Author: Vicki L. Reid
Email: dekrrini AT aim.com
Summary: Alexander plays matchmaker for his father, Worf, and Deanna Troi. What should be an enjoyable excursion to the Ancient West becomes a fight for life.
Acknowledgements: The Gardenites, who love Worf and Troi as much as I do. Celeste who remains my beta reader extraordinaire. She's also one terrific slave driver who never lets me get too lazy and complacent. And of course, Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis who continue to bring Worf and Troi to life on the silver screen.
Disclaimers: Paramount owns all things Star Trek, including the characters and the universe in which they live. I'm only borrowing Worf, Troi, and Alexander for fun--not profit.
Lt. Worf, of the Federation starship Enterprise, hesitated at the door of the holodeck. Even a momentary hesitation was not normal for the lieutenant who tended to act quickly and decisively in most, if not all, circumstances. After all, Worf was a Klingon. In his entire adult life, he could only recall a handful of times when he paused before acting and almost invariably for the same reason he hesitated now.
Sighing deeply, Worf activated the code allowing him access to the holodeck. Glancing down at his apparel, he wondered again just why he had agreed to try this particular program a second time. But in the euphoria of surviving the battle, Worf had promised his young son a second visit. No matter how much he might now regret that promise, Worf would never break his word to Alexander.
The boy was now at an age where he tested the limits of his father's patience, and Worf would be the first to admit that patience was not one of his better virtues. But he was determined that even if Alexander learned little else from his father, his son would be taught the honor one gained in keeping one's word. *How then could I do less?* Worf asked himself.
Since he was late, another almost unheard of event for Worf, the program was already running. He knew the other participants would be impatiently awaiting his arrival. The door opened with a soft whoosh, and the vista before him made Worf hesitate again. The long, dusty street stretched the entire length of the town. For a few seconds, Worf watched the townspeople scurry about their business. Farmers loaded their wagons with heavy sacks of grain and other staples; ladies of the evening called out their availability to potential customers. Glaring at the scantily clothed females, he promised to have another chat with Lt. Barclay, who had obviously ignored Worf's first warning to remove the brothel from the program. *This time,* Worf promised himself, *the chat will include bat'leths.*
Worf strode forward angrily, spurs jangling with each step. In the distance, Worf saw his son, clad in similar black jeans, dark shirt, and leather vest that his father wore. Alexander was talking with great animation to the other participant in this holodeck adventure, and Worf could see how very important this program was to his son. Few things ignited Alexander's imagination like the Ancient West. *At least Data will not be here this time,* Worf grumbled to himself.
Suddenly the boy seemed to sense his father's presence. With a cry of delight, he called out, "Father! You are here!"
"I am sorry to be late, Alexander," Worf apologized, "but I could not find my badge."
Deanna Troi, once again clad in the clothes of Durango, the Mysterious Stranger, sauntered over to the two Klingons. The dark blue open-necked shirt fit her form like a well- worn glove, while her black leather pants were so tight that Worf wondered how she breathed, let alone move with such grace. Her appearance, filling his senses with unspoken desire, simply took his breath away.
"And you can't be the Sheriff without your badge, can you?" she asked.
Worf didn't miss her grin and knew she was enjoying his discomfort. With her sense of humor, he knew he could look forward to hours of teasing about his spurs and cowboy hat. *If only I had not promised, Alexander,* he thought to himself.
Although her midnight eyes were partially concealed by the brim of her Stetson, Worf knew he could easily lose himself in their depths. Standing before him with one slim hand holding a cheroot to her lips was the real reason for his earlier hesitation. With each more intimate encounter, Worf was finding it increasingly difficult to hide his attraction to Deanna. He had considered a romantic relationship with Troi, but had soon realized it was simply not meant to be. Too many obstacles stood between them; obstacles he did not think could be overcome. Because of her small stature as well as her Betazoid/human heritage, Worf feared she was too fragile for Klingon mating. Although it was true that human females had chosen Klingon mates in the past, Deanna was too important to him to risk harming in any way.
As he continued to stare into her eyes, Worf acknowledged that the biggest barrier between them was her relationship with Will Riker. Knowing that she had called the commander ‘Imzadi' in the past, Worf had found the meaning in the Betazoid dictionary. *Beloved,* he thought to himself. *How can I pursue her when she is bound to Commander Riker? It would not be honorable.*
Worf could see Deanna's expression change from amused to worried when he failed to respond appropriately to her quip. Drawing his body up stiffly, he finally answered, "No, Counselor, I could not." Only a very faint hint of humor was in his eyes as he awaited her answer.
Her eyes narrowed as she retorted, "We are not going through this again, Worf. My name here is Durango."
"As you wish Counselor Durango," he answered, this time grinning broadly.
Lip curled in obvious annoyance, she responded, "Just Durango."
But Worf only grinned more broadly at her show of pique. Even as he watched in utter fascination, several emotions seemed to flash across Troi's face. Although greatly tempted to see where real anger toward him might lead, Worf restrained himself from further teasing. Alexander was too young to witness such an exchange. And not everyone appreciated Klingon humor.
"Shall we begin?" Worf asked, allowing his eyes to travel downward. He stifled the growl he felt burgeoning in his throat with great difficulty.
"We were just waiting for you, Sheriff," Deanna told him sardonically.
Alexander, almost hopping about in his excitement to begin, said, "Please, Father. Let's start."
Complying with his son's request, Worf reluctantly tore his eyes from Deanna's voluptuous figure. With only a faint grimace, he answered, "Come along, Deputy."
Deanna watched the two Klingons stride off together, like a mismatched set of twins, spurs jangling on the heels of their boots. Since his back was turned, she allowed her feelings for Worf to show on her face as she gazed at him a little wistfully. Something she couldn't do when he was looking at her for fear of losing the closeness they now shared. A very faint sigh escaped her lips as she drank in the sight of Worf's magnificent physique. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, long, sturdy legs. "Nice butt," she whispered in character, glad that Durango was more free to express herself than Troi.
For months now, Deanna had wanted to change her relationship with Worf to one of a more romantic nature. She had tried everything she could think of short of whacking him on the head with a bat'leth, but he remained singularly unaware of her overtures. Even Beverly Crusher had noticed Deanna's preoccupation with Worf and had questioned her about it, but at this point, Troi was hesitant to become more bold, fearing she would lose the friendship which had taken so very long to forge.
When Worf had suggested terminating her pregnancy a few years earlier, Deanna had wondered if she could ever forgive him, but over the years, their closeness grew ever stronger. In part, because Troi had learned that for Worf the ship and the safety of her crew would always come first, before friendship, before family, before love. She couldn't fault him for his devotion to duty for it was a major part of what made him uniquely Worf. Even at the time, the Starfleet officer in her had recognized and even supported his reasoning, but the woman, whose hormones were wildly out of balance, had found the remark much harder to forgive. A faint smile touched her lips as she recalled that Worf had never apologized to her, and he never would, not when he believed himself to be right.
Alexander turned back to face her, calling out, "Deanna! I mean, Durango! Hurry up, please."
Smile deepening, Deanna began to follow in their path. Alexander's attempt at matchmaking was a little more obvious this time as he had even changed her costume at the last moment to include these skintight black leather pants which made it difficult to breathe. She doubted the boy's attempt would work, but she didn't mind the help.
Catching up with the others, she asked, "What's the plan, Sheriff?"
Worf's stride seemed to falter at the sound of her voice. "I must arrest the criminal known as Ben Hildago."
"What's the charge?" she asked.
When his father didn't answer right away, Alexander piped up, "He's wanted for the murder of seven lawmen."
"And bank stealing," Worf added.
The boy sighed. "It's bank robbery, Father. Not bank stealing."
"Robbing, stealing. It is the same thing, is it not?" Worf asked, frowning down at his son.
For a moment, Alexander seemed to debate with himself on whether or not to continue the argument with his father. Apparently deciding that it wasn't worth the trouble, he said, "Just trust me, Father. It's bank robbery."
Deanna caught a look of barely suppressed humor in Worf's eyes and realized he was exacting a sort of revenge against his son for bringing him back to the Ancient West. Hiding her own smile as best she could, she asked, "Need any help, Sheriff?"
Worf stiffened as she knew he would. "Klingons do not need. . . ." he began. When his son elbowed him sharply in the side, he said, "I would appreciate your assistance, Temporary Deputy Durango."
Still grinning at his obvious discomfort, Troi said, "I'm not sure I want to help with that sort of attitude, Sheriff."
Worf opened his mouth to respond, but closed it again with an almost audible snap. When he glanced down at his son's frowning face, he asked more graciously, "Please, Durango, I would be honored for your assistance."
Seeing the hopeful expression on Alexander's young, innocent face, Deanna relented, "Very well, Sheriff. I'll give you a hand."
She pushed her hat to the back of her head, and caught Worf staring at her with an intensity she had never noticed before. Returning his stare with one of her own, Deanna knew for just one moment that Worf's feelings for her were as strong as those she felt for him. And then the moment was lost, when Alexander turned and called out, "Father!"
With visible reluctance, Worf tore his eyes away from hers and moved toward his son. Close, but not quite touching each other, Deanna fell in step beside him. "Deputy Alexander," he asked, "do you know the location of Ben Hildago?"
"He's at the saloon."
"Of course he is," Worf muttered under his breath, shortening his stride which allowed the others to keep in step with him. Three sets of spurs jangled in unison with each bootfall which raised a little puff of dust under each boot.
Upon reaching the saloon, Worf ordered, "Be careful."
Entering the saloon flanked on either side by his deputies, Sheriff Worf searched the room for his prey. Catching sight of the felon, he said, "You are under arrest, Ben Hildago."
Hildago, who at least didn't look like Data this time, jumped to his feet, brandishing a six shooter. "You'll never take me alive, Sheriff!" he exclaimed.
Worf grinned ferally at the wanted man and Deanna sensed his growing lust for the hunt. "We shall see," he answered.
Just as he began moving toward Hildago, the ship was rocked by some sort of external force. The inhabitants of the saloon, both the real participants and the holographic representations, were tossed about like toys. Deanna stumbled, slamming into Worf's broad back. He grunted, but she fell to the floor, stunned by both the impact with Worf and the floor. Milliseconds later, the ship was rocked again, causing Worf to lose his footing. He landed on top of Deanna, forcing the air from her lungs.
Although unable to breathe for a moment, Deanna wasn't sure if it was the fact that Worf had fallen on her that took her breath away or the fact that he remained lying atop her. She smiled up at him, lips parted in invitation. Almost feeling the growl grow in his throat, Troi wasn't surprised when he lowered his head to kiss her. What did surprise her was the intensity of this first kiss. Lip bruising, soul-shattering as it was, the first kiss was followed by another of equal intensity. Then yet another. Deanna forgot all about Alexander, the program, and everything but Worf and his lips on hers.
"Father!" the boy cried out, bringing them both back to the present.
Rolling off of Deanna, Worf leapt to his feet to find his son being held hostage by the holocharacter he had been seeking to arrest. His frustration, fear, and helplessness were as tangible to Deanna as if they were her own emotions. Worf asked, "What do you want, Hildago?"
Deanna, feeling bruised and battered both physically and emotionally by her encounter with Worf, didn't waste time with the holocharacter. Although she half-believed it wouldn't work, she commanded, "Computer, end program."
Immediately, Hildago, the saloon, and the Ancient West disappeared in a shimmer of light to be replaced by the familiar black and yellow grid pattern of the holodeck. "It worked," she said in amazement.
The chagrin Worf felt at overlooking the simple solution to the problem of Hildago was apparent on his face when he bent down to pull Deanna to her feet. His emotional state must have made him use more force than necessary for Troi found herself propelled into his arms, and held firmly against his body. "Worf," she breathed.
Deanna could sense his reluctance to release her as he slowly removed his arms from her body. As he stepped away from her, Worf commanded, "Computer, open door to the holodeck."
But the only response was silence. There was no gentle whoosh as the door opened. There was no answer from the computer. Just complete and utter silence.
Frowning intently, Worf tapped his commbadge, saying, "Worf to the bridge."
The only response was static. Deanna and Worf exchanged a worried look, but refrained from speaking aloud of their fears not wanting to worry Alexander.
"What's happening, Father?" he asked, the faint waver in his voice giving him away.
Deanna dropped down on her knees before the little boy, sensing his growing fear. "Everything will be all right, Alexander," she assured him. "We're just going to be stuck in here for a while that all."
"I don't know why, Alexander," she answered. Trying to keep her voice as soothing as possible, she continued, "But we will be rescued soon, I promise you."
As she remained kneeling beside Alexander, Deanna watched as Worf began pacing like a caged targ. She sensed his growing irritation with some trepidation; Worf had been known to act impetuously in the past. Since she knew him so well, Troi was quite certain that much of his present frustration stemmed from the fact that he was not on the bridge at his duty station during a time of trouble.
Although she wanted to comfort both Klingons, Alexander was her main concern. Deanna didn't want him to panic any further, but his father's restless pacing wasn't helping to calm the boy's fears. "Worf," she began, trying to warn him with the tone of her voice.
Spinning on his heel to face her, he growled, "What?"
Deanna stared at him coldly for a moment, and was rather surprised to see him struggle to rein in his anger with considerable effort. "What is wrong, Counselor?" he asked finally.
*We're back to ‘Counselor',* she thought sadly. Aloud she said, "Let's consider our options, Worf."
The warning in her voice was clear and by Worf's slight sagging of his shoulders, she could see that he understood her meaning. "Since our commbadges do not work," he said, "we must assume shipwide communications are offline."
"Which might explain the computer as well," Deanna added.
Although Deanna was fairly certain the ship was under attack, she knew that the mere mention of a battle would frighten the boy even more. She looked at Worf, hoping he would keep the truth from his son for as long as possible.
"What are we going to do, Father?"
A myriad of emotions flashed across Worf's face and through his mind, causing Troi to edge a little closer to Alexander. "We wait," he answered simply.
"What about opening the door manually?" she asked, wondering why neither one of them had thought of it before.
The overwhelming relief Worf felt was almost tangible to Deanna. A smile touched her lips as she watched him stride purposefully across the holodeck and she sensed he was glad to be doing something, anything, about their predicament.
Worf removed the panel cover to expose the devise which could open the door manually. Just as he reached inside to access the controls, the ship was struck yet again by some external force and the panel exploded, spewing sparks, debris, and flames everywhere.
The howl of agony bursting from his lips as the flames seared his hand sent a shiver down Deanna's spine. She quite literally felt his pain, and tears sprang into her eyes. "Worf!" she screamed, racing to his side.
Pulling him away from the smoking panel, Troi saw that his shirt was smoldering in several places. "Worf," she commanded. "Get that shirt off before it burns you."
The eyes he turned toward her were filled with such agony that it became obvious that he would be unable to comply. With trembling hands, Deanna ripped his shirt open, popping buttons off the garment like little bits of flying shrapnel. Worrying that she would find a chest peppered with shrapnel beneath the shirt, she was stunned for a moment when she saw instead a thick, heavy vest-like garment with hundreds of tiny and not so tiny holes. Easing the shirt from his injured hand, she asked, "Worf? What is this?"
"Bullet-proof vest," he answered between tightly clenched teeth. "I was taking no chances this time."
Since the vest which had obviously saved his life was also beginning to smolder, Deanna quickly removed it as well, dropping it on the floor in a heap. Thankful that the vest had protected him from most of the flying debris, Troi noted numerous small, red marks on Worf's shoulders. Even though she was intent on tending his injuries, she couldn't help but notice his heavily muscled chest, wishing it could have been under different circumstances.
Leading him away from the smoking panel, she said, "Alexander, bring me the first aid kit, please."
Once on the far side of the room, away from all the panels and consoles, Deanna urged Worf to sit down on the floor so she could treat his wounds. As Alexander handed her the kit, she could feel fear radiating from his small form. "Thank you, Alexander," she said with a smile of encouragement.
"Will Father be all right?" he whispered, seeming to fear the answer.
Continuing to smile with every confidence, she answered, "He'll be fine. I promise."
Deanna opened the kit, searching for the regenerator and other medical supplies. After removing the device, she gently took Worf's forearm in her hand. "Let me know if I'm hurting you, Worf."
"I am fine," he told her between tightly clenched teeth.
Gently playing the regenerator back and forth over his hand, Troi watched with growing relief as the burns slowly disappeared. After several minutes, she paused for a moment to check the power settings. "I hope the power hold out," she murmured, frowning slightly at the device. "It must not have been fully charged when I started."
"Why?" Worf asked.
"The power supply is half gone," she explained still frowning intently.
Worf placed his good hand atop hers as she prepared to use the device again. "Stop," he ordered. "Save the power."
"Your hand is still injured," she said, stating the obvious. "Let me take care of it. Please."
Shaking his head, he said, "No. We do not know how long we will be stuck in here. We may need the regenerator later. My injury is not life threatening."
Deanna opened her mouth to argue further, but Worf stopped her by placing his fingers against her lips, sending a shiver of longing down her spine. "I do not want to watch helplessly as your life or Alexander's slips away because I cannot treat you," he said. "Do not ask this of me."
Although she hated the idea of leaving Worf's injury unhealed, Troi did see the validity of his reasoning. Carefully placing the regenerator in the kit, she said, "At least let me clean your other wounds."
"If you wish."
For some time Deanna gently swabbed the small wounds on Worf's upper arms and face. Some were fairly deep and would require further treatment in sickbay to stave off infection and scarring. The quiet sound of her voice soothed Alexander as well as his father. Even as she watched over him affectionately, the boy's eyes grew heavy with weariness. "Go to sleep, Alexander," she urged, "I'll take care of your father."
"Okay," he answered, closing his eyes in peaceful slumber.
Troi smiled at Worf. "Do all Klingons fall asleep so easily?"
"When we are young," he nodded. "But we lose the ability to rest easily with age."
Continuing to clean a small wound on his arm, she said, "He grows more like you every day, Worf. You must be proud."
Without taking his eyes from her face, he responded, "I am. But I could not have done it without you."
Having finished with his arm, Deanna began cleaning a particularly nasty looking wound on his face, wincing in sympathy at the pain she must have been inflicting with her touch. But Worf didn't even grunt. "I'm always happy to help, Worf. You know that."
"You are so beautiful," he whispered, as if speaking his thoughts aloud.
Heart pounding rapidly at his seeming non sequitur, Troi glanced down at the broad expanse of his chest, whose well-defined musculature could easily have been sculpted by a master artisan. "So are you," she answered, trailing her fingers across his collar bone.
Worf slowly drew her closer, giving Deanna every opportunity to pull away. When his lips touched hers, desire seared through her body like a raging inferno. The kiss deepened and she lost herself in Worf, feeling his emotions as well as hers. "Imzadi," Troi whispered against his lips.
When Worf stiffened and pulled away, she felt his emotional withdrawal even more intensely. Wondering what she said or did to cause such a reaction, Deanna asked hesitantly, "Worf?"
His jaw was clenched as tightly as his fists, which now dangled at his sides, hands no longer holding her close. "I am not Will Riker," he said at last.
"I know that," Deanna smiled warmly as she nibbled along his jawline, feeling desire rising in Worf again at her touch. "I'm very glad you're not."
"But you have always called him ‘Imzadi'," Worf growled.
Deanna began to understand his reaction. "I'm sorry, Worf. I guess you'd prefer your own endearment."
The Klingon warrior was silent for several long seconds and she sensed that he sought the right words to express his feelings. Knowing that bat'leths were more comfortable than words for Worf, Deanna let him take his time in answering. "I understand Klingon terms of endearment and even human," he told her. "But I am unfamiliar with Betazoid terms."
Smiling at her would-be lover with tenderness, she explained, "Literally Imzadi means beloved. But on Betazed the meaning has been diluted somewhat with usage. In Klingon, bangwI' or tIqwIj would be the closest in intensity of feeling."
"It does not imply some sort of bond?" he asked, frowning intently.
"Imazdi?" she asked. "Not at all. There is no mystical bond between Imazdis, only love or even a deep friendship such as Will and I share." Seeing the frown begin to clear from Worf's face, she added, "Friendship is the only thing I now have with Will. Nothing more."
"But is there not some sort of mystical bond between lovers among your people?" he asked. "I am certain I have heard reference to such a bond."
Deanna nodded. "But it's very, very rare, Worf," she explained. "We call the phenomenon dalriada. The two are linked telepathically because their love is so strong they become as one."
"tIqqoch," he said.
"That would be the closest comparison amongst Klingons, I believe."
Drawing her back into his arms, Worf murmured, "Imzadi," just before claiming her lips with his.
The ship had been still now for over an hour and Deanna was becoming seriously disturbed that no one had come to rescue them. The tension among the crew was getting harder to suppress, and it threatened to overwhelm her. Worf's skin beneath her hands helped stave off those emotions, but had its own inherent peril. Although Deanna reveled in the sensations of being held in Worf's arms, she knew they were both coming perilously close to losing control.
When Alexander cried out in his sleep, Deanna pulled out of Worf's arms with a mixture of regret and relief. For just a heartbeat, it appeared as if Worf would not let her go, but finally he released her. Troi, however, could sense his irritation with his son.
Drawing her fingers down the side of his face, she whispered, "I'll be right back, Imzadi."
"See that you are," he grumbled, but the smile on his face belied the tone of his voice.
Deanna touched the boy's shoulder gently. "Alexander," she said softly, "it's only a dream."
Opening his eyes with a start, he asked, "A dream?" He looked around the room. "But it was so real. And it feels like I'm still in the dream."
Softly touching his face to comfort him, she said, "I'm here, Alexander and I won't let anything happen to you."
Scrambling to his feet and backing away from her slightly, eyes wide with a fear strong enough to send Deanna's senses reeling, he cried out, "No! That's what you said in my dream. And then . . ."
As Alexander's voice trailed away into nothingness, Deanna remained perfectly still, fearful of driving him further away. "And then what, Alexander?"
"The ship was attacked, the ceiling fell, and everything went black."
Deanna felt a shiver of fear race down her spine, fear that the boy's words were a prophesy of some kind. Before she could do more than rise to her feet, the ship was violently rocked again. Hearing a creaking noise above her, Troi saw part of the hologrid in the ceiling give way and begin its descent to the floor below. The narrow shaft seemed to be targeting Alexander. Although she could sense Worf gathering himself to try to save his son, Deanna knew that she was closer. Without a moment's hesitation, she flung herself at the boy, knocking him to the floor and out of harm's way as best she could. Covering his body with hers, she hoped he would escape serious injury. Seconds later, she felt a stabbing pain in her back and then everything went black.
Worf watched with horror as Deanna tried desperately to push his son to safety, covering his body with hers in a last ditch effort to protect Alexander. Feeling the shaft penetrate her body as if it were his, Worf bellowed in pain. "No!" he cried out, rushing to her side as his feet finally found the ability to move again.
Gently touching her limp body, Worf refused to accept the worst. *You cannot be dead, 'Iw tIqwIj,* his heart cried out in agony.
*Worf?* the voice sounded faint and far away.
"I am here, tIqqoch," he said. "Do not move. I must evaluate your injuries."
After a few minutes of scanning them both with the medical tricorder, Worf realized the situation was dire. Although the beam was small, its sharp point had penetrated both Deanna and Alexander. Fortunately, the shaft acted as a seal, keeping internal bleeding to a minimum. But with a regenerator at half-power his options were few.
He could choose to do nothing and hope rescue came soon before the beam shifted and extensive internal bleeding began. Or he could remove the shaft from one, saving the life of that one, but perhaps losing the life of the other if help did not arrive soon enough. By using the remaining power on both, he could bring them out of immediate danger at least for a short time. Any of the choices were risky, and Worf knew he could lose both his son and his tIqqoch.
As he gazed down at them, struggling to make the correct decision, Worf could almost feel Deanna in his mind, urging him to save Alexander. After several moments of thought, he knew he could not allow her to die without at least trying to save them both. For Worf, it was all or nothing.
Worf eased Deanna's limp form from his son, being extremely careful to disturb the beam as little as possible. After laying Deanna on her side, he used the medical tricorder once again on his son. Breathing a sigh of relief, Worf saw that Alexander's injury was not a bad as he had initially thought, and he began to hope that he might be able to save them both.
Then Deanna moved. Trying to sit up, she dislodged the shaft which had been holding her internal bleeding in check. Once the seal was broken, however, the wound began bleeding profusely. "Worf," she cried softly, sinking back to the floor.
"No!" he bellowed with rage at the fates which continued to mock him. "tIqqoch."
Moving the regenerator to Deanna for a few seconds, Worf began working feverishly on both victims. A few seconds on Alexander, then Deanna, and back to Alexander. The minutes passed by like hours, but still he never slowed, never gave up. When the regenerator finally gave out, he flung it across the room, howling his frustration to the stars, warning the fates to beware of the Klingon warrior who would shortly be seeking vengeance against them.
The bleeding had slowed considerably in Deanna's wound, and Alexander's had stopped completely. Worf knew they were no longer in immediate danger, but Troi was still critical. If they were not rescued soon, Deanna would die, taking his heart with her to Stovoqor. Gathering them both in his arms, Worf sat with his back against the wall, imparting his strength to them as best he could. He now placed his faith in the captain of the Enterprise. Jean Luc Picard had never failed him before, and Worf trusted he would not fail him now.
*Worf,* Deanna said weakly.
At first he believed she had spoken aloud, but realized instead he heard her in his mind. Although doubting his own ability to answer in kind, he said, *What is wrong, tIqwIj?*
Worf gazed down at his son sleeping peacefully in Deanna's lap. *He will be fine.*
*If they find us in time,* she completed his thought. *Why, Worf? Why did you risk Alexander to save me?*
Gently smoothing the hair from her forehead, he said aloud, "Because I love you, Deanna Troi. Without you, life has no meaning."
*But to risk Alexander . . .*
He caressed her pale face with surprisingly gentle fingers. "The risk was not great," he assured her. "His injuries were not as severe as yours."
*But . . .* she began, only to be silenced by his fingers against her lips.
"Hush now, tIqwIj," he told her, pressing his lips against her forehead. "Conserve your strength. You must fight now as you have never fought before."
As she lapsed into unconsciousness once again, Worf reflected that the bonding of minds they now seemed to share was oddly comforting and terrifying at the same time. While it comforted him to feel her gentling presence in his soul, it also terrified him to think that should he ever lose her he would lose a part of himself. The best part of himself.
"Do not leave me, tIqqoch," he whispered against her hair, his soul tightly bound to hers.
*Do not leave me, tIqqoch.* The words echoed in Deanna's soul as she stood at the crossroads of her lifepath. She wanted to stay and follow the path with Worf, who had somehow become so much more than a friend. But no matter how much she wanted to remain with the man she loved, Deanna knew that her time upon the lifepath was over.
Taking the first step was always the hardest, but with Worf's firm grip on her soul it was almost impossible. The intensity and power of his love had forged an almost unbreakable link between them, but somehow she found the strength to begin. Suddenly she found herself in a place of mediocrity. A bizarre place of varying shades of gray. Although she had never been in this place before, Deanna recognized it nonetheless. "The Place of Waiting," she murmured dejectedly. She gazed around her with growing despair, realizing that Worf's hold was too tight to let her step into the Great Oneness. But there was no going back either. There was only one way out of the Place of Waiting. Worf had to let her go.
Gathering her will, Deanna was amazed at how strongly she felt his presence, almost as if he were a part of her. *Worf,* she called out with her mind, hoping the bond was strong enough to reach across the abyss between life and death.
"What do you need, tIqwIj?" he asked, his voice coming from behind her.
Deanna spun around quickly. "What are you doing here?"
Frowning at her, he replied, "You called for me, and I came." He looked around for a moment, finding the place very distressing. "Where are we?"
"The Place of Waiting," she explained.
"Waiting for what?"
"Death," she answered simply. "You should have let me go, Worf. Now we're both trapped in the grayness of the Place of Waiting."
A look of determination entered his eyes. "We will find a way out of this ghe'‘or," he vowed.
Sadly she shook her head. "It's impossible, Worf. There is only one way out of this place, and that is to die." She sensed his growing irritation. "What's wrong?"
"I hate the Ancient West," he grumbled.
Deanna was thoroughly confused by his seeming non-sequitor. "The Ancient West?"
Scowling intently at a vision that apparently only he could see, Worf muttered, "Why must my ghe'‘or be the Ancient West?"
She touched his mind more firmly, and was dumbstruck by the vista which now met her eyes. A long, dusty road stretched off into the distance. For a moment, she believed they had somehow returned to the holodeck, but the atmosphere here was much different, more somber and disheartening. All the townspeople moved about their business in silence, clad in the dark colors of deepest mourning. The men wore black from their hats down to their boots. Only the sixshooters at their sides, the buckles on their belts, and the spurs on the heels of their boots glinted in the sun in striking contrast to their clothing. The women wore dark brown or navy dresses with matching bonnets. No jewelry of any sort could be seen on their clothing or their persons.
Hearing a shrill of laughter, Deanna looked up to the second floor railing expectantly. This woman was showing more leg than the other ladies, but she, too, was clad in black.
"What is this place?" she asked, afraid to do more than whisper for fear of drawing attention to the two of them.
Worf glanced at the building across the street from the brothel. Upon reading the large sign above the entrance, his eyes narrowed. "Purgatory," he said shortly.
Remembering a course in comparative religions she had taken while attending the University on Betazed, Deanna understood a little more clearly the situation in which she now found herself. Many religions throughout the Federation spoke of a place where the soul was tested before being admitted to the Great Oneness or Heaven as it were. Each individual ‘saw' what would be his or her biggest fear. For Deanna, it was the loss of all sensory input--sight, touch, smell, sound. Obviously for Worf it was the Ancient West, and she could only assume that it was because he found that this particular time period was without honor. At least the Klingon sense of honor.
Glancing back over her shoulder, Deanna noted that there was no going back here either. There was no pathway behind her, only the road forward to death. Now Worf was going to die, too. Either that or be trapped here in Purgatory forever.
Deanna looked up at Worf with great sadness in her midnight eyes. "Why did you follow me here, Worf?"
One hand gently touched her cheek. "I cannot be separated from you. We are tIqqoch."
"tIqqoch?" Although aware of the meaning, Deanna was amazed that Worf saw her as his soulmate.
Worf smiled as he lowered his head to gently brush her lips with his. "Our hearts beat as one," he whispered.
When he raised his head, she said sadly, "But now you're trapped here, too, Worf. The road leads in one direction only."
He turned his head to look behind him. The long, narrow, dusty trail stretched off in the distance. "No, it does not," he disagreed, with a slight narrowing of his eyes.
Placing her hand on his arm, Troi said, "There can only be one road out of Purgatory, Worf. Everything . . ." Her voice trailed away into nothingness as she, too, saw the trail extend behind them. "This is impossible."
"Nothing is impossible if one believes." Worf paused. Smiling, he added, "I will believe for both of us."
Gazing down the road, shoulder to shoulder with Worf, Deanna placed her complete trust in the power of his love. If anyone had the strength of will to bring them from the brink of death, it was Worf. She wanted a future with this man who would risk his life for her; she, too, would fight to remain at his side forever.
"Welcome to Purgatory," a familiar voice said from behind them. Both Worf and Deanna spun around to face the man. Will Riker, dressed in purest white from head to toe, grinned at them, blue eyes twinkling mischievously. But the sardonic expression on his face, belied the mischievousness. This Will Riker meant them harm.
"What do you want?" Worf asked between tightly clenched teeth.
"Your souls," he replied, grin deepening.
Deanna looked at Riker for some time, making note of the differences between the true Will Riker and this apparent product of Worf's mind. The two Wills shared the same outward appearance--tall, lean, vibrant blue eyes, well-tended beard. But this Riker exuded a sinister intent toward them both.
"You shall not have them," Worf vowed.
Riker laughed. "I will in the end. This town belongs to me heart and soul. The two of you will make a fine addition."
This Riker, obviously used to bending people to his will, laughed again with a more sinister note in his voice. "Oh, you'll be mine," he promised. "Sooner or later I'll break your spirit."
Deanna's gaze shifted from Worf to Riker and back again. Worf, standing as tall and proud in his black western clothing as in his Klingon body armor or Starfleet uniform, faced Riker with a sneer of contempt on his face. "I think not," he retorted. "You have never faced a Klingon before."
Riker continued to wear his sardonic expression, although Deanna thought she sensed a momentary hesitation. "Perhaps not," he conceded, "but I've never failed yet. You and your lady will be mine."
Worf laughed then, startling both Riker and Deanna. This was a loud, boisterous laugh of amusement mixed with utter contempt. "Klingons killed our gods long ago. And you are a puny nothing compared to them. I have no fear of you."
Now Riker's expression turned to one of awe coupled with a hint of fear. "Killed your gods?"
Worf's lip curled further. "They irritated us." He smiled ferally at Riker. "You irritate me. It is not wise to irritate a Klingon."
Having watched the exchange with growing approbation, Deanna feared for Worf. She was his weak link, the chink in his armor. She might cause him to fail. If Riker threatened her soul, Worf might weaken.
As if reading her mind, Riker turned his attention toward her. Even as her heart began to pound more rapidly and her body began to tremble, Deanna heard Worf's words of reassurance in her mind. *Do not fear, tIqqoch. We are as one. My strength is yours. We cannot be defeated by this puny creature.*
Troi felt Worf's will infuse her body, bolstering her courage. Straightening her entire body and throwing back her shoulders, she glared defiantly into Riker's blue eyes--eyes she had once loved.
"Imzadi," Riker said persuasively.
Deanna simply arched one eyebrow at this Riker. When she failed to respond as he had thought she would, Riker's gaze shifted back and forth between Worf and Deanna. She could sense his growing frustration with them both as he could find no chink in the armor of the love she and Worf shared.
Worf's sneer of contempt intensified. The guardian of this particular Purgatory, who wore Will Riker's face, seemed to diminish with each confrontation with Worf. Deanna made the assumption that as Worf began to believe more strongly in her love for him, the threat Will and ‘Imzadi' had previously posed in his mind weakened.
"Deanna is not your ‘Imzadi'," Worf stated. "Her heart is now bound to mine."
"She was mine first," Riker sneered, although it carried little force.
Placing her hand on Worf's chest, just over his heart, she said, "Worf is my Imzadi now. Will Riker threw our chance at love away when he didn't meet me at Rissa."
"But the ‘Imzadi' bond is still between us," he persisted.
Worf snorted contemptuously. "There is no ‘Imzadi' bond, you fool. And Deanna is my tIqqoch, which is much more powerful than any so-called ‘Imzadi' bond. We are soulmates, bound together in love for all time."
Taking Worf's hand in hers, Deanna grinned, "He has such a way with words, doesn't he, Riker?"
Without waiting for the guardian to answer, Worf stated, "We are leaving now."
As if realizing he had chosen the wrong temptation for her, Riker suddenly disappeared to be replaced by Worf, a Worf dressed completely in white. Holding out one hand in supplication, he said, "Stay with me, Deanna. I will never leave you. We will be together throughout eternity."
The greatest fear she had about a relationship with Worf was that he would leave her as Will had. Worf claimed she was his tIqqoch, and she believed him implicitly, but a part of her continued to wonder if she could trust him without hesitation. She had done that with Will Riker and had been hurt badly.
The white-clad Worf seemed to sense her inner temptation. "Your heart will be safe with me, Deanna. Stay with me."
Even as she began to lean in the guardian-Worf's direction, her Worf gathered her in his strong arms, pulling her tightly against his chest. "What you offer is not love," Worf said harshly. "It is bondage, a loss of freedom. She shall not stay with you alone. If she stays, I stay. And I will make your life a living hell."
With Worf's words reverberating in her soul, Deanna felt his love permeate her being, making her feel safe and secure in the circle of his arms. For the first time she knew without doubt that this Worf would never betray her love as Will had so many years ago. She smiled at the guardian-Worf. "I don't think you'd like that very much, do you? He will do it, too. Worf never makes promises he can't keep."
"But you must be tested," the guardian persisted.
Worf's eyes narrowed. "We have been tested. We are leaving."
Suddenly the guardian-Worf disappeared to be replaced by Captain Jean Luc Picard, wearing a completely white Starfleet uniform. "Mr. Worf," the captain said in his most commanding voice, "I order you to remain here for further testing."
Worf smiled, showing all his teeth. "Nice try," he conceded, "but the real Captain Picard needs me aboard the Enterprise. He would never order me to stay here."
The guardian shifted shapes again. The white-clad K'Ehleyr moved closer to Worf. "Stay with me, Worf. Take the Oath with me as you promised."
When his dead mate appeared before them, Deanna could sense that Worf was filled with extreme guilt. If not for him, K'Ehleyr would still be alive. Had he told her the reason he had accepted discommendation from the Klingon Empire she would not have incurred Duras' wrath, and the traitor would not have felt compelled to kill her. Knowing Worf as she did, Deanna feared he would stay to expiate his guilt for her death. But this semblance was not K'Ehleyr, and she would not allow Worf to make this sacrifice for nothing.
Still standing in the circle of Worf's arms, Deanna stared defiantly at the Klingon female. "This shape will not work either," she assured the guardian. "Months ago, when I first realized how I felt about Worf, I sought guidance from K'Ehleyr's holographic image. She told me that Klingons do not dwell in the past. Mistakes are made, but living in guilt will not atone for the act." Deanna smiled at the guardian. "In fact, she urged me to pursue Worf. And to bring him the joy she could not. We are leaving--together."
Giving up, the guardian assumed Riker's form again. "I can't let either of you go. It would set a bad precedent." He moved to stand directly in their path to freedom.
"Too bad," Worf growled, becoming seriously annoyed with the guardian.
Deanna glanced over her shoulder, noting the townspeople were beginning to congregate, watching their confrontation with the guardian. "I suggest you let us go quietly. Your followers are becoming restive."
But Riker refused to move. "You must continue the test. Everyone must continue the test."
Worf crossed his arms before his chest. "No. We will not." He glared at Riker with all his Klingon ferocity. "I suggest you step aside now or I will be forced to hurt you."
Deanna suddenly understood that this guardian of Purgatory had no real power over them, only what power they gave him. Worf had shown her the answer time and again by his continued defiance of the guardian. From the very beginning, Worf had seen the path back to life. She had already given this creature that much power, but Worf had not. He had saved her life--and her soul. *Dalriada.*
Feeling Worf's body start for just a millisecond upon hearing the term, Deanna sensed a surge of joy in his heart. *tIqqoch.*
Riker tried one last time to keep them in Purgatory and within his grasp. "You'll never find your way back. The journey is impossible with guidance. It's much better to stay here."
"Never," Worf declared defiantly. "I would rather wander the path eternally lost than to remain in bondage to you."
In the distance, Deanna heard a frightened voice calling out. It was so faint she could not understand the words, but she felt the pull on her heart. Through their dalriada bond, she knew that Worf, too, could feel his son's terror upon finding their seemingly lifeless bodies on the holodeck.
"We have a guide," Deanna told Riker. "Step aside or I tell the others your secret."
Riker's eyes widened. "Don't do that!" he begged, realizing he had lost two souls for the first time in his existence. Without another word, he stepped reluctantly from their path.
When Worf took her hand in his, Deanna began the long journey back to life, hand in hand with her dalriada. Or tIqqoch. The terminology was inconsequential, only the fact that her soulmate had brought her back from the brink of death was important. Neither one felt the urge to look back at this gateway to hell, focusing instead on reaching Alexander as quickly as possible.
Behind them, Deanna could sense a mass exodus out of Purgatory. Without a word, she and Worf had shown the other inhabitants the way out of Purgatory, and the guardian with Riker's face lost his power over them as well when they reclaimed their souls. Soon he would be alone.
Deanna awoke with a start. Alexander knelt beside her, calling out her name. She could feel his terror at being left alone, possibly orphaned. From all the time she had spent with the boy, she knew that his greatest fear was being left an orphan. When he found his father's seemingly comatose body, Alexander's worst fear must have seemed inevitable to the child. No wonder he was terrified.
"I'm here, Alexander," she whispered softly, her voice weakened by her physical condition.
When Alexander heard her voice, he crawled back onto her lap and into his father's waiting arms. "I was so scared when I couldn't wake you."
Worf's hold tightened on them both. "I will not let harm come to either of you without a fight," he promised.
So many thoughts and questions raced through Deanna's mind as she lay within Worf's firm embrace. Against all odds, she had found her dalriada. Something very few full Betazoids could aspire to, and she had done it. Found the other half of her soul. A faint smile crossed her lips as she imagined her mother's response to learning that her daughter's dalriada was a Klingon.
Worf growled with consternation at her thought. *Must we tell her?* he asked.
*I'm afraid so,* Deanna replied. *She would be very upset if we didn't tell her, and she found out on her own.*
Deanna could feel Worf shove the thought of Luwxana Troi to the very back of his mind. But she knew it was followed by another thought he found equally distressing.
*And what about Commander Riker?* he asked. *What shall we tell him? When shall we tell him?*
*Soon,* Deanna replied. *I want to savor us, for a while, dalriada.* After a brief pause, she added, *He may not take it well, Worf?*
Worf became pragmatic in his thoughts. *I do not expect him to accept losing you very happily, Deanna. It will tear at his guts to know that he threw your love away. And in doing so, he lost the greatest treasure of his life.*
The door to the holodeck began to creak open. "Is everyone all right in there?" Will Riker called through the narrow opening.
"We are alive, Commander," Worf answered. "But all of us are injured."
For several interminable minutes, Deanna lay in Worf's arms as he continued to hold her and Alexander close, imparting his strength to them. When the holodeck door suddenly slammed open, they both started at the noise. Worf stared at Will Riker for a moment, seeing the other man's somewhat jealous reaction to the sight of Deanna in his arms. To reinforce the evidence of their recent bonding, Worf gently stroked her hair, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead. "I have you safe, tIqqoch," Worf assured her. "Nothing, not even death, shall come between us again."