In the Footsteps of Another
The path to the Supplicant's Gate of the House of the Prophets was old, uneven and rocky. The tall woman who progressed up the path with a large duffel bag hanging from her left shoulder hardly seemed to notice. Her strides were long, eating up huge chunks of ground with each step. She was obviously in very good physical shape.
Her emotional state - ah, now - that was more questionable. Her eyes were puffy, as if she had cried recently. And she had. When she left the transportation center after landing on Bajor, the tears burst from her eyes, unstoppable. For over fourteen years, the young woman had been an exile from the world where she had been born. From the first time she'd heard the Cardassians had finally left her devastated home planet, she had looked forward to the day she would be able to return to her homeland. She would have liked to think the tears flowing down her cheeks were tears of joy at her return.
Ro Laren knew better.
"Who comes?" A disembodied voice floated from behind the huge wooden door of the gatehouse.
"One who would seek the Ways of the Prophets," answered Ro. Her ritualized reply satisfied the voice from behind the portal. An ancient steel bolt could be heard scraping the loops of matching metal as it was withdrawn. In truth, the bolt meant nothing, for even in a time of civil disturbance, it would have been pulled back to allow any to enter. This sect was known for its succoring of the disenfranchised, the weak, the lost. It was the secret, really, of its power on Bajor. That, and the fact that the late, greatly beloved Kai Opaka once dwelt at this monastery.
"Enter, my child." Ro stepped through the shadowed opening to come face-to-face with an old woman wearing the robes of a vedek. Dipping her head in respect as she crossed the threshold, Ro was relieved to see the welcoming smile on the old one's lips. To this vedek, she must seem a child indeed, although it had been a very long time since Ro had considered herself young. There had been a brief time when she had been turned into a child again on the Enterprise, of course, but the temporary effects of a molecular inversion field hardly counted. Even then, Ro had felt old, no matter what age she might have appeared to be on the outside.
"What brings you to our House, child?" Ro was asked.
"I wish to see if I am called by the Prophets to serve them, in this House . . . or wherever they might need me," Ro answered simply. "I spoke to Vedek Bareil a few months ago. He said I could come here to find sanctuary while I decided what direction my life should take." A hint of a grim smile flitted across her features, even though her red-rimmed dark eyes had no glint of humor in them. "Now I need guidance even more than I did back then. I never thought my life could get worse than it was when he offered, but it has."
The elderly vedek nodded her head in understanding. "We will certainly grant you asylum in your time of need, but you do understand that one does not run away from their troubles to serve the Prophets, one comes in answer to Their Call."
"I do understand this, Vedek . . . "
"My name is Vedek Jaxa, my child. And your name is . . . "
She had been prepared for this question, but the answer Ro had expected to give, Ria Larys, slipped out of her mind. Instead, she replied, "Parys Folaren." I wonder where that came from, thought Ro, but immediately, she knew. Paris. She was very forlorn from losing Paris.
"Come, Supplicant Parys. You are fortunate you did not come yesterday, when our Vedek Bareil was away at Deep Space Nine. He is in residence today. Follow me."
Following the vedek up a long set of stairs, the young woman paused when her guide stopped before another door and opened it. Vedek Jaxa stood aside to allow Ro a breathtaking view of the Gardens of the Temple. A long path wound through lush, semi-tropical growth. High above, an arched, clear roof protected the gardens from the harsh winters suffered in this temperate zone of Bajor. Even at the worst of times during the Occupation, the Cardassians were wise enough to leave that miraculous feat of engineering undamaged, though they had been destructive enough in other ways to the temple and its grounds.
"Take that path, turn right at the lower gate, and follow the third path to the left up to Vedek Bareil's office. I will let him know you are coming, my child."
Ro thanked the holy woman and strolled through the vegetation, her duffel bumping against her back. By the time she had found the third path to the left, her heart had already found some solace, just from encountering such beauty. There was something about this place that exuded sanctity and peace.
"Parys Folaren? Ro Laren, you don't think I would betray you to the Federation after offering you asylum?" Despite his words, Vedek Bareil was smiling, his hands extended in welcome.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure where that came from. I was going to give something very close to my real name, but that just jumped off my lips."
"The Prophets are already speaking through you, perhaps?"
"More likely it's because the name Paris has been on my lips so often the last few weeks." And in my heart and my soul, she reflected silently, before adding, "I've been living with an old friend from my Academy days. He . . . he . . . uh. I'm sorry." The tears flooded her eyes again. This had to stop, she couldn't spend the rest of her life crying like this. All her firm admonishments to herself were futile, as her mind cried out, Tom! Thomas Eugene Paris! You stupid, heroic, self-sacrificing bastard!
"Ah. He's still with the Maquis?"
"No. We were on Delistor II, working for the Maquis. Starfleet was after me. He . . . he . . . by the Prophets! I can't keep doing this every time I think of him!" A huge shudder rocked her slender frame before she shook her head and said, in a quavery, yet resolute voice, "Tom saw they were after me. He took the robes I was wearing, to draw them off so that the rest of us could escape. He knew they would capture him. Since he was with me, he knew he would be taken for a Maquis. Tom, . . . he . . . he sacrificed himself so we could get away. And for his trouble, my cell leader still thought he was a spy and a traitor to us! Even though everyone got away except for Tom . . ."
Ro could no longer hold in her grief. As her body wracked with sobs, the only thing the sympathetic vedek could do was hold her hands in his and stroke her hair as she allowed her bitterness to expunge itself in weeping.
When she finally was capable of sitting without sobbing, Bareil went out of his office and returned with a basin of lukewarm water and a cloth. He encouraged her to bathe her eyes and face while he elicited the rest of her story: Ro's tortured decision to defect to the Maquis, betraying Captain Picard, her mentor, when he refused to let her come out of her undercover assignment when she no longer could tell what was right; her confusion when she was with the Maquis, where she never felt comfortable; her chance meeting with Tom Paris, also a Starfleet pariah, when he was injured and in trouble; and finally, how the long friendship between the two was transformed into a brief, incandescent love affair that ended only with his capture.
"People think that Tom is cocky, flirtatious, sex-obsessed and shallow. My cell leader Chakotay once said he was 'a disaster waiting to happen.' Not in my hearing, though; I heard about it afterwards. And I guess maybe he is all those things - except for shallow. He keeps himself hidden so deeply behind those masks of his that everyone has trouble seeing the real Tom. But he's also funny, considerate, loving, brave, and the most loyal man I ever met, once he's given you his trust. He's not perfect, but he always tries, which is more than I can say for a lot of people I've met. And I've lost him. We just found each other again and now he's going to be in a Federation prison for only the Prophets know how many years. All because of me."
"Laren - I may call you that in private, I hope? From what you say, Tom wanted to keep you safe. You said he wanted to give your life back to you, when he sacrificed himself?" At her affirmative nod, he went on, "I won't tell you not to grieve for his loss, but your Tom knew what he was doing. He offered you his life out of his love. Even if that is the last thing he can ever give you, how much more precious a gift can someone give? I have no doubt he's a very good man, just as you say, to willingly yield his own freedom for others, some that he'd never even met. But if you let your grief get in the way of your living your life, if you let your sorrow overwhelm you, he will have made his sacrifice for you in vain."
Dabbing at her now red and puffy eyes, Ro nodded her head ruefully. "I know. I just miss him so much. For almost twenty years I couldn't cry, and now I can't seem to stop. He gave me so much more when we were together, not only just my freedom when he was captured. He gave me back my life . . . in . . . in some other ways, too." She hesitated, not feeling comfortable admitting to the sexual aspects of the relationship, and then she remembered to whom she was speaking. Until the Cardassians had finally left Bajor, Vedek Bareil had lived on an occupied planet all his life. Ro knew her story was far from unique.
"I was sexually mistreated by the Cardassians when I was a child in a relocation camp. Actually, it happened off and on until I was rescued by the Resistance when I was fifteen. Until Tom helped me, I never received much enjoyment from being in anyone's bed. He gave that part of my life back to me, too." She smiled at one of her last memories of him, when she helped Tom attach his silver Bajoran earring and felt his pagh. She had teased him that he should become a vedek himself. She thought he might actually have considered it. If only she'd been able to sense their coming doom! Foretelling the future obviously was not a talent of hers.
"He must be a wonderful young man to have given you so many gifts. Did you give him nothing in return? Isn't this the man I've heard about, the one from Caldik Prime? You said he was troubled himself."
She grimaced. Even here on Bajor, in a great religious temple, Tom's misstep at Caldik Prime was common knowledge! Maybe he would have needed to escape to the Beta Quadrant to escape his notoriety. "Yes, it's the same Tom Paris. He was a pretty lost soul when we met, I guess."
"So, a wounded, lost Ro Laren met a wounded, lost Tom Paris. They helped each other find something that was missing in each of their lives, and now the Prophets have parted them. Perhaps the two of you have destinies you are fated to find separately. Yet I think both of you are better equipped to walk on your own than before you met."
"I should be grateful for that, you mean, Vedek Bareil?"
"What do you think?"
Ro's "eagle" between her brows flew deeper into the bridge of her crinkled Bajoran nose. "I think I hate that counselor-answering-a-question-with-another-questi on answer, Vedek Bareil. Deanna Troi always used to use that trick on the Enterprise whenever you wanted her to help with some problem."
He laughed. "She must have been a very good counselor then. One thing you'll find here, Laren, is that one question often must be answered with another question, and another and even another, before the true answer can be found. That is the way of the Prophets, too. And by the way, just call me Bareil if we are speaking together like this. Titles can get in the way of a good counseling session."
Ro couldn't help smiling back, although it made her reddened eyes ache. "All right, Bareil. I'll try. Although I still think you should have been Kai Bareil."
"I am content. I have enough trouble finding the time to visit Deep Space Nine as it is."
"You meet with the Emissary often?"
"From time to time, but it's his assistant I visit. Major Kira Nerys. We love each other, but her work keeps her there and mine keeps me here - when I'm not off on some errand for Kai Winn. I know about missing the one you love, Laren."
"At least you get to see her sometimes. If I tried to visit Tom when he gets to prison, I'd be arrested myself. I've been tempted to give myself up, to tell you the truth, if only I could be assured of going where Tom was." Ro's dark eyes met the vedek's warm brown ones. He was a skilled negotiator. Maybe he could relay this desire to the Emissary and the authorities . . . no, it was impossible, and she knew it. She couldn't give herself up. He had known nothing, while she knew too much. It was better for the Maquis this way, even though it was so painful for Tom and herself.
"No one knows what the future holds for us, Laren. Even looking into the Orb of Prophecy does not guarantee what may come. Only the Prophets know that."
"So, are you willing to stay here for a while before you return to the Maquis? Or are you looking to follow a different path?"
"I have no idea, Ved . . . Bareil." She smiled as she caught herself. "My life's taken so many side trips already. I think what I really need is to stay in one place for a while, to meditate and pray. Maybe then I can find the path that the Prophets have planned for me. When I pick a path out for myself, it doesn't seem to work out very well."
"You'd better be careful, Laren. You're starting to sound like a vedek already." She smiled, a genuine one, this time, as they exited his office. The vedek was relieved to see that his troubled guest already seemed calmer than she had upon her arrival. He was confident that Ro Laren would find the peace and the answers she sought while dwelling in this House.
First, there were other errands, including a visit to the office of the Domiciliary, Vedek Lixan. Ro, who from now on in this House was to be known officially as Supplicant Parys Folaren, needed a room, some food, and candles for saying her prayers.