AN: Well, here it is, the final chapter. I may return to this story, since I am rather fond of Ro Laren, some day in the future. For all of the kind reviews, I thank you.

CHAPTER 6: The Green Stuff

"It's been a long time since I felt like I belonged somewhere…" His voice trailed off as he finished telling Guinan his story. "That's what Laren told me, right before she asked me to convey her apologies to the captain. Her only explanation as to why…" He contemplated Ro Laren's words to him as he was still trying to understand how she could betray Starfleet. And betray Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the events of the day. How she'd awakened him in the early hours to make such passionate love with him. She had seemed desperate. That was when he knew for sure what her decision would be. And how he'd done nothing to change her mind. Or stop her…

Guinan's voice brought him back to Ten Forward.

"I thought that's why she'd done it," Guinan observed as she finished off the dregs of the bottle. "It makes sense in a Ro sort of way. Did she say anything else?"

"Nothing of importance before she pointed her phaser at me. We didn't exchange too many intimate confidences after that."

Guinan eyed him, speculating about many things. "You knew what she was going to do though, didn't you?"

Will ignored this accusation from Guinan, not wanting to lend any credence to her mounting suspicions. "If I had known for sure, I would have stopped her."

"Would you have?" Guinan whispered to the stars since she knew that Riker wouldn't give voice to an answer for that question.

"I still can't believe that Ro did it. She'll be branded a traitor for the rest of her life."

"Do you really think that Ro Laren is a traitor, Will Riker?"

He deliberately ignored this question too.

She offered Will one of her better inscrutable smiles. She had a sneaking suspicion that there would come a time when Ro Laren would wear a Starfleet uniform again - though not in the near future. "You don't," she pronounced. She didn't disguise the satisfaction that she felt upon arriving at this conclusion.

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to. I know your soul, Will Riker."

"I don't think so."

Guinan softly laughed. "Always have. Always will, Will Riker. You should know that by now. It's one of the reasons why the captain keeps me around. I like to shake things up." She watched Riker drink some more. "But you know what's really important?" He shook his head, not trusting his tongue to provide an intelligent response. "Ro Laren didn't betray Ro Laren. And that's what counts in the celestial scheme of things."

"She betrayed Captain Picard instead," he shot back. He drained the last of his whiskey and put his tumbler down onto the table, with a thunk. "And that's something I won't forgive."

"You will when Captain Picard forgives her."

"He won't."

"He will. Jean-Luc is the reason as to why Ro Laren got into this mess in the first place. Our captain knows that he made a major mistake in the way that he handled Ro Laren in this situation." She folded her arms, her brown cuffs fluttering, and studied Riker some more, trying to decide if he was capable of making it back to his quarters without her assistance. "Ro Laren is the one who'll have to pay the price for his mistake. Picard should have never put Laren into the middle of an ethical dilemma that was created by bureaucrats and the doddering idiots of the Admiralty. Eventually, Jean-Luc will even get around to admitting his mistake out loud - or at least, writing of his conclusion in an official report or two."

"You sound like your sympathies lie with the Maquis, Guinan."

"They do. I like the Maquis, Will. I will always champion the rights of a people over the rights of useless bureaucratic functionaries who serve every master except the people who voted for them. You're forgetting where I came from, Will…"

"You know, you've never told me that whole story, Guinan."

The El Aurelian merely nodded. "Oh, well one day I will then, when you're a captain too…"

"Huh?" Will wasn't quite grasping the point that Guinan was implying at this juncture of their night. His head wasn't all too clear at the moment.

"Whether you'll admit it or not, you know that the Federation bungled the negotiations with the Cardassians from the get-go. The politicians forgot about what they were doing to the little people who actually live in the Zone. The Maquis is a justified response." She eyed him. "And don't tell me that you don't sort of agree with some of what I've said."

"Guinan…" He stood as if he wanted to declare something more. But the alcohol that he'd been imbibing hit him full force, like a soliton wave. His knees wobbled as he sat back down. He forgot what it was that he was going to say.

She observed his condition, and sighed. "You Humans never could hold your liquor worth a damn. Unlike my uncle Terkim…" She sighed again. "Not even Jean-Luc could…" She shook her head as she eyed the soused commander. "Give me a drunken Vulcan any day for that's when their logic arguments really get interesting…" She picked up Riker's left arm and tried to tug the First Officer of the Enterprise to his feet. He teetered. "Time to say goodnight, my friend." She pressed the hypospray into Will's forearm. He stumbled. She sighed. And then she shoved him back down into his chair. She leaned over and bapped his comm badge. "Guinan to Mr. Data."

"Yes, Guinan?" was the android's polite, immediate response.

"Are you anywhere near a transporter pad?"

"Yes, Guinan. I am in the corridor by transporter room three. Do you need some assistance?"

"Can you beam Commander Riker to his quarters on the q.t.?"

It took Data a few seconds to respond to her request. "I am inside the transporter room, alone, as you requested. Is Commander Riker ill?"

"He's asleep in Ten Forward, Data. And I don't wish to awaken him. Or cause unnecessary gossip. He's had a couple of brutal days… and nights…"

"Understood, Guinan. I will beam Commander Riker to his bed."

She ruffled Will's hair before she stepped aside. "Go to bed, Will Riker. And for a change - alone. And this time, get some sleep," was her parting observation as she watched him sparkle away. "And maybe, one of these decades, I'll tell you the absolute truth about how I remember meeting Jean-Luc Picard and why he's in my eternal debt. Just like you will be one day…"

With a sigh, she walked behind her bar, deposited the glasses and her tote bag in a cubbyhole, and picked up a bottle of the green stuff - Aldebaran whiskey.

"I think that Jean-Luc should just about be ready for me now…"

In his ready room, the captain of the Enterprise poured himself a second dose of green medicine. But he didn't touch it. He would permit himself this indulgence later. Right now, he still had to read and analyze Will Riker's report. And then he had to write his own formal report.

As he read Will's report one more time, he began to realize how skillfully Will had written his formal report. And it was a written report that was a masterpiece of intimation. Part of Picard admired Riker's subtle condemnation of the admiralty even as his XO described in sparsely chosen words the events of his mission. Will was trying to exonerate Ro Laren in spite of how her own actions had damned her.

Picard carefully considered what he had to do. Will had already filed his report, which meant that what the captain wrote would have to shift the blame and the suspicions for the failed mission off the shoulders of his First Officer and former pilot, and onto his own, where such condemnation really belonged. And so he wrote. And did what his honor dictated.

An hour later, he reached for his whiskey.

"Put it down, Johnny boy."

Startled, he looked up from his desk to observe the ship's barkeep standing in his ready room doorway. She hadn't buzzed. And yet somehow, she had entered his ready room, unnoticed. She correctly interpreted the annoyed look that he glared at her. "And if you think I'm ever going to tell you how I just did what I did…"

He sighed, knowing that she was a lady who was rarely inclined to reveal her mysteries, in spite of how they bedeviled him.

"Guinan. I am not in the mood."

"I know. That's why I'm here." She glanced about the darkened ready room lit only by his desk light and the light from Livingston's aquarium. And then studied the face of her friend. He looked overwhelmingly exhausted. And broken-hearted.

He wearily sighed, flinching under her inspection. "Guinan…"

"I'm not here to harangue you, Jean-Luc. From the looks of things, you've already done a pretty good job of flagellating yourself. I'm just here to offer you some perspective."

He considered her words for a moment, before he whispered, "Perspective?"

She nodded. "Ro did what she had to do. You've done what you must do." She plopped down on the chair in front of his desk. "And I'm the one left to pick up the pieces…"

"Guinan, I do not need your assistance."

"I agree. You don't need me hanging around. You just simply like me hanging around."

In spite of himself, Jean-Luc let a glimmer of a smile cross his lips. "That I do, Madam. That I do."

"You finished?" She nodded her head at his terminal.

"Yes." He glanced over at his now shut down terminal. Only the Starfleet logo was on the screen at the moment. "The die is cast…"

"It will turn out all right, Jean-Luc. Laren is a survivor." She raised an eyebrow. "So are you." She studied him again for a moment, before she added, "You'll be friends again, one day."

"Perhaps." He stood and then watched his friend drink his drink. "But I will never trust Ro Laren again, Guinan."

"Didn't say that you had to do that, Jean-Luc." She lifted up the bottle she'd been holding since she'd entered the room. "I've brought the really good stuff. So put your bottle away, and let us retire to your quarters."

"Guinan…, I, uh…"

"You need a friend tonight, Jean-Luc. Not a lover." She held out her hand to him. He took it. "So come, leave the Gamma shift to the peace and relaxation of knowing that the captain is not on the bridge. Let Mr. Data be in command for a while."

"Will's off duty?"

"It's a good thing he is," she knowingly grinned.

Jean-Luc glanced at the stars. "Then I cannot…"

"Stuff it, Jean-Luc." On his glare, she added, "Oh, all right. I won't let you get drunk tonight, Jean-Luc."

"How magnanimous of you."

"Actually, it is. I was in the mood for going on a real toot."

"Guinan, maybe this time, I'll be the one to put you to bed - in your quarters."

She laughed at this. "Perhaps we'd better go to my place, then. In my quarters we won't be interrupted. Only Mr. Data will know where you are."

"I haven't told Mr. Data…"

"Jean-Luc, Mr. Data will always know where you are when you're on board this ship."

He nodded, accepting the truth of her words. He glanced down at his desk. "Go along, Guinan." He smiled as he jerked his head in the direction of the ready room door. "I'll be coming along, shortly. There's just one more thing that I must do."

Her gaze narrowed as she considered the man and his mood. She abruptly stood and announced, "I'll be waiting." She waggled her bottle of green stuff in front of his face. "Trust me, you don't want to miss this." And then she turned and silently disappeared through the doorway.

Picard idly wondered if anyone on the bridge, other that Mr. Data, would even notice her presence. Guinan did have a way about her…If she didn't want to be noticed, she wasn't.

Then he sat down at his terminal, and finished fulfilling his honor's duty. He owed his former officer this much at least. He typed out a short message that he sent to the last known contact for Ro Laren.

"I understand. J."

And then he left to go to Guinan's quarters.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

The moon glide was beautiful tonight. Her soul needed to watch the beautiful scene as moon beams danced across the flowing river. It was peaceful here - the place where she had loved Riker for too short a time. She rested against part of the big rock that had once sheltered them. And thought about the lover that she had lost. And the man that she had betrayed.

She sobbed some more. And then permitted the peace of this place to finally flow over her. After a while, she leaned back and watched the stars. The tears had dried on Ro Laren's cheeks. She rubbed them.

And then she contemplated Captain Picard's message. She knew that he hadn't forgiven her. That would have been too much to expect. But at least, she now knew that he understood her. And that he'd thought well enough of her and had been kind enough to at least grant her his peace.

She would forever owe Captain Picard.

And be loyal to him.

In her own way.