Pel answers the comm, and a familiar face appears on the monitor - Quark's little nephew, Nog. She hides her surprise as best she can and says in a gruff voice, "Slug-O-Cola, Nim speaking."
"Good afternoon, sir. I was hoping to speak to Chairman Nilva. Is he available?"
Nilva is in his office just down the hall going over this week's sales figures, and with how this week has been he'd probably welcome a distraction. No reason to interrupt him, though, not unless it turns out to be important... and she wants to find out what Quark is up to. "I'm afraid not, he's extremely busy right now. But for two slips of latinum you can leave him a message."
Nog frowns, but authorizes the funds transfer. "My name is Nog, and I'm calling on behalf of Grand Nagus Zek. Please tell him that the Nagus has a business proposition for him and wants to meet him aboard the Bajoran space station Deep Space Nine."
Now she's REALLY curious - there may opportunity here for more than just latinum. Much more, considering what Zek's been up to lately. "What kind of proposition?"
"That's for Nilva's ears only."
"Oh, you'll have to do better than that," Pel says. "I know my boss, and he's not going to fly all the way out to Bajor to meet with an *EX*-Grand Nagus unless there's a very good reason for it."
"Then have him call me back!" Nog snaps. He makes a move as if to end the transmission, but Pel quickly raises a hand, warning him to stop.
"I'm trying to help you, young man! If that's all the explanation you'll give, the chairman won't even bother to call you back. As I said, he's very busy." The boy's face turns sour, and Pel smiles. She's got him now. "Normally he wouldn't waste any time on a failure like Zek... But if you'll tell me why this is important, I could put in a good word for you."
"I see... And just how much, ah, incentive would you need to put in a good word?" Smart kid, he's caught on right away that this is a negotiation - but Pel's more interested in information than latinum at the moment.
"How much depends on what kind of business proposal we're talking about," she tells him.
Nog laces his fingers together and looks down, with a calculating expression on his face that reminds Pel strongly of his uncle. She can almost see the circuits firing in his head. Finally he meets her eyes again and speaks, laying down each word with care. "You're aware that the Grand Nagus has controversial views on the role of females."
"You mean letting them wear clothing? Of course I'm aware! The whole planet's been in chaos for days thanks to what he did!" She can't quite make herself say it with the level of scorn a real male would. Tipping her hand, maybe, but it means so much to her. She almost cried when she heard the news about Zek's amendment to the Bill of Opportunities, and actually did cry when she first saw other women out on their own on the streets of the capital, fully clothed and smiling. Fortunately she had been able to pass it off to the coworkers who were with her at the time as a negative reaction to 'the end of Ferengi culture as we know it'. She would love more than anything to drop her disguise, but it's still illegal for females to earn profit, and the backlash against them wearing clothing has been vicious. If her ruse were discovered now, she'd be thrown off the Tower of Commerce.
"Well," Nog continues, "the Nagus wants a chance to prove that his ideas will lead to Ferenginar to greater prosperity. He's arranging a conference between the FCA commissioners and his personal advisor, Ishka, to demonstrate that females can possess both intelligence and business acumen. He hopes to win their votes and be reinstated as Nagus."
"This advisor is a female, I take it?"
"Yes. She's, ah... She's my grandmother." He's fidgeting now, obviously nervous. This part must not be in the prepared statement. "She wears clothes, and, ah, she's... She's very good at business! She has the lobes for it." He nods once, sharply.
Pel sits back and folds her arms, pondering. "I can see why you wanted to talk to Nilva directly. It's going to be difficult to convince him, or any other commissioners for that matter, to attend your conference. Too much of a risk to their reputations." But Nilva trusts her instincts by now - if she recommends that he go to the conference, he'll do it. She nods slowly. "I can talk him into it."
"You can?!" Nog grins like a kid on his Naming Day.
"For ten strips of latinum," she adds. That dims the grin a bit.
"Ten strips? That seems a little -" She gives him her best this-is-not-negotiable glare. "Ah, hold on for just one moment."
Nog steps out of view of the comm and she can hear whispering, not quite loud enough for her to decipher. And then a familiar voice that makes her heart beat a little bit faster, yelling "TEN STRIPS?!?"
There's more whispering and the soft beeping of a padd, and then Nog moves back onscreen. "Ten strips it is."
"And when is this conference?"
"Stardate 51847, at 1500 hours station time."
Pel checks the chronometric translator on her console. Two days from now, and it's a five-hour trip each way... Nilva will have to fly back to Ferenginar overnight to make it to the new Grand Nagus's confirmation hearing. He won't be happy about sleeping aboard his ship, but it can't be helped. "All right. He'll be there."
Nog grins again. "Excellent! It's been a pleasure doing business with you!"
"Just one more thing, Nog... How did you manage to access the Slug-O board of directors' private comm line?"
He smiles even wider and says, "Very carefully."
Pel can't help but smile back at him. "Cheeky. Nim out."
She taps the comm's call button, ending the transmission, and takes a moment to get her thoughts in order for the next conversation she'll have to have.
Nilva is a fair-minded man, but he's also very conservative. Zek's chances of gaining his support are less than stellar. Unless this Ishka - who must be Quark's mother, she belatedly realizes - is an absolute genius at business, he'll assume that she's just been trained to mimic competence. And even if she does have the lobes, he may write her off as an exceptional case, a mere curiosity. For this to work, he has to see her as financially savvy AND as representative of all females - the same is true for any other commissioners who show up, assuming there are any. This woman is going to have to hit all the right notes. She'll need help, advice from someone who knows Nilva and men like him very well... Someone like Pel herself.
She calls up the spaceport's departure schedule on her console. She's in luck - there's a transport to Bajor leaving early tomorrow morning. She'll tell Nilva that she's going ahead of him to make sure that this clothed female is worth his time, so that he doesn't have to put his reputation on the line for what could turn out to be a farce. But that's just what she'll tell him. "Nim" will be recommending that he meet with Ishka, no matter how slim the chance of success is. Any chance is better than none.
Pel stands, tugs her jacket down into place, and heads into her boss's office to do some persuading.
It's strange being back on DS9 - familiar, and yet not. She had forgotten how dry the air is here, and how the gravity lessens just enough to be noticeable when you step through the door from the docking ring onto the promenade. The people are the same though: mostly stern-faced Starfleet types and Bajorans with smiles as bright as their earrings, plus a few travellers and freighter crew members of various species. The Cardassian tailor's shop is still here, and so is the jumja stick stand, and the squid vendor - and so, of course, is the bar.
Pel only realizes that she's stopped in the middle of the walkway when a group of Klingons pushes by and nearly knocks her over. She apologizes and darts out of their way, moving to stand by the promenade directory, where she still has a good view of the bar. She should just go in, get it over with... but she's too nervous. What if someone recognizes her? She's good at fooling people she's never met, but she worked with Quark and his waitstaff for two whole months. And although she only met the Nagus a few times, she's sure she left a strong impression. If any of them sees through her disguise, if they tell Nilva -
"Stop," she whispers to herself. They *WON'T* recognize her. It's been more than four years, and her disguise is different now, much more realistic. And they have no reason to expect her to show up here ever again. No, they won't find out - none of them, not even Quark, as much as she'd like to tell him.
She takes a deep breath to steady herself and starts walking toward the bar.
"I CAN'T DO IT!"
The shout comes from behind her, across the promenade. She turns to look, and there's Quark storming out of the infirmary, looking extremely agitated. Zek's Hupyrian servant, Maihar'du, is following close behind. He grabs Quark by the collar and holds him, and Zek himself hobbles up to them a moment later.
She wondered how she'd feel, seeing Quark again, and now she knows. Her throat's gone dry. He's just as handsome as she remembered, even though he's angry now. Maybe even because he's angry - he's so animated, so full of passion. Four years later, and her emotions seem to be picking up right where they left off.
Zek is saying something to Quark, but with all the noise on the promenade Pel can't hear what it is. She'll have to get closer.
She approaches them silently and overhears Quark saying, in a harsh whisper, "But it's not just the lobes! Bashir said he has to -" He stops suddenly, and looks right at Pel - her heart skips a beat. "We have an audience."
"Ahh..." Come on, think, THINK, and quit staring at him!, she tells herself. She quickly turns and bows toward Zek, giving him an ingratiating smile. "Grand Nagus, what an honor to meet you!"
Zek squints at her. "And who are you?"
"Nim. Head of Sentient Resources at Slug-O-Cola, Incorporated." She reaches into her bag and pulls out a bottle of Slug-O. "Would you care for a complimentary sample?"
"You're not supposed to be here yet," Quark says. "The conference isn't for another day and a half. And Nilva is the one who'll be attending, where's he?"
She starts to answer, but the Nagus interrupts. "Quark, don't be rude! Introduce yourself!"
Quark rolls his eyes. "Quark, proprietor of Quark's Bar, Grill, etcetera." He puts his wrists together and gives her a mocking little bow. "Now why are you here?"
"Chairman Nilva sent me ahead of him to meet this" - she wrinkles her nose as if disgusted - "this clothed female before he does. He wants me to make sure that meeting her won't be a total waste of his time."
"Well I'm very sorry, but that won't be possible. Nilva's the one who got the invitation. Not you." Quark is talking quickly, his eyes darting to the sides - he's trying to get rid of her, she realizes. That's why he's being so abrasive.
Pel shakes her head. "Not acceptable. Either I get to meet her first, or Nilva's not coming to the conference. And it had better be soon! He's waiting for me to call him on subspace and tell him whether to bother flying out here."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll be advising him NOT to bother," says a silky voice from behind her. She turns and sees the absolute worst person she could possibly run into, the face that's been all over the newsnets on Ferenginar promising harsh penalties for any female who dares to wear clothes or handle latinum - "Grand Nagus Brunt, at your service."
Zek mumbles something in an angry tone, but Pel decides she had better act happy to see Brunt. Better if he thinks she's just another sycophant, and no threat to his still tentative hold on power. "Oh no, I'm at YOUR service, Nagus! Nim, Slug-O-Cola." She plants a kiss on the Nagal staff.
Brunt smiles beatifically and gives her an approving nod, then turns to address Quark. "Having difficulties, are we?"
"None of your business," Quark growls.
"Nim, perhaps we can accommodate that request of yours after all," Zek says. "Just follow me back to my quarters and we'll discuss things - IN PRIVATE!" The last two words are directed at Brunt, with venom.
Pel tries her best to look annoyed. "My apologies, Nagus, I hope you'll excuse me," she says to Brunt. "I'm sure this conversation won't take long at all." She winks conspiratorially and bows, and Brunt smiles wider, lapping it up. For an aspiring Nagus, he seems awfully susceptible to flattery.
When she turns around Quark is giving Zek a questioning look, but he hides it quickly and gestures for her to follow. "Come on." He offers his arm to Zek for support, and the four of them head for the habitat ring at the old Ferengi's slow, shuffling pace.
Brunt yells after them, "Good luck, Zek!" Pel can hear him snickering, and even his Hupyrian is making a sort of wheezing chuckle. Zek huffs, but doesn't respond.
They're deep into the corridors, and Pel is surreptiously admiring how that coat fits on Quark, when Zek says, "I really hate that man. Nim, did you have to suck up to him quite so much?"
"Oh, please don't take it personally, Nagus. My money's on you, but it's always smart to hedge your bets. Besides, Rule of Acquisition number 48 states" - and Zek choruses with her, "the bigger the smile, the sharper the knife!" The old man giggles.
Quark turns to look at her and says, "Have we met before this? You seem familiar."
Oh charity, she thinks. "Ahh... No! No, I ah - I don't think so." That sounded too nervous. She needs a cover, quick. "Maybe you've met my brother Bractor?" It's a common name - there are probably a few million Ferengi named Bractor. He has to have met one of them.
Quark ponders that, and then shrugs. "Guess that must be it. I know about a dozen Bractors. Is he a DaiMon, by any chance?"
She's saved from having to answer by their arrival at Zek's quarters. "Here we are!" the old Ferengi says, as Maihar'du taps in the access code. The door opens and they all file inside.
"Take a seat, Nim." Zek pats the sofa, and sighs as he sits down himself on a low, well-padded chair. "Much better."
Pel sets her bag down and sits on the couch, as requested.
"So, Nagus," Quark says, rubbing his hands together. "What are we going to do about..." He lets his voice trail off, but Pel catches the little nod he makes in her direction.
"Well obviously, Quark, we'll have to bribe him." Judging by his expression, Quark is less than enthusiastic about that answer. "Now, Nim" - Zek scoots closer to her - "I would love for you to meet Ishka, but I'm afraid that as it turns out, she's not available. For you, or for the conference."
"Then who's going to meet with Nilva?"
Quark mutters something that might be a curse and starts pacing the room. Zek just smiles. "Well, that's... complicated. You see -"
The door slides open and Rom walks in, carrying something made of filmy cloth. "Brother, I was looking for you at the infirmary. I found the perfect shawl!" He holds it up, beaming proudly - and then he catches sight of Pel. "Uhh, hi Pel. What are you doing here?"
She stares at him, unbelieving. He did not just - How did he KNOW? She can feel the others' eyes on her...
Rom carries on, oblivious. "I thought you were in the Gamma Quadrant!"
She stands up, trying to think of a way to explain, trying not to panic... and looks at Quark, and she really should not have done that. The shock on his face just completely undoes her. She can't look - she hides her own face in her hands. "Ohhhh..."
"YOU!" She peeks over at Zek, who's scrutinizing her with narrowed eyes. "You look... different," he says.
She winces. Too late for false explanations now. "I, ah... I had my cartilage reshaped -"
"It really is you," Quark breathes. He sets a hand on each of her shoulders, leans in so close that their noses are almost touching, staring at her - and suddenly breaks into a broad grin. "THIS IS A *MIRACLE*!"
Pel squeaks as she's lifted off her feet into a tight hug. "Oh, THANK YOU, Blessed Exchequer!" Quark says into her ear. He sets her down, still grinning like a madman. "Pel, your timing could not be better. You're going to help us!"
"W- Well yes, that's - That's actually what I came here for." She's a little dazed, trying to catch the breath that Quark crushed out of her. "I'll talk to Ishka, or whoever it is, and tell her exactly what to say to Nilva -"
He's shaking his head. "No, YOU'RE going to talk to Nilva. You can just tell him that you're a female!"
"It's perfect! He knows you already, he knows you're good at business! You're his... His..."
"Sentient Resources manager." She cannot believe she's hearing this.
Quark nods. "Right, so you've probably made a lot of great hires for him! Made him a ton of latinum! Haven't you?"
He's looking at her expectantly, with such a radiant smile - she stumbles over her words. "Well... Well yes, but -"
"So you'll tell him, and -"
His smile slowly fades. He takes his hands off her shoulders, cocks his head to the side and studies her.
She sighs. "Oh, Quark. I can't just... Look, why can't your mother do it?"
He looks away, frowning. "She's not well."
"And whose fault is THAT," Rom says.
"Will you shut up?!" Quark snaps at his brother. He turns back to Pel, eyes pleading. "Pel, we really need you for this. PLEASE -"
"I already told you no! Quark -"
"Well why not?! What are you scared of? When you were here earlier, you walked right up to the Grand Nagus, took your lobes off, and told him where he could stick them! No offense, Nagus," he says as an afterthought, and Zek huffs.
"This is different. Back then I had already lost everything. And I had a transport ready to take me through the wormhole, where the FCA couldn't get to me." It had been sweet of Quark to defend her, but he could have saved himself the trouble, not to mention his Gamma Quadrant profits. She had a plan, she would have gotten away.
Quark starts pacing again, wearing that calculating expression - and then he stops, and snaps his fingers. "Latinum! I'll give you fifteen bars."
She rolls her eyes. "I make fifteen bars a week at Slug-O." A slight exaggeration, but close enough. "Besides, if I were caught posing as a male, I wouldn't be allowed to own latinum any more. And that would be the least of my problems."
"Oh, you won't get caught!" Quark says dismissively. "I'm sure you can talk Nilva into keeping your secret. And remember Rule 62, the riskier the road -"
"I know what the Rules say!" This is starting to get frustrating. "Look, Quark, it wasn't easy working my way up at Slug-O. I had to earn Nilva's trust, and now that I've got it, I'm finally in a position where I can make some real profit. I'm not going to just throw all that away!"
Quark stares at her with desperation written all over his face. "Well, then... Then... Then do it because it's the right thing to do! It's for a good cause!" The right thing? Oh, he is desperate, all right.
"It's for your cause," she says softly. "Not mine. Look, I want independence for Ferengi women. Believe me, I do. But I already have my independence, I have my career! I worked hard for it. And I'm not going to give it up." She shakes her head, and can't help sighing again. He looks so crestfallen. "I'm sorry, but it's your conference. You just... You need to find your own female."
Quark is silent, staring at the floor, fuming. Rom offers him the shawl - he bats it away, and it flutters to the ground.
"You know, my dear," Zek says, "we don't need YOU to tell Nilva your little secret."
She recognizes the veiled threat, and snorts. "Oh, please. He'd never believe you over me. He thinks you've gone senile, and he's been doing business with me long enough that he trusts me."
"I guess we'd just have to show him," Quark says quietly. He looks up, and he's got this malicious glint in his eyes... He reaches out and tugs on one of her lobes, hard.
That HURT! Quark seems confused, no doubt wondering why the lobe didn't come off in his hand. If she were a Klingon, she'd punch him for being such an idiot. "They're IMPLANTS now," she snaps. "I had them added before I came back to the Alpha Quadrant, so I wouldn't be so easy to catch." She gives Rom the evil eye - he at least has the decency to look guilty in response.
"So we'll show him your other assets," Quark says, and grabs the clasp of her jacket. She pulls at his hand, but he won't let go, so she slaps him in the face and twists away.
"YOU -" She's too angry to come up with an insult. Finally she hisses at him, as loud as she can. And then unclasps the jacket herself and holds it open, so that they can all get a good look at her perfectly flat chest.
"I had them reduced."
Zek shakes his head. "Now that's a shame."
Quark's rubbing his jaw where she hit him, pensive. "All right... We'll just need to get a medical scan -"
She cuts him off. "Even if you did prove it to Nilva, what would that get you? You want him to support women's rights, and your BRILLIANT plan is to tell him that a female's been lying to him and doing business right under his nose for years! How do you think he's going to react to that?"
"Forget it, Quark," Zek says. "She's right. We'll use the other plan."
The OTHER plan. So they do have another woman lined up, after all. And they were trying to force Pel to risk everything - she's so mad she can barely see straight. She really wishes she were a Klingon, so she could pick up Quark and his precious Nagus and knock their two fool heads together.
Instead, she picks up her bag. "Let me know when the female's here and I'll advise her. But until then, I don't want to talk to ANY of you!"
She heads for the door, and it swishes open in front of her. As she steps out into the corridor, she hears Rom say, "Nice to see you again!" She pays him no attention and keeps walking.
She's barely gone ten meters down the corridor when she hears footsteps behind her, and Quark yelling, "Pel! Wait!" She starts walking faster.
He catches up anyway and grabs her shoulder, trying to slow her down. She jerks away from him.
"Pel, I'm sorry. I was an idiot -"
"I'll say," she says darkly.
"Just hear me out for a minute. I can explain!"
"I don't want to hear it."
"Come on, give me a chance," he begs as they approach the turbolift.
"Go jump out an airlock!" She boards the turbolift and stands in front between the handrails, so that he can't step onto the lift without pushing past her. She stares him down, daring him to try. He doesn't.
"Level ten," she tells the lift. It activates, and Quark is left behind.
She finds section 18 soon enough, but as she's coming up to the door of her guest quarters she sees Quark again, jogging down the corridor toward her. She ducks inside, hitting the lock button just in time to shut the door in his face.
She throws her bag down on the couch and marches over to the viewport, where she can see her own furious reflection in the transparent aluminum. She can't believe she ever loved him. She's always been loyal to him - she stood up to the Grand Nagus for him more than once, back when she was first on the station. And here she is visiting and risking discovery just to help him, and he BETRAYED her! He tried to sell her out at the first opportunity! She feels so stupid...
The door swishes open behind her.
She whips around. "How did -" She stops herself. He disabled the lock, of course, he's good at things like that. "GET OUT!" she yells. "Before I call Security."
Quark drops to his knees and puts his wrists together, palms cupped in the beggar's gesture. "I would never have asked you to do this if I wasn't desperate. I really need your help, Pel! PLEASE!"
"Just use your other plan! The one that doesn't involve me throwing my whole life away."
"But you don't know what the other plan is!" he says, wide-eyed.
No, she doesn't, and no matter what it is she still wants him to leave, but... Might as well hear it. She folds her arms and glares at him, waiting for the explanation.
He drops the beggar's pose and looks away, then slowly gets to his feet. Without meeting her eyes, he says, "The plan - such as it is - is to have me pose as a female."
He must be joking, that's the stupidest thing she ever heard - but he looks dead serious. And more than a little embarrassed. Suddenly his tantrum outside the infirmary makes sense. There's no hiding lobes like those, they'd have to be altered for him to pass as female. And Rom bringing him that shawl... Pel starts to giggle.
"It's not funny," Quark says, but just then she gets the mental image of him wearing nothing but the shawl and a set of earrings. She cracks up completely, laughing so hard she can barely breathe.
By the time she gets control of herself, her sides hurt and she's having to wipe tears from her eyes. Quark looks like he's trying not to smile. "I guess it would be kind of funny from your perspective," he admits.
"This whole time you were worried about your lobes!" He's still a jerk, but she really can't stay mad at him after that revelation. "Trust me, getting surgery to look like the opposite sex isn't that terrible. I would know."
"You have fewer assets to protect," he mutters. "I mean, you didn't, ah... You didn't get anything ELSE modified. Did you?" He sounds a little worried.
It takes her a second to figure out what he's alluding to. "Oh no, I didn't go that far," she says. "I just wanted to look like a male, not actually be one." There's no need for him to be so nervous about asking, but it's no surprise that he is, either. Pel's learned that most cultures have no problem with sex reassignment, but to the average Ferengi, people who switch sexes are as bad or worse than women who get involved in business.
"For you, well, you wouldn't have to get a complete sex change," she says. "You would just need smaller lobes. Right?" Something's nagging at her memory, something he said outside the infirmary...
Quark sighs. "I wish it was just the lobes. Bashir says he has to... you know, do the whole thing."
"Really?" That doesn't make sense. Sure, lobes are sensitive, but they aren't exactly vital organs. They're not necessary for anything other than oo-mox, as far as Pel knows.
"He said if he did just the lobes, there would be side effects. Permanent ones. Something to do with hormone interactions, and this gland's tied to that one which is tied to this nerve..." Quark sighs again. "Look, I don't know. I'm a bartender, not a doctor! The point is, Bashir says he can't do it halfway."
Well, now she feels some sympathy for Quark. Superficial changes for a disguise are one thing, but a sex change is not what she'd call 'superficial'. And getting that surgery because you want to is one thing, but having to get it done when you don't want to... She had thought about having one herself. When she told the doctors on Karemma what she wanted, they told her that they could make her indistinguishable from someone born male. A bit of gene resequencing, a few weeks to recover and adjust, and she would never have to worry about being found out again. But she just couldn't do it, because she's not a man and she doesn't want to be one. She couldn't give up that much of her identity.
Still, for Quark it wouldn't be permanent... "But it would be reversible, if it was done right," she says.
"Yeah, it would be," he says quietly. "The thing is, though... I'm not sure I can do this. Convince Nilva, I mean, not have the surgery. If I have to do that, I -" He shifts uncomfortably. "Well, I'll do it, if there's nobody else. I'm not the best person for the job, though. You are."
Not this again. "Quark..."
"I would make a terrible female. And you... It's not just that you're a real female. You're brilliant at business! You have better lobes that just about any man I know. If Nilva's been around you for any length of time, he knows that."
"I'm not going to fall for flattery."
"It's not flattery. It's an accurate assessment," he says flatly. "You have a much better chance of making this work than I do."
"What about all the other commissioners I'd have to impress?" She suspects she knows the answer to that.
Quark winces. "There aren't any others. Nilva was the only one who agreed to show up."
Just as she'd thought. Nilva does have a great deal of influence on the Board of Liquidators, though - if they can bring him around, he may well be able to persuade a majority of the board to vote for Zek to be reinstated. It's a bit of a long shot, but it is possible.
She has to admit, Quark's right. She is more likely to succeed at this. But the consequences of failure are just too high... If Quark were caught impersonating a female - which is how the law would see it, even after surgery - he'd certainly be embarrassed, but in the FCA's eyes he would just be a male doing business with another male. Nothing illegal about that. If she talks to Nilva, though, and he decides that turning her in to the FCA is in his best interest, she might as well be dead.
She shakes her head. "Quark, I can't. If Brunt finds out about me..."
"What's the worst that could happen?" he says. "You get caught, Brunt sends you to jail - I bribe the warden to get you out. Or if you're put into indentured servitude, I'll just buy your contract. Might take a little while to get the latinum together, but I wouldn't just leave you!" She's not completely sure she believes him, after how he acted in Zek's quarters, but he does seem sincere. "It is a risk to your career, but Brunt being Grand Nagus is a risk to all of us. He'll drive the entire Ferengi Alliance to ruin. Starting with my bar."
Jail is much more dangerous in some ways for females than it is for males, and indentureship isn't always better. Quark wouldn't understand that, though - most Ferengi men wouldn't. And it's a moot point anyway. His worst case scenario is wrong.
"That's not what would happen," she tells him. "If I get caught now, I'll be executed."
"Executed?" He looks shocked that she'd even consider it. "Brunt wouldn't - well, all right, he would if he had a reason to. But why would he do that?"
Quark can't have been paying much attention to Brunt's campaign ads, Pel decides. If he had, he'd already know why. "I don't know if you've been keeping up with the news on Ferenginar, but the reason Brunt was chosen as the interim Nagus is that he promised to put women back in their place. Right now he has the support of most of the commissioners, and discovering and punishing a..." - she searches for the right word, the word Brunt would call her - "a deviant, like me, would clinch it for him. I'd be proof of how dangerous females can be."
This is hard for her to talk about - it's her worst fear. Quark's waiting for her to explain, though, so she plunges ahead. "The thing is, Brunt's been saying that females should get jail time just for wearing clothing in public. He acts like even that much of a break with tradition is some huge threat to the Ferengi way of life. So if he catches a female who's not just wearing clothes, but disguising herself as a male to earn profit? And working at the executive level of a major corporation?"
Just thinking about what would happen makes her want to panic. She can't stand to look at Quark right now. She doesn't want him to see her this scared. So she moves over to the viewport and looks out at the stars.
"He would make an example of me. Even if he didn't want to, he would have to, because that's what his supporters would want. They'd want me stripped naked and thrown off the Tower of Commerce... so that's what would happen." And even that isn't the full extent of how bad it could get. If Brunt and his FCA cronies were to guess that she has information on other females doing business, if they decided to try to force her to talk... or if they just wanted to humiliate her, punish her in the most personal way they could... She adds quietly, "At least if I were lucky, that's all they'd do."
"What do you - WHAT?! Pel, you can't think..." She looks over her shoulder at Quark - he's staring at her, clearly distraught. "Who would... Nobody would, would do that! To a cute little thing like you?"
She almost smirks, even though it's not funny at all. It just figures that that's where his mind would go, that that's the first, worst thing he could imagine happening to a female. And as if being cute, or ugly, or young or old or anything else, had anything to do with it.
"Nobody?" she asks him. "Nobody on all of Ferenginar?"
Quark gapes at her for a moment longer, then swallows and looks down at his hands.
Pel nods and turns back to the viewport, wrapping her arms around herself. "Look, I know most men aren't like that," she tells Quark. "And I know you aren't. But some men..." She shakes her head. She's heard enough women's stories, and had enough close calls of her own, to know that not all men are good men. "Some men think that they have a right to do whatever they want with women. Especially women who step out of line. And some of those men are prison guards, or Enforcers, or Liquidators." Those are the ones who really like punishing wrongdoers, and Brunt strikes her as exactly that type.
She hates even having to think about all this. She hates being so afraid. She's sick and tired of worrying about some man finding out about her and taking everything she has. It would almost be easier to just play it safe, to get rid of the disguise and go live as a female - but that would be giving up everything too. And she knows all too well that it might not even make her safer. Playing by the rules doesn't protect you from males who decide to ignore the standards that THEY'RE supposed to follow. She knows too many women who did everything right and still ended up suffering.
As long as Ferengi women have no rights, she's always going to be afraid.
Charity. She really doesn't want to, it's such a huge risk, but -
"So why'd you come back?" Quark asks. His voice is oddly subdued, and Pel realizes that he hasn't said a word in the last few minutes.
She turns so that she can see him. "To the station?"
"To the Alpha Quadrant." His expression is miserable, and he won't look her in the eye. All that talk about what could happen to her really did upset him. She feels a little guilty, but it warms her heart to know that he does care after all.
"Because of this stupid war," she says with a sigh. "First the Jem'Hadar started blowing up colonies, and then those Cardassians and Romulans went and attacked the Founders. After that, I knew outsiders like me wouldn't be safe for long. So I had this done" - she taps one of her fake lobes - "and I bought a warp-capable shuttle and got out of there." And as soon as she got back to Ferenginar she had had to sell the shuttle, for much less than what she'd paid, to get enough latinum together to buy a decent place to live and a new identity. So many opportunities lost... She shakes her head sadly. "It was great while it lasted. If it weren't for the war, I'd still be in the Gamma Quadrant."
Quark just nods and looks at the floor.
What Pel loved most about the Gamma Quadrant was that she didn't need a disguise there. She could do business as herself, wearing whatever kind of clothes she wanted, keeping no secrets about her identity or her goals. She could have friends who actually knew who she was, who she didn't have to deceive, and not worry that they might betray her to the authorities or try to blackmail her. She could be real - she didn't have to hide. If Ferenginar could be like that, not just for her, but for all women... It's worth the risk.
She takes a deep, shaky breath and tells Quark, "You really wouldn't make a convincing female. You're far too masculine."
He looks up and finally meets her eyes, confused. "Are you saying you'll do it?"
She nods before she can change her mind, and gives him a nervous smile. "You were right, I am the best person for the job. And you're right that if Brunt gets to keep being Nagus, we're all in deep frinx." Especially women.
"Pel. You don't have to," he says. "Not for my sake." That's awfully sweet of him - wrong guess, and a bit of an egocentric one, but still sweet.
"It's not about you, Quark," she says. "As much as I like you. This is about freedom, and opportunity..." It's about millions of people just like her, trapped on a planet where they're treated like property instead of sentient beings. "It's about women, and what our future will be like."
...and it's about one other thing, the thing that makes her a Ferengi. She smiles at Quark.
"It's also about the fifty bars of latinum you're going to pay me for bailing you out."
Quark just stares at her for a few seconds, and then starts to chuckle. "Oh, that was a good one! You had me going there."
She raises her brow and watches him, still smiling.
"You're not joking." He mulls that over for a bit. "What do you need with my money? I thought you were making fifteen bars a week."
"I might have inflated that figure just a little," she admits. It's actually somewhere around eight bars a week, if she averages in her shareholder dividends and the occasional performance bonus. She doesn't really need his latinum, but fifty bars would make a nice contribution to her sunny day fund... and it's the principle of the thing.
"Oh, come on!" Quark says. "Fifty bars - that's ridiculous, and you know it. I'll give you twenty."
Quark seems to be at a loss for words. Finally he blurts out, "You still owe me ten bars!"
Technically that had been a gift, but Pel decides not to press the point. Those ten bars were a great help when she was first starting out in the Gamma Quadrant. "All right. Forty." She digs a padd out of her coat pocket, pulls up a standard contract, fills in their names and the amount, and holds it out for his thumbscan.
Quark sighs, shakes his head, and reluctantly presses his thumb to the padd. And then grins at her. "You are the most devious, manipulative -"
"Oh, stop! You're making me blush," she says, smiling back at him. Not that she minds compliments, especially from such a handsome man.
He leans in and kisses her, just a quick peck on the cheek, and that really does make her blush. "Come on, let's go tell the Nagus!"
"Ahh, you go ahead! I'll catch up in just a minute. I need to unpack."
He gives her a nod and one more dazzling smile, then walks out of the room.
She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. It's too much at once - she's giddy over the kiss and terrified at what she's gotten herself into, and she needs to think. She needs to calm down and sort things out.
She looks at her reflection in the viewport. It's all right. It'll be fine. You can do this.
She starts putting together an outline of how she'll approach the conversation. She'll have to talk to Nilva without Brunt finding out that she's the female who Zek is working with. So they'll need a place to meet in private...
Twenty minutes later, she walks into the Nagus's quarters. Four Ferengi heads and one Hupyrian turn toward her - Nog joined the group while she was gone.
She claps her hands and rubs them together. "Gentlemen! Here's the plan."
The crowd in the bar is too noisy, too happy. All the laughter, the animated discussions, the gleeful shouts from the dabo table - to these people it's just another night. They can sit back and relax, celebrate being off work or off duty. They have nothing to worry about.
Pel's work hasn't started yet, but it's just about to. Her palms are sweating, and she couldn't sleep last night, and she's thinking for the fiftieth time what a stupid idea it was to get herself involved in this.
Quark appears beside her table and sets down a glass of something. "Here, drink up," he says.
She sniffs it and immediately recoils. "Ugh. Kanar?"
"Tastes vile if you're not used to it, but it'll calm your nerves."
"If it's that easy to tell that I'm nervous, I guess I need it," she mutters. She breathes out, then swallows the kanar in one go. And starts coughing. It burns going down, and it tastes even worse than it smells.
"I'll get you some water," Quark says, and vanishes. He's back in only seconds - she's always admired his skill as a bartender. How he fills orders so quickly is beyond her.
She gulps the water, grateful to get the taste of kanar out of her mouth. "You weren't kidding. That stuff tastes like spoiled beetle puree!"
"But I bet you're feeling more confident already." He winks at her. He's right, she does feel better, although that probably has more to do with his smile than the kanar. He puts a hand on her shoulder, leans downs, and whispers, "You'll do fine. Don't worry."
"Thanks," she whispers back, feeling warm inside in more ways than one. Then she sees a glint of gold in her peripheral vision, near the entrance to the bar - it's the Nagal staff. "Back off a bit. Don't look, but Brunt just showed up." Quark straightens up and keeps his gaze focused on her.
Time to work, she tells herself. Remember the name, remember the voice, remember the attitude.
She faces Quark and says in the scratchy voice she uses when pretending to be male, "My name is Nim, I'm an important customer, and I am less than pleased with the service at this establishment." She glares at him, imitating anger.
Quark follows right along. "And I'm anxious to impress you," he says with a bow, "so I'm going to bring you a plate of fried tube grubs, on the house." He backs away, smiling obsequiously, and heads off toward the replicators.
She sips her water and watches Brunt with quick glances, pretending not to notice anything unusual. He's loitering just outside the bar, seemingly aimless - until he spies something of interest and rushes toward it. She follows his line of sight. Sure enough, there's Nog walking up the promenade, and Nilva is right behind him.
As soon as she sees Nilva, she gets a strong urge to run for it, to hop on the next transport to anywhere and just keep going. She closes her eyes, sucks in a breath, and opens them again.
Brunt is talking to Nilva, while Nog is trying to herd him toward the bar. Nilva, ever the gentleman, gives Brunt a little bow and says a few words to him, then turns and follows Nog.
Quark meets them at the door, carrying the plate of grubs that he just went to fetch for Pel. He leads the pair toward Pel's table, talking nonstop and gesturing with his free hand as they make their way through the crowd. She stands up, preparing to greet Nilva. As they get closer, she starts to pick up what Quark is saying. "- is YOUR establishment. If there's anything I can get for you, please don't hesitate to ask."
"Chairman!" Pel says, grinning at Nilva. "How was your flight?"
"Nim." He nods to her. "Not so great. That pilot's seat always gives me a sore back. Now where is this female I'm supposed to meet with?"
"Ah, well, Commissioner, she's not quite ready yet," Quark says, doing a credible imitation of chagrin.
"It's my fault, sir," Pel says. "Her outfit was so... concealing. I told her that if she insists on wearing clothes to meet with you, she should at least put on something that reveals more of her assets."
Nilva huffs. "Well. I hope she's ready soon."
"Oh, she's worth the wait, sir. I was surprised. Her lobes are almost as good as mine."
"While you gentlemen are waiting," Quark says, "why don't you spend some time in one of my holosuites? Free of charge." He sets the plate down, then pulls an isolinear rod out of his pocket and hands it to Nilva. "That program has an excellent masseuse. She'll do wonders for your back."
Nilva looks at the rod and then passes it to Pel, and she holds it up to read the label. "Pleasure Goddess of Rixx... Sounds, ah, very entertaining!"
"A massage does sound good," Nilva says, nodding. "All right, Quark, lead the way."
Quark ushers them to the stairs and tells them that Holosuite Three is open. Then they're going up, and all too soon they're at the door of the suite. "Go on in," she tells Nilva, and takes a breath, and tries to stop shaking, and follows him.
Inside, she hits the lock button and drops the isolinear rod into her pocket.
"Aren't you going to load the program?" Nilva asks.
"Nilva. I have something to tell you." Just get it over with... She faces him, makes sure that she has his attention. And then she says in her normal voice, "I'm the female you're here to meet."
He stares at her like she's grown a second head. "But you're a male."
"No. No, I'm not."
"But... What..." Nilva casts a bewildered glance around the holosuite. "What kind of joke is this?!"
This isn't going well. He has to believe her - she hadn't thought of the possibility that he wouldn't believe her.
"These lobes," she says, "they're fake, but they don't come off. I can't..." Show you, she was about to say, but she actually does have a way to show him. Not what she was planning on, but... It's the only option.
"I'll show you," she says, and opens the clasp on her jacket with trembling fingers.
It's easier if she keeps talking, so she does, while she starts unbuttoning her shirt. "I, ah... I had them reduced, so they'd be easier to hide, but I didn't want to get rid of them completely. I still, you know... I wanted to feel like a woman." She unclips the band that holds her breasts down and slides it off, then holds her shirt and jacket open so that he can see. "There."
Nilva's backed up against the holosuite wall. His eyes are wide, and his gaze keeps flicking from her face to her chest and then back.
"Well, ah..." She doesn't know what to say. She's still not sure whether Nilva believes her, from the look he's giving her. "I don't have to take off my pants too, do I?", she asks nervously. She really would rather not have to go that far.
Nilva blinks, and his expression slowly changes, from shock to something more resigned. He slides down the wall and sits with a thump, staring off into space.
He believes me. That's an improvement - or she thinks so, anyway. His reaction is hard to read.
"So now you know. So..." She casts about for something to say. "Well, you know I'm pretty good at business -"
"I've been working with a female," Nilva says, so softly that she barely catches the words.
She nods. "For about three years now." She feels an odd sense of relief now that her secret is out. No turning back now, and whichever way things turn out, it's all downhill from here.
She crouches down to Nilva's eye level and gives him a tentative smile. "Is there anything you want to ask me?"
He meets her eyes, and his expression is confused, betrayed. "Why?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't want to lie to you, but it was the only way we could do business together."
"You've been one of my best employees."
Have been. Past tense. That's not good - she tries to make light of it. "I do have a knack for contract negotiations."
"I was actually thinking..." Nilva shakes his head, wearing an incredulous half-smile. "I was actually considering selling my company to you when I retire."
That comes as a shock. She had no idea he thought so highly of her. His retirement is a long way off, but still... "Oh Nilva, I'm sorry," she says. "It... Well, it wouldn't have worked out anyway. I have my own plans."
He blows out a breath, and then suddenly a horrified look crosses his face. "The executive retreat. I bought you that escort... I saw her giving you oo-mox!"
Pel can't help but grin. Funny that a little thing like that would be so shocking to him. She hadn't been comfortable with that situation, but there was nothing for it - when your boss buys you a present, you say thank you and accept. And it certainly hadn't been all bad... "She was very good at it, too," she tells him.
"I just don't understand," Nilva says. "Why would a female want to go into business? Why would you want to break all our traditions, to... to lie to everyone?" Males pride themselves on their deviousness, but of course a man like Nilva would expect a female to be honest. Ferengi women are supposed to be kind and sweet and stupid and certainly never deceptive, never seeking their own advantage.
"I never wanted to lie," she says, serious now. "But I have a talent for business. It's part of who I am. And..." She pauses, thinking through how she wants to phrase this. "A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all. That's what I've been taught my whole life. So, I wanted to be a Ferengi. A real person. Not just somebody's possession."
"No, no, no. That's not how it is!" Nilva stands up abruptly, wringing his hands.
Pel stands too, grateful to stretch her legs. Nilva opens his mouth as if to say something, but then shuts it again - he seems more than a little upset. Something she said must have hit a nerve.
"You've got it all wrong," he says finally. "Males and females - we're like two halves of a whole." He laces his fingers together to illustrate. "The male's job is to go out and make profit, and support his family, and the female's job is to support him. And the reason it's that way is to protect you!" He's speaking with passion, and she has no doubt that he's sincere. "The corporate world is so... so ruthless, so cutthroat. You shouldn't have to deal with that! No female should. And fulfilling your proper role does NOT make you less of a Ferengi."
"And what if I don't want to play my role?" Pel says. "I like the corporate world. I can handle it." She doesn't buy for a second that females are only kept from doing business for their own good. Maybe that's how Nilva thinks, but a lot of men just don't want the competition. And forcing women to go naked has absolutely nothing to do with protecting them.
"I have to admit, you've done well for yourself," he says. "But you shouldn't have to. You should have a man who'll take care of you and provide everything that you need."
"Not every woman has that luxury. Sometimes there just isn't a man around, and sometimes the ones who are supposed to take care of you don't."
"Well, there are always exceptions, but -"
"There are a LOT of exceptions! A lot more than you'd think," she says with fervor. "*I* was an exception, when I was growing up." Her father never could find a decent job... and then came the accident, and without him around her mother was helpless. "We have to be allowed to take care of ourselves, because sometimes that's exactly what we have to do."
Nilva's expression is somber. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he says.
"Oh, don't be," she tells him. She doesn't want independence just because it's necessary. She wants independence for its own sake. She wants adventure - she wants to be in control of her own life.
"Even if my childhood had been perfect," she tells him, "I think I'd still want to earn profit. I just... I want to participate in the Great Material Continuum. I think that I have a lot to gain, and a lot that I can offer, too."
"But you still..." Nilva stops, and shakes his head. "What you're doing, whatever the reasons - it's not right."
This is what she was afraid of...
"You're a female. You shouldn't be earning profit. It's against the Rules, and it's against the law."
It's too late to do anything now. If he wants to turn her in, then that's what will happen, and she can't run to the Gamma Quadrant this time. Chances are it will be the end of her.
"I could turn you in," he says. "I probably should, to protect my company. I might get away with just a fine if I tell the Nagus about you right away." Brunt is the Nagus he means, of course.
Pel closes her eyes. "If that's what you want," she says in a whisper, almost choking on the words.
"What you're doing, whatever the reasons - it's not right. You're a female. You shouldn't be earning profit. It's against the Rules, and it's against the law."
This is what she was afraid of. It's too late to do anything now, though. If he wants to turn her in, then that's what will happen, and she can't run to the Gamma Quadrant this time. Chances are it will be the end of her.
"I could turn you in," Nilva says. "I probably should, to protect my company. I might get away with just a fine if I tell the Nagus about you right away."
Pel closes her eyes. "If that's what you want," she says in a whisper, almost choking on the words.
"It really isn't," he mutters. "Look... Why don't you just quit? Just get out of business and find a man to watch out for you, and live a normal life? You make good money working for me. I'm sure you have enough latinum saved up to get you by for a while."
It's kind of Nilva to offer her a way out. She could always move in with her brother Faron, and she's also pretty sure that Quark would take her in if she asked.
She could quit. But she won't. If there's one thing that these last few days have clarified for her, it's that freedom is not something that she can afford to give up. Doing business is what she lives for. She's a Ferengi, and she can't quit that.
She looks Nilva in the eye and says, "No. You'd have to kill me to get me to stop making profit."
He just watches her for a few seconds. And then sighs, and says, "I believe you. That's... an admirable sentiment." He looks away. "At least for a male, it would be."
She waits, and says nothing, and hears her own heartbeat hammering wildly in her ears.
Nilva looks up, examining her. "Does anyone else know about you?"
"Just a few people. No one who'll tell." She doesn't dare to hope, not yet.
He huffs. "Well then. I suppose, if no one's going to find out about it... Your talents do come in handy."
She sags with relief. He's not going to turn her in - he's chosen profit over his moral convictions. She'd prefer that he change his convictions, but this is the best she could reasonably have hoped for. She puts her wrists together and bows her head, too choked up to say thank you.
"So I'm curious," Nilva says. "Are there any other females working for me?"
Pel smiles and wipes her eyes. "A few. I am your hiring manager, after all." She's not about to name names, but some of Nilva's best employees are women in disguise. It's not easy finding smart, loyal Ferengi men who'll work for half what they're worth to the company, but there are plenty of women in desperate situations who fit that profile. Whenever Pel finds one who can pass for male well enough, she makes the hire.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me who they are."
"No, I'm not getting anyone else in trouble."
He smiles, but with very little mirth. "*I'M* going to be the one in trouble, if the FCA ever finds out that I'm employing females. My being a commissioner makes it that much worse."
Which brings them to the other subject she needs to talk to him about. "That sounds like a very good reason to support Zek," she says. "If he's retained as Nagus, he'll eventually make it legal to hire females, and even if you were caught before then I'm sure he'd go easy on you."
Nilva's smile fades. "Well, I don't know about that," he says. "I have to think about what's best for the Alliance. Zek has really shaken things up... Chaos is not good for business."
"Oh, it'll settle down. Practically every other sentient race treats their females as equals, and they're doing just fine. The Humans, the Vulcans -"
"Those people don't even use currency!" He looks scandalized.
"Not for most things," Pel explains, "but they do trade a high volume of goods and services. By that standard, they're very successful - more successful than we are, actually. And there are a few examples, like the Bolians, who have gender equality and are still very good with latinum."
"But we're better than they are. We're the number one profit-making association of planets in this quadrant! Maybe in the entire galaxy." He's wrong, the Ferengi aren't the best in the galaxy - Pel has seen the Karemma's GDI figures and per capita wealth estimates. Her people have some catching up to do.
"How long do you think we'll stay on top of the Alpha Quadrant?" she asks. "The Alliance's share of interstellar trade has been getting smaller and smaller for decades. The Federation is taking over the entire market! We're never going to make headway against them if we keep fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. We need females as consumers and as laborers, and we need their brainpower. Otherwise we'll fall behind. It's inevitable."
"In the long run... you might be right," Nilva concedes. "But what about the immediate future? Right now I still have a business to run, and I have to keep it out of bankruptcy. You know how bad this financial meltdown has been for Slug-O. You've seen the sales figures, and the hit our stock took on the Exchange."
"EVERYONE had their sales drop and their stock take a hit, because everyone panicked like a bunch of lobeless morons." That came out a little angry, but she is angry. Females can't be free because it disrupts commerce, it's their fault the markets have gone all to destitution - she's heard that argument a thousand times by now, and she's sick of it. "Don't try to blame it on women wearing clothes. It was you corporate leaders who treated Zek's amendment like a crisis instead of an opportunity."
Nilva snorts and says, "Lobeless moron, am I?"
She winces. "Sorry. I didn't mean you specifically..."
"Well, you can be blunt sometimes, but at least you give your honest opinion," he says. "If this were one of our boardroom arguments, now is when I would tell you to stop throwing around insults and just explain to your poor, witless colleagues what we're missing. What opportunity do you see that I don't?"
She had thought this part through even before the call from Nog, and it's an easy case to make. "If females can wear clothes, then they'll go outside on their own. We've already seen that starting to happen. And if they go out, they'll be exposed to advertisements."
"Ads for Slug-O-Cola, for example."
"That's right, and we'll be the first company to tailor ads to their demographic. I'm no expert in that field, but Quark tells me that his mother has some interesting ideas about marketing strategies geared toward women."
"Hmm. Treat them like an untapped market..."
"An emerging market," she says. "They won't have much latinum to start with, but with time, and if Zek makes a few more legal changes, they'll become a financial force to be reckoned with."
Nilva considers that for a moment. "So by getting Zek reinstated I'd be helping to create a new pool of customers, and then I'd just... swoop in and capture that market as soon as it's formed." He looks at Pel, and slowly breaks into a grin. "I like it."
"So you'll do it? You'll vote for Zek?" This could be it, the victory she's been hoping for -
He nods. "And I'll see what I can do about the rest of the Board of Liquidators."
"Oh, Nilva!" She beams at him and, after a second's consideration, embraces him and gives hm a kiss on the cheek.
"Ahh, please, Nim!" He steps back and holds her at arms' length. "I'm really not comfortable being kissed by someone who looks so much like a man."
She blushes. "Sorry, it's just..." His help means a lot to her, and she does want him to know that. "You're a good man, Nilva. I'm glad I work for you."
"Well. You're not a bad man yourself," he says, looking a little embarrassed. "Now just to be clear, I can't make any guarantees about the other commissioners. They may be hard to sway."
"Oh, I'm sure Zek will understand that. You can tell him yourself, actually. We're meeting with him right after this."
The thought of the upcoming meeting reminds Pel that she's not exactly presentable right now. "I'd better fix this," she says, plucking at her shirt, and turns her back to Nilva. The band goes first - she slips it around herself, under the shirt, and fastens it over her chest.
"Do me a favor," Nilva says. "Don't tell Zek that I've made a firm decision. Let's just say that I'm... open to the possibility of voting for him. For a price." She can hear slyness in his voice, and a hint of humor.
Still buttoning up her shirt, she grins and says, "Yes, sir! Wish I could have gotten some latinum out of him, but he had a backup plan that didn't involve me."
"Trust me, you don't want to know." She tucks her shirt in, straightens the cuffs. "I got a few bars from Quark, at least, so that's something."
She fastens her jacket and tugs it down, then turns around and adjusts her posture, slumping forward just a bit. "Now," she says in her male voice, much to Nilva's amusement. "In case Brunt's listening when we leave here, we spent the last half hour getting the best oo-mox of our lives from, what was it" - she digs the isolinear rod out of her pocket - "the Pleasure Goddess of Rixx, from Betazed."
"I can't believe that act fooled me for so long," Nilva says, smiling and shaking his head. "Right, the Pleasure Goddess. She had such soft hands."
"And she was beautiful too! Long dark hair..."
"Delicate little lobes..."
"And breasts the size of Andorian ice melons!" Pel gestures for effect, and Nilva laughs out loud.
She unlocks the holosuite door, and they walk out into the dim light and clamor of the bar.
As they reach the bottom of the stairs, Pel sees Nog sitting at the bar, snacking on fried tube grubs. Quark isn't with him - she looks around and spots him in the corner by the storeroom door, having what appears to be an intense conversation with a dabo girl. A tall, curly-haired, busty, absolutely gorgeous dabo girl. She doesn't have long to feel jealous, though, because a second later Quark notices her and Nilva and immediately shoos the girl away. He walks over to greet them.
"I hope you gentlemen had a, ah, pleasant experience?"
"Very enjoyable," Nilva says, smiling and stroking one of his lobes. "Those Betazoid females have talented hands!"
Pel smiles too and winks at Quark, letting him know that things went well.
"Oh, that's good," Quark says. "That's very good..." He grins back at them, rubbing his hands together. "I'm sure the female is ready to see you by now. Nog! Quit loafing around and get over here!"
Nog appears beside her, all straight-backed and formal in his Starfleet uniform - she still can't quite wrap her head around the idea of a Ferengi joining that organization. "Yes, Uncle?"
"Take our guests to the Nagus's quarters. It's time they met his advisor."
Nog seems to pick up on Quark's good mood, and his face lights up. "Of course! Right this way," he says, and leads them out of the bar.
Brunt is still lying in wait, and the second they step outside the bar he approaches them. As he's opening his mouth to speak, Nilva says, "Not right now, Brunt, I'm in the middle of something." Brunt is left standing there with his mouth hanging open as the three of them walk by.
Pel says loudly for Brunt's benefit, "Young man, do you know where I can get a copy of that Rixx program? She was fantastic."
Nog shoots her a grin over his shoulder. "There are five programs in that series, each in a different luxurious setting. I could get you all five for, say, three bars of latinum..."
They keep up the chatter as they head into the corridors.
Pel stifles a yawn as she walks with Nilva back to his ship. Their meeting with Zek went well, but it stretched on for what seemed like forever. The old man had insisted that they stay for dinner, with Quark catering, and had used their mealtime to keep haggling with Nilva over the price of his cooperation. She's exhausted by now, and a bit tipsy from all the spring wine she drank. She'd like nothing better than go back to her quarters, curl up on the bed, and sleep for a whole twenty-six-hour day.
"Thirteen hundred bars," she says to Nilva, admiringly. "I still can't believe it."
Nilva chuckles. "Zek's in no position to get my help without paying for it. And my help isn't cheap. He could have argued me down to a thousand, though, if he'd really tried. I think he let me win. Gave me a little extra latinum for motivation, and maybe to inspire self-confidence."
Something in his tone suggests that he could use a little more self-confidence. "What do you think of your chances with the Board?" she asks.
"Well, the practical case for the changes Zek wants to make is solid."
What he's avoiding saying, she thinks, is that the moral case is not solid, at least in his view. He's not convinced that it's the right thing to do. Pel can understand why he would feel uneasy about advocating the end of customs that go back millenia. She has a lot of respect for him - he's a smart businessman and conscientious as a manager - so it stings a bit, knowing that he thinks it's wrong for her to be involved in business. More importantly, though, Nilva's doubts could make it hard for him to persuade the rest of the commissioners.
"You stick with the practical case, then," she tells him. "I'm sure Zek can handle the rest." Actually, she's not at all sure that Zek can handle it. He hadn't even wanted to address the Board of Liquidators himself, but Nilva talked him into it. Zek has already left the station for Ferenginar, and much to Pel's relief, Brunt followed right after him.
"Zek certainly seems passionate about women," Nilva says. "Or at least about that girlfriend of his."
They reach Airlock Five, where Nilva's ship is docked, and he stops outside the door and turns toward her. "Are you sure you don't want a ride back?"
"That's all right," she says. "The next transport is in a few days, I'll just wait. It'll give me a chance to catch up with my old friends here - Broik, and M'Pella, and Morn -"
"And Quark," Nilva says, with a twinkle in his eye.
He can't have guessed... but he did, she can tell from his expression. "Ohh!" she says, embarrassed. "Am I really that obvious?"
"Not you, him!" Nilva says with a laugh. "His eyes were on you from the second he walked in that door. He's just a bartender, though, he can't be making that much latinum. Certainly less than you are."
"He's successful enough for me," Pel says, smiling.
Nilva nods. "Well, good luck. Don't stay too long or I'll dock your pay." He winks at her.
She ducks her head, and then says with feeling, "Good luck to you too, sir. I hope you can get some sleep on the way back."
"No rest for me, I'm afraid. I have a speech to write." He stands there silent for a long moment, just watching her, and she wonders what's going through his head. "Nim," he finally says. "I mean, Pel."
"Better stick with Nim, sir. That's what you'll have to call me when we're at the office."
"Right. Well, you..." He pauses, and gives her a tight-lipped smile. "You're the strangest female I ever met."
"Ahh, thanks, I think..." She's mystified by his odd mood, but at least he seems affectionate.
"Take care," he says. "I'll see you back home."
She raises a hand in farewell, and he turns and walks through the airlock, boarding his ship. The doors roll shut behind him.
She could go to the bar and see Quark now - he had invited her to stop by, once the meeting wrapped up. Honestly, though, she's just too tired. It's been a long and nerve-racking couple of days. She won't know how things turn out until the FCA's spokesman makes the Board's decision public, but at this point, she's done all that she can do. And she has no reason to fear being caught now, at least not more than usual. Tonight she should be able to sleep well.
It's going to be a long walk back to her quarters. She sighs and gets started on it.
A sound startles her awake.
Pel groans and rolls over to look at the chronometer - it's 0330 station time. A bit later in Ferenginar planet time, but it's early by any measure, and she's far from ready to wake up.
The sound rings out again. The door chime.
"Who is it?" she calls, her voice blurry with sleep.
"It's Quark," the comm system relays to her. "Sorry to wake you."
"S'all right, I'm coming," she says, and sits up. He wouldn't be bothering her at this hour unless it was for something important. She stretches and lets out a big yawn, and thinks about getting dressed, but decides against it. It's early, pajamas will be fine.
She slips out of bed and pads out into the living area, taps the lock button next to the door to open it. Quark looks pretty tired himself. He doesn't have a coat on, just his shirt and vest, which is a rather attractive look for him.
"Sorry to wake you," he says again. "I just found out though, my mother is watching the confirmation hearing on subspace. I thought you'd want to see it too."
That's odd - FCA board meetings are always conducted in private. "How is she watching it?" Pel asks. "They don't broadcast those things."
"They record them, though. Moogie wanted to see it, so Zek bribed someone to send a feed from the recording device over a secure channel."
Pel nods. "Thanks for coming to get me. I do want to see it." She looks up and tells the computer, "Lights", and it obligingly turns them on. "Come on in, Quark, take a seat. I'll throw some clothes on."
Quark yawns and shuffles inside. She notices with amusement that he's wearing shiny latinum-colored slippers instead of shoes. "You shouldn't bother to dress up," he tells her. "We're just going to the infirmary."
"Well I'm not going to meet your mother in my pajamas," she says over her shoulder, already halfway to the bedroom. She hears him chuckle in response.
Yesterday's trousers will have to do. She only brought two pairs with her, and the other pair has yamok sauce on one knee from dinner two nights ago. She puts on fresh underwear and socks, though, then the trousers and an orange-and-cream striped shirt that she hasn't worn yet on this trip. She digs her favorite coat out of her bag, the dark blue one with silver trim, and shrugs it on, then finds the headwrap that matches it and puts that on too. A quick glance in the mirror confirms that she's looking sharp enough for business - she steps into her shoes, then heads back into the living room.
Quark is perched on the sofa with one ankle balanced on the other knee, his head turned to stare out the viewport. He must not have heard her come in, because he doesn't turn toward her. So quiet and still, so peaceful... It strikes Pel that she's never seen him this way. He's always in motion, always energetic, or at least he always has been around her.
She bites her lip and just watches him for a moment, before she can bring herself to get his attention. He really is handsome like this. She's half tempted to sneak over to the sofa and sit next to him, as quietly as she can to keep from disturbing him. And maybe slip her arm around him, and maybe... Well. This isn't the time for daydreams.
She coughs, a soft sound, and Quark hears her this time. He hauls himself to his feet. "Ready?" he asks.
Pel nods, and they walk together to the door.