Willing to Fight: Take it as it Comes -- by Sam T. Elliot

***************

WILLING TO FIGHT:
Take It As It Comes

By
Sam T. Elliot

***************

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:
Once again, this installment is rated PG-13 for the first inklings of feminine attraction. I promise the good stuff is on its way; unfortunately I have this obsession with realism over gratification. Damn my morals ;)
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. If you haven't read my previous story "Willing To Fight: Command & Conquer", you probably should. This story will make no sense otherwise.
Once again I'd like to thank Pam and the DS9 Encyclopedia and Lexicon for their wonderful help and information.

That's it from me. Please enjoy :)
Samantha.
(Feedback begged and pleaded for at kzparker@smartchat.net.au )

*****

"Enter," Kira said as the door chirped. She looked up from the padd she held tightly in her right hand, and wondered why she couldn't remember what was in it.

"It's been almost 3 hours; any word from Hinz yet?" Ezri inquired as she entered the ready room, which Kira had refused to leave until the status of the captive was reported definitively.

"No. As per usual, his sense of self-importance has been raised to levels unimaginable," she replied with exasperation. "He's under the illusion that bleeding awards him captaincy. Another 20 minutes and I'll show him captaincy."

Ezri grinned at the tense woman. "I'd like to see that."

"Oh, don't you worry; I'll be selling tickets at the door."

Ezri relaxed on the couch at a nod from Kira, who put her feet up on the desk.

"I used to feel guilty about doing this," the captain said casually.

"Not any more?" Dax asked with a raised eyebrow.

She shook her head and grinned mischievously. "Now it's one of the most enjoyable parts of my day,"

"Heightened enjoyment derived from abusing authority? Maybe we should talk about this, Captain?" Ezri teased.

"Oh no," the captain warned, "I will not be a test subject for your recently completed exploits in Federation mental diagnosis, 5 minutes and you'd probably have me on Med leave."

"Permanently. There's nothing more dangerous than delusions of grandeur," Ezri replied with mock seriousness.

"Yeah, well, maybe you should talk to Hinz about that."

"Are you kidding? A few sessions with him and I'd be the one on med leave."

"True." Kira chuckled. "Speaking of med leave, how's your stomach?"

Ezri tried to hide her surprise at the woman's insight. "What do you mean?"

"Come on Zee, don't give me that routine. Your space sickness? I was shocked you didn't vomit over your console when we hit that ion storm on the way home." Kira grinned. "Even I was feeling queasy; you must have been ready to throw yourself out the nearest airlock."

"I was," Ezri admitted reluctantly. Her nausea would always be a tender point; she still believed a trained Starfleet officer had no right getting space sick.

"Why didn't you say anything?" prodded Kira gently.

"In front of all those people I didn't know? Holding it back was a lot less embarrassing. I guess the tribofene Hinz gave me before we left didn't hurt either." She smiled self-deprecatingly.

They relaxed in comfortable silence for a long moment, allowing thoughts to catch up with adrenaline-charged bodies. Perfectly still for the first time in almost 16 hours, Kira suddenly felt very, very tired. She was exhausted both mentally and physically, and Ezri looked up as she tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. "Nerys, go to bed. You know Hinz won't let the fact you're asleep stop him from reporting in. In fact, I'm sure he'd find waking you an incentive to hurry."

"I know he would. But I'm not going, Ezri," Kira told her firmly. "I don't think I could sleep until I know what's going on anyway," she added.

"I doubt that."

"I'm not going," the red head returned stubbornly.

"You know, Captain," Ezri smirked, "I could order you to go...."

Kira stared at her, sparks flying from her dark eyes as she studied Ezri's face; trying to decide if the woman was serious. "You wouldn't."

Ezri raised her head defiantly. Before it was just for Kira's own well being, but now that it was also a challenge� "I can, and I am," Ezri stated with a calm voice, although inside her heart pounded and her nausea returned. "Captain Kira Nerys, I am formally --"

"Hinz to Kira."

Kira's anger promptly transformed to smug delight at the doctor's hail. She never thought she'd say it, but she was glad to hear from him. "Kira here, go ahead doctor," she answered the ceiling with satisfaction.

"The patient is finally stable," his disembodied voice stated dryly. "I won't go in to the mechanics of the surgery, since you couldn't possibly understand them; suffice to say he will live."

Kira rolled her eyes at Hinz's arrogance, and Ezri fought valiantly not to laugh aloud.

"But I warn you that he almost did not," Hinz continued sternly. "His injuries were extensive, and I was forced to induce a coma to limit him to the most basic of functions. This should allow his body to concentrate on repairing itself faster than if he were aware of his situation. If you ever want him to regain consciousness, you're going to have to trust me when I say I cannot wake him for some time."

"How much time are we talking about here, Hinz?" the captain asked, worried. They couldn't afford to wait long for whatever information this prisoner may possess.

"I'd say two weeks at the very least, although a month would be advisable."

"A month?" Kira exclaimed; laughter brought forth by the ridiculous answer. "That's unacceptable, Dr. Hinz. Who knows what could happen between now and then? We expect the next Bro'Dign attack in four days; you're telling me there's no hope of talking to him before then?"

Hinz's own laughter was condescending, and brought a homicidal flush to Kira's cheeks. "Talk? I don't know if he'll be able to move again, much less talk, Captain. We know very little about Bro'Dign physiology. I was lucky enough to bring him this far. I don't know of any other doctor who could have," Hinz told her smugly. "Talking? I wouldn't hold my breath."

"I wish you would," Ezri muttered with perfect timing. Her comment forced a smile from Kira that distracted her from the verbal assault she was about to rain down on the arrogant man.

"Fine," Kira sighed, and stood, "just do what you can, Hinz. Keep me updated on the prisoner's status; I want to know any changes, even if they seem insignificant to you. Kira out." She had begun pacing with frustrated fervor during the conversation, and her movements became even more erratic with its conclusion. Ezri watched her pace through slitted eyes.

Fists clenched, Kira growled through gritted teeth and whipped around to face her. "I hate that man! I would never have wished Cardassian torture on anyone, not even my worst enemy, not even at my lowest points during the Occupation. But Hinz� Hinz would make me feel sorry for the Cardassian!"

Ezri chose to ignore Kira's obvious tantrum and was the picture of calm and relaxation on the couch. "Uh huh."

"He is the most aggravating, frustrating, annoying, arrogant, selfish, pigheaded, repulsive, aggravating�"

"You already said aggravating --"

"�self-absorbed, arrogant�"

"You already said arrogant too --"

"�obnoxious, anal retentive man I've ever met! Prophets save me if I ever catch sight of him with a charged phaser in my hand, because I swear I'll�"

"Nerys."

"�cut him into tiny pieces, starting at his toes, and working my way upwards. And nothing will please me more than�"

"Kira."

"�hearing him scream in pain and beg me to spare him, admitting what a complete --"

"Captain! Everyone in Ops can hear you."

Kira stopped suddenly, before turning to face the doors of her ready room. Through the small window she could see her crew staring with wide-eyed interest. Regret set in as she recognized the proverbial 'grapevine' being fueled once again by her actions. It was a voracious plant, and if she didn't begin to control herself, she knew it would eventually eat her alive.

"Great, I've done it again." Kira sighed. "How long do you think it'll be before everyone on the station hears about this?"

"You think they haven't already?" Ezri stated, trying not to smirk.

"Damn." Kira rubbed at the ridges of her nose in resignation. "Move your feet."

Ezri lifted her legs from where they were stretched across the couch just long enough for Kira to sit, and then lowered them across the woman's lap. Kira leaned her head back against the couch, threw an arm across her eyes, and sighed loudly. She was glad her crew could not see this tableau from ops. If they could, she'd had to resign her new commission and move to the Delta quadrant.

Suddenly, she stiffened, lowered her arm and turned to look accusingly at Ezri. Eyes closed, Ezri didn't care. "You were going to relive me from duty," she stated coldly.

Ezri was silent.

"Don't even try it, Lieutenant," Kira warned.

Ezri sighed and opened her eyes. "I'm not trying anything, Nerys. You know why I did it."

"You had no right --" she shot back, trying to ignore the fact that much of her motivation for anger was wounded pride.

"I had every right." Ezri sighed again. "Do we have to argue about this?"

Kira opened her mouth to say "yes", hesitated, relented, and leaned back. "No. It's time for bed."

"I was hoping you'd say that." Dax smirked and closed her eyes.

Neither woman moved.

"Carry me?" The Trillian woman asked in a small, pleading voice.

"Not a chance," she replied lazily. "Think I'd be abusing my rank if I got Nog to transport us to our quarters?"

"Not at all; go ahead."

"You know, I'm actually considering it," Kira returned, opening her eyes and staring at the ceiling. "Seriously."

Ezri smiled and groaned as she pushed herself up and around, stood, and offered her hand. The Bajoran took it and let the shorter woman pull her to her feet as she yawned. "Come on, Captain; I'll walk you to the turbolift."

They exited the ready room, crossed Operations, and hopped onto the pad; ignorant to any furtive glances they may have received.

"It was a successful day, Nerys," Ezri told her once the lift began moving, "you should be proud."

Kira shook her head. "I didn't do anything, Zee."

"Oh yes you did," she replied with conviction. "Watching you today in that war council; it was inspiring. I didn't realize before how suited to being captain you really are."

Kira shrugged away the compliment as the turbolift stopped on her deck. "Thanks, but I think your opinion is biased. Sleep well, Zee."

"You too, Nerys." Ezri waited for the turbolift to resume its descent before she added: "Oh, and by the way; you're officially off duty tomorrow, Captain. Take care!"

Ezri was far below her when Kira recovered from the shock, but even then she could hear the Captain's curses. Her smile was smug as she disembarked and walked the corridor to her quarters. She showered and changed in a trance, before tumbling exhaustedly into her bunk.

Sleep could not have eluded her that night if it were a fully armed ship fleeing at warp 10. She held it more tightly than ever before, and was unconscious before she had a chance to call for lights out.

***

Four decks above her, Kira was furious. No one ordered her away from her work! Not if they wanted to live the rest of their lives with the ability to eat solid food.

She knew her anger would become acidic in its impotence if she didn't do something about it, and quickly.

"Computer, open a channel to Admiral Gord," she ordered the empty room.

"Admiral Gord is currently sleeping," the mechanical voice returned calmly.

"Then wake him, dammit," she growled impatiently. "Tell him it's Captain Kira Nerys of Deep Space 9, and it's urgent."

"Admiral Gord has accepted communication. Channel open."

"Good� morning, Kira?" came the Admiral's sleepy voice.

Kira felt suddenly foolish and wished she had checked the time before contacting the man. "Sorry to wake you," she told him softly. Staring at the black screen on her portable comm. unit, she smirked. "No visual, Admiral?"

"There is no way I'm letting you see me in my pajamas, Kira," the man replied icily.

"Oh come on, Admiral; I promise I won't laugh." A promise she promptly broke.

"Don't bother, Kira; my husband is a prude," came the voice of Clarice Gord: the reason she trusted the Admiral. She laughed as the couple went on to bicker affectionately around her. True to form, Admiral Gord eventually gave in to his wife, before addressing Kira once more. "She's a slave driver, Kira. I don't know how I put up with her."

"I don't know how she puts up with you, sir," Kira replied unsympathetically.

"Watch what you're saying, Captain."

"Oh, she's right, Patrick. Sometimes I don't know why I bother," Clarice scolded, though the warmth was clear in her voice.

"Now look what you've started, Kira," the admiral whined in a most unprofessional manner. "I'll never get any peace. Did you call simply to disrupt the harmony of my home?"

"No, sir," Kira said as she slipped easily into captaincy, "I wanted to update you on the situation here at the station."

"Did Hinz manage to save it?"

"He did..." she hesitated, not wanting to tell the hopeful man bad news.

"But?" he prompted.

"But I'm afraid we won't be able to talk to it for at least a week. Hinz says it's in pretty bad shape."

The line was silent for a moment, and although Kira knew he was disappointed with the news, the admiral didn't let it show through his voice. "We will be able to talk to it eventually?"

Kira took a deep breath before answering, her jaw clenched. "He doesn't know."

"It sounds like you and Hinz are getting on splendidly as usual," Clarice interjected sarcastically.

"Dr. Hinz remains a�" she fought for an adjective that didn't involve genitalia, "problem, ma'am; yes."

The admiral's wife had no such qualms with her description. "He's a pain in the ass, Kira."

"You know him better than I do, Clarice," she returned, laughing softly.

"Yes; unfortunately I do."

Kira smiled to herself. Although she had never met Clarice Gord in person, she liked the woman immensely. There was no doubt she was the only reason Kira had overcome her distrust of admirals, enabling her to work closely with Patrick Gord from the first week he was assigned to the station.

"Well, Kira, thank you for calling," the admiral resumed in a tired but authoritative tone. "I'll inform Starfleet first thing in the morning. Is that all?"

Kira took a breath, "Yes, sir."

"You hesitated, Kira. What's wrong?"

Feeling her anger surging once more, Kira fought to restrain it with an exasperated sigh. "Lieutenant Dax has relieved me of duty for tomorrow."

Clarice's laughter irritated her, and she had to bite her tongue against her retorts. "I knew I liked that Ezri Dax; she has quite a spirit in her. Takes a strong woman to curb the fire in your belly, Kira."

"I don't see the humor here, Clarice," she threw back, pouting at the blank screen.

"You should, dear," the woman said warmly.

"Why did she relieve you, Captain?" asked Admiral Gord, sounding more curious than worried.

"She seems to think I need some�" Kira stumbled over the explanation, "rest, sir."

"And do you?"

"Well, I�" Kira couldn't find the words to deny it, but wasn't about to admit Ezri had made a valid decision either.

"Your silence speaks volumes, Captain," the man told her gently. "Look, do as the counselor says and relax. Enjoy yourself; use the holosuites for a few hours, get a massage, read a book, play some springball. You know you'll be better for it, especially when the next attack begins. Now, go away Kira," he said firmly, "we all need to get some sleep."

The Bajoran woman smiled, and when she bid them goodnight her voice was warm with affection for the couple. "Ok, tomorrow I'll take it easy. Thank you, both of you. And pleasant dreams."

"Take care of yourself, Kira."

"I always do," she insisted. Clarice's snort of disbelief was the last thing Kira heard before Admiral Gord disconnected the link.

Tired again, she quickly wound up her role as messenger. "Computer, compose message for Chancellor Martok and Proconsul Cretak. 'The prisoner is alive but not well. Hinz says incommunicado for at least a week. More in the morning.' Encode and send on a secure channel, authorization Kira 1-6-4 Alpha."

"Message sent."

She smiled and shook her head, before finally pulling back the covers and crawling into bed. Staring at the ceiling, she tried to recapture her anger for three whole minutes, before sleep stole over her, and she realized she didn't care anymore. Tomorrow was a new day, and she was now determined to make the most of it.

She would start by killing Dr. Hinz. And then, perhaps, a certain Trill counselor�.

*****

Kira was shocked to find she had slept so late. Almost half the day was gone when she emerged from the shower, wrapped herself in a robe, and gently toweled her wet hair. Reclining luxuriously on the couch, she realized that, for the first time in almost two years, she was enjoying one of life's simplicities. The idea made her smile, and all thoughts of reprimanding her Trillian friend suddenly dissipated. She ran her hand through slick hair and decided to leave it as it was; free but for the tiny, scattered plaits; rather than dry and style it as she usually would.

Her dilemma came with choosing what to wear. It was a decision she hadn't had to make in so long she had almost forgotten how to do it. Browsing through the replicator's data banks, she came across a pair of light cotton pants with many pockets. They were straight-legged and held in place by a drawstring. Willing to take the chance, she replicated a pair in dark blue and pulled them on. They were possibly the most comfortable item of clothing she had ever worn, and she reveled in the freedom allowed as she walked. Cargo pants. Loose clothing. Comfort over practicality. She wondered why such concepts had become so rare.

Opting next for a simple cream-white tank top identical to the one attached to her uniform pants, Kira called for a mirror and examined herself carefully. Satisfied, even pleased with the reflection, she pulled on a pair of exercise slips and made her way to the turbolift.

"Promenade."

As the pad rose, Kira tried to think what she would do with her free time. What did a person do when they weren't working? She contemplated Admiral Gord's suggestions of the previous night, and finally decided that, despite her intense hatred of holosuites and all the deception they embodied, she would negotiate a few hours with Quark after breakfast. 'Or rather, lunch' she corrected herself.

The pad came to a halt and she stepped onto the Promenade. She noticed a few people turned to stare as she passed, but relaxed when she realized all were smiling at her. It had been a while since her people had seen her unwind. Perhaps this day would benefit morale station-wide, rather than just her own. She was well on her way through high spirits into an intensely good mood when she stopped abruptly. There in the Celestial Caf� sat Ezri. Once more, she ate with Tarees.

Kira made a valiant, but futile attempt to remain light-hearted.

***

It had been a busy morning for Lieutenant Dax and the afternoon forecast much of the same. Everyone needed her, and she was caught in a web of linear d�j� vu. The same emotions; fear, anger, hatred, expressed over and over by many different players, and all revolving around the arrival of the Bro'Dign prisoner. It felt surreal to her, and the repetition had rippled through her whole body until she could no longer taste the food she ate, or understand the words ensign Tarees was trying to communicate. She stared blankly at the animated woman and wondered if it were possible to suffer aphasia of the soul. She didn't understand a thing.

"�and Dr. Hinz actually agreed to let me study the biomechanics of this thing! I didn't think he'd let anyone touch his precious patient until he knew he'd guaranteed a seat on the Fed Med board with it." Tarees noticed the faraway look in Ezri's eyes and grinned. "Of course, the fact that I gave him the best screw of his life may have helped my position a little. You know how it goes - Just him and me and a diag console. He even found this� amazing way to use a neural probe that has to be seen to be believed�" She put on a straight face as the woman across from her frowned suddenly.

"Hang on," Ezri blinked, "did you just say you and Hinz --"

"I was wondering when you'd pay attention to me."

Dax smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry Dee, I've just got a lot on my mind right now."

"Obviously. What's up?"

"Huh?"

"You know, old Earth expression? It means 'tell me what's got you looking so worried'?" Tarees smirked, though she herself was starting to worry about the woman who sat across from her.

"Just thinking about some of the patients I've had today, that's all," Ezri bluffed.

Tarees raised one eloquent eyebrow. Dax tried to stare her down, but even she was unable to match the blonde with stubbornness. "I really don't want to talk about it, Andrea."

"You tell me this like I should care?" the blonde returned dryly.

Ezri frowned, but she wasn't in the mood to argue. When she realized the woman was going to play hardball, she sighed and gave in. "I'm worried about the Captain."

"Red? Why?"

Ezri laughed suddenly. "Red? You call the Captain 'Red'? I wouldn't let her hear that."

"What do you think I am; stupid? So what's the problem with her?"

"I don't know that she'd like me discussing it with you, Dee," Ezri said seriously.

"I won't tell as long as you promise not to tell her I call her Red," the ensign bargained.

Ezri thought for a long moment. "Ok. I don't think she's dealing with her new position as well it seems. Being Captain is really getting to her, and I'm worried that, if she doesn't relax and talk to someone about it soon, she'll burn out long before the war does."

Tarees stared at her for a moment. "You were worried about telling me *that*?"

"Yes," Ezri looked confused, "why?"

Tarees smiled at her affectionately. "Dax, everyone's been talking like that since this war began. Quark even tried to start a pool on it at one point, but Jaret caught him before it really took off. Good thing too; most people had her burnout pegged for months ago."

Ezri was surprised by the information at first, before she found herself overcome by anger. "They were betting on Kira breaking down? How dare they! Obviously they don't know her too well, because that woman would die before she ever gave in --"

"So I've noticed."

"I can't believe her own crew would�" Ezri couldn't continue.

"Hey, I know it's bad," Tarees placated, "but it's not *that* bad. What's with the homicidal rage?"

Ezri sighed. "Kira isn't only the Captain, Dee; she's my best friend. It just makes me angry, that's all."

Tarees nodded and let the woman be � for now. She carefully moved the conversation to a professional high ground, redirecting her curious nature to the world of science. "Have you had a chance to examine the prisoner yet?"

Ezri shuddered and shook her head. "Thankfully not since we retrieved it yesterday."

"Not a fan?"

"Of races that slaughter people I know for fun? No, I can't say I am," Ezri shot back.

"Sorry, Ezri," Tarees said, surprised by the vehemence in the gentle woman's voice. "I guess I sometimes forget about things like that."

"No, I'm sorry, Dee," Dax added quickly. "I shouldn't have snapped. I'm a counselor, not a scientist anymore. Sometimes I forget that people have to distance themselves."

"Sometimes I can't stop," Tarees admitted.

"So, have you found anything interesting?" Ezri asked, and she realized she was actually quite curious.

"Everything has been interesting so far, but nothing really helpful. I want to kill Hinz, but that's nothing new." Tarees smirked.

"You're not the only one," Ezri agreed offhandedly.

"I bet. I heard about Red's little screaming fit yesterday."

Ezri smirked, nodding. "Don't tell her that; she's pretty embarrassed."

"She shouldn't be; you wouldn't believe how much it cheered everyone up around here."

"Cheered them up?" Ezri asked, surprised. "Why?"

"Common enemy. Unprofessional outburst from the fiery Kira Nerys. It created equal ground, reassured people that being captain hasn't killed who and what she was," the blonde stated plainly.

"It took death threats to do that? Dee, we've got to do something," Ezri implored. Tarees was about to reply when her eyes became wide and her smile broad.

"What is it?" Ezri asked. When she turned to see what Tarees was grinning about, she quickly spotted the topic of their conversation paused on the opposite side of the Promenade.

Ezri's expression was suddenly all warmth and relief. The world around her seemed more real somehow; her previous disconnection dissipated by the reassurance that she had been right to order time off for Kira. She realized that fear had cast a shadow over her day, but Kira's serenity - an emotion she had not seen from the woman since she had returned to DS9 � made it seem foolish.

As Kira approached the Caf�, she was light and energy; a crisp breeze cutting through the stagnant air that had settled throughout the station. The last time Dax could remember seeing her like this was through the eyes of another, and Ezri was grateful for the opportunity to commit her own image of the woman to a long list of amazing memories.

"She looks� different, somehow," Tarees commented with confusion.

"Mmm, I relieved her of duty for the day," Ezri returned distractedly, "she's wearing casuals."

Tarees stared at her with a mixture of respect and disbelief. "You ordered the Captain to take a day off?"

"Yes."

"And you're still breathing?"

Ezri returned her gaze and concentration to the ensign and grinned. "I made sure I was out of reach and she was unarmed first."

"And I thought I was daring."

"I'm lucky," she said simply.

"Lucky?" Tarees scoffed. "You're blessed!"

"You may have a point there," she smiled.

"She's coming this way. Maybe I should go; this could be an elaborate front for murder," Dee joked, although something in her wondered if there was truth behind the statement.

"Perhaps," Ezri agreed, "though I think she'd call it 'justifiable homicide,'" she grinned.

"I don't think anyone would try to argue with her if she did kill you."

"Traitor," Ezri accused, though she was unable to surpress a chuckle.

Dee shook her head. "Smart. You'd do the same thing in my position."

Ezri took a moment to think seriously about it. "You're right, I would."

They shared a smile as the Captain approached.

***

Frozen in time. Unmoving. Static.

The words flowed through her mind as she crossed the Promenade with automated steps. The subjects they described were many: her heart, her smile, her breath� Frozen in time. Unmoving. Static. She was a non-corporeal entity trapped within a hard shell; warm to the touch, but cold inside. Still she traveled forwards, propelled by stiff arms and legs, perpetually towards the Caf� and the table where two women shared private words and smiles.

Kira paused in the middle of the Promenade, and disconcerted crowds parted to flow around her. She considered walking on and avoiding a confrontation with the two women, until Ezri turned and caught her eye and smiled warmly; an invitation for Kira to join them scrawled clearly across her face. It was not a private lunch. Ezri wanted her there too.

The look caused something to snap inside Kira, and suddenly she was back in control of her body and her mind. Time began to pass normally again, and she wondered what had stopped it in the first place. She returned her friend's smile, nodded, and sauntered casually towards them, greeting people as she went.

As soon as she was seated a waiter appeared and took her order. She was suddenly starving, and she ordered a large serve of Lasa: A Bajoran soup filled with seafood and vegetables fresh from the Rotala Province. She shrugged at Ezri's look of amusement, proclaiming: "What can I say? Being ordered around makes me hungry."

"Glad you see the humor in this, Captain." Ezri smiled, but she was serious.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, Lieutenant," Kira smirked with a cold glint in her eye, "I was ready to kill you this morning."

"What changed your mind?"

"I talked to Admiral Gord's wife last night. She implied that I should respect you for your daring," Kira explained, though she didn't sound completely convinced.

"Remind me to send her some Delavian chocolates," Ezri muttered.

Kira laughed. "She'd expect nothing less. So, what were you two talking about?" She watched the two women exchange an uncomfortable look, and fought bravely to maintain her calm. "Guilty, ladies?"

"We were talking about a little rumor being passed around the station." The striking ensign admitted finally.

"Dee!" Ezri squealed in disbelief, her eyes dancing nervously between the two women.

Kira held up her hand, grinning. "No, Lieutenant; I'd like to hear this. Did it involve a certain incident in my office?"

"As a matter of fact, it did," Tarees confirmed, "but I promise it was fueled by pride rather than scorn."

Kira was genuinely confused. "Pride?"

"You think you're the only one who wants to kill Dr. Hinz?" she snorted. "Word has it that his own mother put a contract on him at birth."

Kira couldn't hide her amusement at Tarees's words, and the pieces of the puzzle surrounding Ezri's immediate affection for the ensign began to slide into place. "I wonder how much of that rumor is really fiction?"

"Not a lot, I'm guessing," the ensign returned dryly.

Three women shared a moment of laughter as Kira's meal arrived. She began eating immediately, and was surprised to find not only could she taste the food, it tasted good. "So, ensign, any news on our new arrival?"

"His condition hasn't changed, Captain. But I can tell you that he's stable for now, and there's a good chance he'll improve sooner than Hinz expected."

"He didn't tell me that." Kira frowned, her anger eternal in matters of Dr. Lucas Hinz.

"Of course he didn't," Tarees smirked, "That would mean admitting he was wrong."

Kira sighed. "I give up on that man. Thank you for the update, Ensign."

"Please, call me Dee. We're at lunch, not war."

Kira nodded, grinning. "Ok. Dee."

"And I call you Captain, right?" Tarees grinned knowingly.

"Smart girl." Kira returned with a smirk.

Tarees shrugged. "I try."

Kira's laughter was warm, and Ezri felt relief flooding through her once more. Though she couldn't understand why, the banter had her feeling suddenly at ease. It was a good feeling to have.

"So what are you going to do with all your free time, Captain?" asked Tarees.

Kira chewed thoughtfully before she reluctantly answered: "I was actually considering spending a few hours in a holosuite."

Ezri was surprised, though she could see her friend trying to play things down. "But you hate holosuites."

"I know."

Ezri waited for Kira to elaborate on her reasoning. When she didn't, Ezri sighed. It was a dance for details long rehearsed. "So what made you decide to forget years of aversion and distaste today?"

"I think it's a result of the trauma," Kira baited.

Ezri swallowed it whole. "What trauma?"

"The trauma of being removed from duty by someone who was meant to be my friend," Kira stated plainly, satisfied with the easy catch.

Ezri's mouth fell open at the insult. Tarees watched the exchange with great interest, and hoped she might catch a glimpse of the affectionate behavior obviously hidden close to the surface of the banter. She felt almost honored to be allowed such an insight into the two women whom most considered an enigma; so different, yet able to work closely, fluidly in any situation.

"Meant to be?" Ezri exclaimed. "I wouldn't have had to relieve you if you'd taken a break, Kira."

"You're a traitor," she shot back, hiding her smirk with another spoonful of the thick soup.

Finally catching on to the woman's teasing, Ezri's eyes glinted. Two could play at this game. "You're the most stubborn person Jadzia ever met."

Tarees nearly fled as the captain pinned the woman beneath a fiery gaze, but Ezri didn't even blink. Tarees was impressed despite herself.

"She did not think that!" Kira exclaimed, though she wasn't as sure as she tried to be.

"She did too," Ezri argued. "She thought you were hot-headed and volatile, and liable to get yourself killed at a very young age."

Kira's look was a mixture of amusement and fury, and it terrified Tarees in a way she hadn't thought possible. It was no wonder she thought the captain had gone insane when she began to laugh. Ezri joined her soon after, and Tarees couldn't help being pulled in by them. She had never heard the captain laugh as she did now: full-bodied, hysterical laughter. It was impossible to remain unaffected by it.

"She really thought that?" Kira asked once she had finally calmed down, though she flinched before the answer came.

"Yes. But only at first," Dax admitted

Kira smiled fondly. "She always was a bit of a snob."

"Hey!" Ezri bristled at the insult. "That's a piece of me you're talking about."

"I know." She smirked.

The Trill woman slapped Kira's arm in mock-annoyance, but she ignored the move; eating the Lasa as her chuckles tapered gently out. "Oh, that felt good."

"Glad I could help." Ezri replied dryly.

"Glad I could witness." Tarees added warmly.

Kira blushed as the woman spoke. She had almost forgotten they had company. Smiling, she waved her hand as if to brush the moment away. "That was nothing unusual, Dee; sorry if we alarmed you. It's the sort of thing that happens when you're friends with a 400-year-old Trill."

"I'm not 400 yet." Ezri pouted.

"Close enough. What was it Benjamin called you? Old Man?"

"That was Benjamin," she warned.

Kira laughed. "Ok, point taken. You know, I remember you being a lot less sure of yourself last time you were here, Ezri."

"And I remember you being a lot less annoying, so we're even," she returned sulkily.

Kira smirked and finished her meal. "It's nice to know the reports on Geel's food were correct. That was the nicest Lasa I've ever eaten."

"Yeah, he makes good food," the ensign agreed.

"I've heard you're a big fan of his Hasperat, Dee?"

"You heard right. Rohan makes it nice and spicy like it should be."

Kira nodded her agreement. "If it doesn't burn it isn't Hasperat."

"That's my motto."

Kira wiped her hands on the cloth napkin and pushed back her chair. "Well, I have some holosuite time to organize. It was nice to finally meet you, Ensign."

Tarees's handshake was firm and her smile warm. "Right back atcha, Captain."

Kira raised one eyebrow at the phrase, unable to be anything but amused at Tarees's laid-back manner.

"I should be going anyway," Tarees added, "I've got work to do myself."

"How are those Teralian pus snails?" Ezri questioned with a teasing grin.

"Just as disgusting as they've always been. I have a mating pair now; Delilah and Frank." Tarees half-faked a shudder. "I may be a scientist, but even I can't find beauty in what they do."

"And yet you name them," Ezri added.

The blonde shrugged and stood. "And yet. See you tomorrow, Ezri."

"Good luck, Dee."

"Pah; who needs luck when you're working with Dr. Hinz? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?" she returned sarcastically as she walked away.

Kira chuckled, shaking her head in amazement. "I see now why you were so quick to jump to her aid."

"With the promotion?"

Kira nodded. "She's obviously quite capable of maintaining the respect of her crew."

"Everyone seems to love her in Sciences," she agreed. "Have you put in the request yet?"

"I was going to do it today, but I guess it'll have to wait now." Kira told her, feigning hurt.

Ezri placed her hand on the woman's arm and gently smiled. "Seriously, Nerys; thanks for being so nice about me relieving you. I was worried."

"About what? I've already told you my thoughts on keeping personal and professional separate, Zee," Kira reassured her. Then she lowered her voice, and added: "Besides, you were right."

Ezri paused in shock. "I was?"

"Yes, but if you tell anyone I said that, I'll have to kill you," Kira smirked.

"Yes, sir." Ezri grinned back.

"Well, I really do have to go and argue with Quark now�"

"Captain," Ezri began tentatively, "do you mind if I come with you?"

"Actually, yes I do. I plan on indulging today, and I can't do that if you're around."

"And why not?"

"That is none of your business, Dax."

Ezri didn't have time to feel hurt by Kira's remarks as she was graced by a wide smile. She realised Nerys wasn't punishing her; she was merely making an executive effort to follow advice and relax. It was only understandable that she would want some alone time in which to do it. So Ezri nodded, clasped her hands behind her back, and left; headed for Ops. If another person didn't stop her to rant about the Bro'Dign, she may actually make it there this time.

***

Kira watched Ezri until she entered the turbolift, and then headed for Quarks. It was a confrontation she was not looking forward to, knowing the Ferengi was likely to gain great satisfaction over her 'fall in moral standards'. But in the end she really didn't care what he thought, and she approached the bar confidently.

"Kira," Quark greeted her greasily, "how nice to see you! And looking so lovely, too."

"Save it, Quark; Jaret already told me about the Vole fight you tried last week," she told him impatiently.

Changing tactics, Quark tried: "Captain, that was an honest mistake. How was I to know the Geradians were such avid fighters?"

"Spare me the story, Quark; I'm off duty and I don't care."

"Very well, Captain," the Ferengi said coldly, his niceties ending as the threat to his business passed, "why *are* you here? Not that I mind, or course; you're a good attraction for my fine establishment --"

"Quark..." Kira warned, in even less of a mood to talk to the irritating Ferengi than usual.

"Fine. What's wrong?"

She raised her head proudly. "I want to use the holosuites for a few hours."

Quark's eyes glittered with Latinum dreams and self-satisfaction. "You? You want to use a holosuite, Captain? I thought you hated them; you thought they were 'a waste of time and space?'"

"Spare me the speech, Quark," she snapped. "Can I have one or not?"

"If you have the Latinum, I have the suite," he shrugged with an oily smirk.

"Which suite?"

"Number 3 is empty. May I suggest a program?"

"No you may not," she cut in, knowing Quark's taste in holosuites was decidedly more perverted than he was. She headed for the staircase, leaving a distressed Ferengi in her wake. "Captain, what about my fee?"

"Put it on my tab."

"Your tab?" he called after her. "Captain!"

But Kira was already on her way to the suite, and had no intention of turning back.

*****

Dax breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped onto the Ops deck and relieved the ensign monitoring general station functions. She re-checked them briefly, and finding everything well within normal parameters, proceeded to tap her way in to the medical database.

"Unable to execute command. Authorization codes required."

Ezri frowned and entered the primary bypass command the Chief had taught her before he had left.

"Unable to execute command. Authorization codes do not match. Higher clearance is required."

"Computer, open command log 1-5-0 point 3, authorization Dax 4-3-8 Delta 5."

"Unable to comply. That authorization code has not been cleared."

"Why not?"

"Lieutenant Ezri Dax has not been granted access to medical command files."

Ezri growled in frustration as her fingers flew over the console, trying every trick she remembered: 8 lifetime's worth, each attempt being met with a denial beep that only succeeded to infuriate her further.

"Anything I can help you with, Lieutenant?" came the welcomed interruption of the station's chief engineer.

"Nog! Boy, am I glad to see you. The computer won't recognize my authorization codes for this file."

"Let me take a look."

Ezri relinquished her chair and console to Nog's capable hands, and within moments he turned to her with a look of triumph. "You're through," he whispered.

"Great. Thanks Nog," she whispered back.

"It was nothing," he whispered.

"Why are we whispering?" she whispered back.

Nog glanced conspiratorially around the room. Once he was satisfied no one was paying any undue attention to their conversation, he gestured her closer. "Dr. Hinz has locked down all files related to the Bro'Dign."

"When did he do that?" Dax asked suspiciously.

"A few hours ago. He had to come to me because I recently overhauled the computers in the infirmary." The Ferengi grinned and his body became animated. "I put in a cascade sim-lock sequence that worked liked a charm. If only the Chief could see me now�"

Ezri struggled to return Nog to the conversation before his engineering world took over. "Does the Captain know about this yet?"

Nog frowned for a moment. "I'd think so; all security code changes have to be checked with Lieutenant Commander Jaret and Captain Kira before execution."

"Well did you bother checking?"

Nog's face went as pale as a Ferengi's could, his ears wilting against his lobes. "No. I just presumed that Hinz would have --"

"Think about it Nog," Ezri interrupted with an impatient sigh that was not at all the Ferengi's fault, "have you ever known Dr. Hinz to be a pillar of protocol in the past?"

Panicked, he muttered: "I have to remove these codes."

Ezri grabbed his arm before he could turn back to the console. "No, leave it for now. Why don't you try asking the captain when she returns to duty tomorrow? If we're lucky she'll agree to the precaution and we won't have to cause any more trouble between those two."

Nog beamed, glad for the reprieve. "Thanks, Dax, I'll do that." The small man stood to attention and nodded, then left her alone with the files. Ezri was suddenly very interested to find out what they could possibly contain.

***

Ezri Dax had worked her way through pages and pages of self-indulgent rambling so far, but had yet to find a single block of data on the biomechanics of their prisoner. She was almost convinced Hinz had brought in the Bro'Dign, taken its temperature, and then sat down to write his Carrington Award acceptance speech. Abandoning the data stream in favor of a new one, she had settled herself in for another hour of boredom when Lieutenant Commander Jaret entered Ops. Ezri could see the Bolian man was flustered. She was worried: Bolians were not easily thrown from their serenity.

She watched carefully as he crossed to the command station where Jacques stood, engrossed in his console. She could not hear the conversation that passed between them, but the commander was obviously alarmed by it. She stood and walked to the men, anxious to find out what was going on.

***

"Mmmmm� that feels good." Kira didn't fight the wave of relaxation that passed through her, allowing her eyes to close and a lazy smile to dance across her face. "Harder."

The rippling sensation moved to the back of her neck, working firmly across knots and stretched tendons. After a few minutes she lost the feeling of tenderness aching in her back, her breasts relaxed against the sleek finish of the table, and warmth flooded through her system to evaporate the fog of tension that had lingered there.

Her body well and truly taken care of, she allowed herself the opportunity to explore drifting thoughts. It was an action she indulged in rarely; the strain of scaling well-established walls was often too difficult to concentrate on. And besides, the grass was rarely green on the other side.

"Lower."

The hands that moved across her back were not hands at all. A shimmering substance that was warm to the touch, with a rubbery, fluidic consistency incomprehensible unless experienced first-hand.

"Lower."

It did not surprise her that she should choose this simulation at this time. The fact she wasn't surprised actually terrified her somewhere far beneath her calm outer shell.

It hadn't taken her long to replace the Risan masseuse simulation with a holographic Odo. She'd done it almost without thinking. And once she'd started the creation, and taken note of what she was doing, she had dismissed the panic and kept working until it was completed. Now she lay here, existing in a moment frozen in time. Unmoving. Static. Passing time in an old photograph, and fooling herself into seeing something real.

"Nerys, I --"

"Computer, delete character Kira 5-Alpha."

The sensation faded from her skin, but the memory lingered there like an old bruise rubbed to the surface with a rough brush. Pushing herself onto her elbows, she covered both eyes with her hands, rubbing her forehead with her fingertips, determined not to cry anymore. It was enough to feel it now, deep inside her. To simply know it was there; acknowledge it finally. The pain time hadn't worn away, the betrayal of being abandoned by one who knew better. Odo.

She forced her breath out with a sigh, and for once it was not to deny sobs that constricted her throat. For once she could breathe without pain, and she wondered what made this time so different from any other of the past year-and-a-half. She tested the walls around her, beneath her, inside her, and everything seemed just as she'd left it. But there was something different. Something far less� ominous about the shadows she cast over herself.

And deep inside she knew the cause of her calm, of her newfound happiness and serenity, as though deep inside she had always known the cause, but never once would she allow herself to give true voice to such echoes. Instead, she bypassed the threat of a screaming cacophony of insight that would come with the whole truth, and concentrated on skimming the shallows of reason: slowly, gently, gently.

What had changed� was that someone had returned.

The realization was a simple one, safe, anti-inflammatory. It did not rub at old wounds; it did not pose the threat of new pains in the close future. It was simple, safe. And right now, that was all she could stand to look for.

Of all the people she thought had abandoned her, had left her to shoulder the brunt of the war alone, Ezri Dax had known better. She'd returned. She'd known better. She'd returned. Of all the people who had left, only she had come back, willing to stand by her. Willing to fight. Not just for the war, but for her. For Kira Nerys.

Only then did Kira allow her head to drop and the tears to flow.

***

Seconds? Hours? Too often now she let time pass without taking account of it. She lifted her head and wiped at her eyes: red and swollen from crying. She pushed her hair back into place, straightening the tiny plaits, smoothing the left side against her cheek, tucking the right firmly behind her ear. Wrapping herself in the blanket that had pooled around her hips, she sat up and swung her bare legs over the side of the massage table.

Despite the sorrow, she realized nothing but joy had come from it. She felt refreshed, renewed by the pain and the release of crying for herself; of confronting what was wrong and finding the right in it. It was Ezri who had ordered her away from work and Ezri who had forced her to face what she had avoided for so long. And she could face it now because Ezri fought with her; it was possible because Ezri had been the one to return.

Readying herself for the outside world; the shock of which encompassed one of her greatest reasons for hating holosuites; her musing was interrupted by the chime of the computer.

"Lieutenant Dax is requesting entry."

"Let her in."

The door hissed open and Kira watched expectantly as Ezri entered, tucking the large blanket beneath her arms and smoothing it over her knees.

"Captain, I'm sorry to disturb you," Ezri stuttered, and Kira could tell she was distracted by something.

She smiled reassuringly. "It's fine, Dax; what's wrong?"

"We've just received a transmission from the Geradian freighter Jan Dekan inside the Gamma Quadrant," Ezri recited, "saying they've salvaged the crew of the USS Van Diemen; a long-range Federation Science vessel. They say some sort of virus has infected the entire ship. Of the 400 original crewmembers, about 350 are in some sort of coma. The others are unintelligible, and all are rapidly destabilizing."

Kira immediately ordered a uniform and dropped the blanket, dressing quickly. Within minutes she was immaculately prepared for captain's duties, and her mind was rapidly scrolling through protocol and general safety measures. "Have Jaret confine all visitors to their ships and send out a general warning on all subspace frequencies for vessels to wait for our word to approach the station. Then I want Hinz to begin quarantine procedure from the docking pad to the doors of the infirmary. I want skeleton crew and medical teams to be the only ones in the area, as well as security."

"Captain," Ezri added, after filing away her orders, "what do you want to do about the prisoner?"

Kira frowned as she thought, obviously weighing the dangers of the Bro'Dign recovering at an inconvenient moment. "Hinz said he doesn't want to move it, so we won't. I want Jaret to keep it confined in a level five security field at all times, and make sure two armed officers are keeping close watch. If Hinz doesn't like it�" Kira thought for a moment, before her eyes glittered with mischief. "If Hinz doesn't like it, tell them to shoot him."

Ezri grinned and nodded, before leaving the holosuite in a rush.

Alone again, Kira sighed. But it was not a sigh of exasperation or disappointment; it was a sigh of contentment. She had been given enough time to feel satisfied with herself once more, to discover new elements she hadn't realized lay below the surface of her actions. And now, before she could dissect and destroy her relief, she would be able to thrust herself headfirst into physical action.

Finally, she felt sure that she could handle whatever was thrown at her. Finally, she knew she had someone always at her side.

Ezri Dax.

***

Creamy white. Perfect. Delicate and breakable. Strong and refined and infinite. Expanses of softness. Plains of harshness. Curves and lines and ridges and clefts.

"Lieutenant Commander, Kira wants level five security and two armed guards watching the prisoner."

"I'm one step ahead of her," the Bolian stated.

Salty. Sweet. Musk and light and sound and fury. Warm breath. Wet breath. Sweat. Condensation. Droplets trickling slowly, slowly, down curves and lines and ridges and clefts.

"Ezri, are you ok?" Commander Jacques inquired, his head tilted as he studied her pale face carefully.

"Fine, sir," she replied flatly, massaging her forehead with the pads of her fingers.

He stared at her a moment longer, and although he didn't believe her he nodded brusquely and returned to the task at hand.

"Nog," Jaret called and glanced at the busy engineer, "is there anything you can do to reinforce the security fields?"

The Ferengi didn't turn as his fingers flew over the console, and Jaret didn't bother trying to follow them. "Sir, I think I can reroute power to the fields from the forward array and through the inertial dampeners. That should knock out anything that touches them."

"I don't want my men roasted, Nog," he warned.

"Don't worry, sir. I've reversed the flow of the sonic manifolds along the bottom of the Bro'Dign's pallet. They'll emit a low frequency sound pulse, which will attract the energy to the disturbance. That way, only the inside of the field will be charged."

Jaret gave a stiff nod and patted Nog's shoulder absently as he left to organize his teams.

Breathe. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Ragged breaths torn from a chest; heaving, heaving. Moans. Screams. Sighs. Hums and cries and laughter and tears. More. Yes. Please. I�

"Hi Dee," Ezri forced a smile as the ensign walked towards her, "did Frank and Delilah want to see what the commotion was about?"

Tarees grinned at Dax's mocking before she sobered and shook her head. "No pus snails today, Ezri. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to catch an actual Gamma Quadrant disease, delivered right to my doorstep."

"Humanoid pus? You're moving up in the world, Dee," she smirked.

"Yeah, well, I don't see you changing the galaxy from your console, Lieutenant," Tarees shot back quickly.

The smile they shared melted and transformed seamlessly as Ensign Tarees stared at her with a strange, amused look. It unnerved Ezri and she shifted nervously in her seat, until finally she could take it no longer. "What?!"

"Actually," Tarees frowned, "I was about to ask you the same thing."

"Me? Why? What do you mean? Have I got something on my face?" Ezri rambled, and wiped a shaky hand across her forehead. When she pulled it back and stared closely there was nothing to see.

Tarees glanced at the away team waiting for her at the transporter pad. "Dax, I have to go, but you might want to get one of the medical assists to take a look at you. Your spots --"

"Yes, Dee, I have spots," Ezri interrupted with agitation, "I've always had them, just like every other Trill."

"But they're not usually this�" she hesitated, "�purple."

"Purple?"

"I mean, I've seen them light brown, and with yellow, and even black and gray. But� they're purple," she confirmed.

Ezri covered as many of her markings as she could, her face flaming red. "I� I have to go." Flustered, she turned and made a quick march for the turbolift. Still with her hands pressed against either side of her face, she spun around on her heel to face Tarees, who was frozen to the spot, looking simultaneously worried and amused by Dax's situation. "Ah� Good luck with the virus." She quickly resumed her escape. "Habitat ring, Deck 5."

Ezri had never seen a more wonderful sight than when operations slid away before her eyes.

***

Slick. Smooth. Liquid. Caressing, entwining, with heat and light and friction. Twisting, entwined, damp. Sunlight. Brightness. The scent; spicy, fresh, clean and hot.

"Stop it!" Ezri growled to herself as she hurried to her quarters. With the station on alert, the corridors were full of people hurrying to reach their posts or get to their quarters for quarantine lock down. When Ezri began chastising herself out loud, many crewmembers threw her strange looks. Some were even afraid. All crossed to the other side of the wide hall as she passed. But Ezri didn't notice any of it.

Although she knew she was now very close to her quarters, Ezri realized in one sudden, horrible, and utterly terrifying moment, that she could not see where she was going. She could not see anything at all. Her world had become a physical darkness. She was inexplicably blind.

The moment she realized her predicament, a primitive, almost primordial fear overcame her: the type of fear that is thick and creates its own mass and volume. It tore through her, sapped her strength and drove her to her knees; sobbing blindly in the shadows of a bulkhead in a crowded corridor with no one the wiser.

Behind her eyelids played hundreds and thousands of images; images of flesh and light and movement, of love and romance and friendship, of naked flesh and caresses and passionate sex. A physical blindness was all it was, but struggle as she did she found no comfort in this fact. The images flooded her mind, drowning her with their wild force one moment, and their gentle liquidity the next. She had no idea what was happening to her.

She felt pain in her head as though someone had thrust a burning brand inside her skull, and it burned on and on, and her mouth opened and she screamed silently.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.

***

"Captain."

"At ease, Commander," Kira told him without pause. "What's going on?"

"The Jan Dekan has docked and Hinz and Jaret are on their way down. I was just about to join them."

"I'll come with you," she stated.

Commander Jacques gave a curt nod as they headed for the turbolift pad. "Docking bay four."

"Any new information?" she asked, impatient with the pad's careful decent.

Jacques shook his head. "Just what Lieutenant Dax told you."

"What was the Van Diemen doing when the Garadians found them?"

"Frankly, Kira," he told her quietly, "they were dying. What they were doing before that, I don't know." He frowned bitterly. "You know the Geradians; they couldn't operate a Federation database if we looked over their shoulders and held their hands. Not only could they tell us nothing, but their 'retrieval' blew half the Van Diemen's systems."

Kira shoulders stiffened at the news, but she said simply: "I want Nog in that ship as soon as possible."

"He's already there," Jacques confirmed. "As soon as he found out he took Alpha team down."

"Good. The prisoner?"

"Nog set up a heavy duty field around it. You know my people won't hesitate to stun him if he so much as breathes heavily."

"And Hinz?" she asked.

"That's who I was talking about," he returned with dry humor.

Kira grinned as the lift stopped and they joined the rabble at the air lock. "Status, Doctor?"

"We're still removing the crew of the Van Diemen," he stated coldly. "As soon as they're clear of the Garadian vessel Nog is transporting them to the infirmary. The Garadians are walking."

"Good work. Any idea what caused this yet?" she asked hopefully, although she could tell the answer was negative before he spoke.

"To hazard a guess I'd say it was some kind of biological contaminant," he said with pomp, never admitting he had no idea.

"That's not much information, Hinz," Kira shot back, willing him to admit his ignorance.

"That's all you're going to get until I can examine them properly, Captain," he returned acidly.

Kira sighed and gave in. Now was not the time for games. "Keep me updated."

"I will. Now," he smirked, "you'd better get out of here."

Kira froze for a moment. "Excuse me?" she asked icily, a clear warning flowing from her body in waves.

"Quarantine procedure requires the Captain remain out of any potentially contaminated areas," Hinz replied simply, though the satisfaction echoed in the words he left unspoken: 'This is no place for a Bajoran woman who never earned her Starfleet commission�'

"I'll be fine, Dr. Hinz," she forced out, her jaw clenched as she stared him squarely in the face.

Hinz shrugged, smirking. "Your body; your health. I have patients to attend to."

Kira clenched her fists as the man left, before rolling the aggravation from her shoulders and neck. She made her way to the airlock, where Nog was about to enter the Garadian freighter. "Mind if I join you?"

Nog hurried to attention. "Of course not, Captain."

"Good." Kira forced herself to relax and pulled on the mask he handed her. "What do you think we're looking for, Nog?"

"Dr. Hinz suggested a biological contaminant, so I was going to start with external sensor logs."

"How about I check internal scans? Perhaps they brought something aboard that did this?"

"Good idea, Captain," the Ferengi agreed with a proud smile.

Kira returned it fondly. This was one Ferengi who had grown on her. "After you, Lieutenant."

***

Ezri opened her eyes, although they had been open already. When she blinked, the images had faded from the inside and her vision had returned once more to the normal, outward kind. She pushed herself onto shaking legs and looked around the corridor. No one watched her. It seemed the episode had gone unnoticed.

She stood before one of the station's many windows to the vastness of space and stared at her reflection for a long time. Stars shone through her eyes and her face, but the translucent impression of her spots was familiar, normal. They seemed brown and black and yellow, with not a speck of purple in sight. Breathing a sigh of relief, Ezri considered visiting the infirmary for a moment before deciding against it. She breathed deeply and headed for the turbolift once more.

***

"Dax. What are you doing here?" Kira asked the woman, though inside she was relieved to see her.

"I was told you and Nog were in here with Alpha team, so I thought I'd see if there was anything I could do."

Kira smiled warmly and patted Ezri's shoulder. "We could use your expertise. Pick a console."

"Have you tried transporter logs yet?" the woman inquired as she glanced over the Captain's work.

"Actually we haven't," Kira admitted. "A lot of systems were badly damaged by the Garadian retrieval, so most of the engineering team has been trying to recover lost information. Nog is on external sensors and I'm checking internals. Replicators, transporters and personal logs were the only other systems unaffected."

Ezri nodded and moved to the other side of the science vessel's bridge. Kira watched as she maneuvered through the consoles, and frowned as she noticed the woman used many to support herself. "Are you ok, Dax?"

"Fine, Captain," she shrugged distractedly, "just worried about the Van Diemen's crew."

Kira nodded and, engrossed in her console, let the answer pass.

***

"How soon can you leave?"

"I will admit, Admiral, that leaving halfway through the term is not an action I will take lightly. But considering the circumstances you've described, I will find a replacement at once. I should be able to return to Deep Space Nine within the next 36 hours."

"Thank you for your promptness, Doctor. You know we wouldn't ask unless it was urgent."

"I understand, sir. I look forward to returning."

"I know you'll be a valuable resource for the station once more. Gord out."

*****

To Be Continued

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