| Part 1 | Part 2 |
Two women stumbled through the dark halls of the Station, which were curiously busy for the hour. If anyone had taken the time to record all gossip passed during the few weeks following the party, the story of the captain and counselor chasing each other through the halls like children would undoubtedly have been repeated many, many times. This was mainly due to the fact that many, many people saw them doing it; it was over an hour before they finally found a turbolift pad and remembered which floor Kira's quarters were on.
They tumbled into her loungeroom and landed in a heap on the floor, laughing and trying desperately to get their breath back. They eventually managed to lie on their backs, quiet but for heavy breathing, staring at the ceiling spinning above them.
"I think we're drunk," Ezri stated with a hint of regret in her voice.
"Nonsense," the red haired figure beside her disagreed, "I would call it� elegantly wasted."
"Elegantly wasted? I� I like that."
They chuckled before laying in silence once more.
"How about we go and lay on my bed?" Kira suggested, rubbing her shoulder. "It's big, and this floor is hurting my neck."
"You are just full of good ideas tonight, Nerys."
"That's why I'm the captain."
"Yes, that's why you're the captain," Ezri agreed. Kira got to her feet before pulling the smaller woman upright, and they leaned against each other as they stumbled into her bedroom and lay on the bed.
Kira sat up against the pillows and stared down at her friend, smiling. "It was a good night."
"It still is. They're still celebrating out there, remember?"
"Yeah." Kira repositioned herself so that she was facing the brunette; propped up by her elbow, her head resting on her hand. "Will you tell me about it now?" she coaxed gently.
"About what?" Ezri asked the ceiling.
"The person on Earth."
Ezri's face fell, before she nodded seriously, the question sobering her slightly. "Her name was Aanitaas." She stared up at Kira, searching her face for any emotion at all. When there was nothing, she frowned. "You're not shocked?"
Kira shook her head.
"You're not mad?"
The Bajoran took her cue to frown. "No. Why should I be?"
"Oh, I don't know. I guess I kind of expected� I don't know."
Kira laughed. "I don't care who or what you fall in love with, Zee, as long as you're happy."
Ezri's eyes filled with tears and she reached over to hug Kira tightly.
"Hey, what're you crying for?" Kira asked, worried.
"I'm just relieved to hear you say that. Thank you, Nerys."
"You can thank me by telling me the rest of the story, dammit," Kira joked.
She wiped her eyes and smiled. "Ok, ok. Well, I already told you the first part of it. Aanitaas and I were in the same finishing course at the Academy, and we were constantly running into each other in Cochran Park. Eventually we began studying and jogging together, and then talking and sharing lunch and dinner and breaks. Then one night we went to this little caf� along the harbor, and she kissed me. A few weeks later we included breakfast in our regime, and I moved in with her."
"Wow, quite a whirlwind romance then."
"It didn't feel like it at the time. But it does now. I only got to live with her four months before she was posted to the USS Athene."
"A generation ship."
"Why didn't you go with her?"
Ezri began to cry, and Kira rubbed her shoulders as she continued. "She told me not to. I was all ready to sign up, when she told me I had too much in front of me to become a 'redundant position in a lifetime career.'"
Kira was silent as she thought it over. While she was upset for her friend, she was glad this woman had set her free like that. Although Ezri would have undoubtedly followed Aani anywhere without hesitation, she would not have been satisfied without a valid reason to be there. And she would not have been able to return here, to her. She smiled at the thought and leaned in to place a gentle kiss on Ezri's forehead.
"What was that for?" the woman asked, grinning.
"For being here."
Dax smiled, sliding over until she was wrapped in Kira's embrace, her head tucked comfortably beneath the woman's chin. As she yawned, Kira's clean, spicy scent flowed deeply into her lungs, and she let her eyes slide shut. She had been wrong before. It was not the station that was home. Home was here, lying in the arms of her closest friend.
"Are you tired?" Kira asked, running her hands through short, dark hair.
"Uh huh. You?"
"Very." Kira released her, pulled off her own boots and unzipped her uniform, revealing a Starfleet bra and shorts beneath it. "Do you need some help there?" she asked the woman, who was struggling to find her own zipper.
"I think so." Ezri dropped her arms as Kira pulled the zipper down, and she wondered where her jacket had gotten to over the course of the party.
Kira handed the Trill woman a nightshirt before sliding the dress from her shoulders. She gathered it up and placed it gently on the floor beside the bed with a silent promise to hang it in the morning. "It really is a nice dress, Zee. It looks beautiful on you."
"Thank you, Nerys, that means a lot to me." Ezri blushed. And it did. Kira's words had always meant more to her than anyone else's, she thought, a wave of exhaustion flooding through her.
Kira smiled as she pulled the blankets over them and called for lights out. Closing her eyes and ignoring the slight feeling of alcohol-induced movement, she was drifting off when she felt a small figure move next to her and slide into her embrace. With Ezri's head tucked beneath her chin, and the woman's arms holding her waist tightly, she fell asleep at once.
There are moments in a person's life that remind them why they do what they do every day. Over and over; fighting each minute to live in an existence that will ultimately lead to the point of death. These moments come few and far between, and all too often we are so caught up in the inane, everyday details, that they pass us by before we have the chance to grab them, take hold with both hands, and suck every last ounce of joy or pain they contain. Moments that add small pieces to the vast, intricate puzzle that will define how we live and perceive the rest of our lives.
But sometimes; all too rarely, but just sometimes, there is something about the way you wake up, or the way you comb your hair, or the way your spine shivers for no apparent reason at all, that can alert us to the approach of such a moment. A warning that enables us to anticipate; to record, memorize, every touch, taste, smell, feeling and emotional response.
It is these times when we think to ourselves: "This is what's it's all about, this is how it should be, this is why I have fought so hard for so long. This is what makes it all worthwhile. Ah, yes; I remember now�."
As she opened her eyes to darkness, tempered only by the faint pall of constellations light years away, she felt the burn of such a moment. It was both her joy and pain that she had lived many lives; while it enabled her to experience many of these moments over the course of time, it also meant that she had waited longer between. But the satisfaction, the joy of realization would never fade with time, and it engulfed her with its beauty now.
She looked up through sleep-heavy lashes into the face of a moment itself, had the emotion and power been personified into one sleek woman. Heartbreakingly beautiful in unconsciousness, her face was open and relaxed, almost innocent in its delight of that which existed in the dream world. Ezri felt something within her clench painfully as she wondered if Kira could ever look like that in daylight. Could angels walk as people when they carried the gravity of conscious thought and duty on their wings?
She watched with guilt rearing its ugly maw inside her, beating the monster back, milking the opportunity to stare openly, unabashed, at the elegant woman during her time of greatest vulnerability. But it could hardly be said that the invitation wasn't there. During sleep they had become even more entwined, tangled in each other. Her cheek was pressed firmly against the juncture of a Bajoran sternum, her lips brushing the side of a breast as the sleeping woman inhaled, exhaled. Inhaled, exhaled.
She studied the serene face only with great difficulty, craning her neck and wiggling her shoulders free of the tight grip with which Nerys held her, clutching the smaller woman to her; warm breath ruffling her short hair, another arm wrapped entirely around her waist, the fine-fingered hand splayed low on her stomach.
Ezri was no innocent to the tableau. Her own arms held the taller woman tightly to her body, one hand beneath a prominent shoulder blade, the other against the hollows of a tailbone. Her body caressed Nerys's left side, hip to hip, body angled over body, four feet � up, down, up, down. She felt safe, secure; warm, loved. Completely protected by the woman who was tall enough to tuck her beneath her chin, and strong enough to still all but her breath and pounding heart.
She fell suddenly as the clarity, the untouched perfection of the moment passed, and reality came flooding back to haunt her. This was her best friend, her Captain. This was not Aanitaas. This was not a safe, comfortable position, despite every fiber of her body telling her otherwise. Indeed, this was a very dangerous position to be in., one with the opportunity to destroy a complex relationship that had taken so long to revive and recreate. One with the opportunity to tempt that which should not be tempted, to do that which should not be done to an unconscious friend, superior officer, or indeed any other incarnation Kira Nerys held for her.
Her lips twitched as she returned to the former embrace. It did not help to merely shift attention from the woman's mouth to her breast. But when she closed her eyes it was easier to imagine the rolling vistas of Trill, and Norvo's face, and the love Aani had given her. It was enough to lull her back into sleep, where she too was vulnerable, but was safe in the protective circle of Nerys's arms, and didn't have to fight reality anymore.
The world of dreams was a much more level playing field.
The second time Ezri woke, it was to her mixed relief and disappointment that she was alone. Kira's quarters felt empty, stagnant to her, and she knew that the Captain must have returned to the party. Or was perhaps on duty - she was unsure of how long she had slept. She stretched luxuriously, yawning, before she padded into the adjoining washroom and indulged in hot, running water rather than a sonic shower. Tense muscles began to relax beneath the vibrating force of scalding liquid, and she let her eyes slide closed as it rained down on her upturned face.
It was a universally illogical phenomenon; but she, like many sentient beings, did her best thinking in the shower. Perhaps it was a sympathetic motion to layers of grime being cleared away, or perhaps being naked of body allowed for a nakedness of thought. Whatever it was, it worked. Hundreds of thoughts; patients, duty rosters, small parts of last night, came flooding back to her. And as she stepped from the shower and wrapped herself in a robe, toweling her hair, deciding what to have for breakfast, her day was all planned out.
She was shocked to learn that she had slept for almost 13 hours. Not caring for the sterile sharpness of the computer's voice this morning, she shook Kira's Bajoran timepiece, listened to the mechanism whirring inside it. But it was not incorrect. She threw back a large glass of something simply marked 'Nutritional supplement' from Kira's replicator, silently thanking the woman for pre-selecting the drink before she had left however long ago. It was bland, but warmed her stomach and left her feeling energized as she pulled on a freshly replicated uniform and left the Captain's quarters at a smooth jog.
The corridors of the Habitat Ring were strangely empty as she ran through them. Obviously she hadn't been the only member of the crew left to sleep off last night's celebrations. The longer she ran, however, the more groaning, bleary-eyed crewmembers she had to avoid. Many glared at her as she smiled, or wished them a cheerful "good morning". A few braved grumbling at her as she passed.
Reaching the final corridor on her designated half-hour, she stopped at the turbolift pad with Ensign Tarees, who looked just as awake and happy as Ezri, and who, it seemed, had also completed a short morning run.
"Good morning, Lieutenant." The woman saluted lazily as she stretched long legs with a cat-like grace Ezri admired and envied equally. The ensign towered over the Trill woman, 'though,' Ezri thought to herself, 'it isn't that difficult to do�' with long, blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail that swung across her back as she moved.
"You're Ensign Tarees, aren't you?" Ezri knew full well who she was, not easily forgetting the face of a woman who would perform a strip tease on Quark's bar � While completely sober. Tarees nodded as they stepped into the turbolift.
"Operations," Ezri told the computer.
"Promenade," Tarees added. "Andrea. Andie."
"Excuse me?" Ezri asked, wondering what the hell she was talking about.
Tarees smirked. "That's my name."
"Oh. Right." Caught off guard, Ezri stumbled on, "Happy Birthday, by the way. I saw you last night at the party."
Tarees laughed, and Ezri was surprised to note that she didn't exhibit the slightest hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness over her actions. "Yeah, it's not often that you get the opportunity to perform in Star Fleet."
"I suppose that's one way of putting it," Ezri smirked.
They shared a moment of laughter, before the turbolift arrived on the Promenade. There were plenty of crewmembers helping the janitorial detail clean remnants of the party from walls, ceiling and floor, and security was removing the last of its fallen comrades.
"Wow, looks like the night was a success," Ezri commented, wondering from the mess if that was true.
"You didn't stay for the end?" the ensign asked in surprise.
"No. You did?"
"Of course. You don't see me missing a celebration like this."
Ezri let her eyes widen. "You just finished a run, but you haven't slept yet?"
"Who needs sleep?"
"Me, for one."
"Well personally," Tarees told her plainly, "I prefer to *see* the entire engineering crew don Dabo girl outfits and sing Klingon opera, rather than just hearing about it."
"They what?!" Ezri exclaimed.
"Yep. All 38 of them, including one recently-recovered chief engineer. In fact, I do believe it was his idea for them to drape themselves over Chancellor Martok, during that wonderful tenor solo in B'eLturok V." Tarees left Ezri open-mouthed in disbelief as she exited the turbolift pad, not bothering to elaborate further, much to Ezri's dismay.
Tarees stopped to talk to each person she passed as she made her way down the Promenade. It seemed to Ezri that, not only was the Ensign completely confident with who she was and what she did, but people liked her for it rather than finding her arrogant. Ezri herself couldn't help but like the woman. She decided that she would bring up the Ensign's personnel records with the Captain when she saw her next. Which was now, she remembered. She chuckled as the lift rose, trying in vain to picture the scene Tarees had described.
Ezri stepped into Ops as soon as the pad came to a halt, smiling at the busy crew. Most looked as though they had been hit by runabouts on their way to duty shift this morning; Kira included. Ezri smiled sympathetically at the Captain as she stood to attention, before heading to her workstation. As her fingers flew over the panel, making sure everything was in order, Kira took a moment to come up behind her and peer over her shoulder. "You look happy."
"Someone was nice enough to let me sleep in this morning," Ezri agreed.
"Wow, that person must be some sort of saint," Kira remarked dryly.
Ezri didn't turn around as she smirked. "I suppose so."
"That's all you have to say?" Kira asked her in annoyance. "You know, I could put you on report, Lieutenant � You *are* three hours late for duty."
"You could, but then you'd loose your smug sense of sainthood," Ezri smirked, determined not to give in to Kira's well-evolved ability to incite guilt.
"Shut up," the captain shot back, pouting as she realized Dax had defeated her, and she was getting no stuttered thanks this day.
Ezri laughed as she caught a glimpse of Kira's face reflected in her panel. "Did you get much sleep?"
"About six hours."
"You must feel terrible."
"I've been better. I'm not as bad as some around here, though," Kira grinned, gesturing to Commander Jacques yawning into his console.
"So I see," Ezri smiled sympathetically at the man who straightened in embarrassment when he noticed them. "I was talking to Ensign Tarees on the way here --"
"Yeah, we bumped into each other after my morning run."
"You ran?" Kira asked, shocked.
"Of course." Ezri beamed proudly.
"I hate you," Kira returned. What right did her friend have to be so energetic when she could barely hold her head up?
"No you don't." Ezri grinned. "Anyway, she told me an interesting story about Nog and the Engineering crew last night --"
"I've already heard it," Kira interrupted quickly. "But I don't want to hear any more gossip about last night."
Ezri glanced over her shoulder in surprise at the tone of Kira's voice. She looked agitated, uptight. Dax turned back to the panel. "What's wrong?"
"We're the subjects of much talk today, Lieutenant. You haven't heard yet?"
"No. What do you mean?" Ezri asked, confused.
"I don't know how much you remember of last night, but it seems we harassed a fair portion of the crew on our way to my quarters."
Ezri frowned and rubbed her forehead; trying to force her thoughts clear from the cloud of fog that hung over memories of the party. "Harassed? How? Who?"
"This isn't the time or place to talk about it. We'll discuss it over lunch later." Kira leaned further over her shoulder and shot the console a puzzled look, before turning her head and examining Ezri's profile. "What are you doing?"
"I'm looking up Ensign Tarees's personnel file."
"I can see that. Why?"
"Well, it looks like she's up for review. She's well overdue for promotion, and she needs a psych evaluation before that can happen, so I thought I could do that today."
The Captain nodded and straightened up. "Good idea. Right, well I'll leave you to do that, and I guess I'll see you in Quark's around�1300 hours?"
Ezri made a quick calculation in her head. 3 hours to go over the Ensign's files, locate her, organize an appointment and get back to the Promenade. "I'll meet you there."
The captain nodded and moved back to the observation post. As Dax returned to the turbolift she felt eyes burning into the back of her head, and turned to find a number of the crew whispering, staring and smirking at her. They turned away quickly as she spotted them. Suddenly she was anxious for lunchtime to roll around.
Once back on the Promenade, Ezri decided that even if the subject was someone as intriguing as Ensign Tarees, scrolling through pages and pages of data was an activity that inspired boredom, and she figured she may as well be damn comfortable while doing it. With padd in hand, she made her way to Quarks with the intention of visiting Vic Fontaine as she worked.
She spotted Quark tending the bar as she entered, and frowned in confusion as he spotted her and left for the storeroom at a rush. Straining to remember if she had 'harassed' Quark at the celebration, she blushed and covered her face with a groan. She had stroked his lobes. Fondled the Ferengi weak spot. She was going to hell.
"Hey, whatever it is, it's no use beating yourself up over it. You're not the only one feeling foolish today."
Ezri turned to face Leeta, knowing the woman was speaking from empathy. "Is Rom OK?"
"We've been better," Leeta told her, staring at her feet with a sad smile. "But he's a good man, and he has such a kind heart. We'll get there."
"Yeah, he's a catch."
"One I thank the Prophets for each day," the woman agreed, happier as she looked up. "Ezri; you and Jadzia both knew Quark was wild about you. He got over it then, and he will now."
"You don't understand, Leeta; I stroked his lobes."
Leeta couldn't hide her amusement, and Ezri shot her a dirty look in warning.
"Oh lighten up." The woman told her, nonplussed. "He'll be fine. Just give him a few days before you decide to apologise to him, ok?"
"You're right. Thanks, Leeta."
"Think of it as payment for talking to Rom for me. Now, what can I get you?" The Bajoran asked, suddenly all business.
"I was hoping to use Vic's holosuite, if that's possible. I've been here almost a week and I still haven't seen him; he's going to be upset if I don't go and explain now."
"Go right ahead, the suite's empty."
"Thanks." Taking a final look towards the storeroom where she could picture one angry, hurt Ferengi hiding out, Ezri sighed and headed for Vic's.
She had a feeling Quark wasn't going to be the last of the damage control she'd have to perform today.
The room was smoky and the lighting dim, with only a few characters scattered around the tables and the band playing quietly to enforce a relaxed atmosphere. Some things never changed.
"Computer, remove customers." Ezri ordered the ceiling as the doors hissed closed behind her. Vic approached her as she placed the padd on an empty table and embraced him.
"Haven't seen you for a while, doll face."
"Too long, Vic." she agreed warmly.
"A year and a half you've been away, then you come strolling into my restaurant like you own the joint and get rid of all my customers."
Ezri grinned and sat; Vic pulling out the opposing chair as a waiter placed a Martini in front of him. "Sorry Vic, but I have work to do. I felt bad for not having said hello to you yet, but I need some peace and quiet if that's ok."
"Of course it is, pally � I was just pulling your chain. Any requests while you work?"
Ezri thought for a moment before a smile flickered across her face; full of joy and regrets. "Do you know 'The Very Thought of You?'"
"Do I? That's Billie Holiday, doll face. She's a queen among peasants, a woman dear to my heart. This song got a special meaning for you?"
Ezri's eyes were focused on a point that lay beyond the singer's vision, a place he knew he could never see. "It's just something I heard in a little coffee house on Earth one time."
Vic nodded, knowing not to press a person who looked the way Ezri did right now. It was a sad, reminiscent look that people got when they thought of love lost and opportunities missed. He made his way to the stage, steadying himself for a heartfelt performance. "Make this one count boys."
When the music began it was quiet, husky, and it filled every corner of the room. Vic smiled to himself as he watched tears glisten in the young woman's eyes; looking very small and very alone in the empty restaurant, but straining to hear every nuance of the song.
"The very thought of you, and I forget to do
Ezri let her mind drift to things of the past as the band stretched out a complicated instrumental, and Vic let them play to keep the song going as long as he possibly could for her. She found herself seated in another chair at another table in a situation that felt ancient to her now�
"�so I told him that if he wanted breakfast he'd better damn well learn how to cook, because the day I become a maid to an anal retentive ship mechanic is the day Ferenginar becomes a nice, dry place to live."
"I can't believe you said that!" Ezri managed to force out through the laughter that had come steadily throughout the evening.
"Neither could he. His face went this wonderful shade of purple and I thought he was going to blow up right then and there. I took that moment to duck out. The last thing I wanted was little bits of Glen Haywood flesh on my nice clean uniform after he had exploded."
They laughed again, and Ezri found herself a little surprised to realize she didn't care they were attracting the interest of the other patrons with their noise. She was even more surprised when Aani reached out and grasped her hand as she laughed. She considered for a moment, and decided not to pull away, not to analyze the situation as she normally would. She was not at all uncomfortable. In fact, she wasn't that surprised to find she enjoyed the feel of Aani's strong hand grasping hers. The band finished their song and took a moment before starting a new one.
Aani's face lit up, her electric blue eyes flashing with the joy that filled her face. "I *love* this song!"
"What is it?"
The tall woman gasped, before pinning her with a look of mock disgust. "You've never heard Billie Holiday before?"
Ezri shook her head and Aani let out an exaggerated sigh. "You're more lost than I thought, Dax. Come on � let's dance. The only way to fully appreciate the magnificence of Billie Holiday is when every thought and movement is centered on it."
Ezri let the tall woman lead her onto the empty dance floor, slipping into the security of muscular arms, and letting herself be led anywhere Aani would take her. As they twirled across polished pine, Ezri learned the wonder of Billie Holiday through the tattoo of her new friends' heart, the swish of their feet across the floor, and the deep hum of Aani's voice overshadowing the less-skilled woman on stage.
When Aani put her fingers beneath Ezri's chin and tilted her face upward, the Trill woman didn't fight her for a second. And, as she lowered her face across the distance, Ezri stood on her tiptoes to meet her halfway. They kissed for only a short time before Aani pulled back and searched her eyes carefully. Ezri stared back without reproach or resistance, and the next time they kissed it seemed to last a lifetime. Her chest heaved for breath as she returned to flat feet; missing the contact of full, crimson lips, but desperately needing to fill her lungs with something other than fear and excitement.
"You're something else, Ezri Dax," the dark haired beauty whispered.
"Something good, I hope."
"No?" Ezri asked, her worry clear through the confusion in her voice.
"No. Something perfect�."
Ezri smiled through the tears as she brought her concentration back to the padd in her hand. Vic had begun another familiar song, 'I'll Be Seeing You.' She smiled and nodded her thanks to him, and he smiled back as he sang. He had reinstated the crowd, but this time the din was a welcome one. Flagging down a waiter, she ordered coffee and spent the next hour going over Ensign Tarees's personnel and service records.
Andrea Jane Tarees was now 25 earth years old, making her young for her accomplishments, with an exemplary service record. She had been present during the Dominion wars, in charge of a large team of front line attackers. The only bad reports Dax could find were a few from her Academy days of bar brawls, but they had never led to charges pressed, and seemed to be mentioned with amusement by her lecturers, who had obviously been very fond of the woman.
Her mother was an ambassador for the Romulan Consulate at Federation headquarters, and her father was the captain of a starship called the USS Acclamation, and up for promotion to Admiral in the near future. Tarees was currently in Sciences aboard DS9, and completing her third thesis on xenobiology and diversity of the Gamma Quadrant. Ezri wondered why she hadn't applied for promotion years ago, when she was over-qualified for her rank as it was. She switched off the padd and stood, stretching the cramps forming in her unused legs and waving to Vic as she left to find the woman.
Tarees was bent over a young ensign and his console as Ezri entered Sciences. She watched as the blonde gently explained what was wrong with the man's formula and asked him how he thought he could fix it. When he answered correctly she praised him, and he beamed proudly as she left him to continue his work.
Ezri was smiling as she approached the workstation Tarees sat in front of, and cleared her throat to avoid startling the woman. She held up a hand as the ensign moved to stand, shaking her head. "No, no, don't bother getting up. I'll only be here a moment and I don't want to interrupt what you're doing."
"Oh don't worry," Tarees waved Ezri's words away with her hand, "it's nothing I haven't been working on for years anyway. It's a real pain the way a lifetime's worth of work takes so damn long to complete," she told Ezri dryly, though she obviously loved what she did.
Ezri chuckled and nodded in agreement. "I know what you mean; I've got a few lifetimes' worth of it under my belt."
"That's a good point. So, what can I do for you, Lieutenant?"
Ezri gestured to the padd in her hand. "I've been going over your personnel files and I noticed you've been due for promotion for years now. May I ask why you haven't applied yet?"
Tarees was taken aback. Gathering her composure once more, she shrugged. "Geez, I guess I haven't had enough time to even think about it. I mean, I've pretty much got the authority of a lieutenant around here anyway, and with all my work and the wars and everything I just haven't seen the need."
"Well, if you're happy to take a psych review, I'm more than happy to get your application processed," Ezri told her, and looked carefully for the woman's reaction.
The ensign scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue like she had a mouth full of Gagh. "No offence, Lieutenant, but counselors have never been my thing."
"No offence taken, Ensign. I must admit," Ezri leaned in, whispering conspiratorially, "I don't really like them either."
The tall, blonde woman laughed sharply, and Ezri couldn't fight the grin it inspired. She definitely liked this woman's spirit. Relaxed now, the ensign nodded her acceptance. "Ok, when do you want me?"
"How about tomorrow at 0600 hours?"
"Why that early?" Tarees frowned.
"We can take the edge off formalities if you want to run with me?"
The woman looked relieved and nodded enthusiastically. "Couldn't have thought of a better idea myself. I think I'm the deck below you in Habitation, so how about I catch you in the turbo lift and we go to the top together?"
"And run the entire Habitat Ring?" Ezri asked dubiously.
"Too much for you, Lieutenant?"
Ezri smirked at the taller woman's taunting, and stared at her with determination. "Just worried you may not be able to keep up with me."
Tarees looked Ezri up and down, fully taking into account the woman's slight stature; the top of her own legs met the counselor's middle, and she stood almost a foot taller than her. She had the good grace to bite back the laughter that shook her shoulders. "No disrespect intended, sir, but you're joking, right?"
"We'll see, Ensign. Tomorrow, 0600 hours."
"I'll be there."
Ezri nodded and left Sciences with a light heart. She knew she had no chance of beating the ensign, but she was going to have a good time trying.
The captain was already seated when Ezri reached Quark's. She took a moment to watch the woman whose eyes were transfixed on an invisible point in time, a lazy smile dancing across her face. After last night's thrill of waking up in the red-haired woman's arms, Ezri realized she was looking at her friend differently than before.
As Jadzia, Dax had been greatly intrigued by the Bajoran woman from the moment they had met; an interest that became the foundation for a good working relationship, and eventually a strong friendship. When Ezri had first arrived on the station, the wounds Jadzia's death had created were still fresh and painful for her former friends and crewmembers. Ezri had found it difficult to interact with them, as they had with her. It had been a stumbling block that had, in fact, almost led to her leaving not only the station, but also Starfleet.
While the awkwardness had lasted many months, she had eventually been able to recreate and rediscover old bonds; not by replacing Jadzia, but by proving herself in her own right. Things between she and Kira, aside from she and Worf, had been the hardest gap to bridge. They had finally managed to not only revive a bond as strong as the one Jadzia held, but to strengthen it and move into new territory made possible only by Ezri's light, youthful spirit. Now that spirit seemed to hold only seriousness in matters of Kira Nerys, and it troubled her greatly.
Ezri Tigan might have been able to take the risk of alienating her friend; been capable of proposing a relationship that might ultimately lead to a rejection by this fascinating woman. But Dax was another matter altogether. When a Trill is joined, a host receives a multitude of memories, experiences and knowledge; so many wonderful things that a person could never obtain in one short lifetime. But they also gain the reluctance and reservations borne from a previous host's betrayals and pains: emotions that can inhibit their actions, and prevent them from trying things that have failed in the past.
So Ezri stared at the woman until she could fold her thoughts away once more, and file them under "Kindly do not open" in her chest. She took a breath, smiled as she approached the captain, and sat, handing her the padd.
Kira glanced over the information briefly, not looking up as she asked, "What's this?"
"Ensign Tarees's personnel files. We're going jogging tomorrow morning in lieu of a psych drilling in my office. I think it'll give me a better evaluation this way, if we're both more relaxed. Then, assuming everything's in order, I'll submit the report with my recommendation for promotion to you, and what you do with it is your choice."
Kira nodded and handed back the padd. "I'll be expecting it then. You think she'll make a good lieutenant junior grade?"
"From my first impressions, I'd say she's already doing the job without the pips, so yes. Also," Ezri ventured tentatively, "if I may make a suggestion?"
"With her age and experience, you may want to consider having Starfleet make the promotion directly to lieutenant-in-full."
"Agreed." Kira nodded thoughtfully and was quiet for a long moment. "You know, I was hoping I could start running with you tomorrow."
Ezri paled. "Oh." Caught by guilt and embarrassment, she could feel her annoying habit to ramble take hold. "Oh Nerys, I'm so sorry I didn't ask you. I guess I just presumed you wouldn't enjoy a morning run --"
Kira held up her hand and smiled, her attempt at looking hurt having failed miserably. "I wouldn't enjoy it at all, Zee; but you've made me feel guilty for not being such a damn energetic morning person. Since I'm the Captain now, I can't exactly have my crew showing me up, can I?"
"Then how about the day after?" Ezri offered hopefully.
"Perfect. Now, I'm famished; how about you?"
"Good, let's eat."
Ten minutes later and their food had arrived. Ezri had yet to see Quark since earlier that day and she was getting a little worried. Stirring her Linguini with an inattentive hand, she fought to keep her concentration in the present time.
"Do you and your food need some alone time, Ezri?"
Startled eyes met Kira's, dancing with amusement. "Oh Nerys, I'm sorry. I'm just a little worried about Quark --"
"-- and last night?" Kira finished for her, shaking her head. "Zee, he's the least of our worries."
Ezri waited as Kira ate for a moment, before her impatience took precedent over formality. "Are you going to explain what I did that was so terrible last night?"
The captain sighed and put down her spoon, taking a long sip of her Regalian tea before she answered. "Not just you - It was the both of us, I'm ashamed to admit. Do you remember how we got back to my quarters after we left the party?"
"I'm guessing it was via a turbolift," Ezri commented dryly. Kira glared at her, and she lowered her eyes. "Sorry. Ok, so the details are pretty sketchy, but I remember falling out of that lift quite well."
"Well, from what I can discern, it took us about an hour and a half to find a turbolift."
"What?" she exclaimed in disbelief. "Nerys, we weren't that drunk. It's pretty hard not to run into one on the Promenade."
"You suggested a walk."
"You did. Quark said we should check the station, remember?"
"Oh yeah, I remember the Quark part." Ezri took a moment to blush and fiddle with her lunch.
"Right. Well, the next report I have is from Ensign Brance, who says --"
"I don't know," stated Kira with exasperation, "I overheard this part from Lieutenant Junior Larak and Ensign Teal on the Promenade this morning. I wasn't exactly in a position to ask for clarification. Anyway, you apparently offered to show him your expertise in the art of Bolian Leqews."
"I what?" The Trill covered her face with both hands and groaned.
Kira stared at her with interest. "I was hoping you'd know what they were talking about."
"I wish I didn't."
"Well? Care to explain?"
"Well, you have to, because apparently I tried it too."
When Ezri looked up through her fingers; a mixture of surprise and amusement warred across her face. "You did? How'd you go?"
"I was successful, but that's hardly the point," Kira shot back, put off by Ezri's impressed smirk, "what *is* it?"
Ezri sighed, shrugged, and turned a glorious shade of red. "It's a little trick Emony was fond of. You take the stem of a Bolian Leqew, put it in your mouth, then tie it in a knot with your tongue." When she returned her face to her hands, Kira let out an undignified giggle. "I really don't see the humor here, Nerys."
"Hey, you're not the once receiving all the appreciative looks in Ops;" Kira snorted, before the dam broke and her laughter poured forth. "I have every right to be amused."
Still with her head in her hands, Ezri was not laughing. "I'm sorry, Nerys."
"Don't worry about it, Zee. We obviously had a good time; not that we can remember any of it�"
"I'm starting to feel very thankful for that fact," was Dax's muffled reply.
"Then you don't want to hear about what you did to San Derak?"
"The Minosian wine trader?" she questioned hesitantly.
"The very same."
"I don't know � Do I want to know?"
"Ever seen a Bajoran pleasure dance?" the captain smirked.
Ezri's groan ended in a pained cry. She let her forehead rest on the tabletop.
"General Ra'Teraan?" Kira continued, enjoying the younger woman's distress.
"No --" Ezri gasped, horrified.
"You *bit* him," she stated matter-of-factly.
Ezri covered her head with her arms, placing her hands firmly over her ears. "Please, Nerys; I don't want to hear anymore."
"Good; then I won't tell you about my encounter with Lieutenant Benton." Ezri looked up at her with one eye, moving her hands slightly. Kira's face had reddened, and she looked decidedly shameful. "I informed him that part of captain's privilege involved the right to order any crewmember to massage me at any time�"
Ezri's eyes danced and her mouth was firmly open as she laughed disbelievingly. "You what?"
Ezri clamped her laughter down only after the first bark had escaped. Looking around them, she noticed that the rest of the crew had the intelligence to ignore them � or at least give the pretense. The Captain had taken her cue to bury her face in her hands; although Ezri could see her shoulders shake with suppressed laughter.
"Let's never drink again, Zee."
"That's a deal."
They ate and talked for another half-hour, before guilt began to wear excuses thin and duty called once more. After paying the bill, Ezri went back to her quarters to further study Tarees's history, and then polish up on her knowledge of the Bro'Dign. Kira had been right about the celebration helping to distract the crew from their oncoming threat, but thoughts of danger were quickly returning an oppressive atmosphere across the station. With the next attack predicted to begin little more than a week from now, Ezri knew that all information she could find would soon be utilized.
Though it was her seventh night back on DS9, it was only the fifth she had spent in her own quarters. She read until she couldn't understand the words anymore, then pulled on her nightgown and tumbled into bed. Requesting the computer wake her at 0530 hours the next morning, Ezri slipped into a deep, though disturbed sleep.
But it was dark, and she couldn't see what she was dreaming.
"The time is 0530 hours. The time is 0530 hours. The time is 0530 hours. The time is�"
"Computer, shut up," Ezri groaned, and the computer beeped into silence.
The truth was, she was far from being a nice, intelligent morning person. She was irritable, grumpy and downright obnoxious as she pulled herself from the warmth of her bed and threw herself into a sonic shower. Five minutes later she emerged and pulled on a clean pair of track pants and top; complaints about the existence of linear time falling on the deaf ears of countless stars. She glared as the doors hissed shut behind her, and poked her tongue out at the lights along the Habitat hallway.
Needless to say, she was not impressed when Ensign Tarees came bounding up with a sunny disposition and a smile on her face. "What are you so happy about?"
"Wake up on the wrong side of the bed today, Lieutenant?" Tarees teased.
"No, the wrong side of the day."
"Not a morning person, huh?"
"You could say that."
The ensign smirked and stretched her long legs with exaggerated movement, causing Ezri's frown to deepen. Tarees then laughed at the shorter counselor before racing off, her long legs eating up the hallway's length with ease. She jogged backwards for a moment, grinning at Ezri, who was still glaring at her with her arms crossed over her chest. "Well, are you coming or not? This was *your* idea, remember?"
Ezri ran to catch up with her, struggling with two strides for every one of Tarees's. They continued like this for two decks, before the Trill woman grabbed Tarees's shoulder to slow her down. She managed to force out a garbled, "I need� breath� in order� to interview you� ensign." between sharp inhalations.
Tarees relented and stopped to let Ezri rest for a moment, a smug smile plastered across her face. "I thought you were the one who was going to leave me for dead?"
"Keep smirking like that and I just might," Dax growled.
The ensign's grin deepened. "Call me Dee; everyone else does."
The Trillian woman smiled up from her doubled-over position with her hands on her knees. She straightened finally and offered her hand to the calm woman. "Call me Ezri."
They shook on it, before resuming the run at a slower pace.
Passing deck after deck in this way, they managed to get through Tarees's resentment of her father's constant pressure for advancement and her mother's skill in the art of pastry making, to her feelings on the wars and most recent knowledge of Gamma Quadrant xenobiodiversity.
By the time they had reached the final level of runabouts and were waiting for the turbolift pad to return them to their respective quarters for much anticipated showers, Ezri felt as though she would be able to present Kira with a precise report on Tarees's psychological status in regards to her promotion.
Tarees was a basically grounded woman, who was very passionate about her work and fellow crewmembers, very loyal to the Federation, and strongly opposed to the need for war and weapons. This last fact surprised Ezri, due to the woman's expert handling of the front line group, but went further to enforcing the firm professionalism the ensign maintained while on duty. Off duty was another point altogether, as Ezri had experienced during the celebrations two nights previous; but Tarees managed to define the boundaries between the two areas perfectly.
"Breakfast?" the ensign asked, stretching her legs once more to warm down.
"Sounds wonderful, just as soon as I've had another shower and found a clean uniform. Meet you in Quark's in half an hour?"
Dee scrunched up her face and shook her head, her blonde hair swaying across her shoulders with the gesture. "No way. I have to spend all day with those people in Sciences; I'm not eating with them too. How about if we meet at the Celestial Caf�?"
Ezri frowned and thought for a moment. "Is that the Bajoran restaurant Chalan owns?"
"Used to own. Rohan Geel owns it now. Chalan decided to go back to Bajor and farm turnips or something � I never really bothered to find out. Geel makes a killer Hasperat though."
"Hasperat? For breakfast?" Ezri looked dubious.
"Hey, it's the closest thing I can get to dad's spicy burritos in this place," Tarees implored.
"Yeah, but for breakfast?"
"What can I say; I was born with a will of iron, and a stomach to go with it."
"You can say that again. All right, I'll meet you at the Celestial Caf� in half an hour."
Ezri watched Tarees jog down the hall to her quarters, and continued up until she reached her own. She relaxed beneath water this time, throwing her running clothes into the recycler before pulling on a fresh uniform � her closets full once more after Kira and Martok's retrieval operation. Then she used the next twenty minutes to complete her evaluation on Ensign Tarees and draft out the promotion application. When the computer informed her it was 0730 hours, she tucked the pad under her arm and left her quarters, her stomach more than ready for breakfast.
She was surprised to find herself twitching in anticipation of seeing Andrea Tarees once more. She took time in the turbolift to try and figure out why, and all she came up with was an intense liking for Tarees's ease of self and strong personality. She understood that she was well on her way to making a new friendship on the station and the idea thrilled her. It pleased her even more when she felt a twinge of sadness that Kira would not be joining them, or eating just with her. It pleased her because it defined the developing relationship with Tarees as purely platonic.
'What does that make things between Nerys and I?' Ezri asked herself in a moment of panic, and then berated herself for the thought. Now was the time to concentrate only on her stomach and Andie. That decided, she excited the lift and headed towards the Celestial Caf� with an easy feeling resting on her shoulders.
Sleep is a strange time. The body is at its most vulnerable when the barriers of the mind are down. A Betazoid, or any other empathic entity, would explain that the time of rest is the time when their work begins. Millions of images, emotions, running rampant through the sleeping mind without form or inhibition. In the field of dreams it would seem that rules are a null point. It is nearly impossible to put boundaries on the subconscious when it becomes the only reality; when you dwell only in the realms of questions your mind fights to ask, and answers to things the daylight deems better left unsaid.
Kira woke up alone. It was difficult going to sleep that way. It was harder waking to empty arms. "Computer, time."
"The time is 0700 hours."
Time for her to be in Ops. It was late day for Alpha shift; the day they all seemed to look forward to, when they could sleep two extra hours. But Kira wondered if she appreciated it as much as most. It was with dry humor that she lifted herself from the half-necessary double bed and propelled automatic feet towards the bathroom.
The Life of a captain. It would have been an historical title if Shakespeare had known of such things. A woman stood naked; vulnerable in sleep and cleansing, and identical to every other person she commanded through an image that elevated her to the status of ancient gods. Each day she drove her disciples towards death, and they lay themselves at her feet in supplication. As Kira ran shaking hands through wet fire hair she could not muster enough energy to laugh as she sometimes did; when moments of reflection fought the gravity of running water and vacuum removal ports. Some days it was easier than others. Every now and then it didn't seem funny any more.
She stepped from the shower into warm fabric and marveled at the clinical nature of it all. Underwear, uniform, left boot, right boot; hair ok, smile in place. Did she look sentient when she left her quarters? She felt synthesized. No energy, no life, an automaton going through carefully programmed motions. But she didn't divert from the process. Kira had this strange fear that if she changed her routine in any way, someone would realize she had no idea what she was doing; in her position, her place, or her life.
One day without nutritional supplement. Would it make a difference? Was it possible to waste away synthetic fibers that seemed to exist on motion alone? To test the theory would involve differing her routine. Results: inconclusive, due to contradicting data.
"Good morning, Captain; what can I get for you this fine day?"
"Raktajino, toasted Gelm."
"Coming right up."
Searching the Promenade from habit more than interest, she spotted a duo in the distance that brought her mind and body to a jarring halt. Dax and� Tarees? Yes, that's it; the woman up for promotion. They sat together. They shared a mutual bond in an activity that held no current interest for her: Eating. She chewed dry Gelm bread as she watched the women together. They sat no further or closer to each other than any pairing in the Caf�. And yet she could not look away. Bajoran Shrimp and Hasperat. The dishes were clearly recognizable and defined to her. A warm breakfast. Strange the way it left her feeling cold inside.
Such was the life of a captain.
"How did you manage to get clearance for that?!" Ezri managed to get out between chuckles, leaning in to the conversation.
"Clearance?" shot back Tarees with a raised eyebrow and a triumphant grin on her face.
They laughed together, and Dee took a large bite of the spicy Hasperat before she continued. "So there we were; four commandos-in-training who were, in reality, four science cadets shaking so badly they needed inertial dampers; standing in Captain Raiesha's office with a holorecorder in one hand and holoemmiter - complete with Risan slave sim - in the other, when who walks in but my Father."
Ezri covered her face with one hand, a look of pained amusement half-visible through her fingers. "Oh no."
"Oh yes. You see, I'd spent days preparing myself for what I'd do if we were caught in Raiesha's office; I'd gone through the scenarios and our excuses in my head a million times over. I thought we had it covered. But the minute I saw my father's face� nothing."
"You went blank."
"Not just blank � I was a psychological vacuum."
"What did you do?"
"Luckily, Steve found his tongue somewhere between my death and Gearn hitting the deck, and he began spinning this story about Raiesha requesting some repairs, and we'd only be a minute; yadda, yadda, yadda�"
"And he believed it?" Ezri asked with amazement.
"My father? What are you, kidding me?" Dee said, looking at Ezri like she was crazy. "He fixed me in the headlights of anger and disappointment and told the others to get the hell out."
"I bet that went well," Ezri returned dryly.
"Chewed me out for the next twenty minutes about duty and respect and how he had hoped more of me, but never expected it. And then� he started laughing."
Ezri's surprise was mirrored by Dee, who shook her head fondly at the memory. "He told me that we should have tried Sim II cable instead of the holorecorder because Raiesha would have spotted it straight away. Then he told me to go find my friends."
"Yeah, he didn't report it or anything. Once everyone found out I was still alive, I became a legend. In their eyes, not only had I almost pulled off the biggest stunt in Academy history, but I'd escaped death at the hands of the system along the way."
Ezri stopped laughing suddenly and leaned back in her chair, frowning. After a moment her expression cleared and she leaned forward again, eyes wide in amazement. "Wait, you're Daring Dee; Saint who Sinned the System?"
"One and the same," Dee admitted reluctantly. "I always hated that title," she confessed, "you never could accuse a science cadet of being overly poetic."
"I've been sitting here all this time with a legend and I had no idea."
"Don't sweat it. I was kinda hoping they'd stopped telling that one by now. It was a little before your time."
"No, I suspect that story will continue to instill hope in disgruntled cadets for years," Ezri announced with mock flourish, earning the first sign of embarrassment from the confident ensign. "You've got a point though; you were very young when you completed your academy training."
"Yeah, well, it's not that hard when your first lesson on the Prime Directive was in utero."
Ezri laughed and finished her breakfast in harmony with the woman opposite her, who leaned back and let out a satisfied sigh. "That hit the spot."
"That would've hit all my spots." Ezri grinned.
"Ensign, may I remind you that you're addressing a senior officer here?" the Trill woman teased.
"I apologize, Lieutenant," Tarees replied, looking anything but apologetic.
Ezri grinned at her and stood. "While I thank you for such good food and company this morning, I'm afraid we both have work to do."
"Ugh, don't remind me. Have you ever seen a Teralian pus snail? That's my best friend for the next month. Oh yeah, me and the pus snail are tight." Dee held up two entwined fingers, though her face reflected her true feeling of disgust.
Ezri mustered the most sympathetic look she could find. "Well, at least you enjoy your work." She laughed when the blonde glared at her before readying herself to leave.
"Run tomorrow?" Tarees offered before Ezri had gotten too far.
She hesitated before turning back. "I'm afraid the captain already beat you to it. How about the next day."
"Sounds good. I could use the sleep-in."
"Well, if I don't see you before then, I guess that's it."
"Yeah. See ya 'round, Ezri."
Ezri nodded and headed for the turbolift pad. After a few steps, she paused and turned as Dee called her. "Dax! Maybe next time you can show me that little trick you do with a Bolian Leqew."
Ezri's face reddened, and she glared across the Promenade at the smirking ensign, who then turned and left. Grins were surreptitiously hidden as Ezri turned back and marched stiffly to the turbolift.
Friendship with Andrea Tarees promised to never leave a dull moment.
Kira watched from Quark's as Ezri passed by, but did not call out to her. She, like most of the Promenade, had clearly overheard Tarees's taunt. She wondered when the two women had become so familiar that Tarees would ignore all command structure and protocol, and that Ezri would simply accept it. She wondered if the tall, striking ensign called her 'Zee' yet. As far as Kira knew, she and Ezri's brother Norvo had been the only ones awarded the privilege.
Even as she was thinking the thoughts, Kira was telling herself they were illogical. What did she care if her friend had found another person to share her time with? She knew her standing would remain first and foremost, as it had for two lifetimes now. She wondered if Ezri and this woman were becoming more than just friends. After all, her romance with Aani had been self-admittedly a whirlwind one; why should this be any different? She fought for pleasure at her friend's discovery, but gave up almost as soon as she'd begun. It was hard to be happy for the happy when all you felt was alone.
Kira cursed � not for the first time � her desperate weakness for strong, notorious males. In truth she didn't know why she pursued them. She knew each time that it would inevitably lead to her being hurt. Was that why she did it? Was she so infected by her need for distance, and so plagued by her history of those she loved dying, that she could no longer do the things that could make her truly happy?
"Nonsense," she whispered forcibly to herself, pushed back the chair, and followed Dax's previous path to the turbolift. "Operations."
Such things had no right to be dwelled on when there was a war at hand. She straightened her crimson jumpsuit and pushed her hair behind her right ear, smoothing the left side with a shaking hand. She took a deep, calming breath as the turbolift reached ops, and was stoic and centered when she stepped into ops.
Ezri had just finished the final report for Tarees's promotion as she heard the familiar announcement.
"Captain on deck."
Kira waved her hand at the formality, but many crewmembers continued to get to their feet as she entered. Ezri knew it was a protocol the woman would never get used to. She caught Kira's eye and held up the padd. Nodding, the Captain dismissed anxiously reporting ensigns and made her way over.
"How was the run?" she asked, taking the padd.
"Long and exhausting. Breakfast was much better."
Kira raised one eyebrow, feigning ignorance.
"We went to the Celestial Caf�," the lieutenant explained. "The food there is wonderful. Much better than Chalan's, I'm pleased to say."
"Yes, I've heard a lot of good reports about Rohan Geel's cooking."
"You haven't been there yet?"
The captain shook her head. "I haven't had the time."
"How about we have lunch there today?"
"I can't. We hold council today. You'll be there too."
Ezri frowned and ran her fingers over the comm. "Oh, right, here it is. I'll be there."
"Good. Well, this seems in order."
As Kira nodded and moved to return to the ob post, Dax was caught in a spur of the moment decision. "Captain?"
"How about dinner then?"
Kira's face relaxed, though she hadn't realized until that moment she had been tense. "Good idea. I don't know how long the council will run, so we'll go as soon as it's finished."
Ezri smiled, then turned to watch the woman's reflection retreat in her workstation.
Once again the large room was silent as Martok leaned across the table, towering over Cretak, trying to intimidate the cool Romulan woman. It was the fifth time in the past few hours; an action that had become ritual over the years they had known each other. Kira was quickly becoming fed up with what Jadzia had so aptly named 'territorial pissing'.
"I would no sooner trust a Romulan at my side than a knife at my back."
"Do not worry, Chancellor; no Romulan would stand at your side. Such an action is beneath our race," Cretak stated with typical flatness.
The warrior bared his teeth and reached for his Bat'leth. Kira stood abruptly, a move echoed by Worf.
"This is getting us nowhere fast. We come here to work for peace, not to kill each other before the Bro'Dign get their chance," Kira stated firmly.
"I agree with Captain Kira; this argument is not productive," her former Klingon comrade stated calmly.
Martok whipped around to curse Worf angrily, shaking his arm free of the warrior's grip. "You dare side with one who dishonors us? With a group of� Romulans�" He spat the word out angrily. "�who would have attacked us while our backs were turned if the Bro'Dign had not done it first?"
"I side only with peace, and those who fight the honorable fight to attain it."
"Worf's right, Chancellor; we're all here for the same reasons," placated the captain.
Still breathing heavily, Martok took a moment to contain himself. He smoothed the fine uniform and armor over his huge chest before sitting and glaring at the proconsul, who had managed to remain statuesque throughout the exhibition.
"Please, Proconsul Cretak, continue," said Kira with a sigh, returning to her seat.
"The Continuing Committee have been in deliberation for many weeks now, and the motion has been agreed and successfully voted upon." The woman paused before breaking the good news. "The Romulan Empire will allow a small number of Starfleet vessels to use our cloaking technology during the next Bro'Dign attack, on the proviso that the Klingon fleet will attempt to protect and retrieve our wounded warbirds. Too often our ships have fallen needlessly through this prejudice."
"I agree," conceded Gul Hedal. "We must all fight as equals if we have any hope of beating these monsters."
Kira fought the acid laughter in her throat. Ironic times, when a Cardassian could refer to another race as monsters, and have a whole room in agreement; even a Bajoran. "Worf?"
The man seemed more strained and pensive than usual. There was a long silence before he answered. "I will consult the Houses at Qo'noS. We will require three days."
"We may not have that long," Kira reminded him.
"I understand, Captain, but I am afraid we have no choice. My people will not make a decision to put their ships at risk for the Romulans easily," Worf argued, though apologetically. For once, Martok remained silent, and the Alliance breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"Do what you can, Worf," conceded the captain. "If it's not too presumptuous, I'd like to begin the exchange and contracts immediately. If the Heads disagree, we can return the Romulan technology. If not, there'll be no time to waste."
"That is acceptable, Captain."
Martok merely glared through his remaining eye at the general audience.
"Kira, I must bring up a more urgent matter."
"Go ahead, Hedal."
"Firstly, I would like to thank all members of this new Alliance once more. The missionaries have been working hard to ensure my people do not suffer any more than they already have. But there is a small problem.�" Hedal took a moment to rub the taut cords along his neck. It was a well-recognized sign of bad news at the table.
"What is it, Hedal?" Kira urged, barely holding reign over her impatience.
"It is to my greatest displeasure that I must inform you of a� spy."
The Alliance members began talking at once, casting suspicious glances through all corners of the room. Kira stared around the huge oval table until attention had returned to the Cardassian. "I should have been more specific; I apologize. There is no infiltration of these proceedings that I know of."
"Then where, you ridiculous looking creature?" growled Martok, who had leapt up and was pulling the Cardassian down by the front of his suit.
"Chancellor Martok, you are out of line," Hedal warned him coldly. Worf touched the man's arm, and he sat once more.
Kira had also gotten to her feet, and remained there as she gestured for the Gul to continue. "Please, Hedal."
"Just moments before I arrived here on the station, my missionaries informed me they have apprehended a rogue Bro'Dign warrior --"
The eruption of noise was deafening. Martok was not the only member on his feet this time, and even Ezri, who had grown quite bored after the first few hours of argument and discussion, sat higher in her chair.
"Hedal, why did you wait four hours to tell us this?" Kira asked with strain in her voice and accusations in her eyes.
"I apologize, Captain, but my information was only confirmed a short while ago during the last break. This has been my first chance to speak."
Questions, speculation and plans begin flooding forward, and Hedal struggled with the little he knew. Kira, now beyond exasperated, finally erupted. "That's it! All of you be quiet for a moment and let Hedal speak! Please�"
There was a stunned silence before the Cardassian began, and Ezri watched Kira closely as she used the time to slump back into her chair, rubbing the ridges of her nose. "The warrior is currently refusing to talk, or too weak to do so; we are not quite sure. They found him stumbling through the hills behind Mazaran city. There is nothing out there for miles; the missionaries were taking a transport to Lasarat when they claim to have almost run into him."
"They almost ran into a 9-foot, neon orange creature with antlers and a bad disposition?" Cretak's derision brought scattered laughter from the congregation, and Ezri wondered if much of it was borne from fear.
"This� warrior - I use the term for want of a better description - is barely 5-foot; leading my people to believe he is a Bro'Dign youth."
"What have your� missionaries," Martok spat out the word with distaste, "done to ensure the beast does not escape?"
"It has been heavily sedated and incarcerated, and a large guard core surrounds the holding complex. They have reported, however, that the warrior appeared injured and near death, collapsing even before it was sedated."
"This is very good news; perhaps we will be able to question this warrior on his race," suggested the Romulan woman with an almost animated face.
"I agree, proconsul," Kira returned distractedly, but with excitement creeping tentatively into her voice, "this could be a big step in turning the power. Hedal, I want you to make sure nothing happens to either harm the captive in any way, or to allow him to escape."
"I will let my men know now, Kira."
"I do not believe what I am hearing!" was Martok's only reply. "First we make deals with Romulans and Cardassians, and now we nurture an enemy's wounded young? Kahless! Has the galaxy gone mad? Where is our honor?"
"There is great honor in strategy," Worf protested.
"The honor would be in slaughtering this beast as his people do us!" the agitated Klingon roared.
"Think, sir, what honor there will be in using this one weakling to destroy an entire armym" persuaded Kira with a hungry smile.
Martok glared at her, before nodding ascent with his ridged forehead. "You are right, Captain. There will be great honor in our next battle."
Kira smiled grimly, before frowning in concentration. "I would like to make a request of the assembly, if I may." All eyes focused on the Bajoran woman, and Ezri marveled at the way she seemed to grow beneath the attention. She had been right earlier. When she was in this position, Kira was The Captain. If Ezri hadn't known her so well, she would not have recognized Kira Nerys in the powerful form. "I would like to use the Defiant to transport the prisoner back to DS9. I would request a convoy of any who wish to participate. And I would like to do it 6 hours from now."
Although many whispers were exchanged, there was no outcry, objection, or questioning as there had been for other speakers. Somehow, the captain's mere presence went a long way in maintaining peace.
"We will call in our closest ships, Captain. I can guarantee 3 warbirds and a battalion of 6 smaller escorts will arrive within that time."
"Thank you, Proconsul. Worf?"
"The Chancellor and I can arrange three birds-of-Prey and a battlecruiser within 5 hours."
"We'll prime our runabouts, and the warships. How many do we have, Nog?"
"Currently 12 runabout class vessels, and 3 warships ready to go, sir. All fighting fit and waiting to fly." The Ferengi answered quickly, pride evident in his voice.
"Excellent. Security, Jaret?"
"27 security officers currently on the station," the Bolian man replied, "we can have most ready by that time."
Kira turned to the Romulan and Klingons carefully. "Would your warriors be willing to carry small Starfleet teams on your ships?"
"Our warbirds will welcome their presence."
"As will my men."
"Wonderful. We will reconvene in 6-hours. Thank you all for your cooperation. And Gul Hedal, please thank your missionaries for their exemplary actions beyond the call of duty."
"Thank you, Captain, I will."
"Then this Alliance Council is adjourned."
As the entire station was thrown into action, Kira found herself overwhelmed by movement and duty, gliding through orders on autopilot, until even the hails became indistinguishable as separate voices.
"Runabouts ready in ports 3 through 15."
"Ensign Tarees reporting for duty."
"Jaret to Security, I need�"
"All Fliers armed and ready to launch."
"Security teams 12 and 16 waiting for�"
"Kira to Dax, I need�"
"Lieutenant Commander Re'Alt reporting for duty."
"Commander Jacques to�"
"Nog to Engineering, I need�"
"Doctor Hinz reporting for duty."
"Dax to Kira�"
"Cretak to Kira; Romulan convoy is primed and ready."
"Martok to Kira; my warriors proclaim honor in this duty"
"Captain to Bro'Dign retrieval team."
"Captain to Bro'Dign retrieval team."
"Captain to Bro'Dign retrieval team - I thank you all for your prompt readiness. The flight we will be taking is strictly a prisoner transport operation. I hope, as I am sure you all do, that your assistance will not be necessary. I know many of you see hope for vengeance in this captive. I know many of you would like nothing more than to kill it as soon as we are close enough. But remember this as we travel to Cardassia Prime; this is a turning point. After today we will hopefully gather enough information to ensure victory the next time we fly into battle. Today is a day of glory. Today is a day of honor. And perhaps tomorrow we will be able to justify the loss of so many friends, family, lovers and comrades. May the Prophets smile on us this day. Chancellor Martok; Today is a good day to be alive."
Only in that moment when Ezri sat at her post, on the deck of the Defiant, did it really hit her. She was really back. It felt strange to look behind her and see Nog and Hinz manning Miles and Julian's old stations, and there were many other new faces she had never seen before. But she was back.
"Jacques, plot in a course for Mazaran City on Cardassia Prime," Kira told her commander, waiting patiently at the navigation console.
Ezri smiled, remembering the shock of excitement Jadzia felt when she had been in charge of piloting this amazing vessel. Her smile faded quickly as she realized that even the memory of flying left her feeling nauseous.
"Ready to go, sir."
"Then let's do this," Kira ordered, stepping down from her post until she stood at Jacques' shoulder. She stared intently at the view port and swallowed against the nervous excitement that welled in her throat.
As the fleet pulled away, a crowd watched eagerly from every window of DS9. No one had seen a swarm of ships so large and varied since the final Dominion attack. The hopes and prayers of three hundred men, women and children left behind went with them. Billions more shadowed silently, and would have screamed if they had known what was going on.
Ezri could hear Kira and Hedal talking behind her, and felt no guilt in eavesdropping on their conversation.
"I hope you see the irony in this situation," Kira commented dryly.
"Oh come on, Hedal. A fleet made up of Romulan, Klingon and Federation vessels traveling to Cardassia, under a treaty of peace? Sending food and supplies to your people because they can't take care of themselves, your main supplier lead by a Bajoran�"
"I'm still not seeing your point, Captain," Hedal replied, staring into the view screen; anywhere but the Bajoran woman's face.
Kira's voice may as well have been a scream when she spoke next. The force of her anger was evident in her snarl; a fist crushing his skull, a knife puncturing his chest. The outburst seemed out of character for Kira's new sense of duty, reaffirming Ezri's fears that the pressure she was under was becoming too much. She jumped as Kira spat her words out, her body shuddering involuntarily.
"You stupid bastard. Your people left Bajor helpless when you fled at the end of the Occupation. No means to be self-sustaining; happy to let our people starve and die. Nothing would have pleased you more than our entire civilization fading away; leaving you to conquer the dust left behind."
Hedal stared at her in surprise, and she smiled cruelly when he finally dropped his eyes.
"But we pulled ourselves back to our feet, didn't we?" she prompted him, out for the kill. "Didn't we, Hedal? We survived, because no matter how weak you thought we were, Bajorans are strong, proud people. And then you� Cardassia suffers our intended fate, and suddenly you're all victims. Suddenly Bajor is expected to pick you up and dust you off, and tell you it'll all be ok." Up until that point, Kira had held the deceptive smile on her face. Now it fell away; her mouth twisted and her eyes glistened with frustration and rage. "Don't you dare tell me you don't see how backwards this is, Hedal. Don't. You. Dare."
Ezri managed to find Kira in her console. She watched fists clench and unclench in rhythm to a wild jaw; a vibrating distortion, translucent against flashing lights and buttons. The silence was thick, loaded, and uncomfortable.
"You're right, Kira," Hedal conceded quietly. "You're very, very right."
"Captain, we will be in orbit of Cardassia Prime in 2.3 minutes."
"Thank you, Jacques. Jaret, any sign of the Bro'Dign out there?"
"Scanners are showing empty skies, sir."
"You mean, apart from the fifty or so vessels surrounding us?"
Kira smiled apologetically. "Sorry Jaret, nervous humor."
"I know how you feel, sir."
"Captain, Cretak and Martok are hailing us."
"Open a channel, Nog."
"Captain, it appears the Bro'Dign have maintained their silence today," the Romulan woman stated.
"So it would, proconsul."
"It is a shame," announced Martok with disappointment, "I have a whole barrel of Bloodwine left over from the celebration with me. 2350; a very good year."
"Save it, Martok, we may be in need of another celebration once this is over. It's time, people. Martok, Cretak; Commander Jacques is transmitting the coordinates of the stronghold now. Let's keep the security team large enough to intimidate the captive's brothers and sisters, but small enough to avoid tripping over each other. We'll see you down there. Kira out." The red haired woman was all action as she gestured around the bridge. "Hedal, Jaret, Hinz, Dax, Tarees; you're with me. The rest of you keep your eyes and ears open. The Bro'Dign may not realize we have one of theirs yet, but they could any moment now. Jacques; look after the ship while I'm gone."
"She'll be right here when you get back, Captain," the commander assured her with a fond smile.
"I hope so. Nog; beam us down."
Cardassia Prime looked just as bad as it had the last time she'd been there. Kira had hoped she wouldn't ever have to return. But there she was again; on the broken soil of an enemy she had been conceived to hate, and trained to destroy.
Thirty or so men and women of many races materialized with her, and were greeted by an equally motley crew of missionaries and soldiers � though the majority of the latter were Cardassian. Hedal immediately stepped forward for a hurried pretense of greetings and praises, before the questions began.
"What's the prisoner's status?" queried the captain.
"It hasn't moved since we sedated it. We aren't even sure if it's still alive," shrugged one unusually large Cardassian armed with a pulse rifle. His voiced suggested that the notion of their prisoner being dead pleased him.
Dr. Hinz seemed to take the Cardassian soldier's remark as a personal affront. "Why hasn't someone checked on it? Perhaps tried examining it for wounds, rather than knocking it out like a non-sentient beast?"
The warrior stepped forward, towering over the doctor with ease. If Hinz hadn't have been so self-assured, he may have had the sense to feel threatened. "Look, I don't know who you are, and I wouldn't give an Y'Arg to find out. If you wanna go poking and petting that thing, be my guest. The only reason it isn't dead already is because we were ordered not to kill it before we could gather a big enough audience."
"Kontai; you are out of line," growled Hedal.
Kira stepped into the group of men to dissipate rising tensions. "No, Gul Hedal, it's OK. Look, I understand how you feel, Kontai," the captain smiled, "but if we had let you kill it straight away, we may have missed an opportunity to take the rest of its race out with it."
There was great reluctance in the group to agree with Kira's logic. Finally, Kontai grunted and gestured with his weapon. "Follow me. It's this way."
The group followed the Cardassian closely across sandy hills strewn with metal and wire; the white of bones protruding through rubble here and there; although a strong, hot wind made it increasingly difficult to see anything. Kira became disoriented by the sheer desolation of the landscape, with every pile of debris looking like the last, and the sand beating into her face until she couldn't tell if they had walked for 10 minutes or 10 days.
Finally, however, Hedal stopped before her, and the line halted behind. Gathering enough energy to look up, Kira found herself face to face with a huge stone building, complete with turrets and decrepit defense systems littering its roof and the ground surrounding it.
"This is it?" she asked warily.
"Affirmative," Kontai replied, daring her to insult his methods while he was armed. "You can't bring everyone in here."
"We know. Martok, Dax, Jaret, Tarees, Hinz, and Hedal will be going in, as well as four Romulan and four Klingon soldiers." Kira looked around the group. "Is everyone happy with that?"
When no one objected, Kontai checked his weapon carefully, before leading them inside.
Once the doors had closed behind them with a crash, the team found themselves in a long hallway that was wide enough for three large Cardassian soldiers to have walked side-by-side. Kira stayed close to Kontai's back, with Ezri falling into step with her on one side, and the med/sci duo of Tarees and Hinz on the other.
"Guess this means we're not having dinner tonight?" Ezri whispered, leaning towards Kira in a conspiratorial fashion. Ezri had watched the woman become increasingly tense and edgy since the council, and her remark was intended to break through and distract her friend.
It worked, and Kira turned her head to smile a genuine smile at her. "Guess that morning run's out too. Gee, and I was looking forward to that."
"Oh no; how did you see through my elaborate deception?" Kira joked dryly.
The captain managed a low chuckle, and Ezri felt relief flood through her. Despite her hard outer shell, Kira Nerys still lay warm inside. Ezri stepped closer to her, and if Tarees and Hinz noticed, they didn't let it show.
The large group finally reached a corner in the long passageway, and Kontai stopped in front of a huge door covered with Cardassian symbols. Entering a long string of what Tarees recognized as numeric variables into a small console, the door whined open.
"It's Kontai. I have brought the retrieval team."
"Not bad," Tarees whispered to Kira, who paused for a moment at the sound of her voice, before giving a stiff nod.
Six heavily armed Cardassian soldiers stood guard around an ominous-looking metal tank. The only window was a small, round portal, through which Kira could see the neon orange skin of the Bro'Dign.
"How did they get it in there?" Tarees whispered, earning a glare from their Cardassian guide.
Kontai moved to a console so well hidden in the metal Tarees knew she could never have found it. Entering another long string of numbers, a hatch opened before them, and the Bro'Dign was finally visible. The sight caused a collective shiver to course through the room: a current of fear, excitement, hatred and anticipation.
Hinz moved through the hatch without hesitation, and Kira cursed his arrogance - not for the first time. "Hinz; don't be an idiot! Wait for security to get in there before you touch it� That's a direct order, Dr. Hinz."
Only upon hearing the threat in the Captain's voice did Hinz pause, consider, and step back. A pair each of Romulan and Klingon warriors ducked through the hatch with phasers at the ready. Once they had positioned themselves around the orange mass, Dr. Hinz moved forward and ran his medical tricorder over creature. Tarees took a deep breath before she joined them in the large cell.
"Status, Dr. Hinz?" inquired Kira with concern.
"The creature is alive, Captain, but only just," Hinz told her, waving around the tricorder and frowning a lot. "Cardiovascular function is poor; only two of three individual hearts operational - one showing extreme degradation of the ventricle walls. Punctured liver; arms and legs all showing multiple hairline fractures. It's Dipton ridge has been severed and� Look, I could go on, but the longer I tell you what's wrong the less chance I have to fix it. Ensign Tarees?"
"Neural stimulators in place, 4000 cc's of triducolerene, and the bastard's about as stable as it'll get."
"Good work, you two," Kira told them, although she frowned at the back of Hinz's head. "Thank you for leading us here, Kontai, and congratulations to all of you on the successful capture and containment of your prisoner. You can rest assured that your names will all be down in history's many annals once we've won this war," she added with a smile, and the Cardassian grunted at the platitude. "Nog, beam us straight to the infirmary."
As Dax felt the cold bite of the transporter in her veins, she couldn't help but wonder if they were doing the right thing.
(plug plug plug) � Continued in Willing To Fight: Take It As It Comes� (plug plug plug)