Willing to Fight: Came and Conquered -- Part 1 by Sam T. Elliot

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WILLING TO FIGHT:
Came and Conquered

By
Sam T. Elliot
kzparker@smartchat.net.au

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| Part 1 | Part 2 |

Disclaimers:

All Star Trek concepts belong to the visionary Gene Roddenberry. I, like the creators of DS9, am merely a devoted supplicant. Unlike the creators of DS9 and Paramount, however, I get paid jack for doing this. Yadda, yadda, yadda; I don't even own a couch. The Bro'Dign are mine, as is all the psychological baggage that comes with them. I also own the characters who � in Classic Trek style - disappear or die soon after being introduced ;) If two women doing what two women do best is illegal where you live, write a letter to your government. Well, you know; if they're advanced enough to receive mail yet. 
Rating:
This installment is rated PG-13 for the first inklings of feminine attraction. I warn you; it'll only get higher from here on in. Let's be honest people: that's why we're all here ;))
Summary:
The show's over, but the players live on. Ezri Dax returns to DS9 with a secret, only to discover a new war is affecting everyone on the station; including her volatile friend, Kira Nerys.
Spoilers:
I suppose the only spoiler is for the final episode, due to the fact this story is set a year and a half after it. But if you haven't seen the episode, or if you haven't seen much of the DS9 series as a whole, don't worry. I've explained most of it in the story anyway.
Acknowledgments:
Finally, infinite thanks to my beta readers whom I found on Lunacy's beta pages. Pam went above and beyond for me; without her continual questions, and her ability to talk me through problems and stupidity and praise me when I finally got things right, I never would have gotten past the title. Without Nad's tireless praise, support, and sunny disposition, I would certainly have lost hope. She raised my spirits constantly. Thanks also to Lunacy's Reviews page for listing these wonderful women, STARTREK.COM for their Klingon words and culture info, and especially the DS9 Encyclopedia and Lexicon, located at http://ds9enc.www2.50megs.com/ds9enc.htm . And of course, to Barb and the Pink Rabbit team for their help, feedback and for having the faith to post me.
That's it from me. Please enjoy :)
Samantha.
(Feedback begged and pleaded for at kzparker@smartchat.net.au )

 

*****

As she stepped through the doors of the shuttlecraft it was the smell that hit her first. She paused for the bodily assault of familiarity and breathed deeply, inhaling the spicy cultural mix, rolling its texture over her tongue. A smile slid across her lips unbidden.

Home. The smell was home.

The other passengers had long since passed her, as had the customary wave of nausea from her trip. She walked across the docking bay and through the final doorway. No one waited to meet her. Not that she had expected it; no one knew she was coming back. Merging into the heavy traffic of the wide hallway, she chose to bypass the Promenade, and took the most solitary route to their quarters. Her quarters now. She shrugged off the wave of emotion that threatened to re-coil her throat and walked on.

***

The door rolled closed behind her and she stood frozen for a moment. It was all still there. Nothing had been touched. *He* was still there; his possessions, his mark. But the essence was gone. She knew it would all pass with time. Rolling her shoulders, she felt the pressure that had been weighing there for so long finally dissipating. Anticipation, excitement, warmth; all were returning. The element of fear, dread that the next few days of explaining and re-telling would bring could not dampen her spirit in this moment. She lay back on the large bed and stretched her arms and legs as far as they would go, swimming in the folds of Starfleet-grey fabric. Finally, she threw her head back and laughed until her chest heaved for breath, until that point just before laughter turns to sobs. It was all over, and she was back.

She was home.

***

Kira pinched the crinkled bridge of her nose before throwing her head up and staring into the eye of the Klingon before her. She placed both elbows on Captain Sisko's desktop - nay, hers now � and weaved her fingers together as a mat for her chin. "Chancellor Martok, sir, I know you're being pulled to the edges here, but we all are. You must understand the Federation's position. We're being attacked on all sides - there's not a whole lot we can do for the middle ground, but I promise you that whatever we can manage is already being done. You know that, sir," she urged gently, "you've been a great part of it already."

"I understand, Captain. You know I only come here to ensure my people will not be forgotten."

"They can't be forgotten, sir," Kira assured him.

The Klingon acknowledged with the dip of his ridged head. "Since that has been settled, I have another request."

Kira's hesitated for an instinctive moment, before smirking at her Klingon acquaintance. "Go on."

"Our warriors who have been on the frontline for more than a year wish to take leave here on Deep Space Nine for twenty-six hours. Completely supported by the Federation."

Though Kira's face paled as she contemplated the amount of Bloodwine that could be consumed by some fifty Klingons in one day and night, she smiled. It was a bill the Federation would just have to cover. "Done."

Martok nodded brusquely before exiting to the hiss of doors. Kira exhaled and leant back in her chair. She reached out to the baseball mounted in waiting for Captain Sisko's return. She tossed it up and down, reveling in the hypnotic calm the motion always inspired in her.

Since she had been placed in command of Deep Space Nine, and then awarded her captaincy four months previous � despite her lack of academy training � she had often turned to reminders of Benjamin Sisko. It helped her through each day, each decision she still felt she had no right to make.

She let her mind compose the report for Admiral Gord. She knew from past experience that he would fully support whatever decision she made. But old habits demanded she word every sentence perfectly, and justify every action.

Since Admiral Ross's removal one month into the Carrion Wars, named for the vulturesque manner in which Cardassia-Gray had first attacked, things had flowed as smoothly as they could in wartime. Gord was not the fanatic his predecessor Ross had been, and he believed that the good of the Federation rose from the good of the people. Despite her distrust of Starfleet Admirals - due to her bad experiences with them since the Federation first arrived on DS9 � she liked the man. But she still sighed again. It was different now. Ben, Miles, Ezri, Julian, Odo, Worf � they were all gone. All but her.

She got to her feet and paced the small area behind her desk. Agitated, she left and headed to Quark's. Despite the consequence of having to deal with an exceptionally aggravating Ferengi, Quark's was exactly what she needed right now. A hot cup of replicated Raktajino was simply not sufficient for her current mood. Perhaps the sting of Romulan Ale would work. If it didn't then nothing could.

***

She lay and stared at the ceiling as long as she possibly could. Eventually bareness faded to grey and the silence roared in her ears. It was time. She gathered herself from the corners and pushed her pieces back into place. A deep breath brought her to her feet, and another to the turbolift pad. A single word took her from her corner of the Habitat area to the social heart of the Station. Just a short path away and she would be on the Promenade, and another step to Quark's.

One foot in front of the other required more concentration than she could muster, and the trip felt unnaturally slow. Then she was there. The roar of the crowd assaulted ears now accustomed to long silences and whispered murmurs. But as she inhaled and braced herself, she knew this was the smartest and most efficient course of action she could possibly take. It limited the amount of times she would have to retell her story.

She stepped inside.

Nothing had changed but her. She didn't know why she had expected elaborate aesthetic differences, nor why she was so disappointed when there weren't any. The space didn't look any different, or the people. And yet they must have been different, because though she recognized Nog, Quark, Rom and Leeta, they looked like photographs taken from far, far away. Familiar, but blurred around the edges.

A flash of red caught her eye and her gaze settled on a lone figure in a dark corner. She had to concentrate before she puzzled out Kira Nerys. The Colonel seemed to be drinking, and she couldn't help but lose focus for a moment. Blinking tightly, she strode towards the corner beneath a self-imposed cloak of anonymity.

The back she approached was hunched and taut, surrounded by an aura of warning. She stood and watched as Kira drank large glasses of Romulan Ale at a steady pace. It was a harsh drink for the afternoon, caressed and swallowed like an old companion.

"If it's business then I'm afraid I'm off duty right now. If it's pleasure, I'd rather be alone thank you." Kira threw the comment over her shoulder coldly.

"If I were here in my official capacity, that state of mind may just earn you a long stretch of enforced sick leave, Colonel."

"No, it can't be. She wouldn't dare turn up on my station without being formally announced�." Kira turned to find herself face to face with a smirking Ezri Dax. "When did you get here?!" The colonel's smile was warm and inviting as she gestured for Ezri to sit.

The Trill woman smiled and they reached out to clasp hands, Kira patting hers as she abandoned the embrace of her glass. "About an hour ago."

They let go reluctantly, stared and smiled a little longer, before being interrupted by an identical glass placed in front of Ezri. Looking up, she was greeted by a sharp-toothed smile from Quark, who then promptly exited. Ezri stared at her serve of Romulan Ale, then back at Kira, bewildered.

"Don't worry," Kira grinned in reply, "I'm sure you'll pay for that in both platinum and confession soon enough. And, speaking of confessions�"

Ezri's smile was slightly forced. Inevitability did not necessarily make things easier to explain. She was suddenly filled with gratitude that the first person she could talk to would be Kira. For two life times the red-haired woman had been her best and closest friend. She stared into the neon blue liquid before drinking deeply. "He's not coming back."

Kira clasped her hand once more. They sat in silent tableau as Ezri centered herself. When she was able to look at Kira her face was damp with tears and her eyes glistened.

"What happened?" Kira coaxed the woman gently.

Ezri Dax and Dr. Julian Bashir had managed a further three months together on DS9 after the Dominion had been defeated. Three seemingly happy months. But Julian had felt the strain of a great loss after Miles O'Brien left the Station; as had they all with the disappearance of Captain Sisko. A toll had especially been exacted on Kira; replacing Benjamin in command of the busy station while the Federation began to regroup and rebuild.

In her role as counselor, Ezri had been utilized greatly by the pair. As lover and friend respectively, she had brought them together until they had become an inseparable threesome. Then Julian had been offered a post on Earth as head physician to the Federation. Allowing him to teach and practice, while proving to people that Genetically Enhanced individuals could be as normal as anyone else, the position had been irresistible to him. Being closer to his old friend Miles O'Brien was the decider, and Julian had accepted on the day.

Three weeks later Cardassia-Gray attacked. A week after that, Julian and Ezri had left the station for Earth. Two months later the Bro'Dign emerged, and after eight months Julian and Ezri had broken up. Now, a year and a half had passed and Ezri had returned, alone.

It felt like so much longer.

"The short version is that he had a crusade there, and I had nothing." Ezri's smile was forced. "An untrained Trill counselor who felt more like a housewife. Irreparable differences. Besides, I couldn't stand hearing about all the excitement you were having up here without being a part of it. So, now I'm back."

Kira grimaced as she drank her ale. "I suppose exciting is one way to put it."

Ezri nodded in understanding as they listened to the buzz of voices around them. "Any word from Benjamin?"

"Only once since Jake and Kasidy left. He last contacted me a few months ago. I told him how long it had been, and he was so surprised. Only an eye blink over there. Plus he's begun talking in those ambiguous metaphors he was always complaining about. He still doesn't know how long until he'll be back. 'Maybe a year, maybe yesterday'."

"Going gets tough, Colonel Kira?"

Kira looked at her in surprise, before smiling in a self-deprecating manner. "Your powers of observation are getting lazy, Lieutenant." She gestured to the row of pips along the collar of her jumpsuit. "It's Captain now."

Ezri's eyes flew wide in childish awe, and Kira laughed warmly.

"Oh Nerys, congratulations!"

"I suppose. Just some pretty jewelry and a hell of a lot more work, I'm afraid."

"Wuss."

"Hey, that's Captain Wuss to you, little missy."

They relaxed into the familiarity of teasing and laughter, and the air cleared around the table.

"Well, I've missed you, Captain Wuss."

"I've missed you too, Lieutenant Pain. Hey, I'm playing hooky this afternoon. Wanna join me?"

Ezri raised a dubious eyebrow. "You? Play hookie? You're kidding right?"

"Not at all. It's the corruptive influence of power."

"I'll say. Ok, you're on."

"Good. How about we sneak out now before Quark realizes? We'll go back to my quarters and talk things through properly."

"I've never heard a better idea. Let's go."

They left in a more conspicuous style than either realized. It was hard not to be noticed when one part of a duo was the captain, and the other a long-lost member of the crew.

***

"Brother, wasn't that Ezri Dax leaving with the captain?"

Quark's eyes were fixed on the two women, and he polished a glass absently as he nodded. "It certainly was, dear Rom."

"I didn't think she was coming back." Leeta frowned.

"Neither did I."

"So where's Dr. Bashir?" Rom asked, scratching his lobes in confusion.

Quark put the glass down and wiped his hands on his pants. "I don't know, brother. But I must say that I wouldn't complain if he didn't turn up any time soon."

Quark's smile was calculating, and Leeta shook her head in amusement. He ignored her and walked to the Captain's table, gathering up empty glasses. They had left without paying, but he let it pass. He could always charge them interest that way.

*****

Neither woman spoke as they took the lift to Kira's quarters. Ezri felt her tenuous grip on reality slide further as Kira opened a door and led her into a large living room, one wall made entirely of windows. She would not have been surprised if she had been able to walk through the glass and across the star fields surrounding the station. "Another perk of being Captain?"

"The view is - It's just a nuisance having all this space to myself. It's not like I have any time to throw parties, so I can't even justify it that way. But it's home." Kira walked to a display cabinet and removed two large glasses. "Bloodwine, Romulan Ale, or� whatever this stuff is?"

"You know my views on Bloodwine," Ezri made a face, "and I've had more than enough Romulan Ale for the next millennia or two. Guess that makes it� whatever that stuff is, for me"

"That's the spirit." Kira grinned, and poured two large glasses of purple liquid from the ornate bottle � tall as her shinbone, with a bulbous base that did not narrow by much as it traveled upward - before carrying all three items to the small coffee table. They took an end of the couch each. Ezri propped herself in one pillow-filled corner to face her old friend, while Kira stretched her legs across the table, staring into space. It was a scene familiar to the both of them, and Ezri smiled with directionless affection.

"Well, Nerys, I vote you tell your story first. After all, you are the *captain* now," Ezri stressed the title with a perfect balance of respect and mocking, "and that awards you many leadership advantages that supercede my lowly rank as lieutenant."

Kira glared at her companion in what she hoped was her best death stare; however, she was powerless to fight the pull of laughter emanating from Ezri's corner of the couch, and soon found her shoulders shaking the breath from her. As the final echo of mirth receded into silence, both women drained and refilled their glasses, hinting to a night of Academy-grade drinking.

"All right," Kira asked reluctantly, "what do you want to know?"

"Everything, of course. Let's begin with what happened after Julian and I left. Reports on Earth have been sketchy at best."

Kira nodded with a wrinkled forehead. "I can only imagine. Now, let's see if I can remember back that far�." She ran long fingers through her shoulder length hair and exhaled audibly.

"How about we recap together from the start," Ezri offered.

"That sounds like a better idea." She smiled, relieved." OK. After the final defeat of the Dominion was over and you all decided to abandon me --"

"Hey, we did not decide to abandon you!" Dax exclaimed, with a mix of worry and defense.

Kira harrumphed into her glass and Ezri frowned at her. "Nerys�" she pleaded.

The two women attempted to stare each other down, the silent communication passing through heated to childish, before the captain finally acquiesced. "OK, OK. After everyone else departed to their own little corners in and out of this galaxy --"

"I guess that's a little better --"

"-- We had three months of hectic peacetime, for which you and Jules were present."

Kira watched with concern as Ezri winced at Julian's name, and refilled both their glasses before continuing. "During this time we worked closely with the Cardassians, Klingons, Bajorans and Romulans as we all tried to rebuild and regroup."

Ezri took over as Kira drank. "Right. Then, just after Julian had agreed to his new posting on Earth, the Cardassian elections began. A new people's government was formed, called� aahh�."

"Damar'Tok."

"The Damar'Tok, or the United Free Cardassian Order, to which Garak was made Gul and Head of Chair. Am I getting all this right?"

"You're doing perfectly, Zee. 'Specially since your cheeks are flushed enough to ensure your head is becoming very unclear." Kira smirked.

"Speak for yourself, Nerys. I can hardly tell where your suit ends and your hair begins."

The two women fought back the fit of giggles that washed over them without much success. Kira was surprised. She was a Resistance drinker. She had always held her liquor like Ferengi held their gold-pressed Latinum. Mixing two different alcohols � the second type being a new and potent mixture - plus the emotional high of her reunion with Dax, must have reacted badly with her. She held up her glass and stared appreciatively at the dark liquid inside. "Whew. I don't know what this is or who gave it to me, but it's good stuff. Remind me to order more next time I'm in Quarks."

"Right, more mystery juice," Ezri confirmed. "So where was I? Oh yeah, Gul Garak. After the new treaties between the Federation, Romulan, Bajoran, Klingon and Cardassian nations had been signed, Garak and our Federation spies discovered a movement of Cardassians ready to invade the Alpha Quadrant, despite the fact that they had no ships, few weapons, and were down a little over 800 million people."

"Gotta give them credit for determination."

"So Cardassia-Gray emerged and tried to depose both Damar'Tok and the treaties it stood for, believing that the fact they survived the Dominion Occupation and subsequent annihilation attempt obviously meant that Cardassia was destined for supremacy over the Alpha Quadrant after all."

"Obviously," Kira pronounced dryly.

"And then Jules and I left the week Cardassia-Gray succeeded in assassinating Gul Garak."

Both women fell into silence once more, the loss of Garak thickening the air. Once he had accepted the Cardassia he knew was long gone, Garak had endeavored to create a new world that recaptured the art and beauty of Cardassian culture - without the war. He was sorely missed by most on the station, and more on Cardassia Prime.

Both women raised their glasses to the mysterious man's memory, and the dim atmosphere was swallowed with potent alcohol before Kira picked up the story. "All right, here's where things started to get interesting. That day has now been designated as the first day of the Carrion Wars. Then, the week after you and Julian left for Earth, Hedal was elected as Gul to the UFCO."

"Hedal was the civilian leader of Neetak Forward Sector?" asked Ezri.

"Right. In accordance to the new peace treaties, Damar'Tok, the Bajoran Government, Klingon High Council and Qo'noS, the Tal'Shiar and Continuing Committee, all joined with the Federation to collaborate on the capture and conviction of war criminals � the new Alliance. Admiral Ross led the Federation deliberation, as he had been the highest-ranking Federation member involved closely with the DS9 branch, where the conferences were being held." Kira frowned, shaking her head in remaining disbelief.

Ezri looked dubious. "They elected Ross?"

"Don't worry; you aren't the only DS9 member to disagree with the idea. And one month into deliberations, Admiral Ross was found to be guilty of war crimes himself due to his involvement with Sloan and Section 31. This information almost destroyed the new Alliance, resulting in the rapid dishonorable discharge and incarceration of Ross, and a full pardon for Cretak by the Continuing Committee."

"Wow." Ezri whistled under her breath. Pardoning Cretak was like the Romulans admitting they were wrong, and the idea was abhorrent to their genetic makeup.

"Yeah, that about sums it up," Kira agreed.

"So now they know Cretak and Julian were telling the truth?"

"Uh huh. Hope Julian isn't expecting a fruit basket out of it though." Kira's voice was colored by her cynicism in all things Romulan.

"So who replaced Admiral Ross?"

Kira smiled fondly. "Admiral Gord."

"Never heard of him. Nice man?"

"Very. He's a family man, opinionated and very loyal to the Federation and Alliance, but not above and beyond the good of each member here on the station. I like him, and we seem to get along well."

Ezri searched Kira's face for sarcasm. When she could find none, she sat back in surprise. "You've actually found an admiral you trust?"

Kira grinned. "I like him, but I trust his wife."

Ezri laughed and nodded in final understanding. 'The only way to control a Starfleet admiral is a through a Starfleet admiral's wife'. If the Dominion had ever learned this cardinal rule and put it into practice, the Federation would have fallen years ago.

Kira's face turned serious once more and Ezri listened closely as she continued the story. "Anyway, missionaries were sent from the new Alliance to assist on Cardassia Prime. As you know, almost another 4 million Cardi's were left homeless, starving and poor by the Dominion culling." Kira's voice was sharp as it always was when she spoke of the Cardassians.

Ezri was sure she didn't do it consciously. When a person had grown up and lost their family during the Cardassian Occupation, the bitterness was simply conditioned and unavoidable.

"So with the aid of the new Alliance," Kira continued more calmly, "the UFCO - Damar'Tok - was able to concentrate on repairing and rebuilding Cardassia's ships, and small, regulated amounts of their weapons artillery. Of course, this was greatly hindered by Cardassia-Gray's constant sabotage, but we were all well on our way to reviving respective forces under the new treaties. Then, one month later, the Bro'Dign arrived."

"This is the part where I am completely lost," Ezri admitted, and the Captain nodded her agreement.

"I think we all are a little, even now. We certainly were then. The Bro'Dign arrived as a small fleet of ships - only five to begin with. They claimed to be enemies and victims of the Dominion like us. None of our networks were able to gather any information on them, good or bad. So, although suspicious, we accepted their offer to help." Kira paused, shaking her head at what she saw as foolishness with foresight. She seemed to be trying desperately to convince Ezri of their intentions when she spoke next. "We needed them badly. They had technology more advanced than any we had seen before. Slipstream drives, self-restoring matter/anti-matter tanks, and the ability to create whole ships to our specifications in a little over three days."

Ezri's eyes widened at the implication. She was no engineer; for that matter she was no anything when it came to most technological devices, despite Tobin's vast knowledge, and the few details Torias had added during his short time with the Dax Symbiont. But she knew enough to be both impressed by the high level of advancement, and confused by the seeming impossibility of the skills the Bro'Dign possessed. "Cloning technology?"

"No. All from original base materials."

Ezri frowned. "But how? Isn't that near impossible?"

"We learned a few months later that the Bro'Dign originated from deep in the Delta Quadrant."

"The Delta quadrant? Why would they travel all this way to simply wage war against us? It's seems a bit out of their way if you ask me."

"Not with the speed they travel." Kira's jaw clenched and her voice hardened. "Apparently they had been considering occupation of the Gamma Quadrant for some time before they became intrigued by our war against the Dominion. Once they learned we had won with such large odds originally against us, they decided that the Alpha Quadrant would be a more *exciting* challenge. " She snorted at the term. "We've also been able to pinpoint their ability to create ships so quickly. They use Borg nanoprobes, reprogrammed to create and service star ships to whatever specifications they're programmed with."

"How did they get their hands on Borg technology?" Ezri questioned, intrigued, although the information sent a chill down her spine.

"We never got the chance to ask them. I don't know that we would have liked their answer." Kira drank deeply from her glass, trying to drown out the details of their current war. If only they hadn't have been so trusting of the mysterious race of nine-foot warriors. If only they hadn't been so shocked by the previous war with the Dominion, maybe they could have anticipated a new threat.

If only.

Kira's voice was flat and sterile as she continued with the simple facts. "Anyway, the new Alliance was able to program the nanoprobes to reproduce in controlled numbers, but they only last a few minutes, so it takes us over a week to make star ships now. The original Bro'Dign probes could theoretically survive for an infinite amount of time, as long as they were undamaged by weapon fire in battle or the likes. Still, it has meant that we're able to replenish our fleet and weapons a lot faster than we ever could have without them. The problem is, that it has been one year and four months since the Carrion Wars began and we're no closer to either defeat or victory."

Ezri shot her friend a puzzled look as she refilled their glasses again. The purple liquor was not helping her concentration at all, and Kira had grown quite blurred around the edges. "As I said earlier, the reports to Earth were usually pretty sketchy. But the casualty lists were fairly clear. What do you mean 'we're no closer to either defeat or victory'? Surely some impact must have been made; either good or bad?"

Kira stood suddenly, causing the large bottle to wobble on the table and Ezri to wobble on the couch. The red haired, red-faced Captain began pacing the large room like a cornered and slightly drunk Targ.

"That's just it. There *should* have been progress made, for better or worse," Kira's voice was dry, strangled and Ezri jumped at it's volume, "but there's nothing! We attack their ships and immediately more replace them. Then they attack us and wipe out whole forces, and instead of pressing the advantage they back away until we've recuperated. They're playing with us! We just don't know why!"

Kira strode to the clear wall with her arms crossed over her chest and her back to the couch. Ezri could just make out the side of her face as reflection against the glass, the rhythmic flexing of her jaw matching the return of taut shoulders.

She picked up her drink and stood carefully, making sure she was balanced before approaching her friend. She maintained an almost straight line to Kira's back, before slowly reaching out with her free hand to touch the tense form. Immediately she felt muscles strain further and she knew Kira was fighting to stay where she was, to allow herself the support of an old friend. It had been so long since someone had last tried to comfort her that Kira had almost forgotten how it went.

Eventually Dax felt the woman relax beneath the hand that rubbed gently at the knots in her neck and shoulders. Releasing the rub to a gentle stroke, Ezri leaned her forehead against Kira's left shoulder blade, eventually encircling her waist with her right arm. They stood staring for a long moment, Kira relaxing into the embrace of a young woman who was actually older than she would ever be.

Ezri finished the contents of her glass in harmony with Kira, taking and dropping both glasses to the carpet at their feet. Wrapping her other arm around Kira's waist, so small that she could touch her own sides in the tight embrace, proved to be Kira's undoing. She turned and buried her face in Ezri's neck, half-heartedly beating her chest with clenched fists, sobbing.

"It's not fair, Zee. I never asked for this, you know. My fight was with the Cardassians; I didn't want to become friends with them. I didn't want to wage war against anyone else. And I didn't want to be made captain of a space station simply because the old captain ran away to be a Prophet. I wasn't born a diplomat, Zee; I was born a rebel. I wasn't made to create and enforce laws and boundaries for people; I was made to break them. I can't live up to Benjamin! I don't know how to lead this anymore�."

Her voice trailed off into sobs as Ezri stroked her back and rocked her, cooing nonsense until the woman stopped convulsing. A moment longer and she pulled back, wiping her eyes and sniffing, an embarrassed smile on her face. "I haven't done that in a while."

Ezri smiled and squeezed her arm in reassurance. "Nerys, there's nothing to be embarrassed about. A good cry is really healthy. You obviously needed it."

But Kira was already straightening herself up and brushing the moment away. It did not matter that she had known Dax for so long, or that Ezri had become her best and closest friend since her unexpected arrival on the station; not Jadzia, but a wonderful person in her own right. Over the past four years Kira had learned the dangers of wearing her heart on her sleeve as she had once down proudly.

Losing Bereil � twice - Jadzia, Captain Sisko and Odo had been the most recent wounds. Then the mass exodus by the others as the Dominion was defeated, had simply reinforced the feeling of betrayal she could not shake, no matter how hard she had tried. This new war had hardened her into something new altogether. Where she had always been passionate and proud, now she was also reticent and guarded. Ezri felt pain of her own as she watched her once-carefree friend retreat back inside herself.

Smiling on the surface, Kira retrieved the glasses and walked back to the couch. She resumed her former position as though no time had passed, and respecting her need for the denial, Ezri did the same. Inside she knew that she would continue rubbing at Kira's new shell until the old, quick-to-smile Kira Nerys she missed and admired returned.

"I do believe it's your turn, Lieutenant," Kira said lightly.

"My turn for what?"

The Bajoran snorted rather indelicately, smirking back at the straight-faced woman beside her. "Don't even try to pull that one on me. It's your turn to spill the news on the full and current situation of Dr. Julian Bashir and Lieutenant Ezri Tigan Dax."

"Oh yeah, that." Ezri took a large swallow of the mysterious liquid and let her eyes roam everywhere but Kira.

"Zeeeeee�" Kira whined in a most un-captain-like manner.

"Ok, ok, just give me a minute would you?" Ezri took another long drink before sighing deeply and finding the ideal dissociative spot on one blank, gray wall. "As you know, Julian and I were wonderful during those few months of peacetime here on the station. So, of course, when he said he had received the posting to Earth I went with him."

"Just in the nick of time too," Kira said over the rim of her glass, referring to her lucky escape from the war.

"Yeah, in that way I suppose it was good timing," Ezri agreed, although she had felt nothing but guilt since the first casualty lists started flooding in, and she recognized the people fighting and dying without her. "Anyway, we got to Earth and the apartment well enough, and spent the next month settling in to Terran life and schedule, and the culture shock of living in a place where there's actual sunlight."

Kira smiled wistfully as Ezri drank; a fleeting image of Bajor passing through her mind.

"As you can imagine, Julian was really busy that first month, working all day at 'Fed Med' as they call it down there, and then catching up with Miles in the evenings." Ezri paused and shrugged before she continued. "They didn't have a position for me at the Academy or the Federation buildings, so I'd travel during the day, or spend time with Keiko and the kids, that sort of thing."

"How is Kirayoshi?" Kira asked her, warmth and sadness scrawled plainly across her face.

"Just as energetic and inquisitive as his namesake."

Kira smiled fondly, missing the child she had carried for so many months, but was unable to watch grow up. "I miss them."

"They miss you," Ezri assured her, placing a gentle hand on hers. Kira nodded with a faraway smile.

When Ezri resumed her voice was light, but Kira could sense bitterness being glossed over. "Anyway, after the first month I expected things to settle into a more normal routine. But they didn't. In fact, Julian began spending longer hours in the lab and clinic and visiting Miles whenever he had a spare moment. Sometimes he wouldn't come home for three or four nights on end. When I eventually confronted him about it, he apologized and said he would make an executive effort to see me more often."

"How noble of him," Kira commented dryly, surprised at the changes that must have occurred in the two lovers during such a short amount of time.

"Oh yes, that's what I thought," Ezri returned with mock agreement. "He did try though� for about three months. They were nice, but I could tell Jules was getting stressed about fitting three things into his schedule. Eventually, I was the one sacrificed again. I let it go for about a month, then told him something would have to change. He got really, irrationally angry; like� like when the 'mutants' visited the station for the first time, and Captain Sisko told him that 'surrender was NOT an option'."

Kira and Ezri laughed at the memory, throwing images back and forth between them, and reflecting on what seemed now like much happier times. Ezri could feel a change in atmosphere as the noise died down, and she knew she had to say something quickly before they both became emotionally catatonic. "So we yelled and screamed until we both reverted back to pre-super ego states and began bickering like three-year-olds. And I have to tell you, there is nothing funnier than seeing a genetically enhanced man whine."

Laughter returned as they toasted the picture.

"It was mutually agreed," Ezri stood to express what she now felt was the sheer idiocy of the moment, " in an argument that basically went 'I don't like you right now' 'I don't like you either. I don't think this is going to work.' 'I don't think so either.' 'Maybe you should go.' Then I packed my things and left."

Kira's brown eyes were wide, dancing with both amusement and astonishment at Ezri's reenactment of the break up. "Just like that?"

"Just like that," she stated, sitting.

"Where did you go?"

"To Miles and Keiko's."

Laughter again.

"And I bet I can guess what happened next," Kira pushed out through her chuckles.

"Julian turned up," they said in unison. The laughter felt good, bubbling from deep within each woman. It was a true place, and one that had remained stagnant in both for too long.

"Then all hell broke loose," Ezri continued. "Keiko was yelling at Julian, and Miles was lecturing me, and then Keiko was yelling at Miles, and he at her, and I started on Julian, and he on me, and then we became a quartet, and�" her voice trailed off as she fought for breath between laughs. She wiped ineffectively at the tears streaming down her cheeks, only to be flooded as a new memory caused her to start all over again.

Eventually it was laughter for laughter's sake. As soon as one stopped the other would start, and that would set them both off, until it became a vicious circle that led them to be wrapped around each other, holding aching ribs and burning abdomens. It was a mass exodus of emotion that did more in the few minutes it lasted than all the counseling and talking in the galaxy could have.

"Oooh, I hurt," Ezri whined, pushing herself upright once more.

"Me too," Kira agreed, reaching for the drink she desperately needed.

Small chuckles tapered off into heavy breathing.

"Hang on, Zee; that explains the first eight months. What happened after that?" Kira asked, and watched with interest as Ezri's Trillian markings flared to deep mahogany in harmony with her crimson skin.

"Oh, I just traveled and explored after that. Nothing of any real interest," the woman rushed, shrugging her shoulders in an attempt at nonchalance.

An eyebrow shot upwards and Kira could not halt the loud "Hah!" that escaped her throat. "Zee, I know you better than that. Besides, I don't care how old that Symbiont of yours is � Rom lies better than you do."

"Nerys! That was low, even for you."

The laughter began again, and Ezri cursed. "Stop it, it hurts!"

"I knoooow�"

When Ezri finally settled and cleared her throat to begin, Kira noticed a gentle affection and sadness in her face that had not been present as she recalled the incident with Julian. It made her frown in confusion, curiosity. She began to wonder if it really had been Julian that Ezri cried for in Quark's.

"All right, all right. About a month after Jules and I were over, I decided to go back to the Academy and finish my counselor's degree," Ezri stated simply.

"I thought Starfleet waived the last of your training?"

"They did, but it didn't feel right. About a month after I arrived here on the Station, Benjamin arranged things so I could finish my classes as soon as I had time," Ezri explained. "Anyway, in the mornings I would run through Cochran Park, and during the day I would study there. It's such a beautiful place," she said affectionately, "and it was close to the dorms and the Academy, so it's only natural that most lecturers and students could be found there. I'd often bump into one particular student from the course, and we'd study or run together. Eventually we arranged to meet up, and about a month later we sort of 'combined quarters.' Satisfied?"

"Zee! You little Risan girl!" Kira laughed, amazed at her friend's unusual confidence. "So, who was he? What was his name? Age? Occupation? Description? I need details here, Ezri," she teased.

There was a steely glint in Dax's eye, and she smirked guardedly. "Dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, Human, 30-years-old. Also doing a counselor's degree, but for long, deep space, Galaxy-class missions."

Kira stared at her. She shrugged and waved her hand in a "Where's the rest" gesture. When Ezri did not respond, Kira growled, "You're joking right? That's it? That's all you're going to tell me?"

"That's all."

"As your captain, I am giving you a Direct Order to tell me the rest of it, Lieutenant Dax." Kira's attempt at seriousness was not quite convincing.

"Yeah, right," Ezri chuckled, "I'm not even officially back yet, *Captain*."

"Oh come on, just a name?" Kira pleaded.

Ezri pretended to think heavily over it. "No."

"May the Prophets curse you for this, Dax."

"Oh Nerys, how you wound me. Same to you and yours," Ezri mocked.

Kira's curiosity was more than fully piqued, but she drank her drink and let it pass. She knew that, sooner or later, she would find out who had so obviously stolen the Trill's heart, and why they weren't together today.

"So when were you made captain?" Ezri asked, interrupting Kira's train of thought.

"A little over four months ago now," she replied distractedly.

"Why? I mean, I can't think of anyone who deserves it more than you, but --"

"-- I wasn't even Starfleet commissioned?" Kira finished with a smile.

"Well, yeah," Ezri conceded, a little embarrassed by her own straightforwardness.

"Running DS9, and already having worked with most of the new Alliance during the Dominion wars, went a long way to ensuring I'd be respected during the current war councils," Kira explained, before smiling coldly. "But there were still a few incidents here and there, especially when something happened that someone wasn't happy with, when my lack of 'Starfleet' authority would be brought up. So to solve that, Admiral Gord pulled a few strings and got me commissioned and 'pipped' in a small ceremony here on the station, with all the benefits that go along with it."

"And downfalls."

"Exactly."

The bottle was nearly empty, and both woman were flushed and slightly disorientated.

"And the outfit?" Ezri asked, gesturing to Kira with her glass.

"What about it?" Kira asked defensively. "It's the same one I've always worn."

"Exactly. Don't get me wrong; it looks beautiful on you, Nerys. Compliments your coloring perfectly. And I know for a fact there's no one on the station complaining�" Ezri rushed, realizing the ease with which her initial comments could be misinterpreted.

The Bajoran flushed beneath the liquor red and chuckled self-consciously. "I think there's laws against you complimenting your captain like that."

"I think there's laws against that outfit, Nerys," Ezri smirked. "But what I meant was, why aren't you in Starfleet uniform?"

"Because above all else, I am still Kira Nerys of the Bajoran Militia. Just because I was made token Starfleet captain�" She held up a finely boned hand as Ezri began to protest. "�doesn't mean I've distanced myself from that role at all. This is just another way I enforce that."

Ezri nodded. There was a pregnant pause before she smirked mischievously. "I think you just like the fact that it turns heads as you walk down the Promenade."

"Doesn't hurt." Kira smirked.

"Risan Slave."

"Dabo Girl."

"Token Captain."

"Untrained Counselor."

"Cardassian."

"Ezri Dax! Now I think you owe me more information on this secret love of yours." Kira finished, laughing.

"Not for all the Latinum on Ferenginar, Nerys," Ezri told her, shaking her head adamantly.

"Fine." Kira went to pour herself a new drink, only to find the large bottle empty. "We finished it!"

Ezri stared at the bottle, then at Kira, opening and closing her eyes several times with great effort. "I can tell. I think it's probably time for me to go to bed."

Kira watched Ezri try three or four times to get to her feet, before grabbing her arm and pulling her back to the couch. "Looks like you're staying here tonight, light weight. Captain's orders."

"No complaints here, sir."

Kira smiled fondly as the younger woman rubbed her eyes and issued a drawn-out sigh that ended with a squeak. She went to her room to retrieve a blanket for her intoxicated friend. When she returned, Ezri had already removed her uniform and boots, and, clad in nothing but Starfleet-issue shorts and tank top, had passed out on the cushions; a content smile plastered across her face.

Kira placed her more firmly onto the couch and pushed the small table against it, lest she roll off during the night. Then she rearranged the pillows beneath the woman's head and neck to avoid strain, and finally threw the blanket over her.

As she bent over to tuck the blanket in, knowing Ezri would be tossing and turning with so much alcohol in her system, a sleepy, half-conscious hand grasped the back of her neck and pulled her forward until she was perched on the side of the couch, leaning over the small form, her ear close to the woman's lips. "I love you, Aani� You always take care of me� In the morning we can go to the park� I'll make you a thank you picnic�. Now come to bed�."

Kira tried to pull away from the disorientated embrace, but her small friend was a lot stronger than she appeared. She tumbled onto the couch and was quickly pulled under the covers, spooned firmly into Ezri's embrace. She could feel the steady rhythm of sleep breathed onto the back of her neck, and one arm was wrapped proprietarily around her waist, fingers splayed across her stomach.

Kira couldn't move for a long time. She was caught between shock and triumph at the revelation of Ezri's secret love affair from Earth. She felt a little hurt that Ezri had not been able to tell her it was a woman she had fallen in love with. Admittedly, she herself had immediately spoken in the masculine, but Ezri had not corrected her.

Her surprise passed quickly on matters of gender, as she knew the Dax symbiont never judged whom its host was attracted to. Jadzia herself had almost been exiled when Lenara Kahn arrived on the Station and they had fallen in love. And even without Dax, Kira knew she wouldn't care if Ezri fell in love with a man, woman, or Targ anyway. Well, maybe the Targ would be a problem.

She shook off the internal debate and delicately extricated herself from her sleeping friend. She decided the information she had just received was best kept to herself. She knew that Ezri would still tell her about the relationship of her own accord, when she was ready. If she had really loved this woman half as much as Kira sensed she did, then it was likely to be too painful for discussion at the current point in time.

With that decided, Kira went to bed, alone. It was not a new feeling, but it was one she knew she would never get used too.

And eventually, she slept.

*****

Light was bad. Noise was bad. Smell was bad. Sound was bad. Breathing was bad. Being awake was downright evil. She tried closing her eyes and returning to sleep, but it hurt too much. When she reopened them the ceiling spun and the walls closed in on her. She groaned loudly and threw one arm across her face.

"Could somebody please stop the station? I'd like to get off." Ezri grimaced as her private complaint was met with all-too-cheerful laughter. "This is not funny," she told the doorway, through which she could see Kira bustling about in a small kitchen. She had already showered and was immaculately dressed, and she emerged carrying a plate of food; the sight of which thrust Ezri's stomach into the realms of zero gravity.

"I completely disagree. I think it's hilarious." As Ezri moaned again, Kira relented and mustered up a little sympathy. "Look, eat this and I promise you'll feel better."

"Use the word 'eat' again, and I promise you'll be recycling this couch," Ezri retorted, sulking.

"Hey, I cooked for you. Be appreciative and sit up."

"You cooked? That's it, I'm going to die."

Kira frowned, pulled back the table and placed the food on it, before pushing the hung-over woman upright. It was a cruel move, but Kira was hurt and could find no guilt to accompany it.

"I don't like you right now, Nerys," Ezri said coldly, staring at the red head through slitted eyes.

"Oh, my heart is breaking," Kira mocked. When Ezri whined and held her stomach she sighed. "Ok�" she finally relented, "� here." Ezri's eyes lit up as Kira produced the hypospray she had acquired from Julian years ago, when it was not uncommon for a wayward member of the crew to turn up at her quarters needing to 'sleep it off'. She pressed it against the offered skin of Ezri's neck, and was rewarded with a moan of relief at its hiss.

"I take that back. I love you, Kira Nerys, with all my Symbiotic soul."

"Then eat your breakfast. I have things to do."

With her stomach settled Ezri happily complied. When Kira reemerged from her bedroom and collected the plate, Ezri was awake and energetic - with nothing to do. "I guess you have to go and be captain now, right?"

"Right," Kira agreed from the kitchen. "I have a lot of arrangements to go over with Martok today."

"What sort of arrangements?"

Kira reentered the lounge and stood before Ezri with her arms folded over her chest. "I've agreed to allow his frontline warriors 26 hours leave on DS9. The Bro'Dign have just finished an attack, so we're not expecting another for at least two weeks."

"You agreed to let 50 or so Klingon warriors spend 26 hours on Deep Space 9?" Ezri exclaimed in disbelief.

"All expenses paid by the federation." Kira added, her eyes flashing in warning.

"26 hours of free Bloodwine and mayhem?!" Ezri asked again, ignoring Kira's defensive stance.

"Yes."

"Are you crazy?!? Do you know how much damage could be done by that many drunken Klingons in that amount of time?"

"Of course I do. But you know the Klingons have done more for us than we could ever repay them for. What was I meant to do?" Kira shot back.

Ezri opened her mouth to retort, before closing it again. "Good point. How long until the 'celebration?'"

"That's what Martok and I are trying to organize today."

Ezri was silent for a moment, thinking. Just as Kira was leaving, Ezri stopped her. "Nerys?"

"Yes, Zee?"

"I know I'm not officially on duty yet," Ezri said slowly, a pleading look in her eye, "but do you think I could come and help with the preparations today?"

Kira looked almost relieved, and she smiled at the hopeful woman. "I'd like that, Ezri." Remembering her position, her face sobered. "Only on the proviso that you return to official duty tomorrow. We could use a counselor around here right now."

"Done," Ezri agreed quickly. "What time do you need me?"

"I want you in my quarters at 0900 hours. That gives you fours hours to fully recover. Think you can manage it?"

"I'll be there." Ezri smiled.

Kira opened the door to her quarters.

"Oh, and Nerys?" Ezri called once more.

Kira turned, halfway through the open doorway. "Yes?"

"Thank you."

She nodded and left. Ezri waited a moment before toppling back onto the pillows, giggling and thrashing about with giddy excitement.

She was back.

***

A few hours later she made her second trip to Quark's since her return. It wasn't as bad as she had expected. As Kira had predicted, Quark demanded payment plus interest for her drink the night before, but she had yet to face the questions. DS9's Gamma shift had just finished, and Alpha shift was due to start very soon, so it was rush hour in Quark's. Despite the noise, Ezri was grateful for the bustle, as it distracted her well-intentioned friends.

She was at Kira's table again; in one secluded corner that seemed to be unofficially off limits to other patrons. This allowed her to think as she drank her Fanalian Tea, which was about as appetizing as Gagh to her alcohol-annihilated taste buds. She could feel someone watching her, and she took a furtive glance towards the bar. Leeta and Quark became immediately absorbed with other tasks, and she sighed to herself. She wouldn't have long until their curiosity would bring them to her.

Ordinarily, it wouldn't have been a problem. It was understandable that they wanted to know why she was back, and why Julian wasn't. But that was where things got complicated. Julian was merely an excuse. Certainly she had been devastated when they had broken up, and certainly it was difficult to return without him to a place where they had always been together. But it was his quick wit and devoted friendship that she missed now, not his love. She knew people expected her to remain heartbroken over the breakup, she could see the preemptive sympathy in their faces. And, just as she had done for Kira last night in this very spot, she could cry when she talked about it.

But she wasn't crying for Julian.

It made her angry to have to attribute the pain she was feeling to her relationship with him. It hurt to dishonor the memory of Aani; still painted so vividly in her mind. But it was easier this way.

How do you explain a love so natural that it formed in a day to someone who has never met the person you shared it with?

She couldn't explain why she had chosen to love this person. She couldn't talk about the beauty they had shared together. She couldn't explain why it had almost killed her when Aani was posted and left in one, short day. It was easier to distance herself through Julian, and their known past, and the simplicity of their relationship; than describe the intangible complexities she and Aani shared, to a stranger. It allowed her to keep Aani for herself; to hold the love they shared as her own, without the questions of others. Without having to explain something wonderfully inexplicable.

"Hey, are you ok?"

Ezri's head jerked upwards in confusion, and the din of Quark's came flooding back to her. Leeta looked worried, and she couldn't understand why until she realized that her face was wet with tears. As she wiped them away she felt as though she had been crying for hours, but she couldn't recall how long she had been sitting there. It could have been minutes, or days. Her coffee was cold. She drank it anyway.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she replied, brushing Leeta's concern away. "I didn't even know I was crying. I'd go and see someone about it, but since I'm the only counselor on the station today I have a feeling my diagnosis would be a little biased."

Leeta smiled sympathetically, and sat as Ezri gestured to the empty seat across from her. "Need a friend to listen?" the Bajoran Dabo girl inquired, her chin resting on her hand.

"If you don't mind, Leeta, I'd rather not talk about it right now."

"Of course." She sat up. "I just came over here to accuse you of being horribly selfish anyway."

Ezri raised one puzzled eyebrow. "Why?"

Leeta's sigh was exaggerated. "It's wartime, so this place is always gloomy. And then you arrive, the perfect opportunity for a party, but you keep it a secret. That was very mean of you, Lieutenant."

Ezri bowed her head meekly. "Please forgive me, Leeta. It was wrong of me and it won't happen again."

"You bet it won't. And you don't get out of it that easily either. You have two days to work on your surprised look. We're throwing you a party," Leeta stated matter-of-factly, her eyes gleaming.

Ezri's face paled beyond its usual porcelain hue, making her seem almost translucent. "Oh please Leeta, no, I ca --"

"I'm afraid it isn't open for discussion. There will be a party, whether you're there or not. Just be grateful I was nice enough to tell you." With that, Leeta stood and walked around the table to embrace the dumbfounded Trill. "Welcome back, Ezri. We've missed you."

It was on shaky legs that Ezri made her way towards Kira's office, this time remembering to leave her slips on the table for Quark as she went.

***

"Well, what did she say?"

"Not that it's any of your business, Quark, but she didn't say anything. She didn't want to talk about it."

"Bitter breakup, huh? That sounds promising."

"Quark, she looked devastated. She was crying and she didn't even know she was doing it."

Quark took a minute to rethink before he smiled again. "Sounds like she needs a shoulder to cry on. Someone to confide in; someone to bring her comfort in the night."

Leeta shot the Ferengi a withering look. "You're despicable, Quark. The woman is in pain. She needs time alone, and the support of friends. Not that kind of support�" Leeta said firmly, before Quark could get his remark in. Her brother-in-law shrugged and begun stacking glasses beneath the bar.

"We'll see."

***

"Lieutenant, so nice of you to join us. Chancellor Martok, I don't suppose you've forgotten Ezri Dax already." Kira grinned as Ezri walked to the Klingon and held out her arm.

"You insult me, Captain. One does not forget honorable friends. Especially those of their own House," Martok growled, with the harsh Klingon version of a smile. He grasped her arm and Ezri tried not to wince. His hand easily swallowed her forearm, and she felt dwarfed as she strained her neck upward to look him in the eye. Martok looked down and laughed. "How they ever managed to get you into such a pujwI' eludes me, Dax."

"bIjatlh 'e' yImev, Martok. I could still beat you with a ghojmeH taj in one hand and a mughato' chewing on the other."

The chancellor's face darkened and he bared his sharp teeth at her. Ezri froze. She didn't know what had come over her. Obviously she wasn't as in control of her former personalities as she had thought. She finally exhaled when Martok began to laugh, falling forwards as he slapped her on the back. "As I said, an honorable friend."

Kira watched the exchange in confusion, and made a mental note to ask Ezri what the hell had happened when the meeting was over. "We were just beginning to go over the arrangements and dates for this little 'event.'" she explained, eager to steer the conversation back to something she could understand.

"When were you thinking of having it?" Ezri asked the Klingon, her hands clasped behind her back as the familiarity of duty washed over her.

"As soon as possible," he answered. "My men need a break before the Bro'Dign return."

Ezri turned to the Captain. "Have you talked this through with Quark yet?"

"No. I was hoping you would do it," Kira stated, a small hint of guilt barely visible beneath the indirect order.

Ezri glared at the captain, who stared back, daring her argue. "�Yes, Captain."

"Good." Kira nodded, relieved. "It will probably take Quark a few days to prepare everything, so the sooner you tell him the better."

"Yes, Captain. Leeta was organizing a 'Welcome Home' party for me in two days time. Hopefully this will veto her plans."

Martok slapped her across the shoulder once more, and Ezri fought to hide the pain that shot up her neck. "My warriors won't mind sharing their celebration with you, Dax. We can combine."

"No, I --"

"What a wonderful idea, Chancellor," Kira agreed, smirking. "We can make it a Station-wide event."

"No, I really don't --"

"A true Klingon feast is just what my men need. I will begin the food transfers immediately."

"I really, really don't want --"

"Wonderful, it's settled then. We'll plan it for 4 days from now, in Quark's."

"Look, would you please just listen --"

"I will inform my men," Martok announced proudly. "I'm sure it will lighten their spirits greatly."

Martok turned and exited the captain's office at a quick march. Kira returned to her chair and folded her hands on the wide desktop. Ezri remained fixed for a moment longer, wondering what had just happened, before whipping around to glare at the serene, almost smug, woman.

"What were you thinking, Nerys? Why did you do that? I am not in the mood for a party - especially one I'd have to share with a bunch of macho Klingons and their disgusting food. I thought you of all people would understand that."

"First of all, *Lieutenant*," Kira told her firmly, red-faced at her orders being questioned, and not prepared to admit Ezri may be within her rights for anger, "I am on duty right now, and in this office you will pay me the respect afforded by my rank as Captain. Secondly, Dax, this party isn't just for you, it's for everyone on the station who has had to deal with two wars in quick succession. It's to give them a chance to celebrate the Bro'Dign retreat, rather than use the time to dwell on the next attack."

Kira's anger vanished as quickly as it had formed. She crossed the room to where the Trillian woman stood, tears running slowly down her face as much from frustration as the Captain's own words of reprimand. She pulled Ezri into a tight embrace, tucking her head beneath her chin and shushing her.

"You need this party too, Ezri. You need to be surrounded by people who love you and have missed you and who are glad to have you back. You still have a lot of stress to deal with from Earth." Kira rubbed her back gently. "It's all catching up with you now, but it's the best place for it to happen. You are surrounded by friends here, Zee � friends who love you regardless of what you say or do. Friends who are willing to listen if you just ask. I'm always here for you, ok?"

Kira did not let go as Ezri clung to her jumpsuit, desperately trying to regain her composure. Finally she looked up, her smile small and self-conscious. "And I though I was meant to be the counselor here."

"Oh, you are. We've already discussed why I couldn't be a counselor, Zee. Remember, 'You're crazy - get out of my office.'"

"Next patient." Ezri finished, grinning weakly.

Kira smiled and wiped at the woman's tears with her thumb. "Besides, you're the one who abandoned us for a romantic tryst. I'll be more than happy to hand the job back to you tomorrow," she teased.

Each smiled at the other, before Ezri stepped back and stared awkwardly at her boots. "I'm sorry I undermined your authority before. I guess I'm not used to you being all-powerful yet. It won't happen again, Captain."

"Thank you. Look, I'm sorry I reacted so violently about it. It's just� you know the problems I've had with my new position � sometimes even now." Kira's hard smile returned. "I'm still just the woman babysitting DS9 until the real captain returns. And while I know you didn't mean it that way, I have to keep these two sides of my life separate to avoid going completely crazy."

Ezri nodded, watching the taller woman closely.

"In this office," Kira continued, "and whenever I'm officially on duty, I need to have everyone treating me the same way. It makes it easier to be the designation, not as much when planning a party like in this instance, but maybe tomorrow or a week from now. One of those times when I have to make a decision to send people I know and care for into a situation where they will probably die. Then, I need to be 'The Captain.' I can't be Kira Nerys anymore. And the only way I can distance myself like that is if I maintain it in times like this. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Perfectly." Ezri tilted her head as she studied the woman's deceptively impassive face. "This is really getting to you, isn't it?"

Kira shrugged, and gave a small smile of dismissal to the worried Trill, who had fought the urge to gather her Captain into her arms and support her as the friend she also was. "Before you go, Lieutenant, could you explain something to me please?"

"Of course, sir."

"What happened between you and Chancellor Martok earlier?"

Ezri flushed a deep crimson, while her Trillian markings flared to almost black. "I really don't know what came over me. It was a little Jadzia and Curzon I guess, but I think the rest was me. He called me a pujwI', which means "weakling". Then I told him to shut up, that I could still beat him with a kid's knife in one hand and a mughato' biting the other. A mughato' looks like a giant ape. Its bite is deadly."

Kira laughed, both surprised and impressed by Ezri's bold insult to Martok's renowned sense of honor.

"Promise me Nerys; next time I try something like that, shoot me."

"If I can get to you first I promise I will." Kira assured her in mock seriousness. "Now, I have it on good authority that you have someone you have to see right now, so I won't keep you a minute longer." she smirked.

"I can't believe you're making me do this, Nerys."

"I know. I've never felt this giddy with power in my life. You're dismissed."

***

Ezri marched into Quark's muttering under her breath. Her mood was dark as she approached the bar, with no sign of the Ferengi owner. "Quark�" she called, and nearly punctured the ceiling as he popped up in front of her. "Quark! What were you doing down there? You scared the jumja out of me!"

"Well if you give me a few minutes, I'll cook you up a new batch to replace it," he returned, feeling slightly offended.

"Uh, no thanks Quark � I'm not hungry."

"Fine. Is it business or pleasure that brings you here, Lieutenant?"

"Business, I'm afraid. Leeta told me you were planning a Welcome Home celebration for me --"

"Oh she did, did she?" Quark interrupted angrily. "I should have fired that girl months ago. Couldn't keep a secret for a hundred bars of Gold-Pressed Latinum --"

"No, it's good that she did," Ezri assured him quickly.

"Oh yes? And why's that?" Quark returned, unconvinced.

"Well, Captain Kira sent me down here to tell you that my party would now be combined with a 26 hour celebration here on the Station --"

"26 hours? She expects me to hire staff and cater for 26 hours? Boy, is this going to cost her. So, who are you combining with? Ensign Tarees? It'll be her birthday you know."

"Actually� about 50 Klingon warriors," Ezri told him at a rush, wincing in anticipation of the outburst she knew would come.

Quark's jaw practically hit the bar and his ears shriveled noticeably. "She expects me to provide my fine establishment for 50 drunken Klingons to destroy over the course of a day and night? She's out of her mind! And where does she expect me to find that amount of alcohol and food at such short notice?"

"Chancellor Martok is preparing most of the feast himself and the Federation is covering the bill for the entire period," she placated.

Quark's eyes glinted dangerously and he rubbed his tiny hands together in glee. "Starfleet is covering the bill? Maybe I can do this. Right, tell the Captain she has a deal. The feast is four days from today. Better get some rest, Lieutenant - this is gonna be a blast!"

'That's what I'm afraid of

,' Ezri thought.

*****

The next four days passed as a complete blur. If Ezri had been asked later to sit down and list each day-to-day event, she could not have come up with even one. She would wake up and take an appointment, then spend hours organizing guest lists and food and space and activities, take a patient, perhaps a few, perhaps she didn't have any. Perhaps she was simply inventing people to share the strain she was under. Perhaps she was still asleep on Nerys's couch with no time passed at all, and when she woke up the celebration would have been one bad dream.

But she didn't wake up. She didn't remember sleeping either. And then she turned around one morning, and the big party had snuck up behind her while she was distracted by its minute details.

"Lieutenant Dax," came Kira's voice from beside her. She looked around for the red-haired woman to no avail. "Lieutenant Dax, where are you?"

"What? Where are *you*?!" she shot back in confusion.

"Ezri Tigan Dax, pick up your Comm. badge this minute or I'll have security come down there and carry you out."

"I don't think she's joking, Dax," came Chancellor Martok's gravelly voice, and Ezri could hear laughter in the background. Her face flushed as she searched her discarded uniform for her Comm. Badge. Finally locating it, she answered just in time to avoid the Captain's deployment.

"Dax here."

"Finally. What do you think you're doing, Lieutenant?"

Ezri was confused by the question, and she frowned at the badge, searching its shiny surface for the correct answer. "I'm catching up on some paperwork, Captain."

"Well I need you on the Promenade now," Kira's voice stated.

"Is there a problem, Captain?"

"Now Lieutenant � that's a direct order."

"Yes, sir."

***

"Well, you were right, Captain. It seems Dax has forgotten that today is her party," Martok stated, with triumph in his gravelly voice.

Kira chuckled in a conspiratorial fashion, much to the amusement of the officers around her. It had been a long time since they had seen their former comrade relaxed enough to enjoy herself. "Yes. It looks like Operation: Ezri Dax has begun, Chancellor."

"Indeed it does, Captain. And I must say, it has been a pleasure working with you."

Kira smirked and nodded her head. "Martok, the best is yet to come."

***

Ezri picked up her dirty uniform and pushed it into the recycler. Then she rushed to her locker for a fresh uniform. She let out a small squeal of disbelief as a quick inspection revealed every compartment empty. Only yesterday morning she had made sure they were full of clean, freshly pressed uniforms. She would have to replicate one.

Her replicator would not respond. Everytime she ordered a new uniform she was supplied with boots. And not even a full pair; only left boots. She cursed technology in every way and language she could think of. Being a joined Trill meant she had a rather wide vocabulary with which to confer. As her last resort, she pulled out the travel bag from Earth that she had yet to unpack, and rummaged through it for something suitable to wear.

She was outraged to find that it too had been ransacked. The only item left was a dress that she had bought for herself the week after Aani had left � just a few days before she returned to the station. It was still in its box; vacuum-sealed to avoid dust, moisture and wrinkles. It was a beautiful dress, but certainly not appropriate for responding to a Station emergency. Still, neither was the satin sleeping negligee she was currently wearing. So she opened the bag and shook out the dress.

It rolled to the ground like a velvet ocean; midnight blue, almost black. Covering it were thousands of silver Dactdotes � a small, highly reflective and refractive stone that danced and shimmered with the slightest movement of light. 'At least if it's a sentient problem, I can blind it into submission.' She thought with a sigh. She loved the dress - the minute she had seen it in the "Old World Designer" window, she had bought it. But she had intended for the first time she wore it to be something spectacular.

She zipped the back and straightened the 'shoestring' straps, whatever that meant. The assistant had been impressed by the term, so Ezri figured it must be something good. The search through her drawers and struggle with the replicator had only taken a minute or so, and though she was in a hurry, she examined herself carefully in the mirror. It was a revealing dress in a few poignant places, and damned if she was going to come out of it as she jogged through the station.

The dress was separated into two sections; the top sat under her breasts and pushed them upward, while the neckline was straight and tight, revealing an accentuated cleavage pushed against it. The main section fell from beneath the top, a tight layer of dark velvet, framed either side by folds of a powdered blue satin also adorned with Dactdotes. It fell to her feet, and she could see herself having great difficulty traveling anywhere quickly. Her back was completely bare to just above her Starfleet-grey briefs. She remembered with relief the long velvet cloak she had bought to match the dress and fished it out, buttoning it from her neck to her waist, and leaving the rest of its floor length open so as not to further impede running should the need arise.

She scanned the room for her boots. She was not surprised to find they were also missing. She pulled on a pair of two inch silver heels and buckled them tightly. Running was definitely out now. She had spent a whole week learning how to simply walk on them. They were admittedly easier then the ones she had to wear while helping Vic overthrow Frankie Eyes, but there were no safety protocols here. If she fell she'd probably break her ankle.

Ten minutes after the call she emerged � transformed and fuming - from her quarters. She was beyond angry. She was even beyond livid.

It hurt her that someone would go through her belongings and steal from her, that someone would invade her privacy and leave her with the opportunity only to humiliate herself with the outfit they hadn't touched. She was angry that they had spoiled the symbolism she placed on the dress. Her liberation, her emancipation had been denied her by making her first outing in the dress a mundane, embarrassing one.

The minute Kira was through with her she was out for blood.

***

"Do you think we should try her again, Captain?" Leeta inquired when she noticed the agitation building through the gathered crowd.

Kira shook her head. "No Leeta, I think she's probably upset enough by now."

"Upset? Why would she be upset?" Rom asked with his usual confusion.

"Well, Rom, remember how we were all certain she would forget which day the party was on?"

"Aaahh� yes?" he said, although he didn't really.

"Well, Chancellor Martok, Nog and I went on a small retrieval operation," Kira addressed the group, struggling not to laugh. Behind her, Martok was not as successful. The gigantic Klingon may have towered over Kira, but his laughter was that of a mischievous boy.

"I don't get it," Rom sighed in disappointment, sure that he was the only one.

"We stole all her clothes." Kira laughed, unable to hold her composure any longer.

"You what?!" exclaimed Quark. His expression flowed from shocked to excitement smoothly, while the others looked at her in alarm.

"Kira! You can't have her coming to the party naked!"

"Oh don't worry, Leeta," Kira assured her. "In one of her bags, we found this� well� you'll see."

Nog came hurtling around the corner at that precise moment. "She's coming! She's coming!" he informed them in a stage whisper. Silence fell over the gathered crowd, under threat of death from the Captain if one word was uttered before 'Surprise!'

Kira could now hear Ezri cursing in fluent Klingon. Although she could not make out much of what she was saying, Martok was starting to fidget nervously; indicating that if her words could make this hardened warrior blush, then Kira was glad she couldn't understand them.

Finally Ezri came into view. A combined breath was taken, then:

"Surprise!!"

***

In her few seconds of disorientation, Ezri reached instinctively for her phaser before realizing she hadn't brought it with her. She crouched into a defensive position as best she could with the tight dress, and threw her head back to face her attacker. A sea of smiling faces greeted her, and she was momentarily confused. Then it clicked. And, as the flicker of recognition crossed her face, the applause began.

She blushed deeply and mocked a curtsey as Kira stepped from the crowd and hugged her tightly. "Welcome home, Lieutenant," the Captain whispered before they released each other.

"Speech!" someone called from the crowd, and cheers were followed by a hush.

"I only have two things to say," Ezri began, embarrassed. "The first is 'from the bottom of my heart, thank you all�"

A moment of applause.

"�and the second is, 'whoever stole my clothes and reprogrammed my replicator to issue only left boots, is deader than dead has been before.'"

The Promenade filled with laughter, and a group of Klingons pushed Chancellor Martok from the crowd.

"Traitors!�" he yelled, red faced. "�While I do apologise for the inconvenience, Dax, the aptain and I agreed that this was the only way to get you to this celebration.�"

Ezri turned to her friend, who was trying to slip inconspicuously back into the crowd. "You were a part of this?!"

"She was the brains of the operation," Nog announced with pride.

"Oh yeah, thanks for your loyalty guys," Kira complained with a smile on her face.

"It was nice knowing you, Captain Kira," came a shout from the back of the crowd, followed by laughter and hoots of approval. Kira held up her hands for quiet again.

"Since I have now deemed you all a completely disloyal crew," Kira told them with an expression of mock sternness, "I hope you enjoy the next 26 hours of freedom. You will all reconvene here tomorrow at 0800 to be shot. Enjoy yourselves, and take care."

The laughter faded into hundreds of voices talking at once, and with that the festivities commenced. Drums echoed along the Promenade, along with the lilting melody of pipes, creating a friendly and energetic atmosphere that Kira hoped would last as the evening progressed.

Moving away from the party before her, she grabbed a large mug of Bloodwine and one of Romulan Ale, and turned to face Ezri. There was no hint of the anger that had been painted across her face earlier. In fact, her eyes were as wide as saucers; her smile one of pure, innocent delight.

"Happy you came now?" Kira asked as she handed the ale to Ezri.

"I can't thank you enough, Nerys. It's perfect. You were right, it's just what I needed."

"I'm glad," said Kira warmly. "I must say that I was particularly excited about tonight when I saw that dress of yours. It's absolutely exquisite! You look beautiful in it. Did you get it on Earth?"

Ezri was blushing as she smoothed her hands over her jacket self-consciously. "Yeah, in one of those retroactive clothing shops."

"Buy it for someone special?"

"Yes, I did actually. I bought it for me," Ezri replied matter-of-factly.

"Ha ha. You know Zee, I'm determined to know all about this mystery love of yours by the time we get out of here tomorrow," warned Kira.

"Then it's gonna be the longest 26 hours of your life. C'mon, Captain, time to dance!" Ezri took her hand and dragged her into what was once the crew and public of Deep Space 9. Now they were feverish drones of music and the flesh.

The mood invaded the two women easily. One captain found herself forgetting the stress of controlling a war, by moving closely with its participants. One returned comrade learned that pain could not exist symbiotically with hedonistic pleasure. Both discovered they loved to dance.

***

By the sixth hour there were a lot more people sitting and drinking than dancing. Nog, their recently promoted, usually by-the-book chief engineer, had to be carried to the infirmary after he attempted to go drink for drink with Chancellor Martok.

"What's going on over there?" Ezri shouted to Kira, who shrugged her shoulders and pointed towards the door of Quark's, not bothering to try talking over the noise.

They stood together and pushed their way through the gathering crowd. Only after people recognized the Captain were they able to make it to the front. Ensign Tarees was standing before them on Quark's bar. She was wearing little more than her bra, underwear and boots, last of which went soaring over their heads a moment later. The whistles and applause of appreciative male crewmembers and Klingon warriors were deafening. Seconds later, Tarees was pulled from the bar by security.

"Come on, she was just getting to the good part!" came a shout, chorused by much of the crowd. But the show was over. The woman's passing was marked by calls of 'Happy Birthday,' echoed by Ezri and the Captain.

"I bet she's going to be embarrassed in the morning," Ezri stated mostly to herself.

The ensign next to her laughed and shook his head. "Not Dee. She wasn't drinking."

Ezri's eyes widened, before she burst into laughter. Kira accepted two fish-bowl-sized glasses from the woman behind the bar and handed Ezri her Warp Core Breach.

"Another perk of being Captain?" smirked Dax.

"One of the best. Dance?"

"Love to!"

***

The going was easier this time around as they made their way back to the Promenade. It took them a lot less time than recommended to finish their drinks, and they quickly returned to the crowd on the dance floor. The beat was much slower now, the pipes loud and mournful, flowing through the Promenade and twisting dancers into each other.

Kira took Ezri's hands and spun her around, before drawing her close and holding her as they moved together. All around them the movement had become freer, more sensual. By the time the dance ended both woman were red-faced and breathing heavily from the effort. They pushed through to chairs in one corner as the drums resumed their fast pace, catching drinks as they went. It was far enough from the drums to talk without screaming, and Kira was relieved as her ears ceased pounding. "I'm so glad it's all going well."

"Me too," Ezri agreed. "I think everyone's all fought out thanks to the Bro'Dign. I haven't seen a sign of violence yet."

"Only that bat'leth demonstration earlier," Kira agreed.

"Wasn't that beautiful? Made me feel a little sad. Must be the Jadzia in me." Ezri's eyes were unfocused and gleamed with fond memory. Kira smiled sympathetically and squeezed her hand before drinking. Suddenly the crowd parted to an obviously upset Rom marching towards them.

"What's wrong, Rom?" asked a worried Ezri, moving to let the softhearted Ferengi sit.

"Have you seen Leeta anywhere?"

"Not for an hour or so." Kira joined them. "Is there a problem?"

"No, Captain. It's just that� Leeta is a very affectionate woman."

"Yes she is, Rom," the captain agreed.

"And I was just talking to General Ra'Teraan," he added sadly, as though that explained everything.

"And?" Kira was finding it hard to follow the man's elusion.

"Well� Leeta is a very� affectionate woman."

"Oh!" Dax erupted, catching on. She quickly put her arm around him. "Look, I'm sure she's ok, Rom. She's your wife. She loves you."

"I know," he agreed sadly, not sounding quite convinced.

Kira was busily scanning the crowd. She spotted Leeta. Her stomach dropped. Ra'Teraan had found her.

Rom spotted Leeta.

"Oh noooo." He covered his face with his small hands and sobbed pathetically. Kira shot Ezri a lost look over his gigantic lobes.

'I've got it,' the counselor mouthed back. "Look, Rom - How about you go over there and take her home. She's had a lot to drink and as you said, she's a very affectionate woman. She's probably going to feel horrible in the morning. She'll need all the love and forgiveness I know you can give."

"Do you think so?" the Ferengi asked hopefully.

"Oh, I know so," Ezri assured him.

The Ferengi smiled in relief and nodded his head. "Of course she will. She's my wife, and I love her, and she loves me. Thank you, Ezri Dax." He hugged her tightly, and she thumped his back awkwardly.

"You're welcome, Rom. Now go!"

He marched off and they watched him take Leeta by the arm, dragging her in the direction of the turbo lifts. Ezri and Kira looked at each other for a moment, before breaking in to laughter.

***

The tenth hour passed without further incident, and as the eleventh rolled up it found Kira and Ezri both exhausted, and approaching the realms of outrageously drunk. They were leaning against the Promenade wall by Quark's when he strolled up with a drink tray.

"Quark!" Ezri announced excitedly. "Look Nerys, it's Quark! Quark, how are yoooou?"

As they reached for glasses he pulled back, causing whines of protest from both women. "A lot better than you are. I think it's time for you two beautiful ladies to take a walk"

"Nonsense, Quark; Zee is perfectly *fine*. I should know; *I'm* the Captain." Kira told him sternly, jabbing her finger at the air in his general direction.

"Yes you are, Captain," nodded the Ferengi.

"Exactly. And I am ordering you give us a drink, and then go and get yourselves together."

"Get my selves together?" He stared at her in wonder.

"I agree," interjected Ezri, struggling with her uncooperative feet, "it's horribly messy having two of you wandering around, Quark. It's gonna cause all sorts of confusion."

He caught her with his free arm as she leant too far forwards, and held her upright as she searched for footing. She wrapped her arms around his neck and stroked his lobes. The Ferengi fought back his own wave of giddiness at the gesture, refusing to lean into her delicate fingers. 'Of all the times to develop a conscience, Quark, you have to do it *now*?!' he berated himself, before leading Ezri into Kira's open arms. She developed a fit of the giggles as Kira stroked her hair, murmuring: "There, there, it's ok. Your captain will take good care of you�"

"Go on ladies, why don't you go and get some fresh air? Make sure the rest of the station is behaving itself," Quark implored them.

"That's a good idea, Quark. I have to keep them under control, 'cause I'm the Captain. I'm the Captain, and that's my job."

Quark watched with relief as the two women weaved away. Once they were completely swallowed by the crowd, he let his shoulders slump. "Well, that was it, Quark. Your one perfect opportunity to tell Ezri exactly how you feel about her, and you blew it. You absolutely blew it."

He returned to the bar as the party mood abandoned him.

***

Continue to Part 2

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