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Taking Risks

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

 

Keshara District, Bajor

Luther Sloan was a patient man. He prided himself on the knowledge that he could be more patient than the proverbial Grim Reaper himself - he who could and would wait for everyone, patient and stoic - and then take life with one precise and silent sweep of his scythe. A pretentious comparison? Maybe, but why should he waste his time with mere mediocrity. He was a man of brilliance, used to aim for the top and he would never accept anything but the best.

Naturally Sloan had a real penchant for black. It was elegant, it lent an air of mystery and it didn't show the occasional blood-stain that was an unavoidable risk in his profession. Sloan loved black, preferably black leather. It produced those soft creaking sounds only tanned skin would, and it hugged his body so sensually, the touch was almost erotic. It gave his movements such a unique quality that made him feel alert and casual at the same time.

Sloan didn't have a scythe of course. That would be just too impractical and eccentric, even for a genius like him. If necessary he used a small but razor-sharp knife that was usually hidden in his sleeve. More often he preferred to keep his own hands clean by just giving the order - after all that's what subordinates were there for.

Right now the sinking sun of an early summer evening warmed his back. That was another aspect of leather he held precious, the way it warmed him like only a true second skin could. He was standing in front of a group of Bajorans. "Fine, I'll repeat my question," he said, smiling amiably, "I expect you to give me the names of those responsible for this latest attempt of sabotage - now, please." The group eyed him wearily. There were five adults, men and women, two adolescent girls and two young children, a boy and a girl. They had been forced out of their houses that were situated near the small village's marketplace.

Now they stood in the centre of that place, looking forlorn and frightened. Although all around them the streets and houses seemed completely lifeless, he was sure that their group was closely watched. He counted on it in fact. Briefly he wondered if any of these captives in front of him were related. He didn't know, but in the end the information wasn't crucial. If necessary he would order his Jem'Hadar to start with one of the children and regardless of any family ties he was sure that would break the resistance of the adults very fast. It's the biological imperative to protect the helpless, he thought. Even the most intelligent, the most rational of them aren't able to keep their priorities straight when children are involved.

He let his gaze slowly sweep over the whole group, aiming to make eye-contact with as many of them as possible. He saw a lot of averted eyes. No one spoke. He raised his gaze and looked at the horizon. The mountains that marked the border of Keshara district were still hidden from view, the heavy smoke of a couple of burning villages created a curtain of darkness that crept over the mountain-flanks. It had been a shame to burn so many, but they were resistance nests, and like weeds they had to be taken out to prevent them from spreading.

Time's up, he thought. He made the smallest hand-gesture, but it was enough to let his First spring into action immediately. The Jem'Hadar stepped forward, grabbing the youngest girl. She cried out, a high pitched wail, a voice raised in abject terror, then her voice turned into a whimper as the Jem'Hadar dropped her to the ground.

For a split-second there was complete silence, then one of the adults, a young man cried out in anguish. He stumbled forward, his hands making helpless grasping gestures towards the sprawled body of the girl that now lay on the ground like a hapless bundle. Another gesture by Sloan, and the Jem'Hadar grabbed the man and pushed him further forward until he stood directly in front of Sloan, singled out now. He was of slight build, with a haggard look and shaggy hair. But it were his eyes, far too large for his lean face and filled with a hunger so intense it was startling, that captured one's attention immediately.

"Well?" Sloan asked calmly. The Bajoran fidgeted nervously, his head bobbing left and right. Had he seemed on the brink of a violent outburst before, now there was nothing left of that, having been replaced by fear once again.

"I know that the sabotage was committed by people from this village, but I'm not interested in them. I want your contact in the resistance network." The Bajoran's head jerked up, but before the man could say anything, Sloan added, "and don't even try to tell me there isn't anything like a resistance network. Its existence is a fact, and I don't think you want to endanger your children even further, do you?"

They looked at one another and there was a whole series of emotions warring on the man's face: fear and hate and resignation the most prominent. Haltingly the Bajoran said, "She calls herself Jabara, though that's most likely a code name. I never met her in person only via transmission and always voice only."

Sloan nodded. That wasn't surprising. "Your next objective?" he asked. The Bajoran shook his head, "There isn't one," he said. He looked up when Sloan made a tsking noise. Sloan let his gaze demonstratively wander to the young boy in the group behind. "Think again," he prompted.

"Why? Why are you doing this? Why are you playing the Dominion's lackey?" Instead of answering the Bajoran now asked. Sloan sighed. He really hadn't time for this discussion, knowing all the angry accusations and arguments that would follow. He considered the man in front of him. Oh, why not? It might be worth a try. Maybe, just maybe he'd be able to turn this simpleton far enough around so he'd be of further use to him.

"Come with me," he said to the Bajoran and to his First he said, gesturing at the rest of the group, "let them go for now."

***

The Dagger

"What do you mean, I'm probably not allowed to be there?" Bashir's voice sounded petulant even to his own ears and he cringed inwardly. He should have sounded indignant. He should have aimed for a mixture of honest disappointment and slight anger. Instead he had sounded like a whining child that wasn't allowed to get to the sweets tin.

Not surprisingly Kira's answering look held a strong note of reproach. "Doctor, we talked about this. As charming as your presumptions about your status here might occasionally be, they are wrong. You are tolerated on the Dagger, nothing more." She grimaced, putting her fork down, staring at the contents of the plate in front of her.

"Oh believe me I have no false expectations of the esteem the Romulans hold me in. But I had thought that regardless of the mistrust they place in me, your opinion might be slightly better and not based on the same mixture of xenophobia and paranoia," Bashir grated out.

Kira's look suddenly turned thunderous. She pointed her fork at him, her grip tight, showing white knuckles, "Don't confuse me with Garak, Human, I'm not so easily charmed," she practically spat at him. "And insults are definitely not the best way to win me over!"

It wasn't the first time that he had been called 'Human' or 'the Human' in a decidedly hostile manner, but until now it had always been one of the Romulans. To hear it now from Kira really annoyed him and it hurt. He was searching for a fittingly cutting reply when Garak's voice beat him to it.

"I don't think there's much of a chance of that Kira, those nose-ridges are a dead give-away." Garak's voice was mild. He slid on the last free chair at their table in the Dagger's mess hall.

Bashir looked at the Cardassian wearily. Since their arrival on the Romulan Interceptor almost two weeks ago he and Garak hadn't spoken more than a few words. In fact Garak had treated him more or less like an outcast. Oh, he had seen him, quite a lot of him actually. The Dagger's security chief Soren Trenn, the very same Romulan that had almost refused to let them come aboard the Dagger in the first place, had interrogated Bashir for five solid days. Garak had been there all the time, a shadow in the half dark, silent and with a face devoid of any discernible expression.

Trenn had been almost brutal in his questioning, going at it for hours on end. Bashir was sure that from the second day on his food had been drugged - things got quite hazy for a while and he had felt so nauseous - and Garak had sat there not even raising a finger to help him.

Until now Bashir hadn't had a chance to challenge the Cardassian for that underhanded behaviour. While he had been interrogated he had spent the rest of the days once again in a holding cell, and after his release he hadn't been too eager to see the Cardassian. Also he had noticed with some satisfaction that Garak seemed to avoid him. Quite possibly the result of a guilty conscience, Bashir had assumed.

Therefore he was still in a really foul mood when it came to Garak, much more foul indeed than his momentary anger at Kira. He said to Garak, "No I don't think there's a chance to confuse the two of you. Kira at least has the courtesy to talk to me." His voice had risen as he spoke, creating a certain hush at the tables adjacent to theirs. He glowered at Garak, leaning backwards in his chair.

Garak gave him a long considering look, then said in the same mild voice he had used before, "You're a fool, Doctor. Right now, I don't have time to deal with an emotional fit by you. You're expected to meet us in the Dagger's conference room in two hours. Until then, I want you to go to your quarters and cool down."

And how Bashir hated that condescending voice with a passion. "I don't think," he started to reply, his tone as rebellious as his expression, his voice rising, when Garak interrupted him by saying, "Do as you're told, Doctor. I really don't want to call on the Romulans to deal with you. But make no mistake, I will if you force me. I'm sure Trenn would be most willing to escort you to your quarters."

That was really a low blow. Abruptly Bashir got up from the table, and he left them without a word. He was fuming, not paying any attention to the corridors of the Dagger as he stormed through them on his way to his quarters. How dares he? Treating me like this, threatening me. It's demeaning. I'm so going to pay him back and I'll find a way. What a bastard. Bashir's thoughts were again and again circling around the same theme. He entered his quarters - more a closet really - and flung himself on his narrow bunk.

How am I expected to think straight when I'm on a ship where everyone hates me or is at least deeply suspicious of me - if even those who I believed had started to trust me, stab me in the back? Suddenly a realization struck him. Garak had told him to come to the strategy meeting - the same meeting he so desperately wanted to attend, the same meeting Kira had told him he might not be allowed to join. His internal ranting came to a screeching halt. Why? Why would they want him there? What kind of sick game could it be that they were playing with him? Had Kira known that he was allowed to attend the meeting when she told him the opposite? What was going on here?

All of the sudden he felt very tired. He was still suffering from the sleep deficit he had accumulated during the days Trenn had interrogated him. Leaving all the plotting and second-guessing behind, he decided that a nap would be the best thing he could do now. He certainly would need his wits together in that upcoming meeting.

***

It was soft chuckling that woke him some time later. Blinking slowly, he peered in the direction of the sound and saw Garak leaning against the closed door of his small quarters.

"I'm sure I locked the door behind me," Bashir said.

"I'm sure you did," Garak agreed. He moved over to the lonely chair that together with a tiny table made up half of the available furnishings of the room. He sat down and said with a smile, "You truly have the soul of a nip'ka."

Bashir sat up, but didn't reply to the strange opening. He knew that Garak was waiting for a question from him, but regardless how much the casually made comparison piqued Bashir's curiosity, he was adamant not to give Garak the slightest satisfaction.

Silently he stared at the Cardassian until Garak shrugged, sighed and continued, "Nip'kas are predators, graceful creatures really, although that's not the similarity I'm getting at. They have this very peculiar habit when they are stressed. They flee and return to their den to sleep it off." He chuckled again, obviously amused by his own story. "I bet Kira a bottle of the finest Bajoran spring wine that I would find you asleep. She said there was no chance you would be, not after me being so 'mean' to you," his voice and expression changed to mocking, mimicking the Bajoran's tone of voice, giving a solid parody of the major.

Bashir huffed. "I expect you to share that bottle with me - whatever spring wine is - for winning you that bet. That is unless you feel more comfortable in sharing it with your new best friend, security-chief Trenn of course." He looked at Garak with raised eyebrows, his expression equally mocking as Garak's earlier performance had been.

"Oh come now Doctor, don't prove me right in calling you a fool," Garak said, his tone of voice changing from light conversational to far more serious now. His face held a look of slight disappointment. It made Bashir wonder what Garak was expecting of him. "What do you think would have happened if I'll intervened with Trenn's interrogation?" Garak asked. He paused briefly, then before Bashir could say anything, he continued, "No, don't answer that. We'll need to get to the conference room. Just one reminder: there is almost no place on this ship where we aren't watched and listened to. These quarters are safe, as are mine or Kira's, I check them regularly. Everywhere else it would be wise to always expect an audience, don't ever forget that." He stood up again. "I'll wait outside," he added and left Bashir alone.

***

When they entered the Dagger's small conference room Captain Vexel, Security Chief Trenn and Kira were already present. Rounding the table Bashir found himself steered to a free chair next to Kira. Garak seemed to have a very precise idea how they should be seated. Obviously it involved Bashir ending up with Kira on his left and Garak on his right. He sat down, wondering about the reasons behind it. It didn't take him more than to look up to find at least one - when he glanced across the round conference table he was startled to see Trenn giving him a baleful glare. He paused, looked again, this time at both of the Romulans.

As they sat there, side by side, they were an impressive and somewhat intimidating sight - both very tall, Trenn still with the typical helmet-like black hair, Vexel's already grizzled and leaning towards white. They are like a pair of proud and dangerous birds of prey, casually perched now while not on the hunt, but nonetheless alert should any threat arise. The imagery came to him out of nowhere. His instinctive reaction was to duck his head. He didn't, but the urge was strong. Their haughty faces were a play of contrast as Trenn's showed his anger as clearly now as the captain's displayed his calm.

Trenn turned to his captain saying, "Just to be absolutely clear, I protest the presence of this Human."

Bashir tried not to react outwardly, but he saw Kira rolling her eyes, making no attempt to hide her exasperated reaction while she looked at Bashir and Garak.

"Yes, Trenn, and I heard you the first time. My decision stands however. Bashir will attend our meeting. This discussion is closed," the captain replied evenly, giving the other Romulan a hard look.

Trenn snorted but didn't speak up, and the captain continued, "Let's see where we stand. In the past couple of days it has been our priority to gather information. All of us have different resources to tap into, and pooling what we learned should enable us to get as complete a picture as we can. The questions are: What's happening around us? What are our governments doing? What do we know about the next steps the Federation and the Dominion are about to take?"

He turned to Kira.

"Nerys?"

Kira nodded and said, "It took me a while to get to my contacts on Bajor. For obvious reasons this new occupation has disrupted many of the established communication channels. There have been announcements made that it will be the Federation that is going to enforce the 'new order' as they call it. There are a lot of voices raised in accusation against the Federation now. Those voices talk of the federation as a power that is using the Dominion as a way of pushing their own expansionistic intentions. It's their chance to silence every existing opposition, to enforce peace on the Alpha Quadrant by forcing everyone into their fold."

But that's not how the Federation works, Bashir thought. He was startled to hear such a jaded view and more than a little angered. He thought about interrupting, to try to give a more objective view, but hesitated. He didn't want to risk his right to be here by speaking up for the 'enemy' at such an early time in their meeting.

His indecisiveness must have been obvious at least to one, because there was a slight tap on his right wrist. He cast a sidelong glance at Garak. The Cardassian gave him a warning look, accompanied by a slow shake of his head. He was cautioning Bashir to keep quiet, and for the time being Bashir decided to heed the wordless counsel.

"Our resistance network has been revived almost instantly following the fall of Bajor. We will teach both the Federation and the Dominion the same lesson we taught the Cardassians before. We never give in however hard you push us," Kira continued. She raised her chin and threw a challenging look around the table.

Now Bashir really couldn't help it. He leaned towards Garak and whispered, "So, your people aren't any better than mine, hmm?" Another warning look - then Garak ignored him. Instead he turned to Kira. With a small bow of his head he said, "And we all know how effective the Bajoran resistance can be."

She looked mollified if slightly surprised as if she had expected an argument from him and returned his gesture. "I expect my contacts to organize a constant flow of information in the near future," she went on. "It shouldn't be too difficult to establish enough collaborators to work for the Federation while siphoning them for intel. For now I have only one reliable piece of information and that's no big news. The Dominion and Federation will come after Cardassia next."

Garak picked up there and said, "And Cardassia is preparing for that event. For now it even seems as if the Alliance might still hold for a while, long enough at least to lend us all the support we need for the preparations."

"And what exactly do you want to insinuate by that?" Trenn interrupted in a sharp voice.

"Insinuating, Trenn? And why would I do something like that? Considering that the Romulans are such steadfast and reliable allies."

"And have I mentioned lately, how tired I am of your cheap sarcasm?" Trenn shot back.

For a second a hostile silence reigned.

Now Bashir had enough. Throwing caution to the wind and mustering all the arrogance he could, he said, "You know, you're making it really easy for the Dominion and the Federation. If your behaviour is symptomatic of the way the Alliance works, things will fall apart pretty soon." The comment earned him glowering looks from both men, but he had expected that and returned them openly and without backing down. He didn't care that he was assuming the role of their common enemy now, becoming the voice of the 'oh, so evil Federation'.

The captain who had remained silent so far, now spoke up. Addressing Bashir directly he said, "A very good point - the Alliance always has been an uneasy coalition. The Romulans and Cardassians have vied for dominance practically from day one, and the Klingons with their unique brand of half brained stupidity and occasionally intelligent cunning have been a true wild card.

"The Bajorans have been the only calming influence in the Alliance. They've been the voice of reason on more than one occasion, and that voice will be sorely missed now. Insofar Garak's remark wasn't completely unjustified, but not the most constructive in this setting either," and here he gave the Cardassian a sharp look.

Garak only shrugged his shoulders and answered, utterly unapologetic, "I see no use in shying away from the truth, but have it your way. As I said, Cardassia is preparing for the event. I've managed to talk to Tain. He told me that because of the increasing danger, our government has intensified its negotiations with the Breen. It's unlikely that they will join the Alliance, but even winning them as a mercenary force might be worth the price. Unfortunately the price they demand - a handful of Cardassian colonies and a sizeable portion of our territories - is quite high. Nonetheless there are strong voices on Cardassia demanding that we agree to these terms." He paused for a moment and Trenn seemed to have waited for that.

"And why don't you tell us about those other negotiations?" Trenn asked, his voice a little too loud and quite accusatory. For Bashir it brought back uncomfortable memories of those interrogation sessions he had to endure not too long ago. Trenn seemed to be able to slip into the inquisitor's role  with practised ease, and his sole and lonely focus was Garak right now.

And the object of his focus just sat there, looked back and remained silent.

Trenn continued, "You know which negotiations I mean. There's a rumour that right after the battle for Bajor Cardassia tried to initiate clandestine peace negotiations with the Dominion!"

Again the room fell into silence.

"It isn't a rumour," Garak finally answered. "Those negotiations were tried. They failed practically before they even had begun. It seems the Dominion didn't take it lightly that we collapsed the first wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant while a whole fleet of their ships was on its way through it."

"So you admit it." Trenn's voice was ice-cold.

"Great Gul, Trenn. What's there to admit?" Garak snapped back. He was losing his calm veneer now, showing his anger openly.

"Especially bearing in mind that our government is seriously considering writing the Cardassians and the whole Alliance off as a lost cause," the captain threw in. "They've even tried to convince the Klingons to follow that example, but not surprisingly the Klingons believe such a strategy would go against that simplistic 'warrior's code' of theirs. Still, our Senate is weighing the option to revert back to our isolationist policy of a century ago, to draw back inside our borders in the hopes that the Dominion and the Federation will accept it as a status quo just like they did before. Interesting, isn't it?"

Trenn visibly deflated at hearing that. "What?" he asked in a weak voice. "That will never work." His expression turned almost pleading as he looked over at the Dagger's captain.

Vexel chuckled bitterly. He let his gaze wander around the table and said, "Let's sum it up: the Bajorans are out of the picture and the Romulan and Cardassian governments are contemplating how to best save their sorry hides. Any reliable news from the Klingons?"

His question was answered by a round of headshakes.

"Whatever. Then let's move on for now." Before he could continue though, the doors to the conference room slid open, and a woman rushed into the room. Vexel smiled. "Ah, Pavale. I was wondering when you would grace us with your presence."

She gave him a sour look. She sat down beside him and huffed. "If this crew and captain would show only the slightest bit of consideration for the fact that their ship isn't indestructible, I might be able to keep my meeting appointments," she said by way of an explanation.

Definitely an engineer, Bashir thought amused. He studied her with interest. She was an unassuming woman, somewhere in her mid-thirties, and so average her appearance alone wouldn't have turned a single head. She had a slightly dishevelled look that fitted the rest of her perfectly, but what had caught his attention was her voice. Clear and melodious as a bell it was a pleasure to the ear, like the taste of dark chocolate slowly melting on the tongue. It was entrancing and it had gotten her not only his, but everyone's complete attention instantly. Tinkerbell, the name popped quite unbidden in his head, and he squashed it hastily. Comparing a Romulan to a fairy? Definitely not a good idea, Julian.

The captain introduced her, saying, "This is Narya Pavale. She's my chief engineer and she's joining us from now on." There was a round of greetings around the table, then Vexel picked up where he had stopped before Pavale's entrance. "As I was saying: let's move on to our plans. Since our two newest additions don't know any details," he gave Garak a questioning look, who threw a sidelong glance at Bashir, then slightly shook his head, "let's do this from the beginning." Again he looked at Garak.

Garak did a little show of collecting himself before he addressed Bashir and Pavale directly, "The Alliance will lose this war. There's no chance that we will stand our ground, we simply don't have the resources. With the Federation as an ally the Dominion has gained a strong foothold in our quadrant. Even a Federation that is still weakened by their latest conflict with the Borg contributes considerably to their superior forces. If we can't beat them in open conflict, the logical alternative is to find a covert way, to look for weak spots to exploit. Every enemy - regardless of its strength - has them.

"One obvious weak spot is the wormhole, of course. To our deepest regret we have learned the hard way that destroying it would only be a temporary solution. We tried it with the first one, and it lead to our present situation. We have no idea how the Dominion accomplished it, but establishing another one that now opens within spitting distance to Earth was the worst thing that could have happened."

Bashir nodded emphatically and said, "It threw Earth and consequently the Federation into chaos. I believe that at least part of their reaction was born out of sheer panic. Discovering such a powerful potential opponent on your own doorstep would make anyone extremely nervous."

With a slight nod Garak picked up his account again, "So - since destroying the second wormhole isn't a viable solution - we have decided to solve this dilemma by coming at it from the top. We're going to destroy the planet of the Founders."

The conference room fell into  a heavy silence after his last sentence. The sheer enormity of Garak's proposal caused everyone to pause. Bashir was shocked, both by the unlikeliness for any such plan to succeed, and at the same time his conscience was nagging him that in essence they were planning genocide. From the looks on the others faces though, he seemed to be the only one who felt that to be a problem. He felt the urge to speak up, but he remained silent. Especially voicing a protest would be unwise now - better to bide his time and wait for Garak to continue or anyone else to comment.

At last it was Pavale who said "As long as it's nothing more difficult, really, why worry?" Her words were dripping with sarcasm - no hint of dark chocolate there, but something tangy and biting. Like biting into a raw onion, Bashir thought.

Garak just gave her an icy glare otherwise ignoring her comment and continued, "What we need right now is more intel about what's happening around us, be it the Federation, the Dominion, or our own Alliance. Reliable intel will guide our next steps.

"And what will those be? Bashir asked.

Folding his hands on the table in front of him, Garak leaned back in his seat. Then he answered and it sounded like he was going through an invisible check-list, ticking off each item with a small nod of his head. "We need a ship to get to the Gamma Quadrant, we need access to the wormhole, we need a way to get through, we have to learn where the planet of the Founders is exactly and lastly we need a means to destroy it or its population." He cast a look around then focused on Vexel and said with a tight smile, "So Captain, shall we start planning?"

***

Kira had hoped it would be a matter of days, but in the end it took them almost two weeks before they felt at least halfway certain that they'd found a feasible plan of action. A lot of it still sounded ludicrous or as Pavale one day had put it, "It's complete madness of course, but at least it is our madness, and I've given up hope getting out of this alive long ago." An uncomfortable silence had fallen afterwards while everyone seemed to consider his or her probable personal fate, then they had pushed the remark aside and had gone on. Painstakingly they discussed and analysed every detail of their plan again and again, discussing every step, debating every premise and every conclusion. It was tedious and for Kira it was a small wonder that no blood was spilled in the process.

Most of the time it seemed to her like everyone was at odds with everyone else. On two occasions only hers and Bashir's quick reactions had prevented Garak and Trenn from getting into a serious fight. It had soon become clear to everyone that there was some history between these two men, though both refused to comment on it. The result was a mixture of rivalry and animosity between them that every so often spilled over to the rest of their group and made working together problematic to say the least.

Pavale hadn't proven to be a calming influence either - more often than not she liked to assume the role of casual observer and amused herself with lobbing ironic comments at the others.

We're such a rag-tag team, it's going to be a wonder if we accomplish anything, Kira thought grimly. She hoped that once they were able to act, to finally do something, their frustration and aggression would find a better outlet than to squabble and quarrel amongst themselves. At least that was what Vexel was telling her.

***

It was such a relief when they were finally able to move from planning and preparing to taking concrete action. They sent Trenn and Pavale off, their objective being to retrieve a Starfleet shuttle. They had received intel about one that might just be salvageable enough for their purposes.

That meant that Garak, Bashir and herself were left behind on the Dagger, and Kira had decided to make an effort to find some common ground with these two. If at least the three of them could reach an understanding, a lot would be gained.

They were in Garak's quarters. Kira was sitting on the only available chair - the classical Romulan standard, she thought, why waste time on creature comforts when you can go for the bare essentials - while Garak leaned against a wall. Together they were waiting for Bashir who had vanished into the tiny refreshing-unit to change.

Kira let her gaze idly wander around the room. It was as sparse as her own. The only difference was the medkit Bashir had brought aboard. She had started to play with its fastenings while they were waiting for Bashir to re-emerge.

When the Human returned, clad now in the red uniform of a commanding officer of Starfleet, he said, "You know, I'm a doctor, not a starship captain." Clearly he was in one of his whining moods. Kira had heard that tone of voice once too often in the last days and it always brought out the worst in her. Forgetting her resolve to aim for a smoother way to deal with the two she said, "Bashir, you wanted to be in, you wanted to contribute - now you are, so stop complaining!"

Bashir looked crestfallen for a moment, then he nodded. "You're right," he said, and turning to Garak he continued, "I don't think the replicator got my size quite right. The sleeves are a tad too long and the trousers a bit too short."

Without thinking Kira replied, "That's because it isn't replicated of course," only to see Bashir's face slowly whiten as he realized from which other source the uniform most probably came. Smooth, Nerys, and now he's giving you that 'kicked-puppy-look' again.

Garak gave her a warning glance, then said, "Why don't you leave this fitting and the rehearsal to me, Kira? There's really no need for both of us to be present, don't you agree?"

Putting the now slightly lighter medkit aside she got up. "Fine. I'm going to get something to eat." She had almost reached the door when Garak stepped into her path, blocking her exit and stretching out his open palm.

"Hand it back!"

Just for a second she considered to feign innocence, but no, that wouldn't take her anywhere. She grumbled and dropped the tribble into Garak's hand. "I wish Vexel would confiscate the poor thing", she said and swept past him.

Once outside Garak's quarters she turned towards the mess hall. One day she would find a way to get that furry ball out of Garak's grasp, she promised herself. His insistence that it might be useful in some insidious plan he just hadn't developed was really childish. She could understand his grudge against that Klingon that had almost beheaded him, but one could take one's plans of revenge too far, she thought. Now however was obviously not the right time, and at a discreet growl from her stomach she decided that other things were definitely more important for now.

She tapped her combadge. "Kira to Vexel. I'm looking for a lunch companion. Are you free?"

"Freedom is just an illusion, but I'm available if that's what you ask." the captain's voice replied warmly. "How about I'll meet you in half an hour in the mess hall?"

Kira smiled and answered, "Perfect, I'll be there." She picked up her pace through the Dagger's corridors towards the mess hall.

When she arrived she grabbed some food from the counter and sat down at their usual table - the Dagger's crew had allocated one slightly to the side of the mess hall to their trio of outsiders - and waited for the captain to show up. Her thoughts automatically drifted to her lunch companion. She had known Rhys Vexel for more than ten years now, and they shared a lot of history.

***

The cave-system was humid and dark. She was waiting alone, only one other member of her resistance cell stood guard at the cave's entrance. A voice at her back made her whirl. Two Romulans stood under one of the large arches that intersected the cave. With their disruptors raised, looks of suspicion and mistrust etched into their faces, the sight made the hairs on her neck stand up. Her heart skipped a beat and she had to suppress the urge to simply turn and flee.

"I was expecting the leader of a Bajoran resistance cell. Who are you, child?" the older one of the two said. The urge to flee left her in an instant, drowned by immediate indignation. She replied, "Let's get a couple of things straight: I am the leader of the resistance cell, you're going to lower your weapons right now and lastly if you ever call me child again you seriously risk losing something you hold very dear."

She had barely finished when loud laughter - Vexel's of course - filled the cave.

~~~

"What do you mean, you can't supply us with more weapons? Are you a weapons dealer or not?" Her voice rose dangerously high, threatening to be heard in the next room where a group of Cardassians were having some sort of party. In a much more hushed voice Vexel replied, "Nerys, lower your voice! Unless you want those Cardassians to join us." A deprecating snort by Kira, then she said, "Without a steady weapons supply, we might decide that's just the best way - roll over and give up."

She had expected it, but the almost fatherly smile that now appeared on Vexel's face still set her nerves on edge. Dealing with this crazy Romulan had been a challenge from the very beginning.

~~~

"Not exactly?" Kira asked. "You're not exactly a Romulan? How can someone not exactly be a Romulan?" Vexel gave her a soft smile. There was a dreamy expression in his eyes as he looked at the far horizon, "Hmm, let's say I'm mostly a Romulan, shall we?" He gave her a quick glance. "Maybe one day I'm going to tell you the story of my grandmother. She was such a lovely Vulcan lady, even if her clan considered her to be far too eccentric to be respectable - oh, well, the story of my life - not being respectable, a rather grave stigma, but even more often a lot of fun, too."

"One day, Rhys? As I see it, now would be the perfect time." She gestured at her right leg, firmly enclosed in a cast that almost reached up to her hip - the unfortunate result of a coup that had gone not as planned.

"Come on, tell me your sordid family history," she coaxed him.

The hesitation he put up afterwards was pure show. He's dying to tell me and we both know it, she thought.

Finally he said in his best conspirator's voice, "It all started with a forbidden love affair of course..."

~~~

What a strange sensation. She couldn't remember the last time someone had held her like that, a tight embrace meant to give nothing more than simple comfort. Only two hours ago her mother had died. She had been ill for almost a year, a long year of suffering, the insufficient medical care - a result of almost thirty years of occupation - only prolonging it.

She sobbed, and she couldn't stop the tears that flowed over her face, wetting the Romulan's shirt. Vexel's voice was nothing more than a soft murmur. "I'm sorry, child."

***

A slight tap on her shoulder brought her back to the present. Standing at her side Vexel looked down at her. She gave him a smile while he slid onto the table's opposite chair. His answering smile however was cut short as he looked down at his plate and its contents. He frowned. "We really need some new supplies." A quick glance thrown in her direction. "Nothing wrong with Hasparat of course, but every day?" He grimaced.

She just gave him a long look, and he continued, "I thought you wanted to rehearse Bashir on his command role."

"Garak threw me out," she said.

"And you let him?" Vexel asked, putting up a face of exaggerated shock. "Do you think that's wise?"

"Oh, wisdom." She rolled her eyes. "Let's just say I know that he'll get our Human to play his role - most likely better than me." She shook her head. "These two trouble me. I don't understand what's happening between them. It's not like Garak to open up to someone so fast - or come to think of it - to open up to someone at all. It makes me uneasy. It makes me suspicious of his motives. Have I told you that Gul Damar actually warned me about him? Think about it: one Cardassian warning me, a Bajoran, about another Cardassian. That's truly bizarre."

She forked up some of her food, but didn't take the bite and continued instead, "I thought I understood how that crazy Cardassian's mind worked - to some extent at least. Now he has suddenly developed a crush on some Human. A Human, Vexel, that's just laughable! And of course I don't trust that Human either." She gave a huge sigh, then eyed her food with some suspicion before raising the fork to her mouth again.

She took a bite of her Hasparat, then almost gagged and swallowed forcibly. "Prophets, you're right about needing supplies, this is awful." She dropped her fork, pushing her plate away.

When she looked up, Vexel was giving her a scrutinizing look. He opened his mouth, then paused as if unsure what to say.

"What?" she asked.

"Maybe you're jealous," he said very tentatively.

"What?" she exclaimed. "You're even barmier than Garak."

"You think so? I believe that despite all your protests to the contrary you've come to trust that Cardassian - in a fashion." He smiled and raised a hand to stop any objections. "A limited fashion to be sure, but there has been an understanding between the two of you - a dynamic or a balance that worked. With the arrival of Bashir that balance has been disrupted and you're still searching for a new one."

"So, what you're saying is that I should stop complaining and act instead," Kira replied grudgingly.

"I wouldn't dare to say such a thing, Nerys. But for better or worse, it will be the three of you, and of course Trenn and Pavale, who'll see our plans come through. "It's your team. If anyone can get them in line, if anyone can find that new balance that will turn them into a true unit, it's most certainly you." He gave her another blinding smile. "You've lead a resistance cell that was far more hopeless, and you managed to accomplish your goals. I have the utmost confidence in you."

Kira gave him a sour grin in return. "Thanks. I only wish I felt the same."