to their feet and smiled at each other.  They were going to have their hands full with these two.


*****


"Tell me what you know, Commander," Captain Riker asked upon entering the Transporter Room.  The rest of the away team was already assembled.  Commander Paris, Dr. Bashir, Lt. Dax, Lt. Hansen and two of her security officers.

"Scans of the surface picked up one inhabited settlement.  No measurable EM readings, but over a hundred humanoid life signs."

"And the distress signal?"

"Transmitting from the settlement, Sir.  It's weak and losing power by the minute."

"Very well."  Riker stepped onto the transporter pad and the rest of the team followed.  He nodded to Paris.  

"Energize," Tom commanded.

The shimmering of a transporter beam appeared on the planet's surface as six forms materialized.  Will opened his mouth to bark orders, but managed to restrain himself in time.  This away mission was Tom's show, he was just along for the ride.  Questions would need to be answered when someone first laid eyes on his double.  He briefly wished Deanna was here, her empathic abilities would have been useful.  He smiled slightly.  He was spoiled.  Not every starship had an empath.  Most of them had to muddle through with standard search and rescue techniques.

"Captain, you're with me."  Paris' voice left no room for argument, not that Will had any intention of doing so, but the command tone of Tom's voice brought out the mischief.

"Yes, Sir," he snapped smartly, ignoring the scowl Tom gave him.  Will followed the commander with a wicked grin as he stalked toward the compound.

Paris used his tricorder to pick up any lifesigns.  When he did, he turned to Will.  "How much would I have to beg and plead for you to hide?"

A sharp crack of laughter came from Will.  "I don't hide, Commander."

"Then at least stay out of my way," Tom grumbled as he strode quickly from his commanding officer, moving towards the point from which the lifesigns emanated.  Upon entering the building, the first thing he saw was a seemingly lifeless body lying on a pallet on the ground.  The sight made him swallow hard.  Gathering his resolve he walked over and knelt down next to her.  She was Bajoran.  Her eyes opened suddenly and widened in surprise when she saw her face.

"Nick?" she gasped.

Tom frowned slightly in confusion.  "Commander Tom Paris of the Federation Starship Enterprise, we're here to rescue you."

She stared for a moment longer.  "Sorry, for a minute there you reminded me of someone else."

"What's your name?" Tom asked.

"Sito," she replied, forcing herself to sit up.  She was still a Starfleet Officer, no matter what, and he was her superior.  "Ensign Sito Jax, Sir."

"Can you stand?" he asked, concerned.

"Yes," she nodded, grasping his arm for support as she struggled to her feet.  "There are others, you know."

"We know," Tom said grimly.

"Who is 'we'?" a deep, familiar voice asked from beyond the shadows.

Paris stood up and looked to the approaching figure in shock.

"Captain Riker?" Tom asked, more than a little taken aback at the man before him.  

This couldn't be their captain.  This man was thinner.  A little older looking too, as if life had worn him down faster than the man they served under, and his expression was harsh with distrust.

No, this wasn't Will Riker, but it sure as hell looked like him.

"Captain Riker, huh?" the doppelganger chuckled.  "Nice to know one of us made it."

He thrust out his hand.  "Tom Riker, nice to meet you, Commander Paris."

Again, Tom was stunned.  "You know who I am?"

"We may have been prisoners, but we still got the occasional news vid," he smiled.  "Voyager's journey was of great interest to us.  Many of our friends traveled with you, Commander.  We kept you in our thoughts and prayers."

The sound of footsteps echoed behind them, yet neither man looked.  Tom Riker sighed after a moment and turned around with a slightly crooked smile.  Will Riker nearly wilted in relief.

"You look like hell, brother," Will told the man before him with a relieved grin.

"Yeah, and you look far too comfortable in those captain's pips."

The Captain laughed and hugged his twin.  "It's good to see you, Tom," he told him honestly.  "We'd given up hope years ago."

Tom nodded and turned slightly to the woman standing just behind him, holding a small, dark-haired child.

"I believe you already know my wife Laren," he said, drawing her to his side.  "And this is our daughter Marissa."

Will Riker stiffened.  He hadn't recognized her.  The hair was longer and lighter from the sun, but it the face was the same.  She'd aged well in the last ten years.  Ro Laren was still one of the most beautiful women Will Riker had ever known.  

And she had betrayed them all.

"Lieutenant," he addressed her formally, stressing her rank, reminding her that regardless of her desertion, she was still a Starfleet officer.

Tom Riker's eyes narrowed.  "Don't start, Will," he hissed.  

The Captain met his gaze.  "Ensign Michaels will escort you to the ship.  We'll talk more later.  You must be tired and the ship's doctor wants everyone to report to Sickbay for an exam."

Laren and Tom watched the Captain turn on his heel and leave without another word to either of them.

"Somehow," Ro Laren began softly.  "I wonder if we wouldn't have been better off just staying here."

"And slowly starve to death?" her husband asked quietly, sliding his arm around her waist.  Laren shook her head and leaned into the embrace.

"I hate the Cardies," she sighed.

Tom Riker chuckled and kissed the top of her head.  


*****


B'Elanna glanced up when they entered Sickbay and then back down at her son, whom Dr. Selar was still examining.  A second later she looked up again in shock, sure she hadn't seen who she thought she had.

"Ro?"

The dark-haired woman turned when she heard the broken whisper.  Her face lit with a smile.  "Torres!" she exclaimed.

A med-tech came over to Robert's biobed and nodded to B'Elanna that she would watch the baby.  The commander smiled her thanks and rushed over to her friend.  The women embraced tightly, unable to stop the tears that formed in their eyes.  B'Elanna pulled away first, dashing away the moisture from her face in embarrassment.

"I thought you were dead," she told Ro.  "All the others...."

Laren smiled sadly.  "I know.  We thought we'd lost you too, you know.  We couldn't believe it when we heard about Voyager.  And look at you!"  She waved with her arms.  "A Lt. Commander!  Chief Engineer on the Enterprise.  In the name of the Prophets, how did -that- happen?"

B'Elanna laughed.  "I'm not sure myself."


*****


"How many total, Commander?"  Riker asked his XO after they'd beamed up with the last of the former prisoners.

"One hundred and eighteen, Sir."

Will nodded and tapped his comm badge.  "Riker to the bridge."

--Kim here.--

"Get us out of Cardassian space, Lieutenant, warp eight.  We're done here."

--Aye, Sir.  Kim out.--

"What's the status of our guests?" the Captain asked Seven of Nine, who was waiting for them outside the Transporter Room.

"Dr. Bashir is almost done with the exams.  I have assigned individual quarters to the families and the rest are temporarily housed in Cargo Bay Two.  Ship's Services is seeing to their needs."

"Very good, Lieutenant.  I'll be on the bridge."

Seven raised her ocular implant high when his terse "Bridge!" could be heard before the turbolift door closed.

"Captain Riker is upset," she observed.

Paris chuckled.  "You think?"


*****


The chime sounded throughout their quarters.  Deanna quickly covered Kyle with a blanket and moved to the outer room to answer the door.  With a steadying breath, she pressed the button to open it.  She knew who was standing on the other side.

"Hello, Tom," she greeted her husband's double with a smile.  "Welcome home."

He grinned back and hugged her briefly.  "Thank you."

"Come in."  She gestured to the living room.

Tom Riker quickly noted toys scattered on the floor, the baby seat on the coffee table...and the plain gold band adorning her left hand.  His eyes flew to hers.  

"You're married?"

"Yes," she replied calmly.  "Will and I have been married almost five years now."

Tom smiled at that.  "Five years, huh?  Sure took his sweet time about it, didn't he?"

"Tom...."  There was a warning in the word.

He held up his hands in defeat.  "Sorry.  None of my business."  He paused a moment before continuing, "I just came to see how you were, Deanna."

"I'm fine," she assured him.  "We're very happy."

Tom nodded.  "Good.  That's all I ever wanted for you."

"What about you?  Will filled me in a little.  How are you?  Did you really marry Ro Laren?"

"Yes, Laren and I are married.  We have a daughter.  Her name is Marissa.  Aside from being in a Cardassian prison for the last ten years, I'm great."

She frowned at the sarcasm.  "You don't have to pretend with me, Tom.  I know you too well."

"Yeah," he sighed.  "I guess you do.  I don't know, Deanna.  Everything is happening so fast, I haven't had a chance to breathe, much less think.  But I needed to see you in person.  I owed you that much."

"You don't owe my anything, Tom.  I'm here if you need me," she offered.

"I know."

"Where is Laren, by the way?"

"Oh, your Chief Engineer was in Sickbay when we arrived.  B'Elanna and Laren knew each other back before Voyager was lost.  She offered to help Laren get settled in.  And Marissa was thrilled with the idea of a playmate.  She hasn't had another little girl to play with so close to her age.  She thought the world of Leena when she met her."

"Her name's -K'Leena-," Lucas said from the bedroom doorway, sounding out each syllable with deliberate precision and more than a little attitude.  "And she's mine!"

Tom Riker's eyes widened at the belligerent stance of the little boy.  Deanna rolled her eyes.  "Don't ask," she warned him, then turned to her son.  "Lucas.  I want you to come meet someone."  She held out her hand.

He walked over to his mother with a fierce scowl planted firmly on his face.  Tom struggled to keep from laughing.  "Like father, like son," he murmured.

"Lucas, this is your Uncle Tom.  He's Daddy's...brother."

The miniature version of himself gave him a quick once over with his distrustful black eyes, then he lifted he chin slightly to say:

"My Daddy's the capt'n."

"Yes, I know."  He hoped his voice held the proper respect the child expected of him.

"You look like him."

"We're twins.  Do you know what that means?'

"I'm not a baby.  Marianne and Michele are twins.  I go to school wit 'em."

"Well, your father and I are kind of like that."

Lucas seemed to consider that for a moment.  "'kay," he nodded in understanding, then looked up at his mother.  "I want to play with -K'Leena-."

The older Riker bit back a grin when the child again stressed her name and glared at him.

"Possessive, isn't he?"

"You have no idea," she muttered under her breath before addressing her son.  "Not now, Lucas.  K'Leena is with her mother and Kyle is napping.  You can see her tomorrow."

"But," he began to whine.

"Lucas," his mother cut him off in mid-snivel.  "Not now, understand?"

"Fine!"  And he stomped off to his bedroom.  "Meanie!"

Deanna sighed as the door to his bedroom hissed closed.  And Will thought taking the day off would be relaxing?  

"Hmm," Tom hummed in amusement.  "Maybe I should be getting back.  You seem to have your hands full."


*****


Captain Riker headed to Sickbay, dread dragging at his heels.  Dr. Bashir was finished examining the former prisoners and requested to see him immediately.  When he arrived, he found Julian and Ezri talking in the doctor's office.

"They're going to need extensive counseling," she was saying from her perched position at the corner of Julian's desk.

"They need to recover physically first," her husband stressed.  "They're malnourished, except for the children.  It's clear they all sacrificed to keep those kids healthy.  And most of the adults have injuries that weren't treated at sometime or another.  Some of them need reconstructive surgery."

Dax nodded in agreement.  The Maquis prisoners had suffered under Cardassian imprisonment.  Greatly.  

"Did you find out how long they've been there?" Will interrupted.

The two doctors startled and stood up quickly.  "Captain!"  Will waved his hand dismissively.

"Sit down," he snapped.  A covert looked passed between the couple as they retook their seats.  Will flung himself into one of Julian's chairs.  "So?" he asked again.

"Some of them have been there more than ten years," Ezri told him quietly.  She didn't have to say who, Will knew.  "Others just since the war ended."

"How long have they been there alone?"

"About six months, from what Tom Riker told us," she replied.  "The guards left without warning, destroying all the food replicaters and taking anything else that the prisoners could have used off the planet with them."

Riker swore harshly.

"They managed to get two of the food replicaters working and a small transmitter, but...," she trailed off.

"Two replicaters to feed one hundred and eighteen people isn't enough with their limited power," Will finished.

"No," Ezri agreed in a whisper.

"The bastards couldn't even kill them humanely!" Riker stood up, his fists clenched tightly at his sides.  "Left them all to starve to death.  Even the children."

Julian and Ezri said nothing.  What could they say?  He was right.  Anyone could see it.

"Arrange for their medical and emotional needs, Counselor," the captain instructed tersely.  "No reports to Command about this, however.  I want this kept on the ship for now, understand?" he asked them both.

"Yes, Sir," they responded, again exchanging a covert glance.

"Dr. Bashir," Will addressed the other man.  "If I remember correctly, you have some pretty impressive contacts in the Cardassian government."

"Yes, Captain," Julian nodded.  He and Garak still maintained a close friendship.  Well, as close as you could through interspace channels.

"Can you trust him?"  Riker wanted to know.

He thought about this for a moment.  "I believe so."

"Good.  Find out what you can.  Use a secure channel.  I don't want this off the ship just yet.  Command was too quick to order me back when we first got the distress signal.  I have the feeling they knew about this."

"Yes, Captain."

"We have a Senior Staff meeting at oh nine hundred, that gives you eighteen hours, Doctor.  I want to know what the Cardassian government has to say about this before then."  And with that, he turned on his heel and stalked from Sickbay.

Ezri shook her head when the doors hissed closed behind the captain's rapidly retreating figure.  "That is one angry man," she observed.

"Yeah," Julian agreed.  "I wouldn't want to be the next person he runs into."


*****

"Computer!" Riker snapped as he strode through the corridor.  "Locate Ro Laren."

"Ro Laren is on Deck Five, Section Eleven."

Will spun around and headed for the turbolift.  "Deck Five," he barked when he got there.

Laren was walking straight for him when he rounded the first corner on Deck Five.  She stopped and met his angry gaze head on, her head tilting up defiantly.  Will gritted his teeth.  

"We need to talk," he ordered.

She hesitated a moment.  Tom had told her she wasn't to speak to his double without him present.  Then again, Tom Riker may be her husband, but he didn't have the right to dictate to her.  The captain was right, they did need to talk.

"Yes, Captain Riker, we do," she told him steadily.

"You're going to be court-martialed.  You know that, don't you?"

"Of course.  I would expect nothing less from Starfleet."

"You make it sound personal, Ro," he said silkily.  "You are guilty of treason and desertion.  Starfleet has every right...."

"I asked to be relieved of duty, Captain Riker," she told him quietly.

Will's head snapped back in shock.  

"You're lying!" he accused.  

"Am I?"  She shrugged.  "Ask Picard."

Will reached forward and grabbed her arm.  "Captain Picard wouldn't have sent you back if you'd asked to be relieved!"

"Get your hands off her, Will," Tom Riker demanded angrily, stalking down the corridor.

"Stay out of this, Tom," Will growled.  "You don't know...."

Tom walked steadily toward them, gently pulled Laren from Will's grasp and placed himself between them.

"You're the one who doesn't know," he told his double.  "I won't let you use her again.  She's been through too much."

"Tom," Laren began.  "It's all right.  Captain Riker wasn't the one...."

"Dammit, Laren!  I can't believe you're actually defending them!  After all that happened!"

"It was -my- choice, Tom.  Just as it was yours.  We -chose- the Maquis.  No one did anything to us."

"Picard -used- you!  There's no excuse for that!  You begged to be relieved.  You told him you couldn't do it and he didn't -care-!  He didn't give a damn about you.  The only thing that mattered was the mission."

"She was a Starfleet Officer!" Will asserted.  "It was her duty.  She betrayed us."

"And, of course, Starfleet never betrayed us," Tom retorted sarcastically.  "Never denied us the right to be heard when this all started.  Never refused to listen to us when we -knew- the Cardies wouldn't keep the treaty.  Never turned us into criminals when we only fought for freedom."

"The Federation Council...."

"Was bought and sold to the highest bidder, and you damn well know it!" Tom ground out.  "I won't get into this with you, Will.  Stay away from my wife.  Stay away from me.  When we reach DS9 you can wash your hands of us and keep your illusions.  I won't defend myself to you.  You should be defending yourself to me."

With that, Tom took Laren's hand and led her down the hall to their quarters.


*****


"I think there are too many Toms running around this ship, it's getting confusing," Commander Paris said, leaning against the door jamb.

Tom Riker grinned, meeting the other man's gaze.

"What can I do for you, Commander?" he asked.

"Got a minute?"

"I seem to have several," Riker replied grimly.  "Want to walk?" he asked, gesturing toward the hallway outside his quarters.  He didn't want to disturb Laren and Marissa.

"Sounds good to me."

They headed out side-by-side.  It was late and the corridor was deserted.  A comfortable silence was enjoyed for a moment before Paris spoke.

"You're not going to tell him what really went on, are you?" he asked the former Starfleet lieutenant.

Riker stiffened.  "Tell who, what?"

"The only reason Will doesn't realize what took place ten years ago is because he's too blinded by his anger.  Once he takes a breath and actually -thinks- about all this, he's going to figure it out."

"You give him too much credit, Commander.  He never did understand what this was really all about.  He never will."

"Tom," Paris stopped walking to face him.  "If Will Riker can learn to accept -me-, I think you can manage to convince him your reasons were valid."

"Maybe, I don't want to," he replied.  "Maybe it's better he doesn't know.  He's finally got what he worked his whole life for.  If he knew the truth, he might risk that to be noble."

"And maybe that's for him to decide."

The guest quarters they'd been given were quiet when he returned.  Marissa slept soundly in the second bedroom while her parents got ready for bed themselves.  Laren dropped her newly replicated robe onto a nearby chair and crawled into the large bed, calling for the computer to turn down the lights.

"How are you doing?" Tom Riker asked his wife when she'd finally settled down next to him.  His arms automatically encircled her, pulling her into his warm embrace.

Laren smiled sadly into the night.  "It's difficult," she admitted.  "I served with so many of these people and they all hate me for betraying Picard like I did."

"Especially Will," he growled.

"Captain Riker and I never really got along anyway, Tom," she reminded him.

Tom chuckled softly.  "He never could reconcile the fact that he was attracted to you physically when he disliked you personally."

Laren would have liked to deny that statement, but she couldn't.  The one time when Will Riker and she knew each other without the baggage of who they were, they hadn't been able to fight that attraction.  When their memories had been altered during an encounter with an alien race, none of the animosity between them had remained.  It had been an enlightening encounter.  And a frightening one, for both of them.

"Does that bother you?" she asked.

"No.  Yes.  Sometimes," Tom sighed.  "I don't want it to, but it does," he revealed.  "It's really no different than me and Deanna, though.  I think what bothers me isn't the fact that you were with him, it's the fact that he and I share -everything-!  Right down to the women in our lives."

She nodded into his chest.  "I understand."

"I love you."  He kissed the top of her head.  "Only you."

Laren lifted her head and smiled at him.  "I love you too, Thomas Riker."

"You know...."  His large hands grabbed her hips.  He rolled onto his back, bringing her with him.  "I've never made love to you in a real bed."  He grinned up at her.

"Well," she drawled with a knowing smile.  "We're just going to have to do something about that, aren't we?"

Laren straddled his hips and sat up, drawing her nightgown up and over her head at the same time.  It floated to the floor in a cloud of silver satin.  His grin broadened.  It had taken years for her to become truly comfortable with him and the physical side of their relationship.  Every time she made love to him, he was amazed at what a strong person she was.  Knowing what she'd been through, it wouldn't have surprised him if she'd never been able to get past it.  But she had, with his help, and his love.

Reaching up, he threaded a hand into the dark, silky hair that spilled over her shoulders and fell around them like a dark curtain.  He drew her down, capturing her mouth with his, parting her lips and sliding inside to taste her.

Then, everything was forgotten.  There was no Maquis.  No Starfleet.  No Will Riker or Deanna Troi.  Only they existed.  Two hearts beating as one.



*****


"You know what, Will Riker?" his wife asked scathingly, dragging a hairbrush though her hair.  "You are the most obstinate, stubborn man I have -ever- known!  Can't you, for one minute, accept the possibility that Tom is right?  That he had good reasons for doing what he did?  That maybe -we- were wrong for backing Starfleet so strenuously?"

"Deanna, I know there were reasons...but he betrayed us all by acting as he did.  When he used who he was to steal the Defiant...it made -both- of us look bad."

"Ahh," she sighed knowingly.  "So that's what this is all about.  You're still angry at him for being -you-!"

"He's not me, dammit!  -I- would never do what he did."

Deanna looked at him for a long moment.  "But that's the whole point, Will.  You did do it, didn't you?  For all intents and purposes, you and Tom are the same man.  Only a few minor details are different.  He is you.  And it just drives you crazy to know that you are this close," she held up her two fingers just a fraction of a centimeter apart, "to doing what he did."

"No!"

"Yes!  How is what he did any different that what we did during the Baku incident?  It's not!  We disobeyed direct orders from a Fleet Admiral.  We used the Enterprise to carry out Picard's plan when it was in violation of our orders.  The only difference is...we were hailed as heroes because it worked.  Tom was painted as a criminal because his plan didn't."  

"And what about this morning, Will?" she continued softly.  "Did you or did you not disobey a direct order from Command to cease and desist with the search and rescue?"

"You know," Will scowled.  "You sound an awful lot like your mother when you use that tone."

"Hmm," Deanna hummed, seemingly unfazed by the insult.  "Speaking of Mother," she said lightly.  "She's coming to visit next month.  Wants to spend some time with me and the boys."

Will groaned and fell back on his bed, flinging an arm over his eyes, as if to block out what she'd just told him.  Maybe that was the approaching evil Q was trying to warn him about this morning.

Deanna chuckled at the her husband's unguarded thought.


*****


B'Elanna smiled at the image in front of her.  K'Leena had crawled into bed with them sometime in the middle of the night.  She was curled up against Tom's back and he was half off the bed, his arm resting on the nightstand with one leg hanging precariously close to the floor.

Tom sensed he was being watched.  Opening one eye, he met his wife's amused expression.

"Comfy?" she asked.

He smirked and rolled off the bed.  K'Leena took his place immediately.  Growling like a little bear, she snuggled deeper into the mattress.

"You've got to stop letting her in the bed, Tom."

"But she gets scared," he defended his daughter.

B'Elanna snorted.  "She gets cold, you big marshmallow.  I don't know how you get any sleep on ten centimeters of bed."

Tom grinned wickedly and pulled her into his arms.  "You know what I always say: If you're not living on the edge...you're taking up too much room."

His hands found her hips and he backed her up toward the bathroom.

"Where are we going?" she asked with a sly smile.

"I wanted to show you something," he leered.

"In the bathroom?"

"Uh huh."  He dropped his mouth to hers and nibbled lightly.  The washroom door swished closed behind them.  She squeaked when he unexpectedly tightened his grip and lifted her to sit on the vanity.  Her eyes met his.

"A counter?"  The tip of her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, sending desire throbbing straight through him.  He moved closer, his hands firm as he parted her thighs so he could stand between them.  She chuckled when he grasped her bottom and pulled her hard against his straining erection.

"The counter is just an added bonus."  He grinned, moving rhythmically against her.  "The best thing about this room is...."

"What?" she breathed against his hair-roughened chest, taking a nipple between her sharp teeth and biting down just a little.  His breath hissed out.  Dragging her head back, his lips roamed over the smooth skin of her throat.

"Computer," he rumbled against her heated flesh.  "Lock the door."


*****


When Commander Paris arrived on the bridge for his duty shift, he was more than a little surprised to find three Federation Security Officers standing guard.  His questioning look to the captain brought a sigh from the other man.

"In my Ready Room, Commander," he ordered.  To anyone else, the command sounded rather ordinary, almost as if the captain was bored with the new developments.  To Paris, however, the barely restrained fury in the captain's voice was more than evident.  He followed Riker into the other room without delay.

"What the hell are they doing here?" Paris asked the second the door hissed closed behind him.  Will didn't even bother to sit down at his desk.  He spun around, raking a hand through his hair.

"The minute we docked at DS9 this morning, they were waiting.  More than twenty officers.  We are to remain here at the station until Admiral Dyneb arrives.

"When's he getting here?"

"Two weeks."

Tom's jaw clenched.  "What's going to happen to the prisoners?"

"For now," Riker sighed.  "They will remain in quarters on board the Enterprise.  They will have access to DS9 and the ship, but they cannot leave."

"And when the Admiral arrives?"

"He is bringing a transport ship with him.  They are to be taken back to Earth to stand trial for their crimes."

"And imprisoned for the rest of their lives on some quiet, out of the way penal colony, I'll bet."

"Yeah, that's how I'm reading it too."


*****


The hustle and bustle of a space station was something one had to experience to truly understand.  Deep Space Nine was no exception.  The stations themselves seemed to thrive on it.  Every one he'd ever been to had a 'personality' of its own.  Here, everyone lived in the shadows.  Dark corners.  Barely lit passageways.  Secrets of the heart...and soul.  If you wanted to lose yourself, this was the place to do it.  No one looked that carefully when they passed you.  Too afraid of their own secrets to delve into yours.  Deep Space Nine was built in the dark and was destined to always remain there.  

The dark was to his advantage.  The shadows hid things no one else could know.  Once he had completed his mission, he could blend back into those shadows and slip off the station.  It was how he worked.  It was how they worked.  

No one noticed as his gaze tracked his prey.  No one cared when he got up to follow the tall, dark-haired man.  No one saw when he plunged the crude weapon into the stranger's back.  No one heard the transporter beam when it snatched him from the station.  



*****


"This wasn't a random attack, Tom," B'Elanna told her husband pointedly.

It had been two days since Quark found Tom Riker unconscious and bleeding in the back of his bar.  Luckily, the attacker has missed his mark and hadn't stuck around to make sure he'd finished the job.  However, the mere idea that an assassin had been sent was worrisome.  Dr. Bashir had informed the commander that he suspected Section 31 in the attack because of the way it was handled just this morning.  Although the weapon had been crude, the cut had not.  It would have been fatal if not for the fact that Riker had turned slightly as he felt the knife go in.

"No," he sighed.  "It wasn't."

"They'll kill them one by one.  They know too much.  Seen things the Federation doesn't want anyone to know."

"I know," he nodded.  "We have to talk to the Captain."

B'Elanna looked at him incredulously.  "He won't listen!  He's so angry at Tom, he won't hear a word we say!"

"Then we'll make him listen.  Will Riker is a fair man, B'Elanna.  I know we can trust him."

She shook her head.  "I hope so, Tom.  I really do."

They walked in silence to the turbolift.  B'Elanna fidgeted non-stop during the short ride to the bridge.  Tom hid a smile at her behavior, knowing she wouldn't appreciate the humor he found in her nervousness.  He gave her hand a quick squeeze before the walked on to the bridge and over to their captain.

"Captain," Tom began.  "Can we have a word with you?"

Riker looked from his First Officer to his Chief Engineer and sighed.  Somehow he had the feeling he wasn't going to like what they had to say.

"In my Ready Room, Commanders," he gestured to the door.

They walked single file into the room.  Will sat at his desk and gestured to the chairs for them to sit.

"You might as well be comfortable for this.  I have the feeling you have quite a bit to say to me," Riker grimaced.

"Captain," the Chief Engineer began as soon as they were seated.  "When Voyager returned home...."

"This isn't the same as Voyager, B'Elanna," Will cut her off.  "Tom, Laren and the others were convicted of crimes against the Federation.  They were high profile officers who used their connections for Maquis purposes.  All the members of Chakotay's cell had -resigned- from Starfleet before joining the Maquis.  It's a completely different situation."

"That's Starfleet rhetoric and you know it, Captain," Paris told him.  "What about Sito Jax?  She committed no crime.  What about her?  If the Federation wanted to, they could pardon them.  They've been held in a Cardassian prison for ten years now.  I think they've served their time."

"Treason is still punishable by death, Commander," Riker reminded him harshly.

"The Federation hasn't put someone to death in over a hundred years!" B'Elanna burst out, leaping from her chair in frustration.  "This is insane-!  We can't let this happen!  Too much was lost over this damn war already.  Too many lives have already been sacrificed!"  Her voice broke.  A shaky hand came up to cover her mouth as she fought vainly against the sudden tears that filled her eyes.

Tom stood up and placed a steadying hand on the small of his wife's back.  "It's all right," he whispered, guiding her to the sofa in Will's office.  "I'll contact my dad, if I have to.  Kathryn and Chakotay too.  They still have some pull at Command.  We're here now.  It won't happen again.  We'll stop it."

Will watched the couple in confusion.  Something more was definitely going on with them.

"Think of your career, Commander," Riker warned gently.  "Pulling strings for Maquis criminals won't look good after all you've done to redeem yourself."

Tom stood up slowly.  His jaw set ominously.  "Comrades, Captain."

"What?"

"I'll be pulling strings for my Maquis comrades, not criminals."

"Tom," Will began patiently.  "You were never really Maquis.  I've read the reports.  In the end you were Starfleet and helped Janeway find Commander Chakotay's cell."

Tom felt B'Elanna stiffen.  Her breath caught just ever so slightly.  With a grimace, he met his Captain's gaze head on.

"No, Sir," he corrected.  "I didn't help Captain Janeway because I was committed to Starfleet.  I helped Kathryn because I knew B'Elanna was a member of Chakotay's cell and if he was missing and in danger, then so was she."


*****


"Did you really help Captain Janeway because of me?" B'Elanna asked quietly, still in shock from what her husband had revealed a short time ago.

Tom sighed.  They had never really dealt with this issue.  It had been an unconscious decision by both of them to not speak of their Maquis days and his betrayal of Chakotay.  He owed her the truth.

"Yes."

She swallowed hard and sank tiredly into the deep-cushioned sofa of their quarters.

"Why didn't you...?"

"Why didn't I tell you?" he asked with a self-depreciating smile.  "Would you have believed me, B'Elanna?  Would you have believed that I was half-in-love with you from the first moment I met you way back at the academy?"

"You do remember!" she exclaimed.

Tom smiled again.  "Yeah, I do."

"You could have told me later...after we became friends.  Chakotay might not have been so hard on you those first few years on Voyager."

"Chakotay knew, B'Elanna.  He warned me off you my first day with the Maquis.  He saw what I wouldn't even admit to myself.  And he warned me again after we were stranded in the Delta Quadrant."

Ten years earlier....

"Paris!" Chakotay called down the corridor, halting the young pilot from his hasty retreat.

Tom turned with resignation.  "Commander," he addressed the older man.  "I understand I have you to thank for my new found sense of...security."

Chakotay gritted his teeth.  "That's right.  You live or die on this ship at my command, Paris."

Tom grinned with cocky self-assurance, setting Chakotay's teeth on edge.  "Oh, come now," he admonished.  "Is that any way to talk to the man who saved your life?"

"I promised Janeway that you would have my protection," he told Tom.  "And you will...under one condition."

"And what would that be?" Paris asked, crossing his arms in front of him.

"Stay away from her," Chakotay warned.

"Janeway?" Tom played dumb.  "I don't think she's inter...."

Chakotay's eyes narrowed dangerously.  "You know who I mean, Paris.  I don't want you near her.  Understand?"

"Or what?  You'll let your Maquis friends loose?"

"No," Chakotay smiled slowly.  "I'll deal with you myself.  Are we clear?"

Tom stiffened at the blatant threat.  "As crystal, Commander."

"Good.  You're dismissed."


*****


"I'd forgotten this was still in here," he commented distantly upon entering the holodeck.

B'Elanna picked up her uniform jacket and wiped the sweat from her face.

"It's a good program, Captain.  I hope you don't mind...."

"No."  He shook his head with a grin.  "Not at all.  Someone should use it.  Worf and I haven't 'battled' together for years."

"I just needed to work off some steam."

"Yeah," Will sighed.  "I know what you mean."  He ran a tired, frustrated hand over his face.

"I owe you an apology, Commander."  Will sat down on a nearby rock and motioned for B'Elanna to do the same.  "I sometimes forget how many people were hurt in the war.  Things have returned to normal so fast that it's easy to forget just how many people gave their lives in the name of freedom."

B'Elanna's eyes widened.  She'd never heard Will Riker refer to the Maquis as anything other than 'criminals.'  

"I've surprised you," he chuckled in self-derision.  "It was never the Maquis cause I had a problem with, B'Elanna.  It was the Starfleet officers that used their positions 'within' the Federation to further it.  Maybe you can't see the distinction, but...."

"I can," she admitted, albeit reluctantly.  "If you can't keep the oath you made to Starfleet because of personal convictions you should resign.  I guess you're right, they are guilty of treason, but...."

"But they've served their time.  They've paid for their crimes.  Yes, Commander, I know.  I'm just not sure what, if anything, I can do about this.  None of this is up to me."

"Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to, Captain."  B'Elanna stood up and tossed him her bat'leth.  He caught it effortlessly then looked at her with a confused frown.  "I think you need this more than I do," she commented as she exited the holodeck.

Will stared down at the Klingon weapon.  He rose slowly, testing the weight and feel of it in his hands.  It was a little lighter than he was used to, but the balance and form was of superior quality.  This was a finely crafted weapon.  The inscription brought a smile to his face.

"By your side.  In life.  In love.  In battle.  Of one heart.  Tom."

Someday he was going to have to ask his XO about his time on Voyager with B'Elanna.  He had the feeling there was more than one story there.

"Computer," he called out, still grinning.  "Reset simulation to Level Four."

"Unable to comply.  That level is restricted.  Command authorization only."

He was really going to have to talk to B'Elanna about changing the voice on the computer.

"Command authorization, Riker, alpha, four, seven."

"Authorization recognized," the computer intoned as the scenery around him shimmered and then changed.  "Simulation reset.  Begin."

Will's senses leapt to life as he survey the jungle.  His ears pricked up at a sound.  The hairs on the back of his neck rose and he sensed danger was near.  His eyes darted back and forth.  Then, spinning around suddenly, the bat'leth at a deadly angle, he rendered a holographic alien headless.

The thrill of the kill and the hunt prevailed his senses.  Sweat trickled at his temples and ran down his spine.  He crept along like a cat stalking its prey deep into the jungle.  Coming to lean up against a tree, he waited patiently for the next kill.

Then he heard it.  The snap of a twig on the ground.  The crunch of a jungle vine underfoot.  Will gripped the bat'leth, springing from behind the tree, stabbing with the weapon and coming to within centimeters of decapitating his twin.

"Jesus! Will!"  Tom grabbed the arm that held the bat'leth and saved his neck.  Literally.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Will growled, wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve and dropping the bat'leth to rest next to his leg.  Suddenly the holodeck seemed steamier, hotter, more suffocating.

"I thought I'd work off some stress."  Tom glanced around the jungle and commented dryly, "Looks like someone else had the same idea."

"You all healed?" Will asked

"Doctor says I'm good as new."

"Join me?"  The tone of his voice made it more of a challenge than an invitation... a challenge he knew Tom could never refuse.  A feral grin came to his face.

"Computer, replicate one bat'leth," Tom ordered and the weapon shimmered into existence at his feet.  He picked it up and tested the weight momentarily.  A hum of approval emanated from his throat.  Without warning, he turned around and stalked behind a clump of tall grass.  A moment later the sickening sound of a dying holographic animal rang through the jungle.  Tom returned with a genuine smile on his face.

"Feel better?" Will drawled.

"Not yet, but when we're done here, I will," he promised.

The captain grinned.  "Computer," he called out.  "Level Five."

Minutes passed like seconds and it was more than two hours later when they ended the simulation and sat down at the base of a large tree, weapons stained with holographic blood lying at their feet.  Tom reached up to wipe the sweat from his face and smooth back his damp, spiky hair.  "I needed this."

Will chuckled.  "You'd think a person would get tired of killing."

The cheap shot made Tom stiffen and shake his head.  "You haven't changed a bit, you self-righteous son of a bitch."

"Careful," Will warned.  "You're in danger of insulting yourself."

"No," Tom snarled.  "What I've been through the last ten years makes your life one big picnic, brother."

"Spare me.  What have you been through besides ten years of well deserved prison time?"

"Oh, forgive me.  I forgot who I was speaking to.  Black and white.  That's all you see, Will.  Isn't it?"

Tom leaned back against the rough tree trunk and closed his eyes.

"You have a beautiful family," Tom surprised him with the non-sequitor.  "Laren and I can't have children, did you know that?"

"Marissa?" Will asked, surprise evident in his face.

"Adopted.  The daughter of a woman who died giving birth.  Her husband was killed when he blamed the guards and starting attacking them.  Marissa was orphaned before she even had a name."

Will didn't know how to respond to the revelation so he just waited for Tom to continue.

"The Cardies, Will.  What they did to Laren as a child...."  Involuntarily, Tom shuddered.  The pain in his brother's voice was unbearable.  Will reached over to grasp his shoulder.

"I knew Laren had been hurt during the occupation of Bajor, but I never knew the details," Will admitted.

"She was just a -child-!  A child!  They used her and threw her away.  Just like Picard."

"Tom," Will cut in.  "That's not fair.  We had a mission.  She had a mission."

"She asked to be relieved!  She begged!  That bastard -knew- what she was going through and he didn't care!  How can you defend that?"

Will sighed.  "I don't know.  Maybe I can't.  Maybe you're right and I'm wrong.  Maybe I've known it all along and haven't wanted to admit it.  If I acknowledge Picard's mistakes, I have to acknowledge mine.  I stood by him on this.  I backed his decision to use her for this even when something inside me didn't want to.  I didn't put a stop to something that was hurting one of my officers.  I didn't do my job, Tom.  The safety of the crew was -my- responsibility.  If I accept everything you're saying, I have to accept the fact that I didn't do my duty to this ship, her crew and even Starfleet."

"And God forbid if the almighty Will Riker isn't Starfleet's Golden-boy."

"It's what I am, Tom."

"No, Will.  It's what you -do-.  It's not who you are."

"It's part of who I am, you can't deny that.  It's part of who you are as well."

"Once, maybe.  Not anymore.  I don't follow blindly anymore.  I won't compromise my beliefs.  I am a husband to Laren and a leader to my people.  -That- is who I am."

"How is that so different than what I am?  I am the captain of this ship and married to Deanna."

Tom smiled sadly.  "Does she know that you are a captain first and her husband second?"

Will's jaw clenched in anger.

"I was surprised to find the two of you married," he continued.  "I didn't think you had it in you to actually commit to her."

"Watch it," the captain warned again, bristling at the insult.  "You know -nothing- of what we've been through."

"Then tell me," Tom asked harshly.  "Tell me what you've endured that even remotely compares."

"In the last month alone, Deanna and I almost lost Kyle to a rare condition that was barely diagnosed in time to save him.  Within a week of that, Deanna and Lucas were kidnapped during a mission that went sour on us!  Every single minute I live with the knowledge that my family is in danger because of my job!"

"Then quit," Tom told him coldly.  "Take them to Earth and live a safe life."

"I've thought about it," he admitted quietly.  

This admission stunned the other Riker.  He didn't doubt the sincerity in Will's voice, but the simple fact that his double had even considered leaving Starfleet floored him.  "I'll be damned," he swore softly.  "I never thought I'd see the day when Will Riker cared more about someone else than his career."

"Like I said, you don't know everything, Tom.  No one does."

"Why don't you leave Starfleet?  What stops you?"

"You have to ask?  You said it yourself.  Starfleet is corrupt.  At the highest levels.  If I leave, I pave the way for one more unscrupulous officer to command a starship.  They held me back for years, Tom.  Offering me small inferior ships, so when I turned them down it seemed like I was the one not wanting to advance.  Keeping Picard a captain so they could still control him and I couldn't have the Enterprise."

"What changed?"

"There was an incident with a race called the Baku a few years ago.  It laid bare the corruption within Starfleet.  Federation citizens demanded change.  Picard was made an admiral to placate them.  So, I got the Enterprise.  They couldn't very well give it to someone else.  The outcry would have been horrendous."

"So, things are better?"

Will laughed without humor.  "No.  Things haven't changed at all.  Picard is little more than a figure head.  The Enterprise still is the flagship, but they keep us out of trouble if they can.  Not that it always works."  He smiled, remembering the Zularians.

"Then leave," Tom taunted.  "How much difference can one man make?"

"And let them win?  You know me better than that.  And I know you better than that."

Tom Riker chuckled heartily.  "All it takes for evil to prevail...."

"Is for one good man to do nothing."


*****


When the captain returned to the bridge, after a quick shower and a change of uniform, his XO was waiting to speak to him.  They took the conversation to his Ready Room.

"I've removed Counselor Troi from the duty roster," Paris informed his captain.

Will looked up from the monitor on his desk in shock.  "Why?"

"She's not ready to come back.  It's only been five days and she's already dragging."

"Have you told her?"

"No, I wanted to tell you first.  Do you have a problem with this?" Tom asked, unsure of how to take Riker's cool attitude.

"No, Commander," Will told him.  "This is your job.  Although, I have the feeling Counselor Troi isn't going to see it that way," he grimaced.

Tom smiled.  "Well, this time she has to listen to me."  

He should have been more careful with his wording.  Will Riker wasn't a man to miss something like that.  Damn.

"This time?" Will asked quietly.

The commander grimaced, remembering a conversation three years earlier....

Tom Paris viewed Deanna Troi through narrowed eyes before addressing her, "Counselor Troi, forgive me for saying so...but you don't look well."

Deanna startled slightly.  "I'm fine, Mr. Paris.  Just a little tired...it's been a long day."  

It had been a long ten days, actually.  Voyager's Senior Staff was under tremendous strain.  It was understandable, but her empathic abilities were raw with all the exposed emotion.  

"Your son isn't that old, is he?"  Tom asked with deceptive casualness.

"Hmmmm, no....Lucas is just about three weeks old."  Deanna gratefully sank into the couch in her office, answering his question without thought.

"I'm wondering how you got permission from your doctor to accept this assignment when you were less than two weeks postpartum," Tom said pointedly.

Deanna met his intense gaze.  She'd underestimated him...again.  When would she learn not to do that?  Tom Paris was not someone to be trifled with.

"Beverly thinks I'm taking it 'easy' on this assignment," she told him with a self-depreciating grin.  "I'm just here as a 'consultant,' you know."

Tom smirked.  "You have a great deal in common with my wife.  She tried to get herself assimilated right after she had K'Leena."

"How did that make you feel?"

"Oh no.  Not today, Counselor.  We can play head-shrinking games another time.  As a physician, I'm telling you to get some rest."

"I'm fine, really...."

"The hell you are," Tom told her quietly.  "Your pulse is rapid and thready, indicating you're in pain.  You're pale as a ghost and I would bet you've lost at least five kilos since you arrived."

"Weight I needed to lose after the baby, Lieutenant."  She used his rank to try and remind him of their proper place.  He just smiled knowingly.

"A nursing mother shouldn't be losing weight at that pace.  I'm giving you a choice, -Commander-," there was a slight edge to his voice.  "You can take the rest of the day off to catch up on some much needed sleep, -and- start cutting your schedule back, or I will take matters into my own hands."

Deanna bristled.  "Excuse me?  Was that a threat?"

"No, it was a promise."

"I see," she said with quiet anger.  "And just what did you have in mind, Lieutenant?"

"Well, I could take my concerns to the admiral...but if he cared at all about the people under his command, he would have noticed how much this is taking out of you."  The man in charge of Voyager's debriefing, Admiral Lewis, was incompetent, in Tom's opinion.  He was only concerned with the political 'spin' of Voyager's return and how he could use it to advance his own interests.  The fact that there are actual people involved, seemed to have slipped the admiral's notice.

"So?"

"So....  I think my best bet would be to contact your husband.  I've never met Will Riker, but I've heard a great deal about him.  I'm betting he wasn't that happy with you accepting this assignment in the first place.  I'm sure if he were to hear how poorly you're handling it...."

"Will Riker, is not now, nor ever has been my 'keeper,' Mr. Paris!  I am a Starfleet officer.  I choose and reject my -own- assignments!"

"I was not thinking of it in that manner, Counselor.  Commander Riker is your superior officer, it was his final decision to allow you to leave the Enterprise for this assignment.  It should be brought to his attention that you are not well enough to continue."

"I'm fine!" she yelled at him.  "I'm just tired.  And I don't appreciate being threatened by you!"

"Deanna," Tom used her name for the first time.  "I'm not threatening you.  I'm concerned about you.  Can't you see that?  I just want you to take better care of yourself.  There's no need to run yourself ragged shrinking the heads of the crew.  They're strong, they've been through a lot.  They can handle this, trust me."

"They need me, Tom.  There's so much pain in all of them.  I can't abandon them now."

"I'm not asking you to.  Stay and help us if you must, but don't kill yourself doing it."

Deanna smiled in defeat.  "Anybody ever tell you you're arrogant and domineering?"

"I think B'Elanna may have mentioned it on an occasion or two," he replied with a broad grin.

"I just bet she did."  Deanna shook her head and laughed.  "Very well, Mr. Paris, you win."

"I usually do."

"I really have to introduce you to Will.  I don't suppose you play poker?"

*****

Riker shook his head at the story.  "You're a brave man, Commander," he told Tom after hearing what went on back then.  

Paris chuckled.  "Or incredibly stupid, I've never quite been able to figure out which."

Will gave a hearty laugh.

"Why use an Alpha Team distress signal?" Riker asked suddenly, his mood becoming serious.  "A standard distress call would have reached more ships."

"But would they have been ships he could have trusted?" Tom countered.  "I think you need to ask him yourself, Captain."

Will nodded.  "I know, but I'm not sure I want to hear his answer."

"What are you going to do about this?" Tom wanted to know.

"Call in a few favors.  Contact some...old friends."

Tom stiffened.  "Old friends?  Are you sure you want to do that?"

"No," Will laughed bitterly.  "Do you?"

"No."  There was no hesitation in the Commander's voice.  That in itself told Will how much Tom didn't want certain people involved.

"I haven't made up my mind yet," Riker tried to reassure him.  "I want to talk to Admiral Picard first."

Tom nodded.  "Think carefully, Will.  For all our sakes."  Paris held is gaze for a long moment then left without another word.

Riker sighed, leaning his head back against his chair.  "I will, Tom.  I will."


*****


"Why an Alpha distress call?"  Will asked, striding into Tom and Laren's quarters purposefully.

"Hello to you, too," Tom Riker drawled.  "Please, come in."

Will scowled at his twin's sarcasm.  "Just answer the question.  I don't have time for games."

Tom crossed his arms and widened his stance defensively.  "I used it because I knew I could trust it to reach the right people.  It was the safest choice."

"Why 'agent in distress?' instead of 'request for help?'  A broader request would have been the safest choice, Tom.  You were literally starving to death."

He didn't answer, instead remaining still and meeting Will's question gaze head on.

"They sent you in, didn't they?" the captain demanded to know.  "It was your -mission- to steal the Defiant, wasn't it?"

"I'm not at liberty to say."

"Son of a bitch!" Will swore.  "This whole damn thing was an Alpha Team assignment, wasn't it."

Again, silence.

"Wasn't it?!"  Will yelled.

"I'm not at lib...."

"And you say -I'm- too dedicated to Starfleet?!" Will raged.  "They fed you to the wolves, Tom!"

"But they got the information they needed.  It saved millions of lives."  The quiet conviction in his double's voice tore straight through him.

"I'm sorry," Will apologized.  "You were right.  I had no business judging you without all the facts."

"You didn't know," Tom sighed.

"I do now."  Then, Will left Tom standing alone in his quarters.



*****


"I don't care -what- you have to do, Admiral!" Will told his former captain harshly.  "You find a way to make this work!"

"Captain Riker," Jean Luc Picard reprimanded sharply.  "There is more here than meets the eye, and I am -not- in the loop on this one.  Trust me.  They don't want me involved in any way shape or form."

"Good," Will grinned.  "Then make it your mission to find out everything!  The more pressure they feel from you, the more they will have to rethink everyone of their decisions."

"I'm not sure I can," he revealed.

"Get in touch with Admiral Paris, Jean Luc, he'll be able to help.  Kathryn Janeway too.  They got the Voyager Maquis pardoned.  They can do it again."

Picard nodded to his old friend.  "I'll do what I can."

"You better do more than that.  You owe these people, Admiral."

"I was doing what we were assigned to do, Will.  You were there.  You know that."

"Maybe this was one of those times we should have questioned things a little more.  Too many people have been hurt over this."

"Have you spoken to them?" Picard asked.

"Spoken to whom?" Will countered harshly.  "Tom?  Laren?  Jax?  Yeah, I've talked to them.  What do you want to know?  If they forgive you?"

"I just wondered how they were."

"Older.  Wiser.  Damaged.  Want to know anything else?" Riker demanded, barely restraining himself.

The Admiral seemed to shrink slightly.  "I'll get back to you in twenty-four hours.  I should know more by then."

"Thank you."

"Will, watch yourself.  Section 31 is involved."

Riker sighed.  "Yeah, we know.  Dr. Bashir has more than a passing acquaintance with them.  He recognized their handiwork."

"You may have to enlist the help of some old friends," the admiral hinted.

"I'd rather not," Will replied grimly.  "I don't want to owe them anything."

"I don't know if you have a choice.  They might be the only ones who can help.  Your new first officer might be of some service too."

Riker laughed.  "Oh, he has, Admiral.  He has.  But he's even less willing than I am to get back into it."

"Sometimes, Captain," Picard smiled without humor.  "Destiny can't be avoided.  Picard out."

Will stared at the blank screen for a long moment, battling with his inner demons.

"And sometimes, Admiral," he said quietly.  "Avoiding your destiny is the only way to stay alive."


*****


Will wandered aimlessly through the darkened corridors of his ship.  Gamma shift would be starting soon, the Enterprise was in 'night mode.'  He used to love this shift.  When he was Picard's XO he liked to take at least one night shift a week.  A starship was different in 'night mode.'  It was hard to explain, but there was a feeling that prevailed during this shift that wasn't there other times.  A quiet, peaceful presence that was soothing to a weary officer.

He knew what he had to do.  It didn't make it any easier, however.  Once he took that step, once he crossed that line again, his life would change forever.  Will Riker wasn't the same man he was twenty years ago.  He had given up everything for them once before and paid for it dearly.  Deanna.  His father.  His decision then cost him the two most important people in his life.  And now, he had even more to lose.  

He let out a frustrated sigh, but what choice did he have?  

"Riker to Paris," he hailed his first officer.

--Paris here.--  Will heard the tense tone of Tom's voice over the comm system and grimaced.  

"Meet me in my Ready Room in fifteen minutes, Commander.  Riker out."

There was a meaningful pause before Tom answered.  

--Aye, Sir.--


*****


Tom Paris sat back in his chair and looked helplessly up at the ceiling.  B'Elanna came out of the bedroom, the comm signal from the captain having woken her.  She rested a hand on his shoulder and bent down to kiss his forehead.

"Want to talk about it?" she asked.

"I can't," he sighed.  "The captain has made his decision.  I know it's the right one.  I know it's the only one.  But I don't know if I can live with it, either."

She frowned at the cryptic response.  It was so unlike Tom.  Then again, so much about him lately was different.  No, she corrected silently.  Not different.  Painfully familiar.  He was closed off.  Harder.  More controlled.  She knew this man, too.  Although she hadn't seen much of him in the last seven years.

"Neither have I," he told her quietly as he left their quarters.



*****


The tall, agitated commander paced from one side of the small office to the other, his fists clenching and unclenching as he tried to control his emotions.

"I don't like this," Tom Paris growled.  "I told myself 'never again.'"

"So did I, my friend," the captain commiserated.  "So did I."

"Once we do this, Will, there's no going back.  You know it as well as I do."

"I know, but do we even have a choice?  Do you see another way?"

"No," Tom admitted angrily.  "If we don't contact Alpha Team, we're condemning them all to death."

Will nodded.  He walked over to his desk and sat down, turning the computer terminal toward him.

"Computer.  Seal the doors," he commanded.  "Recognize authorization: Riker, Alpha Team, one, one, four."  Will looked up at Tom expectantly.  

"Computer," Paris grimaced.  "Recognize authorization: Paris, Alpha Team, three, seven, three."

--Authorization recognized.  Alpha Team status verified.--

"Establish an encoded signal to Alpha One.  Priority One."

The Alpha Team symbol appeared on the monitor for a long moment then the face of an old friend appeared on the screen.  Will smiled at the image.

"Captain LaForge," he greeted Geordi.  "How soon can you have the Valiant to DS9.  We need some help."

"We are en route, Captain Riker," LaForge told him with a grin.  "ETA is twenty-one hundred hours and fourteen minutes."

Glancing at the chronometer Riker shook his head with a small chuckle.  He should have known.  "See you in ten minutes, Captain."

The chime on his Ready Room door sounded just as the view screen went blank.

"Come in," Riker called out.  Dr. Bashir walked through the door a moment later.

"I have that information you requested, Captain," Julian informed him neutrally, glancing surreptitiously at Commander Paris.

"It's all right, Doctor, the commander can hear this."  

Bashir nodded.  "Garak says he was told the prisoners in that camp were all killed during the final days of the Dominion War.  He never doubted the report because so much of Cardassia was destroyed then.  Because of the sensitive nature of the prisoners kept there, it was an isolated outpost and not many people even knew about it.  From what he's able to learn, it was maintained by the Breen and a few Obsidian Order members."

"Thank you, Doctor.  We appreciate all your help.  You're dismissed."

Julian stood up to leave and paused.

"Was there something else?" Commander Paris asked.

"It's just that...," he trailed off, as if he didn't really want to say what was on his mind.

"Doctor?" the captain prodded.

"Considering how involved Starfleet and the Federation have been in rebuilding Cardassia," he began thoughtfully.  "Doesn't it strike you as a little odd that -nobody- has stumbled across this prison camp before now?"

Will looked at him sharply.  "What are you saying?"

"I think Section 31 might be involved even more than we know, Captain.  I've literally been in the mind of one of their operatives.  I know they've collaborated with the Obsidian Order and the Breen on other occasions.  Even the Romulans."

Riker closed his eyes for a moment, then looked up.  "Thank you, Doctor.  I'll keep your suspicions in mind."

When Julian had left, Will pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, trying to ward off the oncoming headache.

"Do you think he's right?" he asked Tom.

"Can we afford not to?"  Was the reply he got.

"Damn, I was afraid you were going to say that."



*****


The ship was of newer design than when he was her pilot, but she still felt the same.  Maybe it was the name.  Maybe it was her mission.  Maybe it was just the people who served on her, but Tom Paris would have known this ship with his eyes closed.  The U.S.S. Valiant, in whatever incarnation, carried an air of mystery about her.  And power.  Sleek, fast, deadly.  Alpha Team was the best and the brightest Starfleet had to offer, the ship they served on could be no less.

He hated himself for the hum of excitement that coursed through his body.  This life nearly destroyed him.  Alpha Team members lived fast and hard.  Never planning for tomorrow.  Never remembering yesterday.  They lived in the now.  It was the only way to stay alive.  It was the only way to stay sane.

"Commander?" Will interrupted his trip down memory lane, with an apologetic smile.  

"Sorry, Captain.  It's just...."

"Yeah, I know," Riker nodded, understanding completely.  "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine," he continued.  "Commander Tom Paris, this is Captain Geordi LaForge."

The two men shook hands.  "Nice to meet you, Captain," Tom said.

"You too, Commander.  I've heard a lot about you."

Paris grinned.  "Don't believe a word of it, Captain."

Geordi laughed.  "You're right, Will.  He's not what I expected."

With the ice broke, the three of them were able to relax slightly.  LaForge showed them to the Briefing Room.

"The council won't pardon them," Geordi said baldly.  "They won't even make it out of the sector alive."

"That's what we feared," Riker sighed.  "They'll never even have the chance to a fair hearing."

"No," LaForge agreed.  "In all fairness, they would have to be pardoned, and you know as well as I do, certain forces can't let that happen."

"How did you get permission to come here, Geordi?" Will asked.

The other man shrugged.  "Alpha Team distress call.  Alpha Team mission."

"And no one objected?" Paris wanted to know.

That brought a smile to the captain's face.  "Objected to what?  I'm just patrolling the Cardassian border, aren't I?"

"Of course, Captain," Tom grinned back.

"The way I see it," Riker began.  "We have two choices.  Take this public and hope to hell the Federation citizens hear us...."

"Or keep it hidden, and get them to safety ourselves," Paris finished.

"We're an awful long way from the Federation, gentlemen.  It might be difficult to hear us when communications are being censored."

"Yeah."  Riker drew a frustrated hand through his hair, leaving angry spikes sticking straight up.

Tom looked down at his hands, folding them together tightly.  "So, that pretty much leaves us with Plan B."

Silence fell heavy upon them.  

"It could cost us everything," Tom felt obligated to remind them.

"Probably," Riker stated.

"Oh, what the hell!"  Paris grinned suddenly.  "I haven't pissed the old man off in years."

"Geordi?" Will asked.

"I'm with you."

"Now, we just need to figure out a way to do this without anyone knowing."


*****


"We want you to take Marissa for us," Tom Riker told his double, not looking up from the cup of coffee warming his hands.  They were in Ten-Forward.  Laren and Tom had asked Will and Deanna to meet them there.  "She'll be safer on the Enterprise."

Will nodded, meeting his wife's gaze.  "We agree.  Deanna and I will be happy to take Marissa for you.  My Chief of Security and her husband have offered to foster children if anyone else wants to leave them here.  The Parises and the Bashirs have as well.  And a few other families on board.  I think all the children should stay back."

"Command might not like that," Laren stated.

"Command can go to hell, then," Will said tightly.  "They're children, not criminals.  The Federation has no right to interfere with this."

"What about Jax?" Tom asked quietly.

Will sighed.  "I'm willing to go to the mat with Dyneb on this, but he wants her to travel with you.  He says he wants her to stay with the group until she's debriefed."

"He's got an answer for everything, doesn't he?"  Tom said disgustedly.

"He's an admiral," Deanna reminded him with a smile.  "Double talk is what they do best."

"Leave it, Will," Tom sighed.  "Jax is willing to go with us and the less trouble we make the better for everybody."


*****


"Is it done, Commander?" his captain wanted to know.

"Yes, Sir."  Paris held himself "at ease" his hands loosely clasped behind his back.

Riker glanced up at the closed expression on Tom's face.

"You have something more to say, Commander?"

"No, Sir."

Will sighed at the clipped response.  "Sit down, Tom," he ordered with a wave of his hand.

The other man hesitated a moment, then took a seat opposite the captain.

"It doesn't have to be like before," Riker told him.

Tom smirked.  "Yes, it does.  It can't be anything else.  Not with them."

"We're not junior officers anymore, Tom.  It's not like they can take us from our posts for every assignment.  We're too high profile."

"And what a cover.  Think of it, Will.  Think about what they can do with -us- in their back pocket."

Riker drew a tired hand across his chin.  "I have.  It could work for us, Tom.  Not against."

"I never wanted this again.  You don't understand.  That life nearly killed me."

Will nodded.  "I understand better than you think.  I left too, remember?  I...."

--Bridge to the captain.--

"What is it, Mr. Kim?"

--The Argentina has arrived and are hailing us.--

--I'll be right there, Mr. Kim.  Riker out.--

Paris smiled grimly.  "They sure didn't waste anytime."

"I didn't expect them to."  Riker got up and headed to the door.

"No," Tom growled, following him out.  "Neither did I."



*****


Admiral Dyneb had arrived six days sooner than expected on board the U.S.S. Argentina.  A colony transport ship accompanied them.  

"Admiral, you're early.  We weren't expecting you for several more days."

"The sooner we get them home, Captain Riker, the sooner this can all be straightened out."

"Of course," Will agreed, his teeth aching from the casual grin he gave the lying bastard.  "I'll inform the prisoners that you are here and we will begin transferring them over in about an hour."

"I'd rather begin immediately, Captain," the admiral said tightly.

"I understand, but I'd like to give the families a little time to say goodbye to their children."

"Goodbye?"

"Yes, Sir," Riker smiled.  "My wife and I will be caring for my brother's daughter, since she certainly isn't a wanted Federation criminal.  A few of the other families on board have offered to foster the rest of the children, as well."

"I see."  The curt response told the captain that the admiral did indeed see.

"The Enterprise is at your disposal, Admiral."
"Thank you, Captain, but I'm sure we can manage a simple prisoner transfer without too much trouble.  We'll be out of your hair by dinner time.  Dyneb out."

Paris turned to his captain as soon as the viewscreen switched off.  "Sir?"

"Assist the Admiral with the prisoner transfer, Commander.  Let me know when it's completed.  We've spent enough time here already."

"Yes, Sir."  Tom strode off the bridge, signaling for Seven to follow him.

"Mr. Kim, you have the bridge," Riker commanded before retreating to his Ready Room.


*****




The prisoner transfer was handled quickly and efficiently.  Even Seven of Nine was impressed.  Tom Riker was the last to be beamed aboard the transport ship.  Captain Riker was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.  He never even said goodbye to his own brother.   

"Energize," Commander Paris ordered after the two men shook hands and Riker stepped onto the transporter pad.

As he shimmered out, an alarm went off.  Seven unceremoniously pushed the Transporter Chief out of the way to assess the problem.

"The beam is degrading in transit," she announced.  "Attempting to compensate."  Her hands worked quickly over the console.

"Seven?"  Paris questioned anxiously, knowing a transporter malfunction could be deadly.

She frowned slightly, then lifted her shoulders in a small shrug.  "It has corrected itself, Sir.  Everything is operating within standard parameters."

He tapped his comm badge with a frown.  "Paris to Argentina."

--Argentina here.--

"We had a slight malfunction with our transporter when the last prisoner beamed over.  Is everything all right?"

--Yes, Sir.  Lt. Riker is just fine.--

Tom nodded in relief.  "Very well, Argentina.  Enterprise out."

"Paris to the captain."

--Riker here.-

"The transfer is complete, Captain."

--Understood.  As soon as you get to the bridge, Commander, you can get us out of here.  Riker out.--

The Enterprise departed Deep Space Nine before the Argentina even released her docking clamps.  Commander Paris rang the chime to Riker's Ready Room as soon as they cleared the Bajoran system.

"Come in."

Paris took one look at the man sitting behind Captain Riker's desk after the door closed behind him and cursed soundly.

"I'll kill him!" he raged, dragging a hand through his hair and pacing from one side of the Ready Room to the other.  "I'll kill him myself!"

"Commander...."

"Oh shut up!  I don't even want to hear it!  Of all the stupid...," he paused, clenching and unclenching his fist in frustration while he contemplated just how much abuse the bulkhead could take.  "I'm going to kill him."

Tom Riker chuckled.  "Yes, you've mentioned that."

"Does Deanna know what you two have done?"

"Umm, no, we didn't...."

"Of course not," Paris drawled sarcastically.  "Because she would have -told- me what you were planning!"

"After the Defiant incident, Will had a chip implanted under the bone in his skull that prevents me from using his codes on another Federation vessel.  If that signal isn't detected when Will Riker gives a command, it won't be carried out.  He had to go, he can access the ships systems.  I can't."

"He should have told me that!"

"He seemed to think you would object to the plan, Commander Paris."

Paris rolled his eyes at the false innocence in the other man's tone.

"This had better work, Lt. Riker.  Or I'll deliver the both of you to Starfleet Command myself for court-martial.  Understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And don't even -think- of countermanding an order of mine today.  With the captain gone, I'm in command of the Enterprise."

"Yes, Sir."

He turned around with another angry curse.  "And I wanted this assignment?" Paris muttered as he stalked out of the Ready Room.


*****


When the hail from the Argentina came in some four hours later, the Enterprise was still close enough to pick up the distress call.

"What's the problem, Admiral?" Commander Paris responded to the S.O.S.

"We're under attack, Enterprise.  Can you assist?"

Riker came out of his Ready Room.  "We're on our way, Admiral.  Enterprise out."


*****


Another blast struck the transport ship, disabling the warp drive.  It was Riker's signal.  

"Computer," he called out from his cell.  "Recognize authorization: Riker, alpha, four, seven."

--Authorization recognized.--

"Release the locks on this cell block."

--Acknowledged.  Locks released.--

Will slid out of they cell and opened a nearby weapons panel.  He tossed phaser rifles to Ro and several others waiting just outside their cell doors.  With a quick signal to let the other know they should go about freeing the rest of the prisoners, Will nodded to Laren and four Maquis to follow him.  They stole down the corridor to the bridge, taking the sparse crew completely by surprise.

"Secure them in the escape pods," Riker ordered with a wave of his phaser rifle.  He sat down in the command chair and glanced over at his sister-in-law.

"Now what?" she asked.

"Now, we wait," he told her grimly.  "And hope to hell, everything goes as planned."


*****


"Keep those phaser levels at half-power, Lieutenant Biggs," Captain LaForge reminded his Tactical Officer.  "We have to make this look good, but we don't want that ship destroyed until the Enterprise gets here."

"Aye, Sir," the junior officer replied as he aimed and sent another phaser blast at the disabled ship.


*****


"Bring us around, Ensign," Paris instructed his helmsman once they reached the Argentina.  "Seven, get a lock on those people."

"Aye, Sir," they responded simultaneously.


"Captain Mittous," he hailed the Argentina's captain.  "This is Commander Tom Paris of the Starship Enterprise.  Can you beam the people off the transport ship?"

"Negative, Enterprise.  Main power is down, we're operating on batteries over here."

"Acknowledged," Paris said.  "Stand by, Argentina."


*****


On the Valiant, Geordi LaForge grinned and gripped the armrests of his chair. "Okay, Mr. Biggs.  It's show time."


*****


A ship away, Will Riker nodded to Ro Laren.  "Jettison the escape pods."


*****


With eyes that glinted an icy blue hardness sure to intimidate the most fierce opponent, Paris glanced back at the Tactical Station.  "Now, Seven!"  he ordered.


*****


"Enterprise," Admiral Dyneb hailed.  "The transport ship is losing containment.  Do you have the prisoners?"

Another phaser blast came out of no where and the transport ship was engulfed in a fiery explosion.

"Shields!" Paris yelled.

The blast rocked the Enterprise, sending more than one person crashing to the deck plating.


*****


"Enterprise!" Captain Mittous hailed urgently.  "Did you get them?  We have six escape pods, but they are the guards.  The transport ship was taken over by the prisoners during the attack."


*****


Paris glanced over his shoulder at Seven.  She shook her head.

"Negative, Argentina," he told Dyneb with a frown.  "We were unable to get a lock before the ship was destroyed.  The cloaked ship knew just where to strike."

"Very well, Enterprise.  Argentina out."

Admiral Dyneb turned to Captain Mittous.  "Scan them."

"Sir?" the captain questioned.  Was he insinuating that Captain Riker and Commander Paris were lying?

"You heard me, Captain," the admiral gritted out.  "How many people do you read aboard the Enterprise?"

Captain Mittous frowned and looked to his Tactical Officer.

"One thousand, one hundred, seventy-two," she told him.  "Their normal complement."

"Thank you, Ensign."  The captain nodded then turned back to Admiral Dyneb.  "Satisfied, Admiral?"  The contempt for the other man was evident in his voice.

"Quite, Captain."


*****


The investigation into the attack was completed post haste.  Admiral Dyneb sent the Enterprise on her way within a few hours of the attack.  Even their offer to help with the repairs was turned down.

"I believe you need to shake down those new gel-packs, Captain Riker," Admiral Dyneb told him with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Yes, Sir," Riker replied.  "We'll be running the Enterprise out to the Badlands and back to ensure all systems are operating nominally."

"On your way, then, Captain.  Dyneb, out."


*****


"Lieutenant?"  Commander Paris turned and looked at the Chief of Security the moment the Enterprise was out of scanning range of the Argentina.  

Seven's hands moved over the console, tapping at the blinking lights.

"All patterns present and accounted for, still being held in the buffer."  A collective sigh of relief was heard over the bridge.

"Get them out of there, Seven.  The Captain and I will wait in Cargo Bay two."

When they got there, B'Elanna was adjusting one of the pattern enhancers.

"Try it now, Seven," she ordered.

A moment later 117 prisoners materialized along with the captain of the Enterprise.  Whom, much to Tom Paris' annoyance had a huge grin on his face.

"Welcome back, Captain," he muttered in disgust.

Will Riker laughed out loud.  "Could you put a little more feeling into that, Commander?  I might start thinking you don't want me around."

Paris rolled his eyes.  "It would sure make my job easier."


*****





Paris entered his darkened office with a sigh of relief.  They'd done it.  Everything had gone just as planned.  Now all they had to do was get them to the Badlands and they would be safe.  He smiled with satisfaction as he shrugged out of his uniform jacket.

"Computer," he called out tiredly.  "Lights."  

Then, he turned around.

"Oh, hell!" Commander Tom Paris swore vehemently.  "What are you doing here?!"