First things first: This story has absolutely nothing in common with the ST: Enterprise episode of the same title, except that they both have Andorians in them. (At least I assume so, not having actually seen it.) Fortunately, not much is known about the Andorians, so I am taking full advantage of my artistic license. Please don't pepper me with details I should have known, but either overlooked or deliberately ignored …

The story fits into my own personal post-Endgame universe, in which Tom Paris does a stint as Captain Riker's XO on the Enterprise; it's set just after "Choices" and about a year before "Responsibilities". Reading them is not essential, although of course I'd be Very Happy if you did! (There'll be at least one more 'Enterprise story' before I move on to where "Responsibilities" left off.) It's P/T but should really be Paris/Riker, as the two establish their relationship as commanding officers.

In my stories – even one as profoundly shallow as this - I do like to examine certain questions. Here, it's this: Ever wonder what goes into one of those Big Diplomatic Events that you see snippets of on the news? (Alas, no one like Tom Paris ever shows up at these things, and Captain Kirk just turned down a chance to become Canada's new Governor General. Until either of them changes their mind, I write fan fiction.) A side question is just how Tom might deal with some of his old demons when he has to let them out to play.

Finally, I've been trying for years to make sense of that great Bob Dylan ballad "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts". I still haven't, but I blame that song, Kenny Rogers, and an inspiring exchange with a fellow author on the topic of leather jackets for some of the images dancing behind my retinas as I write.

DISCLAIMER: Paramount owns everything but the story and the characters you have never heard of. I write for fun, not profit. The image used as the cover for this story belongs to karracaz, whose astonishing work can be found on "deviantart" and who kindly gave me permission to use it here.


By Alpha Flyer

Rule #1: Few Things Are Ever As They Appear

"A real diplomat is one who can cut his neighbour's throat without having his neighbour notice it." Trygve Lie

Nardik space station is as close to the Neutral Zone as one can get and still legally dock a shuttle – registered or otherwise. It is the kind of place, owned and run by who knows what private interests, where people in Starfleet uniform walk around in groups of four and well-armed, if at all; a place where the scum of the Alpha Quadrant meets and mingles, always less than gracefully and often with deadly results.

Political agendas, if they exist at all in a place such as this, are a distinctly mixed and highly merchantable bag, ready for sale to the highest bidder. The market – buyers and sellers both - include mercenaries, smugglers of people or of things, and the occasional ex-tyrant or war criminal on the run.

On the night in question, as on any night, the presumptuously named Starlight Lounge was dimly lit. It was free from unnecessary decorative grace notes, in keeping with its patrons' preference for shadows, dark corners and clean getaways. The bar was a roughly welded and riveted hunk of black metal that could once have been a garbage scow. The smoke that hung over the tables reeked of a hundred substances, most of them good for one-to-five in a Federal Rehab colony. The fumes mingled with the pungent smell of drinks native to a dozen species, all encouraging consumers to find courage or oblivion in a bottle; traces of vomit and other unspeakable fluids glistened on the floor.

The tall, fair-haired human walked through the door of the bar as if he'd been there a thousand times before, this or other places like it. He didn't swagger – swaggering is for people who are trying to pretend they are something they're not. He had no need of that, so much was clear to those who were watching his arrival under lidded eyes.

He'd definitely been in joints like this one before, based on the precautions he took before committing to deeper entry. His crystal-clear sapphire eyes scanned for exits and places where weapons could be concealed or refuge taken in a fight; along the way, they took inventory of the various patrons and their manner of dress, species, state of inebriation, visible side arms and general disposition.

The hard, cynical look in those remarkable eyes told everyone looking for an easy mark that they would be out of luck here; a couple of those who had turned around at his entry, to size him up as a prospect for fleecing or assault, shrugged and went back to their drinks, his presence already dismissed and forgotten. He spotted them easily, took note.

He was lean but solidly muscled, and apart from a pair of Nausicaans the tallest man in the bar, one of only three or four humans. His scuffed black leather jacket looked like it had seen hard use; he wore it over a white T-shirt that emphasized a well-defined, masculine chest and flat stomach. A small, dull metallic chain and the outline of something that might be a pendant could just be made out underneath; people in these parts liked to keep their ID and blood type carved into a handy metal tag. The collar of the shirt dipped just deep enough to show a few reddish curls of chest hair, as well as a blue serial number tattooed into the base of his throat, lengthwise along the jugular vein.

He'd done time.

In this place, almost anyone could tell those marks; many bore them. Most who did covered them up. They couldn't be faked, not that anyone would want to. Why attract the Fed's or the Fleet's attention if you didn't have to? That he displayed them the way he did marked him as political, former Maquis probably; they tended to be proud of these things, wore them like a badge of honour.

Mercenary then, not smuggler. The latter tended to hide their marks, provided they ever got out of prison early enough to display them on anything other than mottled, sagging skin.

His examination of the facility complete and his target acquired, the tall ex-con strode straight towards the female Andorian who was sitting alone at the bar, obviously waiting for someone. She was nursing a glass of Romulan ale as blue as her skin, her side arm on the table in front of her; she was one of only a handful of women in the joint, and the only one not obviously working.

Despite that, none of the men seemed keen to go near her. Andorian women were many things, but easy wasn't among them, unless they really liked someone. This one looked, moreover, like she could use that side arm. She was tall for an Andorian, built like a member of the Imperial Guard - lithe and sinewy, white blonde hair cut almost boyishly short; strong hands, used to wielding a weapon or crushing a throat. Her antennae were rotating and pointing at parts of the room in seemingly random patters that were likely anything but. Her blue skin looked almost navy in the dim light.

She had noticed the man coming in, felt his sapphire eyes rake her body. Her nostrils flared a little and she watched his every move like a cat, small pink tongue running across her lips in predatory anticipation. She had a taste for humans, you could tell by the way she put one of her feet on the rung of a chair to open her stance a little, the way she pulled back her shoulders to make her breasts jut out at his approach. The not-so-subtle invitation was echoed by her antennae, which were now starting to sway towards him.

He noticed, and a satisfied, slightly smug smile momentarily curled his lips.

On his way to the bar the human wordlessly brushed off like so much lint a short and stubby Ferengi who, in the oblivious way of his people, was trying to glue himself to the newcomer in order to sell him some unwanted trinket or other. The man didn't even waste a look down at the hawker, instead staring straight over the bald, bulbous head to give the Nausicaans a curt nod of acknowledgment as he passed.

Nausicaans. You don't want to show them too much respect or they think you're weak, but if you ignore them, they get pissed off; either way you end up on the floor - dead, maimed, or worse. Best thing is to pretend you've known them for a while, preferably as equals, and chances are you'll be fine - they're drunk half the time and can't remember one space station acquaintance or fellow mercenary from one day to the next. The fact that he knew this, or else really was acquainted with the two biggest killing machines in the bar, was not lost on the few remaining watchers and they too lowered their eyes.

Now the only eyes still actively tracking the human's progress across the smoky floor were the yellowish-green ones of the Andorian female. Her slitted pupils dilated a little as she took in his long, leather-clad legs and the lithe, athletic grace of his movements, always returning to those blue, blue eyes. Her tongue darted out again, this time wetting her lips until they glistened. Her mouth remained open a little, and her antennae started a sinuous, sensuous dance in his direction.

The short trip to the bar complete, the newcomer leaned up against it facing out to the room, his face half-turned towards her. The taps from which the various libations were drawn stood sentinel between him and the proprietor, as good a protection against a sudden move from that quarter as anything. The man wouldn't be able to reach for him, and no publican in this region of space would risk his inventory by inviting a phaser blast.

"Synthale, Irish," he tossed over his shoulder as he hooked his left thumb into his belt, in the process pushing his leather jacket back just far enough that the well-worn holster of a regenerative phaser became visible. His observant eyes again took inventory of all those who drew slightly back at the sight - perhaps rethinking some initiative or other - and those who pursed their lips in appreciation and calculation at the sight of the expensive weapon. One of the Nausicaans raised a furry eyebrow.

His drink in hand, he took a sip and faced the Andorian. Blue eyes bored into yellow-green ones as he made a slow show of licking the pale foam off his lips. Her mouth opened further under his direct, challenging gaze.

"So," he said, his voice a husky drawl, "I hear you need a pilot."

If his directness startled her, she didn't show it, although a trained eye might have spotted a slight twitch in her antennae. "What makes you think that?" she asked suspiciously, her hand none-too-subtly stroking the hilt of her side arm now. "Maybe I have one already." The weapon was a classic Andorian dagger with a thickened hilt, suggesting a concealed phaser attachment. Imperial Guard issue, judging by the crystal snowflake carved into the nob.

"I think I figured out you could use one when I stepped over this body in the corridor outside Finnegan's Bar, and one of the guys going through his pockets said 'Shame he's dead. That'll piss off that Andorian bitch in the Lounge. He was supposed to fly her to Nadoo IV tomorrow'. Or words to that effect." He took another sip of his ale, another slow lick of the lips. Her antennae quivered at the sight of his tongue, even as she digested the information he had just provided.

"Assuming that's true and my … arrangementreally has fallen through, just why should I hire you?" she purred, stroking her weapon again, the hilt this time, taking great care that he saw her fondle the thickening nub at the end.

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Three reasons. One, I'm the best you're likely to find in these parts. Two, I'm willing and available. Three …" and with that he reached around her waist and pulled her tight to his body, grinding her hips into his groin. "You want me. I can tell."

He bent down slowly, touched her lips to his. As his mouth opened under her questing tongue, as she clawed at his chest with her finger nails and as he felt his blood involuntarily rush to some highly inappropriate parts of his anatomy, one thought above all raced through Tom Paris' mind, over and over:

Oh, hell. B'Elanna's gonna kill me.