A little something for the holiday season, first written in the fall of 1997, not long after I completed "The Mercenary." It's a prequel to that tale.
Happy Holidays, Cadet Ro
by J. A. Toner - a.k.a jamelia
The morning was misty. Cadet Paris could barely see 10 meters ahead of him as he moved along the sidewalk to his first class. Reacting to the chill moist air, Tom slipped the tab of his uniform as high up his neck as it would go, kicking himself for ignoring that little voice in his head that had warned him to throw on his jacket before he left his quarters. He, of all people, should know what late November mist felt like. He'd spent enough of his life in San Francisco to know. Swearing silently to himself, he stretched his long legs to hustle himself to the sanctuary of his class.
The footsteps he heard coming from behind him were just as rushed, and the pattern was familiar. He knew who was coming behind him, at a pace nearer to a run than a walk.
"Good morning, Cadet. Fancy meeting you here," Tom said. By stopping suddenly and pivoting on his heel, he blocked the tall, coltish young woman's path, forcing her to skid to a stop to avoid running into him.
The glare coming from her eyes would have quelled a less ebullient spirit. Tom Paris, however, was not intimidated, having fielded far more powerful stares from his father for as long as he could remember. The slightly off-kilter grin on the tall youth's face was one that, from long practice, he could assume automatically whenever a gleam of disapproval flashed in his direction.
Usually, the response was a pursing of the lips, a hardening of the eyes, and a lecture about displaying the proper attitude and respect for one's father. Since the willowy girl facing him was about as far from his father as one could get, however, Tom received instead a crooked suggestion of smile back, along with the comment, "A little cool this morning to be out without a jacket, isn't it, Paris? Or do you enjoy walking in bone-chilling fog?"
"Bone-chilling? Why, compared to our usual mists, this is nothing," he said, jauntily, but then added, "Actually, I'm freezing my butt off."
A grunt that might have been half of a laugh bubbled from her lips. "Then we'd better get to 'Studies in Cultural Traditions of Federation Worlds' as soon as we can. Wouldn't want to damage that posterior of yours."
Grinning broadly, Tom waved her on past him with the hand that was free of study padds before matching her steps stride for stride down the walkway.
Neither one spoke as they approached their destination, as usual. This "accidental meeting" was getting to be something of a routine. Tom wondered if Ro deliberately left their student block after him so she could catch up. It was hard to say exactly what motivated the Bajoran cadet; he'd seldom in his life met anyone who led such a solitary existence. Because she kept to herself, studying constantly, Tom felt that these isolated moments in her company were a privilege. He was aware that he was one of the few cadets she even spoke with for more than a minute at a time, yet of all the cadets at Starfleet Academy, Ro Laren appeared less impressed by his credentials as the son of a Starfleet admiral than anyone else. And that was fine with Tom Paris. He was royally sick of being "Owen Paris' boy."
Taking the broad stairs that led to the entrance of the Hall of Cultures two at a time, as usual, the command-track cadets had reached the halfway point before a voice sounded behind them. "Cadet Laren, I need to speak with you."
Tom could almost feel the grimace that spread across his companion's face as she turned to comply with the order.
"I'll wait for you up at the entrance, Cadet RO," Tom said, emphasizing the proper way to address her.
"Cadet Ro?" The dormitory proctor who was addressing them looked puzzled.
"The Bajoran family name is first, Commander, and is always used in situations like this," Tom replied helpfully. Ro glanced up at him warningly. There was only the slightest hint of insolence in his tone, but Ro had picked up on it.
"Ah, I see. Pardon my mistake. And you, aren't you . . . " Blue eyes locked with brown as the usual litany about Admiral Paris' son giving the admiral the proctor's greetings was repeated. Tom politely nodded his head to acknowledge the comment, but this would be another case of "in one ear, out the other." Such requests were made of Tom several times a day. Since he could never hope to recall the greeting of every "brown-noser" who wished to be remembered to the admiral, Tom had made it a policy not to pass on any.
The proctor turned back to Cadet Ro. "Cadet, have you made your holiday plans yet? We need to know if your student block will have to be staffed for the entire holiday season." The proctor's tone of voice carried a subtext.
"I'm still working on it, Commander." The young woman extinguished the quaver she felt beginning to come into her voice. She did not want to appear weak in front of the proctor, or before Tom, for that matter.
"Well, I need to know by the end of the week so that I know what duty assignments to make for chaperones." The lieutenant commander nodded his head and strode purposefully away.
Tom, who had never reached the entrance doors, fell back into step with Ro. "What was that all about? Stevens doesn't usually have much to do with the cadets. He's more involved with personnel assignments."
"It's nothing, Paris. Don't worry about it."
Hearing by her tone of voice that she wanted to drop the subject, Tom blithely went on, "Sorry about that. I thought I'd managed to get through to everyone here about the proper way to address a Bajoran. Must've missed Lieutenant Commander Stevens."
"I know you tried, Tom. And I do appreciate it. I don't know why it bothers me so much." As Tom pulled open the entrance door and waved Ro inside the building, she turned back to face him. "No, Paris. I think I owe you the truth. I know exactly why it bothers me so much."
Tom looked at her expectantly. "If you tell me, maybe I can help."
Ro huffed out a small puff of air and smiled, something she very seldom did. "Oh, you already have helped, just by grabbing the ear of everyone you could to let them know the proper way to address me. You see, for decades, just about the only thing a Bajoran has had to call her own has been her name. It really irritates me when I can't even have it said the right way."
"Glad to be of service." Tom's answering smile was gracious and covered his furiously racing thoughts. He had guessed long ago that her sensitivity to the proper use of her name was connected to the Bajoran people's bitter fate: exile from their home planet, or life as a subjugated people under the Cardassians. There was more to this, though. Stevens was on her back about holiday plans, and that bothered her, for some reason. Her smile hadn't reached her eyes, and as Ro glanced away from him, he detected a spark of pain in their dark depths.
This would bear a little investigation.
The investigation didn't take long.
Cadet Ro had nowhere to go for the holidays. Although she had offered to move into a hotel or boarding home for the three-week break (though she didn't have the available credits to pay for it), even this plan was denied her. Five decades before, a cadet forced to dwell in a boarding home during a school break had been found dead under suspicious circumstances. Sensitive to the resultant firestorm of bad publicity and criticism that the Academy was not taking proper responsibility of the young people in their care, especially those from off-world, the Starfleet hierarchy had established a policy: all cadets were to remain on campus during school breaks unless they were going home to their families or to a friend's home.
This proviso was not usually much of a hardship. Virtually all cadets made at least one good friend on campus who was only too glad to take them in for the holidays. Cadet Ro's isolation had prevented that.
Assistant Proctors Simmons and Hartley had been told to expect to spend their holidays on campus. They complained bitterly to everyone that they couldn't believe their own holiday plans would be wrecked by one anti-social cadet.
A couple of avenues immediately came to Tom's mind that could help Cadet Ro. The first was the straightforward method. Tom went to his father, requesting permission to invite Ro to the Paris home for the holidays. His mother was willing, as long as Admiral Paris was. The admiral was not. Tom's presence at various receptions would be required, and Cadet Ro really would not be comfortable. There were political considerations that the admiral could not ignore. A lot of people had lost relatives during the recent hostilities between the Cardassians and the Federation, which many believed had been sparked by Bajoran terrorists. Inviting a Bajoran cadet to the home of one of Starfleet's top admirals could be problematic, considering the many diplomats that dropped in during the holidays. Surely Tom could see it was impossible.
Of course, Tom could see how difficult it was. Thank you for your time, sir.
Time for Plan B.
"Paris, what is going on with you?" Ro Laren stomped into the study lounge off their individual dormitory rooms, a common room shared with six other cadets. "You aren't serious about this 'not going home' stuff, are you?"
Tom looked up from the old-fashioned paper book that he was reading. "Sure I'm serious. All those diplomatic functions that my father will have going for 'the season' don't appeal to me. If you're going to be here, there's no reason I have to put up with all of that boring 'admiral's family' crap. I'd rather spend the time studying. I could use it, don't you think?"
"It makes no sense. You have a place to go."
"Same place you've got to go. Here."
"Tom, this isn't some game you're playing with your father, is it?"
"It isn't a game, Ro. I'd prefer to keep you company during the break." He leaned in towards her with a conspiratorial grin. "If it bugs my father, that's just a bonus."
"Paris!" Ro shook her head, her Bajoran earring of chains and dangles flashing bits of reflected light from the study room lamps. After the official school day was over, the banned piece of jewelry promptly reappeared on her person.
Her eyes suddenly hardened. "You don't have . . . ulterior motives, here, do you? I mean, you understand that I just don't . . . "
"Cadet Ro, you've made it very clear you aren't interested in any romantic entanglements with me. I respect that. Honestly. I just don't like to think about a classmate spending the holidays alone with two charmers like Simmons and Hartley." He gave a mock shudder, which elicited a smirking laugh from Ro. Neither of them cared much for the two proctors. Both had a habit of sticking their noses into the private business of cadets under their supervision, and neither had any scruples about spreading what they learned around campus. The scuttlebutt was that these two had been given the "honor" of staying with Ro as punishment for their lack of discretion, though none of the higher-ups had been willing to confirm it.
Ro stared into those clear eyes for a few moments longer, trying to decide if Cadet Paris was sincere or not. She felt that he was, but she couldn't be sure. All of those diplomatic functions that little Tommy Paris had had to endure when young had taught him to assume a veneer of sincerity, even when he wanted to be a continent away from wherever he happened to be. His mask was up, and Ro could not perceive Tom's real motives. Shrugging her shoulders in confusion, she slipped away to her own room.
As Tom watched her walk gracefully away, he thought that it was a pity that Cadet Ro Laren was not interested in any romantic entanglements. She made Suzy Crabtree seem like somebody's kid sister.
Over the next couple of days, a stream of visitors, most of them holding ranks that were not usually seen in student housing except on inspection days, descended upon the study lounge. Walks across campus between classes were punctuated by "chats" with others of high rank. No, Cadet Paris is quite content staying in student housing for the holiday break. Cadet Paris would like to spend the holidays with Cadet Ro. The admiral certainly understands that a bond between those in the same unit should be respected; in fact, he undoubtedly approves of the development of this attention to duty in his son.
On the third evening, Cadet Ro found a message on her terminal:
Admiral and Mrs. Owen Paris cordially invite Cadet Ro Laren to spend the holidays with their family at their home.
We look forward to your visit at this happy and joyous time of the year.
Admiral Owen Paris
The same message appeared on Cadet Paris' terminal, with the addendum: You win. Dad.
Any qualms Cadet Ro may have had about accepting an invitation that had been elicited from an admiral under duress quickly vanished when she arrived at the Paris home. Alicia Paris was an accomplished, gracious hostess who put Ro at her ease.
Showing the cadet to the room she was to occupy during the visit, Tom's mother said briskly, "The bathroom facilities are through that door over there. Here's the closet. The upstairs study is usually in use by my husband in the evenings, but feel free to use it at any time during the day. If you're interested in a quiet place to read, it really is the best place. Even if he's there, you can ask if he'd mind your company - Owen likes to pretend to be gruff, but having someone else work up there with him doesn't bother him. It's mindless chatter he doesn't like. That's why he retreats up here, you know. The library downstairs has become the meeting place for my daughters and their chums. Especially of the male variety, if you know what I mean!"
"Thank you, Mrs. Paris. I appreciate all of this. Really, it's quite overwhelming."
"Alicia, dear. Call me Alicia. I hope you'll be comfortable here."
A sardonic look could not be erased from Ro's face, although she tried. "Believe me, Mrs. Paris, compared to some of the places I've been forced to sleep, this is paradise. I'm sure I'll be comfortable."
Mrs. Paris patted the girl on the shoulder as she walked out of the room. At the top of the steps she paused and looked back towards the closed door of the room which Ro occupied. She shook her head slightly, wearing a small but proud smile. How like her only son it was to be friendly to a refugee, to someone who really needed a friend.
After she was alone, Ro sat down on the bed. Mrs. Paris really was a nice woman. Thinking about Tom's mother made Ro wonder about her own. Twelve years before, only a year after Ro's father had been put to death by the Cardassians in front his horrified, seven-year-old daughter, Ro's mother disappeared from the relocation camp on Bajor where the two of them had been living. She'd never come back.
There was something about Alicia Paris that reminded Ro of her mother. Was it because both of them were mothers? Ro smiled at that thought. More likely, Ro was comfortable with her because Alicia reminded her of her classmate. Having already met the admiral, Ro could see that Tom's personality - not to mention his looks - were far closer to his mother's than to his father's.
"Are we getting a real tree this year?" asked Kathleen over the clinking of silverware on genuine, manufactured-rather-than-replicated porcelain plates, something that Ro had seldom seen before, let alone used.
"Of course we are. Expense be darned, right, Dad?" added Moira.
"I don't know; we'll have to see. They're very costly."
Tom leaned over towards Ro. "We go through this every year, and every year we get a real tree."
Ro looked at Tom with some confusion. "Okay, you do this every year. But what do you mean about getting a real tree? This isn't a very good time of year for planting trees, is it?
"No, I mean the Christmas tree. We get an evergreen that's been cut from a tree farm and put it in the house."
"You put a dead tree in your house? Whatever for?"
"We put lights and ornaments and all sorts of neat things on it, to decorate it. It's an old tradition that goes back hundreds of years, maybe thousands. The tree represents rebirth, since it's an evergreen. Some religions use it as a symbol of eternal life. After the holidays, the tree is turned into mulch for the gardens around here, so it isn't really wasted."
Ro totally missed the reference to mulch. "Religions? I was told that Earth was a world that didn't believe in religions. That everyone believed that it was all just so much superstition."
Tom glanced quickly across the dinner table at his mother, who interjected, "Some of us don't think it's fair to equate faith with superstition, Cadet Ro. We try to be open-minded and accept all belief systems, whether they're from an indigenous Terran culture or from the peoples of other planets. With the Prime Directive and the IDIC principle, the Federation has really codified tolerance, hasn't it, my dear?"
From the way Mrs. Paris smiled at the admiral, Ro decided she must have managed to reopen an old argument. She felt helpless to circumvent what she'd unwittingly started. Tom promptly came to the rescue.
"Although we have a Christmas Tree, we follow lots of other old traditions, too. In fact, downtown this entire month is the Holiday Festival. A lot of the winter holidays celebrated around good old Terra are celebrated now, even though some traditionally occur a few weeks before or after New Year's. That's the one holiday everyone celebrates. I'll take you to some of the events, Ro. You can see everything from dancing dragons to carol singers to flying kites! I'm sure you'll have a great time!"
"Sure, Tom. I'd like that."
"First, though, we have to decorate the house, right, Mom?"
Alicia Paris smiled as she nodded. "You know, we could buy a live tree this year. There's that corner spot in the back garden where we had to take the other evergreen down this fall. Perhaps we could plant the tree there after the holidays."
"Yeah, we'd have 'Ro's Tree' to remember this year by." Tom winked at Ro.
A chorus of boos for Tom's pun arose from the table. Everyone chattered easily, except for Admiral Paris, whose entire attention was on the plate of food before him.
The next day was spent carrying plastic crates filled with all kinds of fascinating objects down from the attic. Ro was floored by the variety of objects that had been lovingly hoarded, some for many decades. Nothing bespoke the abundance of the home world of the Federation more than the luxury of being able to redecorate a home for only a few weeks out of an entire year. Several boxes were set aside immediately "for the tree," but the rest were unpacked and their contents distributed around the admiral's spacious home. Glittering wall hangings, ropes of crystalline beads, and figurines of a laughing fellow with a white beard and bright red clothes all found their way onto walls, along banisters, and on shelving.
"I think I know the real reason you wanted me to come here, Paris," Ro muttered to him at one point. "You wanted an extra pair of hands to help unpack all of this!"
"You got me, Ro. Can't deny it. Extra helpers make the work light, right, Mom?"
His mother laughed to hear her old saying repeated back to her. "Drafting another helper isn't the only reason, though. We're glad to have you here. Tell us, are there any festivals or holidays on Bajor like Christmas?"
Ro thought a moment. She wasn't quite sure what she should say, but since the admiral wasn't around, at least she couldn't be accused of getting political for his benefit. "There used to be, Mrs. Paris. I mean, Alicia," she added, when Tom's mother arched her brow. "With the Occupation, a lot of the old festivals have been ignored, or so I've been told. There isn't a whole lot to celebrate, and the Cardassians have suppressed all but their own holidays. There's one I know from the refugee camps. I don't know how much it's celebrated on Bajor right now. It's the Gratitude Festival. Even when there isn't much to eat or drink in the camps, it's still better than being enslaved on Bajor, so everyone celebrates that one."
There was a moment of awkward silence before Mrs. Paris asked, "What exactly happens at this Gratitude Festival, Ro?"
"Well, we have a feast of holiday foods. There are parties and games. And then there's . . . this will sound kind of silly." Ro stopped, her face flushing slightly.
"Sillier than dragging a dead tree into a house, putting on lights and ornaments, and singing songs around it?" asked Kathleen.
Joining in the laughter, Ro shrugged her shoulders. "Okay, maybe it's no sillier than that. We take long slips of paper and write our troubles on them. Then we burn the scrolls of paper in the flame of a candle to make our troubles go away. See, silly."
"Oh, I don't know about that. It makes just as much sense as writing down a bunch of New Year's resolutions about how you're going to change your life, and then you break every one the first week of the new year," smirked Tom.
"That sounds wonderful. It would be a good New Year's thing, wouldn't it, Mom? Why don't we do it." Moira's suggestion was accepted with smiles all around.
"So, Ro Laren, you have now officially added to the holiday traditions at the Paris home. One more thing we'll pass down from one generation to the next." Tom shot his mother a look, and she grimaced.
"Now, Tom, we have given up some things. We stopped taking you to have your image reproduced with Santa Claus."
"That's only 'cause I don't fit on Santa's lap anymore."
Ro joined in with the laughter, even though she wasn't quite sure what she was laughing about. Still, this holiday season was pretty infectious.
By late that evening the house had been festooned with holiday furbelows. Not one, but two trees had been erected in the parlor. A large cut tree mounted in water-filled a stand was positioned in front of the windows that faced the street. Covered with lights and sparkling ornaments, it was impressive, Ro had to admit. It seemed like something out of a fable rather than a tradition people followed every year. A peek out the door after it was dark that evening confirmed that families living in many of the homes on the street had dressed trees in a similar manner. Most of the doorways and windows were surrounded by lights, some sparkling and multicolored, others white and unblinking like the stars as seen from space.
The second, visible from the dining room, was a small tree with its root ball wrapped for protection. This one had been decorated more modestly. Mrs. Paris and her daughters had taken paper and scissors to make simple ornaments for the small tree while Tom and Ro had spent time in the afternoon digging a hole in the yard for it to be planted later. "Ro's tree, which isn't really a rose tree," Tom kept kidding her. When they came inside after the hole was dug, Ro touched the little tree. Her visit would have a lasting effect on this place, and she was already pleased she'd come.
It was past 0200 when Ro climbed the stairs that evening to retire. Ro, Tom, his sisters, and his mother had sat around the kitchen table talking for a long time after dinner was over. Gradually, the Bajoran cadet revealed things about her life that Tom had not heard in the four months of their acquaintance: concerning the camps on Bajor and the sometimes brutal treatment by the Cardassian guards, of her rescue from the camp she was in when she was fifteen, and about the years she'd spent in a refugee camp before passing the Starfleet entrance exam.
"What made you decide to enter Starfleet instead of joining the Bajoran Resistance?" asked Moira.
"I almost did join the Resistance, but when I was younger, I listened to a lot of conversations I wasn't supposed to hear. Many of the Bajorans in the refugee camps feel the Bajor's best hope is for the Federation to defeat the Cardassians in the current 'hostilities.' They think the Federation might be willing to include the liberation of Bajor as a condition for any peace treaty. So, I thought it would be better for me to do what I could to help the Federation win. Even if the Resistance does get the Cardassians off Bajor, the Occupation has devastated my world. We'll need help to rebuild, and the Federation offers us the best chance for that."
"That's an excellent assessment of the situation, Cadet Ro," said the admiral, as he entered the kitchen. "If that happens, would you leave Starfleet to settle back on Bajor? Maybe raise a family?"
Ro met the eyes of the admiral. "No, that kind of life isn't for me. I can't see me ever having a husband and a family. I would never turn my back on Starfleet, either. Once I make a commitment to something, I stick with it."
"That's easy to say if you haven't met the young man that would make you change your mind."
"That isn't going to happen, sir."
The chill in Ro's voice stopped the conversation for a moment before Kathleen stepped in. "Dad, are we all expected to go to the New Year's Eve Ball again this year?"
"Of course," answered the admiral.
"I saw the perfect outfit downtown in . . . " Talk continued about inconsequential things, but Ro was not a part of the conversation. Wherever her mind had wandered, it was no longer centered on the chatter in the Paris kitchen.
Alicia Paris watched her now-quiet guest, profoundly unsettled. There was something much deeper and graver in this professed dismissal of a personal life than a young woman wanting to devote her life to her career.
A glance at her son increased her anxiety. His eyes never left the young Bajoran, and Tom's own uncharacteristic silence indicated deep thoughts of his own. His mother had seen that expression on his face before, when her son was gazing at his former girlfriend, Suzy Crabtree.
An urge to protect her youngest overwhelmed her, yet Alicia suppressed it. Tom was a young man now. Where he gave his affections was not something his mother could control.
Despite the privileged life of an admiral's wife which she now led, Alicia knew enough about the realities of life to suspect that terrible things had happened to Ro Laren while she was growing up. It was not too difficult to guess at what those terrible things might have been. Even as her heart went out to Ro, she worried about Tom. One of the things she had always liked about her son was the way he was drawn to those who had been bruised by life. Ro's very presence here for the holidays was proof of that. Alicia just hoped Tom was not giving his love to someone who would be unable to return it.
The next few days passed in a whirlwind of activity. Saying he wanted to purchase gifts for his family, Tom dragged Ro from store to kiosk to store and back. Both cadets soon were laden with packages. Ro commented several times about the abundance she saw around her. "This will come to Bajor, too, when there's peace again," Tom assured her. Ro hoped he was right.
Several times, Tom left Ro because he had to "get something that would only bore" her. She finally determined that he was looking for a present for her. Having already decided to purchase a thank-you gift for the admiral and his wife; now Ro had to figure out a way to stretch the meager credits from her Bajoran Orphans-in-Exile Relief Fund allotment to get something for Tom, too. In a way, he deserved it even more than his parents did. If Tom hadn't taken the stand he had, she would not have received the invitation to visit. Ro was having fun; and fun was something she had not known enough of in her life.
In between shopping trips, Tom took her to holiday events held by cultural groups in the city.
"For centuries, San Francisco has been one of the most eclectic of cities. Ethnic groups from all over the world, but particularly from Asia, settled here. So there's lots to see and do, especially at this time of year. What do you want to do, have Chinese food in the 'Town; buy a daruma and have sushi at the Toji festival; eat blintzes and potato pancakes at the kosher place, where they light the Channukah candles? What's it to be?"
"I haven't the faintest idea!" she laughed.
"We'll have to sample them all, then." Tom promptly pulled her into a shop specializing in Polish pierogi.
Christmas Eve. Tom's mother had explained the true significance of the day to her guest after Ro had found Alicia Paris unpacking figurines of people and animals to place in a small wooden stable sitting on the mantle. "Even many of those who do not believe in Jesus as God have acclaimed him as a great prophet."
Ro was astounded. "I had no idea that humans had ever believed in prophets."
Alicia laughed gently, assuring her, "Yes, human beings have their prophets, too. Men of wisdom are not unique to Bajor. Vulcan philosophy has been very popular since the founding of the Federation, but since the Khitomer Accords, there are those that study Klingon culture, too. I'm sure some would be very interested in Bajoran beliefs, Ro. By nature, humans are seekers. Sometimes that is expressed by exploring new worlds in space, sometimes by studying the wise teachings of those from other worlds, as well as from our own."
"Tom told me that San Francisco is 'eclectic.' Is that the right word? I assume it means that many cultures have contributed to the life here."
She nodded her head in agreement, and the two spoke for a while about the various events Tom and Ro had attended.
Alicia finally stated, "You know Ro, when Tom discussed inviting you to visit, I'd assumed we would need universal translators to communicate with you, as we've had to with other cadets from off-world. You speak Federation Standard so well, though - I would have thought you were born here."
"My father began teaching me Federation Standard before I started school. Of course, I also speak Bajoran, and Cardassian was a required subject in school."
"Well, your father must have been quite prescient to know you would need to know how to speak our language. Even with universal translators, it's better to know another language."
"That's true." Seeing that Ro was disturbed by this comment, Alicia sighed inwardly. This girl had certainly lived a hard life. "Ro, would you like to have any decorations brought into your room? We usually put a few little things around. Tommy always had a Santa Claus figure in his room when he was growing up. Is there something connected with that Gratitude Festival that you'd like?"
"Not really. Just strips of paper and candles to burn them when it's time. I wouldn't do that in the bedroom!"
"Would you like a couple of candles for your windows? That's another tradition, you know. A lit candle in a window commemorates those who can't be with you."
Ro thought a moment. "I don't know about in the window, but I wouldn't mind having a set of three candles for my room, if you have them."
Alicia had brought three tall but stout white candles to her room, set onto a tray with a bit of greenery surrounding them.
Ro was staring at them now. They weren't lit, but she knew that they ought to be, on this night, if any. Even though her parents had been stolen from her many light years away from this house, Ro sensed their presence tonight.
Placing the tray on the floor before her, well away from any drapery or bedclothes, Ro fished amongst the greens to find the small box of old-fashioned matches that Alicia had told her were there for her use. Striking one, Ro lit the candles and quietly watched as the flames sputtered and danced, finally settling down to a steady glow.
It had been a long time since Ro Laren had followed the tenets of her religion. Anguished pleas to the Prophets to deliver her from the Cardassian camp on Bajor had been all she could manage; genuine prayer had been difficult for her there. In the refugee camps she had participated in rituals without any semblence of religious thought. Here, in the quiet home of her fellow cadet, Ro sensed an aura of reverence that had eluded her since she was a little child. Pulling herself up on her knees, she steepled her hands in the manner of Bajoran prayer.
After uttering the first few words, however, Ro stopped. Her neck prickled. Someone's eyes were upon her. Raising her own to the door, she could see, framed by the crack of the door she had left ajar, a pair of eyes the color of the clearest of tlitisit stones that could be found on Bajor.
The eyes disappeared, but the door opened a bit. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Ro. I was going to ask if you wanted some cocoa and cookies before you went to bed. I didn't realize that you'd be . . . busy."
"It's all right, Tom. I don't mind. Come on in."
"Oh, I don't know. I'm in my . . . uh . . . robe and pajamas. It might not be a good idea."
"Leave the door open. I can trust you, can't I?"
"Of course you can trust me!" Tom was loud enough in his indignance to cringe when Ro shushed him. He entered the door, leaving the door wide open behind him. Taking a seat on the floor across from Ro, he asked her, "Is this some sort of ritual that's part of the Gratitude Festival?"
"No, Tom. Using candles for prayers is an old custom. In my family, we always used three in a triangle when we prayed. I never found out why, because I know other Bajorans don't do it this way."
Tom hesitated before saying, "I guess you can't ask your parents. I assume they're dead; you never speak of them."
She nodded. Ro presumed her mother was dead, although there had never been any official word, one way or the other. "I was going to pray to the Prophets for the ease of their souls. If you want to stay with me . . . I wouldn't really mind, Tom."
"Sure. I'd like to stay."
Fingers steepled again, Ro began to murmur soft words in a rhythmic pattern. The language was clearly Bajoran, and since Ro stumbled a few times on the words, he guessed that he was listening to some kind of chant or poetic prayer. The cadence changed eventually to become more like ordinary speech. Ro's eyes were dry, yet Tom could see this was touching her deeply.
After she had fallen silent for a few minutes, Tom asked, "Would it be improper to ask what you just said?"
"Not at all. I just said the brief form of the chant for the dead for my parents, and then a prayer to deliver Bajor from its enemies." She hesitated, then went on, "And at the last, I asked for a blessing from the Prophets for all that dwell in this house. Your family has been very kind to me, Tom, but you . . . . " Picking at the greenery on the tray, Ro said softly as she looked back into his face, "I know I haven't been very nice to everyone at the Academy, but that didn't stop you from being nice to me. You've been a friend, Tom, to someone who wasn't acting much like one to you. There's supposed to be a special reward from the Prophets for people who do that. So I think maybe you'll get one, someday."
"Thanks, Ro, but I didn't do anything special. It's a lot easier being friendly than not, most of the time."
"You'll have to teach that to me someday, Tom."
The silence was deep until Tom broke eye contact and brushed a thick shock of red-blond hair off his forehead. "I guess it's time for me to get to my own bed. Big doings tomorrow." As he stood up, he asked, "Are you going to let the candles burn?"
"I was going to, for a while. Do you think your parents would mind?"
"No, especially not tonight. We should move them to a safer place, though."
Tom carefully lifted the tray and placed it on the dresser, well away from the edge. Ro pulled the drapes aside to allow the light to shine out the windows to the street.
"Well, I guess I better turn in. Santa's coming, you know."
As Tom turned to leave, Ro touched him gently on the elbow. "Thanks, Tom. For everything."
A very long moment passed before he said, "It's nothing. See you in the morning."
The next morning was a confusion of ripped-open packages and exclaiming over gifts. Tom laughed when he saw Ro's present to him - a blue kite in the shape of a fish. "For you to fly on New Year's, Tom." Digging under the large Christmas tree, Tom pulled out one shaped remarkably like her present to him. Ro's eyes sparkled when she stripped the wrapping. "A red fish kite! At least we'll both have something to fly."
"With all the hot air Tommy can talk, you shouldn't have any trouble at all getting them both up on New Year's Day," cracked Kathleen, to general hooting and howling.
The rest of the day was restful, with good food and conversation. Friends of the Paris family came in all day and evening to visit. The admiral had always held an "open house" on Christmas Day, preferring not to leave his home. He had enough party-going to do the rest of the holiday season.
For most of the afternoon Ro, dressed in a simple red jumpsuit that suited her pale skin and dark eyes and hair, sat near the window with the winter sun's light splashing on her Bajoran earring. Studying the crinkles at the bridge of Ro's nose and the "eagle" flying just above it, Tom realized just how plain human foreheads were. She was one of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Yet in the daylight hours, something was different, a barrier had come between them that had been absent the night before. Tom had been close to kissing Ro after placing the candles on her dresser. Today, that seemed unthinkable. She was the same Cadet Ro Laren he had known for months, not the girl who prayed in candlelight to the Prophets to reward him for simply being willing to help a friend.
Maybe that was it. Ro wanted a friend. Tom wanted more.
The second week of Ro's visit passed quickly, with many social events that Admiral Owen Paris, his family, and their houseguest were expected to attend. Dressed alike in their dress cadet uniforms, Ro and Tom did their duty, although with some reluctance on Ro's part. Several times, Tom watched as Ro erected the barrier that kept everyone away.
The mistletoe incident was the first. At the reception at Admiral Beck's home on Boxing Day, Tom had noted the sprig of mistletoe hanging in the archway at the entrance to the dance floor. While waiting to go in to dance, Ro on Tom's arm, they stood behind a young couple who noticed the greenery hanging above them. Giggling, the couple embraced and kissed with great enthusiasm. Tom felt Ro tense and looked down to see what appeared to be panic in her eyes.
The Becks had arranged the room in such a way that avoiding the mistletoe would be almost impossible. Ro started to hang back, but Tom pulled her along, giving her a quick buss on the top of the head as they passed underneath the arch. Several officers grinned, commenting that Tom Paris "wasn't like the old man." He didn't care. He'd felt his companion's stiff posture relax once she knew Tom was not going to follow the other couple's lead.
When Ro asked about it later, Tom explained the custom of kissing under mistletoe. Every party after that, Tom saw Ro check the ceiling to mark the location of any white-berried sprigs.
He also noted that although Ro danced with him, she politely and firmly refused all other offers. Finally, Tom told her, "Ro, even if you come to a party with one guy, you know you can dance with others, don't you?"
"I know. I don't want just anyone to hold me like that."
"You let me hold you like that when we're dancing."
"You're different." The finality in her voice made him decide the subject was not worth pursuing.
At the New Year's Eve Ball, Ro admitted her uneasiness when she saw a multitude of many-starred admirals in attendance. "Don't worry, Ro. It's just guys that go to the bathroom like everybody else. Just imagine them naked. Nobody's scary naked."
She looked at him quizzically. His humorous remark had not had the desired effect; if anything, she looked unhappier than she had before. "You know, like 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' "
"What?" Ro asked.
Tom spent several minutes regaling her with the tale of the little boy who was the only one brave enough to tell the king what everyone knew - that his supposedly fabulous new suit of clothing was non-existent. Ro laughed at the story and calmed down, but Tom resolved to stay near her all evening. As they danced, Tom had plenty of time to consider what he had learned about Ro. Reluctantly, he came to the conclusion that she was uncomfortable around men. Even him.
The slight hope Tom had been entertaining that the lovely Bajoran cadet might become more to him than a friend died. He didn't know what had happened to her, but whatever it was, it had made Ro shy away from romance. She was willing to be held and to dance with him. And that was all.
At the chime of 2300 hours, Tom suddenly remembered what everyone would be doing in an hour. Toasting the New Year with champagne or another beverage, singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the top of their voices, wishing everyone a happy 2361 - and kissing each other. If giving Tom a kiss under the mistletoe was too much for Ro, what effect would the round of casual New Year's smooching have on her?
At 2305, Tom asked his parents for permission to walk Ro home.
Permission was readily granted. The admiral was just as happy that his Bajoran house guest would be gone from the party. He'd heard several political comments that he'd thought were in poor taste. Surely they'd upset the girl. She'd be better off home.
Having watched Tom and Ro all evening, Alicia agreed. She saw that Ro had no trouble talking to men; she could stand up for herself, surely. But the simple brushing of a male hand against her made Ro stiffen. Alicia had belatedly realized, as had Tom, what the midnight frenzy might mean to her. Yes, Ro would be better off at home.
The Paris home wasn't far away, and it was a good night for walking. Although the air was chilly, the many people greeting them as they passed helped make it seem warmer. Tom deliberately took a route that passed where he knew a dragon would be dancing in the streets. The bright and sparkling costumes of the lion dancers in the parade diverted the two cadets. Out in the open air, away from the formal social function, Ro seemed much happier.
They were still negotiating crowded streets when the roar went up, "Happy New Year." Firecrackers began to explode at many street corners. Hoarse from yelling out seasonal greetings and nervous about several men who seemed to be eyeing his classmate, Tom yelled to her, "Let's cut through this side street and get home. Maybe we can find some 'wassail' to drink."
Although breathless from the rapid climb up the hill, Ro had sufficient energy to run upstairs as soon as they arrived at the Paris home. By the time she had descended the steps, earring in place, to stand next to the lit Christmas tree, Tom had found two glasses and a bottle of synthehol/champagne. "Sorry, Ro, this will have to do for our toast. My parents must've hid the alcoholic stuff. I couldn't find any."
"I thought we weren't old enough for the real stuff, anyway."
"We aren't, but I was going to sneak some."
"And get us both in trouble, Tom Paris? I'm glad they hid it."
"You're no fun, Ro Laren. Where's your spirit of adventure?"
Tilting her head, Ro assumed a more sober expression. "As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I want any more adventures at the moment. Getting adjusted to all of this has been enough of an adventure."
He didn't have an answer to that. She was right.
As he poured drinks for them, he observed, "Kite-flying tomorrow, as long as it doesn't rain. My blue kite is going to fly higher than yours, Ro."
"Hey, you think I can't figure out how to fly a kite? I'm a quick study, you know."
"Yes, I have to admit, you are."
She smiled at him as he clinked his glass against hers, saying, "Happy New Year, Cadet Ro."
"Happy New Year, Cadet Paris." She sipped the bubbly synthehol. "Um. Not bad. Tickles my nose a bit."
"It's supposed to," he answered, leaning forward so that he could look into her face. Ro's dark eyes were filled with little splinters of colored lights from the tree. Tom gazed at her with what he hoped was an expression of detached amusement, but which he feared was one that reflected his true feelings.
The cadets sat next to one another in silence for a while, then chatted for several minutes about the activities they wanted to sample during their final week of freedom before the new term began. As Tom emptied the last of the golden liquid into their glasses, Ro asked, "Do you think it would be okay if we light some of the candles in here? Turn off all the lights except for the tree? The room should look nice that way."
"Sure thing." A few minutes later, the soft glow of candlelight and the twinkling of the tree shone in the darkness. The room did, indeed, look very nice.
Tom awoke from a reverie induced by the candlelit room. "Say, Ro - we haven't done that Gratitude Festival thing we were going to do on New Year's. Shall we?"
"Your sisters wanted to do it with us, Tom."
"We can do it tomorrow with them. I feel like doing it now. Just us."
A quick trip up to the admiral's study yielded several sheets of white paper and a couple of pens. Tom and Ro spent several minutes cutting strips of paper that would be transformed into renewal scrolls.
"What should I write?" asked Tom.
"Just write down your troubles, your personal problems, whatever they are. We'll burn them away. 'Peldar Joi' to you, Tom."
" 'Peldar what?' "
"That's what people say to one another in greeting during the festival. Oh, and there's some words that the Presider usually says, too. We don't have a Presider."
"Yes, we do," said Tom. "You."
"I'm not sure I know the words."
"Hey, this is a Terrestrial Gratitude Festival. If the words are off a bit, who's going to notice? Now, tell me, is there a limit on how many times I can write, 'My father's expecting me to be the youngest admiral in Starfleet history?' "
"This is a Terrestrial Gratitude Festival. You decide if there's a limit."
After several minutes of scribbling marked by whispered jokes and snickers, they rolled up the paper scrolls.
"Do we burn them in any candle, or do we need a special one?" queried Tom.
"It's a religious festival. The flame is considered sacred."
"Why don't we use the tray of candles from your room? If you've used them for praying, they should be sacred enough."
Her eyes softened a moment. "Yes, Tom, I guess they should be. I'll carry them downstairs. In fact, I think it would be better to burn the scrolls out of doors. It would be safer, and it isn't terribly cold out."
The old-style metallic table on the stone verandah outside the dining room was soon adorned with candles and two piles of rolled paper. After a couple of tries, all three candles were burning, despite the light breeze that made the flames flutter.
"What's next, Madame Presider?"
Clearing her throat, Ro recited, " 'Tesra peldar impadre bren. Bentel veyan olan sten.' I think that's right. 'As the scrolls burn, may our troubles turn to ashes with them.' "
"Sounds good to me. Okay, here goes one 'youngest admiral' scroll."
"Peldar Joi to you, Tom. Here's one of mine: 'Simmons and Hartley nosing into our personal business.' "
"Good one! Peldar Joi! Here's one from me: 'Having to put up with everyone on campus asking me to say hello to my father for them.' "
"Here's my next one: 'Having everybody on campus say my name wrong.' Peldar Joi, Tom."
"Peldar Joi, Ro. 'Getting teased by my sisters about becoming the youngest admiral in Starfleet history . . . ' "
Each scroll fed to the licking flames quickly flared into ignited gases and a flurry of ash. When all that was left was a dusting of ashes on the once-pristine surface of the white candles, Tom bent down to extinguish them. Ro stopped him.
"There's one more, Tom. I was saving it for last." She withdrew a spiral of paper from her left sleeve. "This one is the most important of all of them. It says, 'Having no one in the galaxy who cares if you live or die, having no one to call a friend.' "
As she wound up the scroll to feed it to the flames, Tom put his hand on her wrist. "Ro, I hope you know that's one trouble that really is gone for good."
"I do, Tom. That's why I saved it for last." He didn't move his hand from her wrist while she fed the last scroll to the flames. As Ro released the glowing ember of paper, his hand slipped from her wrist and clasped hers.
The candles' glow illuminated two youthful faces. The pretty Bajoran fastened her deep brown eyes on the clear blue ones of the Terran and whispered, "By the way, if you want to, my friend, you can call me Laren." A crooked smile appeared on her face as she added, "Peldar Joi, Tom."
His smile matched hers as he replied, "Peldar Joi, Laren."
Happy Holidays and Peldar Joi to you, too - from Jamelia