They made an interesting group, sitting on the hexagonal bridge of the alien ship, which had been built by a race called the Aelu. The instrument configuration was a bit awkward-after all, the Aelu did have eight fingers-but Garak and Dax managed to pilot the vessel away from DS9. Kira sat in the command chair with the Aelu merchant captain by her side. At the last minute, they had decided that at least one Aelu was needed as a mouthpiece, so that the Cardassians wouldn't become suspicious. The Aelu captain, a crystalline stick-like being with no facial expression to speak of, kept silent for now, knowing that Kira was in command. Dax was at the science station, Garak at the helm, and a Bajoran security officer at tactical, even though the ship's phasers were no match for a Cardassian Galor-class warship. One of O'Brien's Bajoran engineers monitored the engineering station, and two more Starfleet engineers kept in touch from the drive section below decks. Vedeks Sori and Tansa stood on the bridge conversing quietly with Jareth. The only one missing was the doctor.
Shortly after they passed the wormhole, the bridge doors squeaked open, and Julian strolled onto the bridge, shaking his head. "No Sickbay to speak of. What do you people do in an emergency?" This last was directed at the Aelu captain.
"Regenerate," the Aelu said in its whispery voice.
"Yes, I know. You regrow limbs like a starfish. It was a rhetorical question. Unfortunately, no one here has that ability."
"We'll keep the medical emergencies down to zero," Kira assured him.
"See that you do," Julian said, looking stern once again. Jareth and the others had to turn their faces away so he wouldn't see them trying not to laugh. "Well...in case anyone *does* get careless, I've commandeered one of the storage bays and set up a makeshift ward. Not very fancy, but it should get the job done." He stopped speaking and stood in the background, apparently content to watch.
"Garak, can we coax any more speed out of this ship?" Kira asked.
"Aelu vessels generally do not go above Warp Three, Major," the Cardassian answered. "In any case, we're not expected at the colony for thirteen hours."
"When we are or aren't expected at the colony is not the issue," Jareth broke in, sounding tense for the first time. "I suggest you find a way to get around that limitation."
"If Chief O'Brien were here, perhaps I could," Garak snapped.
"Don't bother me with excuses," the sorcerer said coldly.
"You're welcome to roll up your sleeves and do something instead of complaining," the Cardassian shot back.
"We've got the next best thing to the Chief-two of his best engineers," Kira said, effectively putting an end to the argument. "And we'll all have to make do with what we've got."
Jareth glanced around the bridge impatiently. "Who built this ship, anyway? It's hideous, cramped, completely confining-"
"My brother," the Aelu captain said, with a complete lack of affront-that they could perceive, anyway. "A Master Shipman."
"Tell him next time to consider aesthetics. Not to mention space," Jareth muttered, stalking off the bridge.
Julian smiled apologetically at the Aelu. "He's a little claustrophobic." He left the bridge in search of Jareth.
"At last," Garak muttered under his breath, "something we have in common."
"What was that, Garak?" Dax asked.
"I said, eight hours to the colony."
"That's what I thought you said." Dax's eyes twinkled.
Kira sighed and leaned forward. "Ensign Varo, let's do a little target practice before we reach Cardassian space. It never hurts to be prepared. Let's try a small asteroid for now."
"Aye, sir," the young Bajoran answered. "Scanning for an appropriate target."
Vedeks Sori and Tansa, unconcerned with the business of battle and defense, left the bridge quietly. Kira resigned herself to overseeing the routine exercises, to waiting...and to imagining everything that could go wrong. It was all very well to say that it was just a Cardassian science station they were raiding-justifiably-and that the Cardassian government couldn't really do anything against them because, after all, they weren't supposed to have the daj'zha, and it was bound to be a nice predicament once everyone learned they'd lied and risked an intergalactic incident over a minor artifact. But experience casts a long shadow, and Kira didn't like the shape of this one.
She looked over at Garak to see
what he was thinking, but the Cardassian remained as inscrutable as ever.
Jareth had set him off balance temporarily, though. Kira was secretly
pleased. At least Garak was as vulnerable as the rest of them, herself
especially, when it came to the sorcerer. Jareth was a hard one to
figure out...and that scene in the Replimat had made her more on guard.
Not that she had anything against same-sex relationships, but she was immediately
suspicious of his intentions toward Julian. The doctor was a passionate
man, as their Zanthi-fever-induced and never-to-be-repeated romantic episode
at last year's Gratitude Festival had proved, but she'd never imagined
him with someone like Jareth. He was ten times as arrogant as Julian
had been when she'd first met him. Maybe that was the attraction,
she thought wryly. But he had also aroused her sympathy...on the
other hand, his domineering attitude wasn't something she took kindly to.
They were undertaking this trip for *his* benefit, too, and she didn't
particularly care that he was uncomfortable. She hoped it lasted
the entire trip.
"Please, whatever deity I have offended, just let this trip be over," Jareth prayed, pressing his back against the unforgivingly cold metal wall of this steel cage the Aelu called a ship. He'd been on sailing vessels before, centuries ago, and he'd enjoyed it, but this, this was excruciating, no breeze, no sun, just the blackness of space mocking him behind the metal wall. <All your fault, Jareth. You could have defied that damned energy, then conjured yourself, and them, to the colony at any time, but no, you just had to do this the hard way, to gain their trust, as if it mattered...just to impress the man you happen to have balled last night...God, I'll go mad...>
"Jareth! What's wrong?" Julian's firm, concerned voice penetrated his self-pity, but only for an instant. He went right back to sweating, silently cursing, and pressing his back even harder against the wall. No one could help him, and he would kill anyone who tried.
Stern hands grabbed him and pulled him away from his only support. Julian got in his face and spoke sharply to him. "I asked you a question. What's wrong? I told the Aelu you were claustrophobic. Is that it? Or are you space-sick? Or is the inhibitor not working? I can help you, but you've got to tell me."
"Leave me alone!" With the force of his powers and his hands, Jareth hurled Julian away from him. Hurtling backward, the doctor hooked his hand onto a low-hanging support beam and steadied himself with his superb reflexes. Breathing hard, Julian slowly let go of the beam and stalked Jareth with an almost fanatical determination.
"I can sedate you," Julian said evenly. "For the remainder of the trip, if possible."
"You will not." The words were forceful. Jareth's defenses were at their full strength, even as he wanted to crawl away in humiliation.
"Oh, yes, I will." The voice was filled with equal force, but it never went above its even tone. "Go ahead, throw me across the corridor again. I can survive it. You, on the other hand, can't even bear to admit what's wrong with you. Offhand, I'd say I have the advantage."
<Damn, he's good.> Jareth's admiration for the man doubled. <How can he stand to see me like this?> He did what came naturally. He used his words to push Julian away. "Does my suffering excite you, *Doctor?* Just because you happen to be bored on this trip-"
"Finally, you admit you're in pain. As if I couldn't guess it from the way you have your face squinched up and your back permanently attached to that wall."
"How do you people live like this?" Jareth raged, separating himself from the metal's embrace. He paced the corridor, but only so far. "In these metal boxes...even on that cold station of yours. Limited-"
"If you ask me, you're the one who's feeling limited," Julian said. "It's not the ship, it's having to live like an ordinary mortal and work with others. Kira's in command, you're not. You feel helpless. Depending on others is something you hate, and right now someone else is taking over the task you've struggled with for so long. You were in control on the station, you were master of your realm-"
"I didn't hear you complaining last night in bed," said Jareth deliberately. "You like being dominated, don't you, Julian? All day, you play God in your infirmary, and probably in your love-life, too, at least until I came along. You secretly wish for someone to exert his will over you."
"No less than you do." The young man's lips quivered as the admission left them. "In the Infirmary, you had someone telling you what to do. For once you could lay down your arms, and that was the greatest blessing you've had in a long time. Up until now, no one has truly challenged you or gone up against you as an equal, with the exception of a teenage girl and Hoggle. You've never let your weaknesses show, and that becomes a flaw in itself. You fear depending on someone else, letting them see you at your most vulnerable...that is, when it's not planned, when you're not trying to seduce someone. What was it you said? 'I will demand everything you have and I will give myself wholly to you in return. We both have been running from ourselves forever. Perhaps it's time we stopped...and helped each other to truly become who we are.'"
Jareth didn't bother to conceal his dismay. It seemed everyone today was taunting him with his own smoothly crafted phrases. "I meant every word, Julian."
"When I was the one doing the running."
"Aren't you still? Have you told anyone about-"
"You also said *that* was up to me."
"So I did." Jareth sighed. "I'm sorry, love." The words were impulsive and badly spoken, but he wasn't accustomed to apologizing. From the surprised appreciation in Julian's eyes, he actually hadn't bungled it. "I just...hate being weak, and having everyone know I'm weak. I hate this ship and my own inability to even do a simple teleportation because of that blasted energy creature, or whatever it is. Most of all, I hate the worry. No, strike that. Most of all, I hate myself for lashing out at you, because it's what I usually do and I'd promised myself I would try to change, that *this* relationship would be different, and you're the only person who gives a damn about me-"
Julian did what he had to do to stop the tortured rambling. He kissed Jareth, replacing inadequate words with warm, expressive, giving lips. Jareth's arms went around Julian and clung to him with a gratitude and need that went beyond one moment of weakness, creating an embrace that was in many ways more intimate than anything they'd done last night.
"What did you do that for?" Jareth panted when they finally disentangled.
"To shut you up," Julian said. "And to pay you back for that public display in the Replimat."
Jareth burst out laughing and felt his tension seep away with his breath. Not quite gone, but it no longer had power over him. <You have no power over me.> He laughed harder until tears washed away the perspiration. "Ah, Gods, Julian, you really are more devious than I thought." Still laughing, he hugged the young man tightly. "Just don't sedate me when my back is turned. I can only take so much cunning."
"Behave, and I won't have to," Julian said lightly. "By the way...you're forgiven. I said I'd put up with your warts, and I meant it. I still do. Now, are you sure you don't need a tranquilizer, or anything for space sickness?"
"What I need is to occupy my mind. Perhaps the Vedeks-"
Sori and Tansa chose that moment to appear. Jareth quickly released Julian and smiled. "We were just talking about you."
"Indeed?" Vedek Sori was deadpan. She hadn't missed the embrace, and rumors about the doctor and the sorcerer were already circulating.
"Yes. There are some aspects of the daj'zha's powers that I don't quite understand." The daj'zha appeared in Jareth's hand, as usual. He hadn't let it out of his sight-much to the Vedeks' dismay. "Perhaps now is a good time to clear up those questions."
Vedek Sori reached out her palm. "For that, I will need to use the daj'zha."
Jareth let the daj'zha float to her. Surprised, she palmed the object. "One of those storage bays should be the perfect place. Come." He led the way down the corridor. Vedek Sori followed, as correct and precise as ever.
Vedek Tansa played the laggard and showed fatherly concern as he spoke to Julian. "Is he all right? He's not ill, is he?"
"He'll be fine now. It was some sort of mild panic attack. I'll be monitoring him. Nothing to worry about."
Reassured, the Vedek went after his comrade. Julian returned to the bridge and updated Kira, repeating the words he'd spoken to the Vedek. Then, he turned to the Aelu captain. "His Majesty sends his apologies."
"No import," the Aelu said succinctly.
"He ought to be down on his knees apologizing," Garak muttered. "The man has raised being overbearing to an art form."
"He's easier to take than Cardassians," Kira said, shooting Garak a warning look.
"I'll remember you said that." Garak bent over his console.
There seemed to be little for Julian to do, and he addressed the Aelu captain. "I don't suppose you have a mess hall, and replicators programmed with raktajino?"
"Down the corridor," the Aelu answered. "Near the engine room."
"Anyone else up for a raktajino?" Julian asked. Everybody answered in the negative. "Then perhaps I could bring one back?"
"I wouldn't mind one later on," Dax answered. "You can bring it when you relieve me."
"Anything to be of service." Determined to relax for the moment, Julian walked off the bridge with a jaunty spring in his step.
Garak concentrated on his console with the mental discipline a lifetime of Cardassian education bestows. Today, however, he felt restless, and two hours later he started to fidget in his chair, which was too narrow for his broad, muscular frame. He tried to think about something pleasant...like killing Dukat. But at the moment when he was about to deliver the fatal blow, by knife or phaser, Jareth's smooth face replaced Dukat's scaly ridged one, and the wave of antagonism that clouded Garak's brain prevented him from seeing the medium-size asteroid that the ship's phasers had failed to destroy...and that was now firmly in the ship's path.
"Garak!" Kira snapped. "Evasive maneuvers!"
Too late, Garak recovered and made a course correction. The ship shuddered as it came in close contact with the asteroid. For once the Aelu displayed some emotion, shrieking loudly. Another asteroid hurtled at them, and Ensign Varo shattered it into debris with two well-aimed shots. Garak mechanically programmed the next heading into the computer.
Kira's hand clamped down on his shoulder. "You're damn lucky that wasn't a Galor-class warship," she hissed in his ear. "I don't know what your problem is, but fix it. That's an order."
"I believe I need a cup of coffee," Garak said, shrugging her hand off and rising to his feet. Kira glared at him with a look that said he needed a good thrashing instead of coffee.
Dax vacated the science station and took over the helm. "There's nothing interesting to analyze. I'll take a turn at the helm."
"My thanks, Commander." Garak
bowed and hastily left the bridge. Kira stalked back to her chair
and praised the Prophets Garak had left when he did. Dax watched
her with a hidden smile, and Ensign Varo kept his eyes on his console.
The Aelu captain sighed, longing to have these peculiar beings off
her bridge...especially the strange human and the Cardassian.
Garak hated cramped spaces. In that, he did agree with Jareth-the ship was too damn confining, especially with them both on board. The mess hall seemed his only refuge from his failure and his anger.
Seeing Julian sitting so placidly, drinking coffee and reading a PADD, in the middle of the utilitarian, cheerless mess hall did nothing to improve Garak's disposition. The human acted as if he hadn't a care in the universe. Garak was tempted to leave him sitting alone, but his restlessness cried out for some diversion. He went to the replicator and ordered a coffee, then casually sat down opposite Julian, who looked up with his usual affable expression. "Hello, stranger."
<That's all I'll ever be to you, isn't it?> "For someone who's risking his life at the whims of the Bajorans and a megalomaniac, you are certainly in a cheerful mood."
"Come on, Garak, what are the Cardassians going to do to us? You know they can't risk looking foolish. If they're wise, they'll let us leave with the daj'zha rather than become the target of Federation and Bajoran condemnation."
"You don't know my people the way I do. If they've kept the daj'zha for sixty years, it has to be important to them. Despite what the good Major thinks, we don't keep trophies for the mere sake of having them."
"In Earth's Second World War, the Germans kept all kinds of items stolen from the Jews they enslaved and massacred. Whole suitcases of clothing, family heirlooms, jewelry, things the Germans didn't need-"
"Yes, well, no wonder the Germans lost the war, if they were concerned with such petty trifles. This case is vastly different, Doctor, and you would do well not to make absurd comparisons between your history and ours. You would also do well to stop sitting there so placidly and instead prepare for casualties. No Cardassian science station is without a full complement of soldiers, and in their eyes this unannounced visit of ours will not merely be a recovery mission."
"If your government had told the truth in the first place, we wouldn't need to use cloak and dagger tactics."
"Try telling that to a Cardassian guard with a disruptor aimed at your chest."
"I intend to," Julian said with indignation. "I'll also give whoever will listen an earful about how they're endangering an innocent people with their deception."
Garak snorted. "And they call me arrogant."
"What in heavens' name is the matter with you? Only yesterday, you were eager to take on this mission. You actually liked the idea of striking a covert blow against the Cardassian government. And now, you're full of doom and gloom predictions."
"Forgive me for not being as heedless and ready for adventure as you. I'm simply worried about our lives, and therefore not in the mood to listen to your naïve prattle and take orders from an insufferable dictator."
"Look, Garak, it's obvious your quarrel is with Jareth-"
"Brilliant deduction, Doctor. He's pompous, impatient, selfish-"
"The man is terrified of his world being destroyed! It's the only thing he has and he's in danger of losing it. You of all people should understand that."
"You'll pardon me if, unlike you, I haven't been utterly swayed by his obvious charms and cloying, calculated pleas for sympathy." The corded muscles on Garak's neck were rigid, and if he'd had a hood like a spectacled cobra's it would have been raised ominously by now as the prelude to a strike. "Your blind trust becomes tiresome. Don't you realize he's leading us all down a merry path to destruction?"
"I happen to be a good judge of character," Julian snapped, stung with doubt nevertheless. "And I say give him the courtesy of finding him innocent until proven guilty. Oh, I forgot. On Cardassia, everyone is automatically guilty."
"Doctor, to be blunt, I don't have much faith in your judgment," said Garak coldly. "Not after witnessing that touching scene in the Replimat this afternoon. And you can be sure that everyone who watched you two publicly paw each other will be quick to point the finger at you if something goes wrong."
"Including you?" It was a swift, angry comeback, born of embarrassment and confusion.
"I, at least, haven't fallen for a pretty face." <Or at least, not the dictator's.> "It's your Achilles' heel, and it will be your undoing. He's lied to you from the moment he came on board the station."
"And you haven't?" Julian rose with his empty cup and walked slowly to the replicator. He turned his proud back on Garak. "I can think of a dozen instances where you told less than the truth when we needed it all, or schemed behind our backs. There's an old saying on Earth. 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'"
"Julian, he tried to sell you to me!"
The doctor froze, then pivoted with perfect deliberation to face Garak, who prowled toward him with the swiftness and surety of a great predator. Dozens of responses flooded through his mind, chief among them 'Say that again,' but the taunt that made it past his lips was, "Jealous, Garak?"
He had no earthly idea why he'd said it. It sounded petty, it sounded ridiculous, it sounded defiant. It was the culmination of his secret frustrations over the past three years.
And it was just the provocation Garak had subconsciously longed for.
He came at Julian and inexorably pushed the doctor against the bulkhead, sending the cup flying out of the doctor's hand. Julian couldn't have avoided the charge even if he had seen it coming. Momentum combined with anger and passion made a powerful force that knocked the breath out of Julian's slim body. Before Julian could protest or even breathe again, Garak's hard grey lips landed on his with a ferocity that made Julian feel like fainting. If he'd had little air before, he had none now, and his mouth opened in a futile attempt to swallow some of Garak's at least. The slick tongue invaded and plundered the pliant softness. Julian squirmed, partly against the crushing bear hug the Cardassian was giving him, and partly against his own dark desires. He tried to knee Garak, but the Cardassian trapped the slender leg between both his muscular ones. The sensuous, full mouth mastered his, giving him no space for rational thought. Julian felt like he was hyperventilating. The intensive shock and lack of oxygen left him functioning on pure instinct...and that instinct made him return the kiss with everything he had. Garak growled in satisfaction and ground his hips against Julian's, letting the young man feel how aroused he was by their conflict and by the embrace. Julian felt his own blood stir, and he was perilously close to arousal himself. His body operated without any interference from his mind, and it was as though his mind, fighting free, left his body and gave him an aerial view of what he was engaged in. He saw himself being mauled by Garak, and doing some mauling of his own. He saw himself flattened against the bulkhead, sweating, just as Jareth had been...
The guilt was like electroshock therapy. Julian dug his fingernails with sharp precision into one of the more sensitive folds under Garak's neck scales. The Cardassian's grunt of pleasure became a roar of pain, and he released Julian immediately. The doctor darted across the room and straightened his tellingly wrinkled uniform. Garak's gaze shot sapphire flames at Julian from afar.
"There's definitely hope for you yet, Doctor." The familiar compliment became a barb. "You have mastered the art of inflicting pain."
"You forget, I know all your pressure points," Julian said unsteadily, still reeling from the revelation of Garak's desire...and from his own self-loathing. "I'm sorry-"
"I don't think you're 'sorry' at all," Garak said chillingly. "Spare me your human notions of remorse. You're nothing more than a slut. I've done my best to accommodate your ridiculous standards of honor and friendship and respect for sexual preference, when I should have just done what we both want. It's not as if you deserve any courtesy, after all. I wonder, what would your lover say if he walked in and saw the oh-so-fetching picture you make now, so anguished, and with your lips still swollen from my kiss, your body still rigid with desire for me? What would you say?"
"That I made a mistake," Julian said evenly, wanting nothing more than to crawl out the nearest airlock. "It's been known to happen. And that I *won't* make it again. Ever."
"We'll see about that," Garak said. <How unoriginal, Elim. But it's the truth.>
"You might have caught me flat-footed now," continued Julian, recovering the battle instinct. "Because I've been waiting three years for it to happen, and I thought it never would. And all I can say is, why now? Why not when I was seeing Melora, or dating Elizabeth, or chasing after Dax?"
"I told you, out of respect for what I thought was your sexual preference-"
"Don't insult my intelligence-"
"There isn't much to insult, now is there?"
"Respecting my sexual preference indeed." Julian was fully on the offensive. "You are not the first man I've wanted, and anyway, humans stopped categorizing themselves so rigidly centuries ago. You just used that as an excuse. The master of lies did the best job of all fooling himself, because he was too frightened and too insecure to face the truth and take his chances. You always act so confident, as if you know what you want and the rest of us don't. The shoe's on the other foot now. I'm the one who's willing to go after what I want, and *you* are the one who's afraid to make a move for fear of looking foolish. And you do look foolish, telling me that blatant lie about the man I love. It was a lie, wasn't it?"
"Of course it was," Garak said in a dead, emotionless tone as he retreated toward the door and away from Julian, whose words inflamed him further. Anger and desire were such close counterparts. But right now, he didn't want to see the human's face again until they reached Vedanta Four. "I am the master of lies, and you'd do well not to trust me again. Or have lunch with me, or save my life again. Ever."
"That might be the best idea," Julian muttered, knowing in his heart he'd probably repent, but giving no indication that he was anything other than outraged by Garak's behavior. But he couldn't end the argument like that. "At least until we both cool down."
Garak didn't appear to have heard this last attempt at reconciliation. "On your own head be it." If the Cardassian had had a wooden door to slam, he probably would have used it for maximum dramatic effect. As it was, the quiet closing hiss of the metal doors rattled Julian enough. Stumbling, he spotted the cup on the floor, picked it up, and went over to the replicator to get himself a soothing cup of tea. Coffee would just aggravate his adrenaline levels. He clumsily curled his hand around the steaming cup and made his way back to his table. It was like slogging through a swamp, and when he slumped in his chair, he felt totally drained by the effort. Out of habit, he forced himself to sit up straight and raised the cup to his mouth. He drank greedily and let the psychological panacea of tea sweep away the remorse, the anger, the last vestiges of desire, because that was all it was...he didn't love Garak...but then, maybe he didn't love Jareth either. Or perhaps...he loved both. It was entirely possible. He tried to focus on the mission, the daj'zha, anything but his own heart in conflict with itself...but all that came to mind were the lovelorn lines of an old ballad:
"Torn between two lovers,
Feeling like a fool,
Loving both of you
Is breaking all the rules,
Torn between two lovers,
Feeling like a fool,
Loving you both
Is breaking all the rules."
<Oh, pull yourself together, Jules. You're acting like a character in a...what did they call them centuries ago? Soap opera? You are a Starfleet officer, and this is no time to dwell on your personal angst.>
Jareth chose that moment to waltz into the mess hall. "Hello, stranger."
Julian buried his head in his
arms with a groan. "Allah help me."
"Julian." Jareth's voice was firm, but alarmed. "Julian!" One didn't need to be a genius to know something had gone horribly awry...especially when one had nearly been thrown against the bulkhead by a Cardassian lumbering past you with a gait that should have reduced the floor to scrap metal. Garak's hostility was going to be more of an obstacle than he'd first thought, and it was his own fault. He knew from studying the database entries on Cardassians that they were masters of belligerent behavior, but this went beyond racial or personal traits. No, scratch that, it most definitely *was* personal. Garak had finally woken up and smelled the coffee, as the human saying went. He'd finally realized that he wasn't going to be the first sophisticated, more experienced man to seduce Julian, that his innocent protégé wasn't just someone he could freely lust after in private, playing his sick, slick, secret flirtation games, and that being an exile didn't automatically give him the right to live his life in fear and emotional timidity and cunning, blaming others for his own unwillingness to change the status quo. If Jareth hadn't come along, Garak would *still* be hemming trousers on that wretched station without anything to look forward to. It was intriguing to watch Garak come to this knowledge at last...
Unfortunately, it also introduced a new wrinkle, one that Jareth feared tripping over. Not only during the mission, but during his (he hoped) long and happy relationship with Julian. Once Garak was again enthroned in the Cardassian stronghold of power--or back aboard the station hemming trousers and licking wounds--he could easily expose and betray Jareth.
Jareth swiftly decided he would have to indirectly hurt Julian by 'exposing' his so-called 'friend' first. Telling Julian flat out would never work-the young man was far too loyal to believe him. Witnessing Garak's treachery would cause him great heartache, but Jareth would be there to pick up the pieces. Julian would survive the knowledge that his friend had been using him. As for the rest of DS9's cozy little family, they didn't quite have as strong an attachment to the tailor as their doctor did. Kira clearly despised Garak, and Miles O'Brien had amply expressed his unfriendly feelings about the 'Cardie.' Sisko most likely doubted Garak's loyalties, but found him useful on occasion, particularly when Sisko's precious Starfleet regulations and principles needed to be bent a little.
Quark...The Ferengi would lean whichever way the wind blew, as long as it blew latinum into his lap. Odo...well, Jareth had gleaned bits of information and learned the shapeshifter himself was an outcast, an exile, so he did have a certain commonality with Garak. But Odo also valued law and order, and he was quite rigid in his principles. Dax was more accepting, but she was Julian's friend and would turn against anyone who hurt him-as would Kira and O'Brien.
Garak would end up causing Julian severe emotional distress, just because of who and what he was. Jareth knew Garak's type. He *was* Garak's type. Like Machiavelli, they both believed people in power should be feared rather than loved. In time Garak would blame Julian for his own weakness, if he didn't already. Garak might no longer fit neatly into Cardassian society, but he would never fit into the Federation's either. And in the event of another war-which would happen since both societies were unerringly convinced their way was right and should rule the galaxy-Garak would be a liability to the young officer, human (and Bajoran) prejudice being what it was. These humans talked of being enlightened, but there had been hatred and strife since the world began, and every people had its prejudices. Oh, Julian would defend Garak with everything he possessed, but love does not conquer all. The officer had principles, a dedication to duty, a career, a brilliant future, and could he really abandon that for one Cardassian? <Or for you...> He brushed the thought aside. No question, Garak had to be dealt with. Shame to sacrifice Julian's friendship with the Cardassian, but there it was. At least he, Jareth, would be there for Julian, all the way. Forever.
Tenderly, Jareth stroked the back of Julian's neck. "My love?" He tried for humor. "Don't tell me you're feeling claustrophobic."
Julian lifted his head and gave him a 'bugger off' glare. "I'm not phobic at all. Or space-sick. If this is some kind of revenge for my nagging-"
"Nonsense." Jareth went to the replicator and ordered a coffee. He'd tried the raktajino the station denizens adored and had been unimpressed. He returned to sit opposite Julian and observe the young man over the rim of his coffee cup. He smiled, remembering how Julian had looked that morning across the breakfast table, munching a freshly baked scone and sipping tea while talking animatedly. It would not be the last time he would see that appealing sight, whether it was on DS9 or in the Labyrinth.
"What are you looking so chipper about?" Julian said petulantly.
"My, we're suddenly cross. You must have caught it from Garak."
"Just had to lord it over him, didn't we?" Julian mocked what he saw as condescension. "You're lucky Kira was there. But don't push your luck. One more crack of your whip and she'll arrange to jettison you like hazardous waste."
"I have already tendered my apologies to the good Major, the Aelu captain, and even your boorish friend."
"Lovely." Julian snorted. "That's the last thing he wanted. Salt in his wounds. While you're at it, why don't you publicly paw me again, on the bridge while you're at it, and enrage him completely?"
"'Paw you'? You're still upset about that chaste peck on the station? Correct me if I'm wrong, but you weren't passively enduring my attentions."
"It should never have happened," Julian said primly.
Jareth's face was shielded. "You're ashamed of being seen in public with me, outside of your infirmary and your commander's office? Of letting it be known that we're lovers? Please do give me a schedule of when I'm not likely to be an inconvenience in your life. No wonder Garak never got anywhere with you."
"Is this how it's going to be? I make a simple request that we both refrain from behavior that would get me reprimanded like a first-year-cadet, and you cut me down? I'm a professional. All right, maybe I haven't exactly been acting like one lately. I got caught up in the moment, and God knows, I probably will again." Julian sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. "I'm a mess."
"I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Oh, and now you blame me? Who woke who up twice, panting, 'I have to have you now?' And who keeps drinking more coffee than he should?"
Julian flushed but didn't deny the charges. "This is ridiculous. Do you realize how petty we're sounding? The way we're squabbling?"
Jareth's facial expression was wry. "It's as if we were married."
"How do we go from bickering to closeness to hugging to sniping at each other again within just a few hours?"
"Don't forget you psychoanalyzing me."
"Some of your analysis would shame a professional." Julian sighed. "Is it my turn to apologize? No, don't answer. I'm sorry. It wasn't you that set me off. It was Garak. You were right about that, too. He...made a pass at me. Obviously unsuccessful. And he tried to turn me against you by saying--of all things--that you tried to sell me to him. And I couldn't believe he'd tell such a spiteful lie."
"Aren't you going to ask if it's true?" Jareth regarded him gravely.
"Should I?" The question was ingenuous. "If you wanted me for yourself, then why would you offer to sell me to him? As some sort of secret deal? And what would you hope to gain? It just doesn't make sense."
"He was simply jealous, love." Jareth's eyes softened around the edges.
"That's exactly what I said. I also said he was a coward, hiding behind 'I respected your sexual preference' and making me wait three years for so much as a sign that he...God, I know we're the products of different cultures, but *some* things are universal. At least you had the balls to say you thought I had a gorgeous body, and to admit to the chemistry between us."
"Know you have," Jareth corrected with the trace of a smile that flickered out of existence. "Julian...I have no desire to ruin your friendship with Garak. But I have even less desire to be second-best in your affections." A haughty grin tugged the corners of his lips. "I told you from the outset that I want it all. It may not be fair, but that's how it is."
Knowing what Jareth was trying to say, Julian took both the gloved hands in his. "Elim had his chance."
"Elim?" Jareth raised an eyebrow.
"His first name. I found out indirectly. I never let on I knew. I figured, if he'd wanted me to use it, he'd have told it to me. Do you know, today was the first time he's ever called me anything but 'Doctor'? After three years?"
"That certainly doesn't indicate intimacy beyond harmless lunches, or intellectual games, or Cardassian-style flirting, or saving his life. He's kept you at a distance while fantasizing about you, just to pass the time, and until today, you were comfortable being where he put you."
Julian flushed. "I suppose I was. But I'm not going to stay there, or in the box where he keeps his past and his secret fantasies. Our friendship survived me nearly killing him when I performed surgery. It will weather this too. He'll have to get used to us being together, and come to terms with the chance he missed. If he can't, I'll miss him, but I hope in time we'll regain what we had. The only constant, in relationships or anything else, is change."
Jareth's face relaxed into a genuine smile. Julian had made his position clear, with maturity, compassion, and wisdom. No need to feel any guilt...as if he were troubled by any sort of remorse over whether or not Garak was smart enough to know when he was lucky. Jareth was letting him off easy...and so was his soft but resilient Julian. He impulsively raised his coffee cup and clinked it against Julian's teacup. "To change...and the future. And us."
Partly reclining in his chair, Julian felt euphoria erode his weariness. He felt vibrant, decisive, confident. And joyful. "To us. And the future relations between Bajor, the Federation, and the Labyrinth."
"As long as I'm not required to join the Federation. I could be quite content dealing with Bajor, and selected representatives from Earth."
"Why limit yourself to just them? Give the Federation a chance. Just think of the cultural exchange. You don't have to give away all your secrets, and anyway, not everybody will react the same way to your world. Different cultures, different ideas. I can see that you don't want it becoming a vacation spot, but there is a happy medium between total protectionism and running a tourist attraction."
"I have the feeling I'm going to need your vast reserve of charm to keep me from neglecting that happy medium. How long does your liaison assignment last?"
"You heard Captain Sisko. During our dialogue at least, and after that, who knows?"
Jareth's eyes kindled into flame. "Wonderful. To truly represent my interests as well as your Federation's, you'll need to develop an intimate knowledge of my world and my people."
"I can't wait to begin." Julian meant it.
"Does your Starfleet give you shore leave?"
"I've accumulated overdue leave time-about two months, I'd say. Jadzia has been hinting I should take a vacation."
"Hinting? I'm surprised she didn't forcibly put you on the next transport to a lush paradise." They shared a chuckle. "Soon this mission will be behind us. When we return, what would you say to mixing business with pleasure and spending a few weeks-if not longer-in my realm? I have so much to show you."
"I think the station can get along without me for a while." Sisko would approve, he felt certain. Jareth's suggestion was a marvelous one. It had been forever since he'd spent more than a day just relaxing. True, he'd be attending to business, probably making regular reports to Sisko, but he was an explorer, and roaming through an entire world was never work to him. He'd have the freedom to immerse himself in the day-to-day life of Jareth's world. He could just close his eyes now and envision himself wandering on a voyage of discovery, without any medical emergencies or battles or missions to divert him from what, after all, he had entered Starfleet to do. He quivered with delight at the thought of not being interrupted in the middle of the night by the insistent chime that signalled an injury, a plague, a death. A few weeks, or even longer. That wasn't much to ask, was it? Days of exploring, just lying around, catching up on literature-none of it medical-he'd been meaning to read, even sleeping late if he felt like it. And best of all, being with Jareth, letting this closeness grow and blossom, learning about each other, talking, solidifying their relationship, taking walks, making love endlessly and whenever they felt the need, showing their affection and not having to worry about the curious eyes on the station. "I'd love to," he said, allowing his eyes to convey all his dreams, not just for their promised vacation together, but for the future.
Jareth squeezed Julian's hand
and offered up a silent paean of thanks to whatever gods he had somehow
managed to please. "Then it's settled. But there is one condition.
When you're in my realm, you'll allow yourself to be pampered and throw
spit-and-polish discipline to the winds. Which means I do not want
to see you in that horrid uniform at any time." He winked outrageously.
"In fact, the less you wear, the better."
Julian tried not to blush. "Fine with me. And will you please keep the gloves off as much as possible? You have the most exquisite hands."
Jareth laughed softly. "Fair enough." He was already looking forward to putting those hands to pleasurable uses. Even now, he fought the impulse to let them roam freely over the responsive body across the table. He had a more than vigorous libido, and even in the middle of this mission, he found himself distracted by lusty memories of making love with Julian. Last night had been everything he'd dreamed of, and he planned to spend many more such nights with his paramour. In the past, he had tired easily of his lovers, both male and female. He had hungered after new, greater, more decadent and intense sensations, but each 'high' had quickly become stale and ephemeral. Each meaningless affair filled a temporary void but was soon forgotten. He wondered if Julian had come to the same conclusion about his own life. Except for his one-night Gratitude Festival tryst with Major Kira (this amused Jareth no end, since there was never a more unlikely couple), his unrequited love for Jadzia Dax, and his abortive cerebral affair with the cold Elaine, the young man hadn't spoken much about his past amours-oh, he had talked about the two men he'd been with, and then only enough to pique Jareth's curiosity. He craved the details of Julian's life, not merely romantic, but everything, and he wanted to share his own life. Julian was easy to talk to-and that was something he'd never experienced before, actually wanting to spend time with a lover just exchanging thoughts and feelings, having a confidant, and even taking pleasure in differing opinions. Remembering the way Julian argued so zealously, he smiled. That ardor permeated everything the young man did, and he wanted to keep that intensity directed his way-in bed and out-for a long, long time. No, he would not tire of being with Julian anytime soon...or perhaps ever.
Giddiness filled his head, but it didn't feel quite so euphoric this time. In fact, vertigo swiftly became a merciless and toxic companion.
"Are you all right?" Julian looked extremely concerned
"No," Jareth managed to say calmly. "The inhibitor-"
Julian jumped up and helped Jareth to his feet. He'd noticed Jareth's head sway like a flower tossed in the wind, seen the eyes dilate and the breathing become shallow. The sorcerer was in the early throes of another seizure. "Let me get you to sickbay-or what passes for it, anyway. I'm beginning to think that earlier episode wasn't just an anxiety attack. Maybe now that we're getting closer to the second daj'zha-"
"I'm not interested in your theories, or your sickbay." Jareth tried to breathe freely, to swallow, to function normally. His throat and mouth were dry. All the moisture had fled from his body. "My world is dying. The energies have shattered my defenses-both in the Labyrinth and here. Even your force-field generator couldn't contain the energies. Damn this ship! I need to be at that colony. Now!"
Julian tapped his comm badge. "Bashir to Kira. How long until we reach the colony?"
"Two hours, ten minutes," Kira's voice answered promptly. "What's wrong?"
"Jareth is having another attack. A severe one. He says his defenses have failed-" Julian broke off as Jareth suddenly vanished, then slowly reappeared with a snarl of astonished rage.
"I tried," Jareth said in a tone so emotionless it was alarming. "I can't even enter my own kingdom, much less make this bucket of scrap metal go faster. I can, however, conjure one of your crew into space if you don't do something!"
"Threats won't make the ship arrive at the colony any sooner." Julian kept his voice low so the communicator wouldn't pick it up. "Maybe the Aelu can coax some more speed out of the ship, but that's all we can do."
"Kira to Bashir. What's happening?"
"Major, is there any way at all
we can hurry this ship along?
On the bridge, Kira silenced the audio and turned to the Aelu captain. "Well, can we?"
"I've already tried to increase the engine efficiency," Garak said. "Some quirk of the design, and an elaborate one at that, hampered my efforts."
"All power goes to storage bay," the Aelu captain said. "To cryo-units. Akah needs to be chilled for Cardassians."
"What is akah?" Dax asked.
"Akah is a special substance," Garak said, being deliberately vague. "Desperately needed by Cardassian science stations."
"Scientists enjoy akah," the Aelu said. "Strong taste. Bottles need to be chilled or they lose potency."
"Taste? Potency?" Kira echoed with the beginnings of calm fury. "You mean, it's alcohol? We've been creeping along at Warp Three just so the overpaid scientists at that station can get themselves drunk when life gets a little boring?"
"I admit, it does sound rather ridiculous," Garak said hurriedly. "Perhaps the scientists don't need their akah quite so chilled. Too much intoxication and they'll become derelict in their duties-a shameful thing for any Cardassian. My good captain, you can reduce the power to your cryo-units by fifty percent and still retain some of the akah's potency."
Kira turned to the ensign at the Engineering console. "You heard what he said. Do it."
The ensign tried it, but couldn't alter the power ratios. "I can't change the settings. They must have it locked."
"Out," the Aelu said to Kira. "Aelu must take over. Aelu will make ship fly faster. Stay on bridge if you wish. Do not interfere."
Kira vacated the chair and left the bridge before she lost control and broke that talking stick in half. She tapped her comm badge. "Kira to Bashir. The Aelu just booted me off the bridge. That's the bad news. The good news is, we'll be at the colony before you know it."
The doctor sounded both aggrieved and relieved. "Thank you, Major. I don't know how you did it, but thank you."
"How is he?"
"I've given him a mild sedative and ordered him to lie down in the storage bay. He's mostly cut off from his realm, so there'll be no danger of telepathic overload. But, he says, there's every danger of being bored out of his skull. Vedeks Sori and Tansa have take on the Herculean task of distracting him."
"I know how he feels," Kira muttered.
"I suggest you eat something." It wasn't advice, it was a gentle command. "I can't vouch for the food on board, but the replicators do produce a decent cup of coffee."
"Why not," Kira sighed. "I don't have anything else to do."
Actually, that wasn't true. Once inside the mess hall, she slipped a Bajoran PADD out of her belt pouch and accessed the Bajoran database. The replicators were programmed with a selection of Bajoran foods, and she ordered hasperat in addition to her raktajino before settling down in a chair with her food and the PADD. She accessed all information about Vedanta Four, commed back and forth with Garak about whatever gaps existed in Bajoran intelligence, then sketched out some contingency plans in case anything went wrong. Once that was accomplished, she felt restless. Idleness had never suited Kira. She redirected her energies into another task-reading the legends of the daj'zha. They didn't tell her anything useful, and in fact, they were frequently contradictory. It was at times like this that she yearned to talk with Bareil...but then, there hadn't been a moment in the last year that she hadn't wished for Bareil, futilely, even when she'd met up with her old friend and Resistance leader Shakaar Edon. No one could take Bareil's place. He was gone...
Refusing to let herself wallow in unproductive grief, Kira finished her meal and headed for Julian's makeshift infirmary. The doctor had said Vedeks Sori and Tansa were there. She needed to talk to them. Oh, sure, she'd already exhausted them with her questions, but there had to be some areas they hadn't covered.
She entered the small, austere storage bay. It was empty except for a bed and a sterilized metal table with Julian's medical equipment strewn all over. Kira thought Julian had been lucky to find a bed-Prophets knew whether or not the Aelu slept at all-but then, he had proven over and over again that he was resourceful in a pinch. The bed looked like a padded piece of furniture that might have been a footstool. On the bed, Jareth reclined uncomfortably. A light blanket swathed his body, and he gripped the edges. Vedeks Sori and Tansa, who were supposed to distract him from his malaise, had left. Even Julian was nowhere to be found.
"Hello, Major." Jareth looked haggard, but he managed a smile. "Come to cheer me up?"
"I thought the Vedeks had taken on that job."
"I'm afraid my questions became too insistent. Under the barrage of my queries, Sori and Tansa retreated to the bridge. The good doctor was right on their heels, asking them to come back, that his patient needed them desperately."
Kira couldn't help a smile. "They just might turn around and run right back to you once he's through. Julian can be very persistent too. I'm sure you've noticed."
"Major, how can one miss the sun warming one's face? The moonlight bathing the heavens?" He was poetic, Kira thought. "The eternal fire in your eyes? Not directed at me this time, I hope."
"Not since you apologized. But don't push your luck."
"I do want to apologize again." Seeing her questioning look, he continued hesitantly. "I threatened you and your people when we met-and I can understand why you reacted the way you did. Now that I face losing my own world, I understand. With luck I shall not have to endure fifty years as you did, or have to steal back what is rightfully mine."
"We try not to dwell on the past," Kira said evenly. "It doesn't mean we forget, but we have to move forward. That's one reason we have a treaty with the Cardassians now."
"I do hope this mission will not violate that treaty."
"You should have thought of that before you got us mixed up in this." The words were not entirely unkind. "Don't worry. We've undertaken covert missions in Cardassian space before. Vedek Bareil may have been willing to trust them, but most Bajorans still doubt that Bajor and Cardassia can work together. This thing with the daj'zha lends weight to those doubts."
"But at the same time, you don't want to invalidate Vedek Bareil's efforts-or his sacrifice," Jareth said gently.
"Believe me, I'd rather die than do that," Kira asserted sharply. "So would most Bajorans. You know our history, but you don't know who we are."
"I want to find out. I would like to visit your planet, meet your people."
"Then you no longer believe we're out to destroy your world. Or that we somehow used the daj'zha to pillage your world. I admit, some of the energy from the Labyrinth did leak onto Bajor and cause the Kontesha Hills to become fertile again."
"And no one should take that away from you," Jareth said. "My world has untold resources, Major. Ways of doing things that these humans have long dismissed as 'sorcery' or 'hocus-pocus.' And until now the sum total of those resources has been directed at just defending my world. A waste, wouldn't you agree?"
"They're your resources," Kira said cautiously.
Jareth smiled. "Diplomacy ill suits you. Never lose your directness. Yes, they are my resources, and thus mine to do with as I wish. If there are any other barren places like the Kontesha Hills-"
"They shall no longer be barren." Jareth held up a hand. "Don't bother to thank me. Consider it repayment for all your people's efforts."
"All right," Kira agreed. "I'll call it even-when I see trees growing in those burned-out meadows. Hell, let's just call it even right now."
"Be careful, Major. I'll start to think you actually like me."
"I told you, don't push your luck."
"I'm flat on my back and helpless. What more can you do to me?"
"You'd be surprised." But Kira's fierce tone was hollow as she plunged into dark memory. She hadn't even been a teenager when she'd killed her first Cardassian-her first anything. And she wasn't the only Bajoran child who had done terrible things by the light of the sun or the moon.
"The Occupation is over, Major," Jareth said quietly, reading her thoughts. "It's always hardest when the war is over-when there are no more battles to be fought, save the ones that will reclaim our worlds, our societies. But we can fight them, and we must, if only for one reason."
"What's that?" Kira wondered why she hadn't throttled him by now.
"The children. They are the first victims."
"That's right," Kira said, half to herself. "There are still hundreds of children on Bajor that will never see their parents again. The ones who have it worst are the Cardassian children that were abandoned years ago. And I don't even want to think about the half-Bajoran, half-Cardassian children."
"Where do they live?"
"In orphanages," Kira answered. "Well-run orphanages."
"All their lives?"
"A lot of people died during the Occupation. Most of the people left behind have enough to do rebuilding a future, let alone taking on the task of adopting a child. The people at these orphanages are dedicated and caring. And it's not like they don't have outside help. The Federation is starting to take an interest in them. Julian visits the orphanages once a month with a shuttle full of medicine, food, and anything else he thinks the children need. The administrators always have a wish list just for him-and somehow he gets whatever they want."
"I'm not a bit surprised." Jareth smiled fondly. "However, the good doctor overextends himself as it is. And even without 'outside help,' these orphanages are lonely places. I want to visit them. And then I shall offer to take any children that want a home back with me to the Labyrinth. With the orphanage administrators' approval, that is."
Kira was floored. "If you're planning to turn them into goblins-"
"No. Julian has suggested that I need to adopt different measures, and I concur. My world needs these children. Oh, not permanently. Just until they grow to adulthood, and while they do, they will never lose touch with their heritage-Bajoran or Cardassian. They will simply be enriched by exposure to the galaxy, to different places and ways of existence they never knew. In turn, my world will be enriched with their youthful energy."
"And then you'll just give them up?"
"Once they become adults, they have the right to make their own choices. If they should choose to stay, they will be welcome. Think about it, Major. Now that your world is free, do you want them to grow up as you did, with no real childhood?"
"No," Kira answered honestly. She couldn't explain why the suggestion sounded so reasonable-and why she was actually thinking of advocating the plan. <He's a telepath. He could be manipulating you to do what he wants. You can't just hand even one child to this man. The orphanages are fine places to grow up...Yeah, right, Nerys, and a phaser was a great plaything...> She looked him in the eye and said, "If any of those children so much as cries, I will personally kill you."
"Done." Jareth looked more euphoric than he had a right to be. "And you think they would go with me?"
"They need a real home," Kira said simply. "And you're the first to offer it to them. Thank you."
"Consider it part of my repayment."
"Oh, no, no, no. This goes beyond repayment. No one's ever attempted to do anything like this for Bajor. The Vedeks and the Ministry might be suspicious, but none of them has ever come up with a workable adoption plan, and anyway they've been under fire for mismanaging the Widows and Orphans Fund. Believe me, they'll be secretly relieved. They'll probably give you a medal-and if they don't, I will."
"I don't need a medal. It would be hypocritical, considering I'm getting as much from this as Bajor is."
"Then what do you need?" Kira hated to be indebted to anybody, and this was one hell of a debt. "There has to be something I can do."
"There is, actually. I need a personal favor from you."
"What is it?"
He admired her sense of honor, and rushed ahead with the wild notion he'd just gotten. "Vedek Bareil's death was a great tragedy."
"I try not to think about it too much," Kira said warningly. Some areas of her life were not open for discussion with strangers.
"Of course. But when you do, who receives the blame? The Cardassians? The Prophets? Kai Winn?"
Kira choked. "Look, this is not something I want to talk about, favor or no favor. You've read our history. You know it was an act of sabotage."
"So you condemn the saboteurs, then."
"Not Doctor Bashir?"
She could only stare at him with fire-spitting eyes. "What game are you playing? Julian's the last person I'd blame!"
"That may be, Major. But he's the first one he blames."
"How do you know that?"
"He confides everything to me. It's easier to tell a relative stranger about your psychological turmoil than people you work with, people you're deathly afraid of angering...even if you consider them your friends."
Kira was lost in disbelief. "That makes no sense. Why should he blame himself? He went up against Kai Winn and told her to back off, that she'd just have to get along without Bareil in the negotiations. He did everything to save Bareil, even with me harping at him. And when he had to make a choice between Bareil's soul and his life, he did, and you are damn lucky if you never have to make that choice. I stayed with Bareil at the end. Julian knew I needed that. I have *never* thought he didn't do everything in his power to help Bareil."
"Have you told him that?"
"No. I just assumed he knew."
"Never assume anything, Major, least of all where it concerns the doctor's sensitive and insecure soul. You intimidate him enough as it is. He would never speak of this to you for fear he might look callow or insensitive. He knows that he had advantages you didn't, and he's embarrassed by his erstwhile youthful arrogance, not to mention your brief telepathic-induced romantic escapade. He talked about your courage, about how you found happiness with Bareil-and he stated outright that he was responsible for taking that away from you."
Kira lost her patience, both with Jareth for crossing the line and Julian for blabbering as usual. "What the hell does this have to do with a personal favor?"
"You talking to Julian is the favor. If you could remove that burden from him, that would satisfy the debt."
This was too much for Kira. The man was unbelievable. He had the gall to intrude into her private self, to callously talk about Bareil's death. She'd be willing to bet he'd never wept over anyone's death. And why the hell should he arrogantly take it on himself to all but order her to do something for Julian? She'd served with the doctor for three years, called him her friend for two. This arrogant man had only known him for three days. Just because-according to Jadzia and that kiss in the Replimat--Jareth was sleeping with Julian didn't give him the right to dictate what Kira should and shouldn't do when it came to the doctor. If Julian wanted her forgiveness, he could damned well ask for it.
Forgiveness. The word brought her up short. Was there anything to forgive? Did she harbor some suppressed resentment towards Julian?
<Nerys, I think they can get along without you in Ops today.>
Unbidden, that expression of utter empathy and concern resurfaced from memories she'd blocked. And she hadn't snapped at him when he'd suggested that.
<But I need to be there. I appreciate your concern, Julian, but I will grieve in my own way and in my own time.>
And he'd accepted that, with more wisdom than she'd ever given him credit for. But then, he'd acquired a lot of wisdom since that first encounter when he'd talked of 'frontier medicine.' When exactly had she started to respect him? To like him? Perhaps as early as that incident in the Mirror Universe. And she acknowledged that her suppressed attraction to him, brought out during the Gratitude Festival and long since dealt with, had played a part in her irritation with him. She'd definitely paid attention when Julian, the eternal agnostic and scientist, had said that replacing Bareil's brain would take away the essence of who he was...the soul. She'd hated the thought of losing Bareil, but Julian had been right, had understood her lover as well as she did. She recalled watching a recording of a confrontation between Julian and Winn over Bareil's treatment. Odo recorded everything to do with VIP visitors. She grinned for an instant, remembering the way Julian had outright accused the Kai of endangering Bareil's life for her own political purposes, and she still relished the look on Winn's face as she heard this coming from the normally mild-mannered doctor, who had also gone head to head with Winn when Sisko was dying. Julian had made an enemy that day, and she knew he hadn't given a damn about angering the Kai, any more than she did. All he'd been concerned with was Bareil...and her.
She refocused her eyes and her attention on Jareth, who was watching her with a hint of anxiety, as if he thought he might have overstepped his bounds. "I'll talk to him. You have my word. But if anyone else asks, we never had this conversation."
"Thank you. I hardly want it to get about. I have an image to maintain."
Kira's brow furrowed, and she seemed lost in thought.
"What have I done now?"
"You keep surprising me. It's infuriating. You come on strong one minute, and the next you do us an enormous favor, and the only thing you ask in return benefits someone else."
"Not just anyone else, Major." Jareth's voice softened. "The only being in the universe who possesses the power to release me from my prison."
Kira looked him squarely in the face. "If *he* so much as cries-"
"Consider me properly cowed."
"Nerys, what are you doing to my patient?" Julian strode into the storage bay-cum-Sickbay. "After all, he's behaved himself. Barely."
Jareth swung his legs off the bed and started to rise. "No longer your patient. I'm feeling much better. Major Kira has invigorated me."
"I'll be the judge of that." Julian scanned Jareth with the medical tricorder. "All vital signs are stable. The inhibitor appears to be working."
"Is there any way to cleanse my body of that inhibitor? When we join the daj'zhas, I will need the full use of my abilities. And we must join the daj'zhas immediately after we find the second one. My world has run out of time."
"I can't just flush it completely out of your body right this moment. Fortunately for you, it hasn't been in your system a week." The doctor prepared an enzyme solution and mentally congratulated himself on thinking ahead. "I'll give you an injection of enzymes that should act quickly to break up the inhibitor. It's a temporary measure, but it should work. Besides, the dosage I keep giving you is only half-effective. You seem to build up a tolerance for it faster than I can increase the potency, and I can't do that for long without access to a full laboratory. So by default, you will soon be free of the inhibitor."
Kira pressed her comm badge. "Kira to Dax. How long until we reach the colony?"
"Forty-one minutes," Dax answered with a hint of amusement. "The Aelu captain says you can come back to the bridge now."
"Oh, you bet I will, whether he allows it or not." Kira strode out of the storage bay, leaving the doctor with his patient-cum-lover.
They were alone again, but this time, there was no hint of loverlike behavior in either of them. They had said everything they needed to for now, and getting doe-eyed over each other wouldn't do. The doctor pressed the hypospray against Jareth's neck and performed a few other medical duties, just to pass the time, until Jareth couldn't stand it and rose with alacrity. Julian let him go, let him walk out of the storage bay, then prepared to follow.
Jareth paused just before the doors opened and pivoted slowly so Julian could appreciate the full effect of his appearance. Julian noticed Jareth had changed clothes from the black leather ensemble he'd worn all day. Now, absurdly and yet apropos enough, he was dressed all in white, white and silver and gold. He wore a cape that looked like it was covered with feathers, perhaps those of a bird of prey, But the fabric kept shifting appearance every second, so Julian couldn't swear to the feathers. His vest was silver-gray and tied tightly in the bodice. A white shirt fluttered, but Julian somehow doubted it was a signal of surrender. The leggings were loose, white, silver and gold, and the boots were a solid silver color. Jareth wore the daj'zha around his neck, the only spot of true color in the entire ensemble.
"How do I look?" The question was carefree-sounding, but charged with quiet meaning.
Once Julian would have scoffed at that question and chastised Jareth for concentrating on something so trivial. Today, however, he couldn't, because something in his stomach was telling him, don't reject this moment, don't make it cheap and worthless, don't turn it into a joke.
"Devastating," he answered.
Jareth nodded, satisfied. "Then I'm ready to face whatever may come." He pivoted back to the door and strolled out of the bay.
Julian Bashir wasn't a religious man.
But he prayed to anyone who would
listen that he was ready too.
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