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The Wrong Side Of Heaven (And The Righteous Side Of Hell)

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“Let me get this straight…”

Kira Nerys sighed, dropping her head into her hands and massaging the ridges across her nose. Around them, the Replimat was bustling, Starfleet officers coming and going with clockwork efficiency, timing their lunch-breaks down to the minute while Bajoran crew members and visitors from across the quadrant relaxed over any number of food-and-beverage combinations. As usual, they were far too caught up in their own exciting lives to pay attention to the station’s first officer, but that didn’t stop Kira looking like she wanted the ground to open up and suck her out into space.

“Dax…”

Like almost everything that came out of the major’s mouth, it was a warning. Dax, of course, completely ignored it, flashing her most winning smile as she carried right on antagonising her.

“Let me get this straight,” she said again. “You want me to go on vacation…”

“Pilgrimage,” Kira corrected, sounding thoroughly disgusted, like she thought the word ‘vacation’ was the most insulting thing imaginable. “I said ‘pilgrimage’. It’s a spiritual retreat, Dax, not some kind of self-indulgent—”

Dax silenced her with an exaggerated groan, holding up her hands in surrender. She should have seen those protestations coming, she supposed grimly, and rushed to placate her already-affronted companion. “All right, all right…” Kira’s glare softened to a scowl, and Dax pressed on with a sigh of relief. “You want me to go on a ‘pilgrimage’…”

Kira rolled her eyes as Dax mimed quote-marks around the offending word. “Less of the attitude,” she huffed. “But yes. I want you to go on a pilgrimage.”

“…in one of the most remote and secluded parts of Bajor…”

“That’s right.”

“…renowned for its beauty and spirituality…”

“Yes.”

“…with you.”

“Is that really such an offensive concept?”

“Not at all.” By now, Dax’s grin was almost wide enough to hurt her cheeks. “In fact, it sounds lovely. But honestly, Nerys…”

Kira bristled. “Dax.”

“…do you really expect me to believe that this isn’t a proposition?”

And just like that, the scowl became a glare once again. Dax supposed she couldn’t blame her for it this time; by her own admission, she took far too much pleasure in antagonising the poor major. Still, though, for all her stoic Bajoran gruffness Dax couldn’t help noting the little twitch at the corners of Kira’s lips, like she was trying a little too hard to stifle a smile. Score one for Trill charisma, she thought with another dazzling grin.

“Keep this up,” Kira warned moodily, “and I’ll take back the invitation completely.”

Dax just smirked all the more. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Major,” she deadpanned. “I take your invitations very seriously.” She clutched at her bosom. “To heart, even.”

Kira swatted her for that. “You’re incorrigible. I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“Neither do I,” Dax admitted. “It must be my ravishing good looks.”

Still, though, she sobered a little. Kira had an odd look on her face now, and it made her frown. There was the expected eagerness and sincerity, of course, genuine enthusiasm about this ‘pilgrimage’ of hers and the idea of Dax joining her on it, but it was all mixed up with something else, something that wasn’t nearly as light as their banter. It was a kind of unease, a sense of what looked like nervousness, though Dax knew that was ridiculous; Kira wouldn’t know nervousness if it pointed a phaser at her. But there it was, that almost-familiar uneasiness, like she was afraid she’d crossed a line by daring to even ask.

The thought was so preposterous that Dax shook her head; they’d known each other for more than two years, and Kira really should have figured out by now that there was no ‘line’ where Dax was concerned, that it was practically impossible to offend her, even if she tried. Still, though, for all that she wanted to convince herself that she was seeing things — she hadn’t got much sleep last night, and hadn’t had nearly enough raktajino to sustain her through another long day; she was over-tired and imagining things that weren’t there — the lines on Kira’s face were unmistakable, and Dax had seen enough unease on enough faces to recognise it from a dozen light-years away.

It saddened her a little. Easiness and comfort came so easily to Dax; she had no boundaries, no barriers, and after seven lifetimes she didn’t really know the meaning of ‘personal space’ any more; inviting a friend along on vacation — or a ‘pilgrimage’, or whatever Kira felt she had to call it to justify the idea of enjoying herself a little — would have come to her as naturally as breathing. If she’d been in Kira’s place, she probably would have bundled her onto the nearest runabout without so much as a second thought.

But it wasn’t like that with Kira. Dax knew that, and she knew too that it sometimes made it difficult for her to do things that Dax wouldn’t even have to think about.

Things like this, apparently. There was a part of Dax that realised she probably wasn’t making it any easier for her, what with her quick mouth and quicker wit, making light of things that Kira obviously took very seriously. From the look on her face, she’d even go so far as to wonder if she was actually making it a whole lot harder for her… but at the same time, because she was who she was, she also couldn’t bring herself to stop.

It was all she knew, really, that inappropriate sense of humour and the lack of a brain-to-mouth filter. It was a legacy from the previous Dax hosts, Curzon and Torias (and occasionally Emony, when she caught the right mood), who never seemed to think before they said anything, and offended at least as many people as they befriended in any given moment. It had been a part of Dax far longer than it had ever been a part of Jadzia, the shy young initiate who had barely been able to string a sentence together before the symbiont got into her, but over the last three years it had become at least as much a part of her as the host Jadzia’s own memories.

Honestly, most of the time, it was about the only thing she could think of to make things easier, to lighten the moment and relax the person sitting opposite her. It worked with almost everyone she’d come to know on Deep Space Nine, and if it had been anyone other than Kira sitting across from her right now, she knew it would have worked perfectly well. But Kira Nerys was different; she was brittle and somber, and her smiles were too precious to waste on Dax and her frivolity. She’d spent too much of her life learning the price of being free, and even though they’d known each other for more than two years now, it still sometimes struck Dax with the force of a physical blow to be reminded of that.

Her quick mouth had no place at a table with Major Kira, and she knew that, but still it was sometimes more than she could do to close it. She couldn’t stop being herself, the quick-witted Dax nestled inside self-conscious young Jadzia, any more than Kira could simply cast off the shackles of the Cardassian occupation that had destroyed her home and so much of her life.

So, really, she supposed it wasn’t Kira’s nervousness that surprised her at all; she was one of the bravest souls Dax had ever met, and certainly the bravest Jadzia had, but when it came to simple things like eating lunch with a friend or making vacation plans, she was very much out of her comfort zone. Honestly, she would have been more worried if Kira didn’t look ill at ease in a social situation like this, though that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking to see.

Honestly, it was the offer itself that confused her more than anything else. As touching and truly thoughtful as the gesture was, and as deeply as Dax appreciated that Kira would willingly choose to spend time with her away from the station — and on Bajor, of all places; Dax knew perfectly well how sacred Kira’s home was to her — it wasn’t very much like her at all. Kira was a very private soul, and a deeply spiritual one, and she liked to keep to herself where possible. Oh, she had friends, and Dax flattered herself that she numbered among them, but there was a pretty sizeable difference between getting together for dinner a couple of times a week and… well, spontaneous pilgrimages in romantic settings on Bajor.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she urged, forcing her tone to steady itself into something more somber, something more like Kira. “It’s a lovely gesture. I’m deeply flattered that you’d think of me. It’s just… well, it’s just so out of the blue.”

“You think so?” Kira asked.

The question was sincere, and Kira’s face was as open as Dax had ever seen it. She felt a little trapped, like Kira had expected her to react a certain way and she was playing it all wrong, and she floundered for a way to apologise without actually asking what she’d done to screw things up.

Talking with Kira, even about things that didn’t really matter, often felt like defusing a bomb; make one wrong move or throw out a quip at the wrong moment, and they would both go up in flames. Dax was very aware of the thin tightrope she was walking, the danger of saying or doing the wrong thing and watching helplessly as the last two years’ worth of progress and slow-growing friendship imploded completely, leaving behind nothing but a crater and a vague idea of what might have been. She knew all of that, had known it right from the start, before this semi-blossoming friendship had been more than an idea in her own head, and long before it had finally manifested in Kira’s; it had become almost like second nature to step carefully through the minefield, to watch her tongue just a little more carefully with Kira than she would with anyone else, at least as much as she was able to at all (which, if right now was anything to go by, wasn’t very). She was long accustomed to this sort of thing, but at the moment it kind of felt like the rules of the game had changed and Kira had forgotten to tell her.

“Well, yes,” she admitted, though she felt far worse for saying it now than she had just a few short moments earlier. “It’s not like you to want to share your spiritual time with anyone. Least of all…”

She didn’t say ‘someone like me’, but the look on Kira’s face said she heard it just the same; the moment hung over the table between them, a little too heavy and a little too cumbersome, so Dax quickly switched to a less precarious tack, bringing a twinkle to her eyes and forcing another cocky grin.

“And anyway, isn’t there a certain vedek you should be inviting instead?”

Kira’s features relaxed a little at the change of subject, and Dax breathed another sigh of relief. Another mine neatly sidestepped, she thought.

“I could ask Bareil,” Kira said with a shrug. “And if you don’t want to come, I will. But…” She faltered, as though stepping close to a precipice she hadn’t wanted, or expected, to get quite so close to. “That’s not the point, is it? I asked you, not him.”

Dax opened her mouth to ask why, but thought better of it, and closed it again. Kira caught it just the same, though, and her expression darkened. Dax recognised her trademark self-protection, hyper-defensiveness masked by justified annoyance, and she knew that she was in trouble.

“If you don’t want to come,” Kira added, sounding hurt, “just say so.”

“I didn’t say that,” Dax insisted quickly. She floundered a bit, thrown by her own eagerness to please, and the subtle shift in Kira’s expression. “That isn’t… I mean… look, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t appreciate it, or that I don’t want to come—” She hadn’t implied she did, either, but she hoped that Kira wouldn’t pick up on that. “—or anything of the sort. It’s just…”

She studied Kira again, watching the lines of her mouth, thin and tight where she would normally be at least attempting a smile; an unpleasant feeling settled in her stomach, and she felt the symbiont shift. This was about something more than a vacation, she realised, or even a ‘pilgrimage’. Kira wasn’t inviting her along just for the joy of her company, that much was blatantly obvious, and it made her very uncomfortable.

“Kira,” she managed, giving voice to her anxiety before it had a chance to paralyse her. “Is there something I need to know?”

“Like what?” Kira demanded hotly, then forced herself to soften, perhaps seeing the worry in Dax’s eyes. “I mean, of course not. Why would you…”

But there, she faltered, unable to complete the question; though she didn’t say anything more, Dax could feel the stumble as though she’d tried to but failed, like the embarrassing echo of a verbal mis-step, a moment of clumsiness that silenced her before she had the chance to conjure up any more excuses or hide behind stupid questions they both knew the answer to.

Dax studied her, trying not to sound as panicked as she suddenly felt. “Kira.”

“Fine.” Kira rolled her eyes, crumbling entirely too easily. Dax was sure she had never seen her give in to anything without a fight, and that made just her even more worried. “If you must know,” she sighed, “I thought it might do both of us some good to get away from the station for a while.”

Dax frowned. It didn’t surprise her, of course, that Kira herself would feel the need for a change of scenery; her kidnapping by the Cardassians was no secret to anyone, and it didn’t take someone as close to her as Dax was to know that the experience had left her more than a little shaken. It had been only a few days since they’d brought her back to the station, safe and sound and mostly intact, but she hadn’t really been herself since. Dax understood the feeling, though she wished she didn’t. Since she’d come back, Kira seemed to flit between a shortness of temper that was extreme even by her standards and fleeting flashes of melancholy so profound that they struck Dax down to her soul; it was heartbreaking to see, and more heartbreaking to share.

Commander Sisko had insisted that she take some time off off to recuperate, to wrap her head around what had happened to her, and for once she’d taken the order without argument. The alone was a sure sign that all was not right with her, and Dax found that she wasn’t really surprised at all to find out now that she was making good use of that free time, using the enforced rest period to go on this ‘pilgrimage’, to commune with her home and her faith, to ‘find herself’ as spiritual people sometimes did. In Dax’s not-so-expert opinion it was the best place for her, and it made her smile to learn that Kira felt that way too.

But what could have possibly possessed her to think that Dax needed, or wanted, the same treatment? She was hardly a spiritual soul herself, and she knew better than to think that Kira expected her to find faith or the Prophets in the idyllic corners of remotest Bajor. Oh, she would appreciate the scenery, she had no doubt of that… but the kind of devotional epiphany that she suspected Kira had in mind for herself? Off the top of her head, she could think of approximately a million ways she’d rather spend her precious vacation time. No, Kira couldn’t possibly expect Dax to indulge in the same spiritual ideology that she herself did; clearly, she had something deeper in mind, and Dax twitched as she wondered what.

It bothered her more than she wanted to admit to think that Kira might see a different kind of kindred spirit in her now, something a little less theological and a little more broken, and she felt her own shoulders start to stiffen with the same kind of hyper-defensive stubbornness that she’d seen in Kira just a few moments earlier.

“Why would you think that?” she demanded, sounding rather more belligerent than she’d intended. “I’m quite content here.”

Kira’s features had turned unnaturally soft. Suddenly, hers was the face of a friend offering an intervention; it was vastly different from the friend who so often needed one, the friend that Dax was comfortable with, and she felt a chill run up her spine to look at it. Kira’s expression now was one of knowing — or, far worse, of understanding — and it was deeply disconcerting. Her eyes were bright, almost fierce, like she was looking right through Dax’s and into her soul, like she could see everything she’d hidden away inside there, seven (no, she remembered with a shiver, eight) lifetimes’ worth of memories, as though she was stripping her naked and seeing things that even Dax herself didn’t know were there.

“Jadzia…”

The name sounded strange on Kira’s lips; she was so used to hearing ‘Dax’, or ‘Lieutenant’, carefully-chosen formalities, but very rarely ‘Jadzia’, very rarely the shy little girl who still felt like an initiate most of the time. They had talked, occasionally, about the importance of names to joined Trill, the difference she felt in hearing ‘Jadzia’ or ‘Dax’; theirs was a single shared existence, but identity was a far trickier concept to define or describe. It was one of the things she’d struggled with the most since being joined, and she knew that Kira didn’t fully understand the distinction.

With Benjamin, of course, she was always Dax. She had to be; if she wasn’t, if she let herself remember for even a second that she wasn’t Curzon any more, she would remember that she was just a shy and self-conscious young woman who had no place on this station. Benjamin, of course, understood that to a point, but she rather suspected he found it more comfortable to think of her as simply ‘Dax’ anyway; he liked having that link to Curzon just as much as she did, albeit for his own reasons. Theirs was a straightforward relationship, every bit as symbiotic as that between symbiont and host, and she was grateful for it.

Kira didn’t understand the subtleties like Benjamin did, though. Dax tried to explain it, how some mornings she would wake up as Dax and others as Jadzia, how the two names were exclusive even as they were both hers. It was a difficult thing to explain to anyone, and Kira didn’t have nearly enough patience for it. Maybe one day, when their slow-blooming friendship was stronger, she would find the patience, but right now they were both too busy to deal with it.

Still, there was a pointed deliberateness to the way she said it now. Jadzia, like an accusation and an offering at the same time, like she was demanding that the symbiont take a step back and give the host room to breathe and also entreating that shy and self-conscious little girl to step up and be her friend. She wasn’t talking to the three-hundred-year-old worm right now, Dax realised; on the most fundamental and significant level, she really was talking to Jadzia. The thought intimidated her; even now, after nearly three years, she was still embarrassed by the little girl she had once been.

“Jadzia,” Kira said again, just as pointed as before, and Dax flinched. “Do you really think nobody’s noticed how many hours you’ve clocked in the holosuite over the last couple of weeks?”

That struck a nerve, and Dax didn’t even have the foresight to keep from turning her face away in the vain hope that Kira wouldn’t see the sudden flush of shame colouring her features. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do,” Kira replied, pointed but not forceful. “I’m not the only one who’s been through an ordeal, am I?”

Dax swallowed hard, and closed her eyes. She knew exactly what Kira was talking about, of course. How could she not, when it still haunted her every breath?

She hated that she was so transparent, that even Kira could see the cracks in her perfectly polished armour, that even she could read between the lines of a few hours in the holosuite and realise what they really meant. Was it really that obvious? Had she really spent that much time in the holosuite, that even Kira, who hated the damn things with every fibre of her being (and who frankly had enough troubles of her own to worry about), had noticed and filed the information away to call her out on later?

She was angry, she realised. Angry at Kira for noticing, and angry at herself for being so careless. Angry because she was so dependent on something so stupid, angry because she didn’t know what else to do. Angry because Kira thought she could fix this with a religious retreat on a planet that meant nothing to her. Angry—

—but then, that was the problem, wasn’t it? She was angry. She was so angry.

Why else would she lock herself away in the holosuite for hours on end? Jadzia Dax was probably the biggest social butterfly on the whole of Deep Space Nine; she had friends of every species, every rank and class, and she never wanted for companionship. She liked it that way; over the course of all her lifetimes, she had found few things more fulfilling than a pleasant conversation, and the more people she knew the more corners of her own identity she got to indulge. Chief O’Brien got along swimmingly with Tobin’s engineering genius, while Quark and his Ferengi friends got a kick out of Curzon’s appreciation for tongo.

But lately, all of her time went into the holosuites, alone. She didn’t trust herself not to lose her temper, not to upend a tongo wheel if it didn’t spin the way she wanted, not to throw her drink in O’Brien’s face if he disagreed with her about propulsion systems. She didn’t trust herself not to lose herself to the anger that had been swelling and bubbling inside her, ever since…

…ever since her so-called ‘ordeal’.

Joran Belar. A musical genius with psychopathic tendencies who had lived and died about a hundred years ago. He’d had a violent temper, and that temper had driven him to do terrible things, including killing innocent people. He was the last person who should ever have been approved for joining with a symbiont, and yet he had been. Somehow, some way, he had convinced the Symbiosis Commission that he was a suitable host for Dax after Torias’s unfortunate shuttle accident. Somehow. Some way.

A century’s worth of memory blocks had kept his memories suppressed, but even they couldn’t last forever, and now Joran’s sordid and violent memories were settling in Jadzia’s head, right beside the gentle Audrid and the stoic Lela, the headstrong Emony and the quiet Tobin, the sybaritic Torias and the exuberant Curzon. He was inside her, just like every other host the symbiont had ever had, and that meant that she, shy little Jadzia, had to deal with that violent temper of his.

But, of course, she couldn’t. She was just a little girl with a headful of memories; she was strong enough to know that the anger and the hatred weren’t her own, that the urge to hurt people didn’t come from inside herself, but it was more than she could do most of the time to hold it at bay. And so, because she was scared and embarrassed, because she hated herself for being so weak far more than she hated Joran for being so strong, she hid in the holosuite. Like a child hiding from the monsters under her bed, Jadzia Dax cowered in the holosuite, hiding in that haven of imagination, a place where nobody was real and nobody could die when she lost control.

“Jadzia.”

She blinked, fighting off the thoughts and the tears that sparked with them. She couldn’t let Kira see that she was right, couldn’t let her see how tenuous her control was; how would she ever trust her again if she did? So, as usual, she did the only thing she could think of, playing the favourite trick of all the Dax hosts: she changed the subject.

“Did Benjamin put you up to this?”

Kira seemed genuinely wounded by that. “Of course not,” she said, visibly upset that Dax would think Benjamin was the only one who could see deeper than the spots rippling down the sides of her face. “Sisko isn’t the only one who knows you, you know.”

“I know,” Dax said, curbing her emotions as best she could and mustering an apology from some out-of-reach place inside her (courtesy of Tobin, no doubt; he was about the only Dax who had ever been capable of apologising, and he did it to excess). “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just… well, this is exactly the sort of thing he would do.”

Kira sighed, looking as though she deeply regretted ever thinking that this was a good idea, like she wanted nothing more than to take back the whole conversation and pretend it never happened. “Look, Jadzia. I…”

Dax closed her eyes as she trailed off. She didn’t want to hear it, and she didn’t want to give Kira an opening to say what they both knew she meant, no doubt what half the station knew: that Dax, as usual, wasn’t nearly as much of a paragon as she wanted everyone to believe. It was bad enough in the holosuite, bad enough when she was alone with all the things she couldn’t control, Joran’s temper and his violent urges, but she couldn’t face it here too.

If Kira kept pushing this, if she kept pushing Dax, she would lose control. She could feel it, anger crackling like lightning in her veins and the fear of it bubbling in her stomach, acid seething and unbearable. She couldn’t let Kira push her. She couldn’t lose her temper, couldn’t lose control. Not here, not with so many people around. Not in front of Kira.

So, again, she changed the subject, blurting out the first thing that came to mind, turning the spotlight of scrutiny around and flashing it back in Kira’s face. “How are you holding up?”

Kira recoiled at the question, both for its suddenness and its intrusiveness. She recovered herself, then frowned, eyes narrowing into a scowl that didn’t seem to know whether to be offended or touched, and Dax felt her pulse quickening. Kira was puzzled, she could tell, by her unexpected resistance to being the centre of attention, a behaviour so unlike herself. Dax wasn’t usually the kind to shy away from questioning, even interrogation, and especially not from a friend that she trusted; perhaps Kira wasn’t Benjamin Sisko, but she was probably the next best thing, at least on Deep Space Nine, and the belligerence in her voice must have startled her.

Dax was startled too, but for different reasons. She could feel the aggression, so close to anger, itching like spider-bites under the surface of her skin. The sensation was familiar, in a way that it hadn’t been a few weeks earlier, before Joran, before a quick temper or a flight of impatience became something frightening and dangerous.

Kira watched as she squirmed in her seat, looking guarded and uncomfortable all over again. She seemed to think better of confronting the issue just then, though, and opted for the slightly safer option of just answering the question she’d been asked. Dax was grateful, and she suspected it showed in the slump of her shoulders as Kira leaned back and considered.

“I’m fine,” she said after a moment, though she must have known she wasn’t fooling either of them. “It’s been a few days. I’ve been through much worse, and had far less time to recover, so…”

She was talking about her time the Bajoran resistance, Dax knew, during the Cardassian occupation. She nodded with respect, but wouldn’t let Kira hide behind her past. “I’m sure you have,” she said evenly. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not still allowed to be a little shaken.”

“I know that,” Kira said, matching the coolness of her tone perfectly.

Dax forced a sympathetic smile, but it didn’t come as easily or naturally as it should have, and she could tell that Kira saw the slight tremor at the corners of her lips.

“It’s just…” she went on, babbling now, desperate to keep the focus on Kira where it belonged, where it was easy. “Well, you know… it’s a lot for someone to go through. For anyone to go through, I mean. Even someone as weathered as you are.” Kira chuckled at the back-handed compliment, more amused than offended, and Dax rushed quickly on. “Besides, I think we both know you wouldn’t be going on this ‘pilgrimage’ if you really were fine.”

For a long moment, Kira didn’t say anything. She just kept staring at her, studious and thoughtful, as though she believed she could bend Dax into changing the subject again if she stayed silent for long enough. Maybe she’d picked that up from Quark; Dax had lost more than her share of tongo matches against the sneaky Ferengi because of dirty little tricks like that, and there was no doubt in her mind that she’d end up opting to ‘retreat’ here as well if Kira kept looking at her like that. Daxes had a history of being cool under scrutiny, one of the earliest gifts given to the symbiont courtesy of Lela the legislator, but Jadzia wasn’t comfortable enough in her own skin yet to have really absorbed that particular trait. She still blushed and stammered like a first-year Starfleet cadet under pressure. Quark was all too aware of that particular flaw in her, and it seemed that Kira was catching on to it now as well, much to her annoyance.

She was just about to cave in and run away, when Kira surprised them both, seeming to think twice about calling her bluff, and folding her own hand instead.

“All right,” she said, sounding weary; Dax suspected she was giving up as much to get the confession off her chest as to show pity to the crumbling Trill. “Maybe I’m not fine. Maybe I am still struggling with what happened on Cardassia. Maybe. But if I am…” She shot Dax a hard look, pointed and severe. “…at least I have the self-awareness to admit it.”

Dax refused to rise to the bait, wrapping herself up in a security blanket of cocksure bravado. “Sure you do,” she snorted. “Just as long as you’ve got me around to call you on it.”

Kira rolled her eyes at that, but didn’t bother to argue. She was clearly deep in thought, and Dax wondered if she was even aware of her presence at all any more; she looked distant and hazy, like she was back on Cardassia going through the whole ordeal all over again.

“It wasn’t so difficult,” she mused after a moment. “I mean, well, relatively speaking. Being used and abused by the Cardassians… that’s nothing new for a Bajoran. Getting kidnapped and tortured and all the rest of it… after what happened during the occupation, that’s nothing. I’d seen friends and family suffer worse things than that before I was old enough stand upright.” Dax opened her mouth to say how sorry she was, but Kira cut her off with an impatient wave, a wordless gesture to say ‘that’s not the point’. “I know their people. I know what they’re capable of, and this was nothing. Honestly, by their standards, it was almost civil.”

She sighed, turning her face away, as though embarrassed. Dax wanted to take that face in her hands, bring it back, look right into it and remind her that she was safe now, that it was all over, that the Bajoran people were free and so was she… but she didn’t. Kira’s eyes were haunted as she stared numbly down at the table, and Dax didn’t want to risk upsetting the ghosts she saw in them.

“Go on,” she said instead, very softly.

Kira closed her eyes. “That’s not what bothers me,” she admitted. “It’s not what they did, or even why they did it.” She sighed, looking pensive and thoughtful, like she was still trying to piece together everything that had happened, everything she’d been through. “Ghemor was a good man,” she went on after a moment. “He was an honourable man… so of course the Cardassians would want to put an end to him. There’s no room for kindness or compassion on Cardassia.” She spat the words, bitter and angry, wounds still raw even after so long, and Dax leaned back, giving Kira as much personal space as she could, letting her feel safe without interrupting. “It was terrible, what they tried to do to him. But it’s not surprising, not at all. And it’s not what bothers me.”

Her fingers were twitching, clenching and unclenching, and Dax reached across the table to take her hand. “What does?” she asked.

There was a kind of comfort in this, Dax thought, and hated herself for it. Maybe she could blame Joran Belar for that too, because she couldn’t deny feeling a kind of perverse solace as she watched the conflict and the pain ripple across Kira’s face, watched her struggle with herself, watched unresisting as she took back her hand so that she could put it together with the other in her lap, wringing them together as if the twisting of her fingers could help her to hone her thoughts.

Dax recognised the futile gesture; she’d seen it in Kira several times, and even in Benjamin once or twice when he was faced with a particular challenge and didn’t have his baseball on hand to play with and distract him. For herself, she preferred to hold her hands safely behind her back, keeping them out of sight when they trembled. The conflict wasn’t for anyone to see, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Dax knew that, so she let Kira have her moment in peace. And it was only a moment; Kira sighed again when she’d composed herself, a low breathless sort of sound, more anxiety than sorrow, and looked back up at Dax.

“For a moment…” she murmured, low enough that it was almost a whisper, and as much as Dax wanted to respect her personal space, she had no choice but to lean in so that she could hear. “And it was just a moment… a small, stupid moment… but still a moment…” She turned away again, not just with her face now but her whole body. “For one small stupid moment… I actually let myself believe them.”

Dax swallowed. She didn’t know what to say, or even if she should just sit quietly and say nothing at all, just let Kira work through her feelings aloud or inside her head, however she saw fit. She ached to say something, though, anything at all, to offer any words of comfort she could, however futile or empty, to throw out all the hollow placations she could think of even if they meant less than nothing. She wanted to help, to make the confession easier even if she could do nothing for the emotions underneath.

Kira didn’t give her the chance to try, though. She just took another deep breath — cleansing her soul as well as her lungs, Dax supposed — and pressed on as though she really had forgotten Dax was there at all.

“I mean, I knew. At least, fundamentally. I knew myself. I knew who I was. I knew where I’d been, what I’d done… I knew me. But they were so… they were so sure, so convincing.” She wouldn’t meet Dax’s eye, seeming almost embarrassed by her perceived weakness, and Dax tried to make it easier for her by staring down into the dregs of her raktajino, feigning fascination with the light playing across the dark surface. “They were telling the truth,” Kira murmured. “That’s what made it so frightening. And I know it wasn’t my truth, but it could have been.”

“I understand,” Dax heard herself whisper, hoarse and ragged, and hated how true it was.

Kira looked up sharply at that, mouth half open. She didn’t speak, but Dax could practically hear the unvoiced argument already forming in her head. No, you don’t understand at all. Dax wished that she was right, that she really didn’t understand; honestly, she didn’t think Kira believed it any more than she did, but it was a reflex in her to deny empathy to anyone who wasn’t of her people. You’re not Bajoran, you’re not one of us, you couldn’t possibly understand. Dax had heard it more times than she could count, whether it was true or not. Honestly, if she had found the courage to say it again now, Dax wouldn’t have argued; it would be easier than the real truth, after all, and it would have granted her a few more precious moments of denial, let them both believe that she really didn’t understand. Kira bit her tongue instead, though, refusing to say the words, and so they both had no choice but to take Dax’s murmuring for what it was: true and honest and terribly painful.

“I suppose you do,” Kira said at last, sounding as melancholy as Dax felt; she looked up again, eyes bright, and Dax knew what was coming next even before she said it, knew she’d been baited, knew that the spotlight was about to spin round on her again, and was powerless to evade. “And that’s another reason I thought you might want to come with me on this pilgrimage.”

Dax grimaced. It was a safer argument than ‘you need some time away from the station’, at the very least, but that didn’t stop Dax from turning her face away and closing her eyes, struggling for a moment to block out all those thoughts and memories that she didn’t want, the anger still bubbling in her. She shouldn’t have said anything, she thought viciously, and knowing that just made it all the more frustrating. She should have kept that damn smart mouth of hers shut, should’ve let Kira talk herself through all of her residual emotions and just listened wordlessly. She should have been a good friend, dammit, a caring and compassionate friend, a good friend who nodded and smiled sadly and didn’t say anything. She should have been better than this.

Now Kira had ammunition against her, fuel for the fire of her insistences that Dax wasn’t fine either, the argument Dax knew was waiting to rise up again, a fresh weapon against everything she didn’t want to admit. This was supposed to be all about Kira and her turmoil, she thought, and hated how helpless she felt, how and angry and frightened. It wasn’t supposed to be about her. It wasn’t supposed to be about this.

“Kira,” she said. She’d intended it to be a warning — ‘back away now, if you know what’s good for you’ — but it came out sounding more like a plea. “I’m not like you. I’m not Bajoran, and I’m not spiritual. I don’t need to meditate or talk to the Prophets or…”

“I know,” Kira interrupted, firm but gentle. “I know the Trill aren’t exactly a spiritual people. You’re all too high-and-mighty for that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from this, and it doesn’t mean that some time away from the station won’t do you some good.” She touched Dax’s arm, light but filled with meaning. “Dax. You’re in that holosuite every second you’re not on duty. Don’t you think it’s about time you did something a little more proactive? Or at least got some real air for a change?”

“I don’t need air,” Dax replied sullenly, in the half-second before her brain caught up with her mouth and pointed out that that was a stupid thing to say.

Kira, of course, didn’t miss a beat. “Well, you certainly don’t need any more time in the holosuite,” she quipped readily. “What do you do in there all day, anyway?”

Dax bit her tongue, and let the sharpness of the pain brace her; if she’d been alone, maybe she would have bitten her lip instead, let her teeth draw some blood and cool the heat in her head, as she’d done so many times over the last couple of weeks. It was intoxicating, she’d discovered, how easily the skin broke under her teeth, how sharp and soothing the sting, how sweet the taste of blood…

She had never been much of a masochist before, though she enjoyed the occasional fist-fight as much as any Trill with Klingon tendencies did. Over the last couple of weeks, however, she’d found herself much more drawn towards the darker side of her own suffering, pleasure in her own pain, as deep and as potent as anything Joran had gotten from anyone else’s. It had become a source of strength, and she found that both frightening and invigorating. It was so easy to bite down on her lip, to draw a little blood and let the taste of it gorge the need for violence, if only for a moment. It was so easy to satisfy those twisted urges with the sting of pain, the snap of her teeth, the sweet release… It was so easy to hurt herself to curb the anger, and though there was a part of her that couldn’t help acknowledging Kira’s point — maybe it really was time she stepped away from the holographic violence, at least for a day or two — that didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

And so, because she couldn’t fight the truth, she braced against the pain instead, let it focus her, used it to keep her from saying something they would both regret, lashing out as she was wont to do when she felt trapped or cornered or afraid, lashing out as Joran was wont to do with fire and fury.

“It’s not ‘all day’,” she argued, when she finally trusted herself enough to speak without screaming. “It’s a few hours at most. You’re so melodramatic.”

Kira ignored that. “You didn’t answer the question,” she pointed out with a sigh. “Is it that ridiculous Klingon martial arts program you love so much?”

Dax bristled. She felt like she’d been put on the spot, like Kira was judging her, like she suddenly had to defend herself and her choices where she’d never had to before, and that made her even more aggressive; it felt like an invasion of privacy, but at the same time it brought to light everything she didn’t want to admit, all the reasons why it made sense for Kira to be judging her now, the reasons why she was spending so much time in the damned holosuite, all the things that Kira could see through.

She didn’t want to think about that, didn’t want to think that Kira might be right to judge her. And so she shook off the idea, focusing instead on the scowl, the anger, the righteous resentment, the part of her that wanted so desperately to draw blood from her lip instead of chewing her tongue. Indignation was easier than acceptance, at least right now, and she indulged it completely. Who was Kira to demand answers from her? Who was she to ask Dax to justify how she chose to spend her hard-earned off-duty hours? Who the hell was she to demand any explanations from her at all?

It wasn’t the righteousness that struck her, but the fury that went with it. It didn’t feel as simple or straightforward as she wanted it to; the anger didn’t feel valid, and she hated that she couldn’t give herself over to it even as she gasped with relief that she still had some shred of control left.

All Kira had done was ask her a question. She was just trying to make conversation, that was all. It wasn’t right for Dax to be so angry about it, to feel so accused, so insulted by something so pointless and silly. So Kira was curious. So maybe she was even a little concerned. So what? Why in the world should Dax care at all, much less be offended? She knew the answer, of course, but it frightened her to think about it.

Instead, she took a deep, steadying breath, pushed the righteous indignation aside and struggled again to hold her temper under control. It’s just a question, she reminded herself. It’s not an inquisition. It’s just a question. Stop taking everything so personally.

It was easier said than done, of course, and when she finally brought herself to answer Kira’s question, the words were gritted out through tightly clenched teeth. “Not that it’s any of your business, but if you must know, yes. I find that a good workout helps me to relax.”

“Oh, I’m sure a ‘good workout’ is very relaxing,” Kira shot back readily; her words were light, but there was a hard edge to her voice that said she’d probably picked up on Dax’s unwarranted aggression and was worried about it. Not reckless enough to say anything, of course, but worried just the same. “But I’d hardly use that word to describe anything with the word ‘Klingon’ in it.”

“That’s because you don’t know the first thing about Klingons,” Dax pointed out. It wasn’t an accusation, simply a statement of fact, and Kira conceded the truth of it with a self-deprecating shrug. “And you should be very glad that I’m not Curzon any more. If you’d asked him that question instead of me, he would have given you a very different answer. And a much more explicit one, too.” She quirked a meaningful eyebrow. “If you catch my drift.”

“A Cardassian vole would catch your drift,” Kira muttered, rolling her eyes, though Dax couldn’t help noting the way her ears had turned a little pink, the barest hint of a blush creeping unbidden up her neck. She ignored it, though, and Dax’s smug little grin, refusing to be baited into focusing on pointless things that didn’t matter. “Come on, Jadzia. Even you can’t deny you’ve been going at it a little excessively over the last couple of weeks.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dax huffed. “Anyway, isn’t this whole thing supposed to be about you?”

Kira inhaled deeply. It was an odd sound, a little too controlled to be a sigh but still bearing the weight of frustration.

“Sometimes I forget you’re so much older than me,” she murmured after a moment, seemingly apropos of nothing. “It always amazes me, how stubborn you can be when you set your mind to it. You’re supposed to be worldly and experienced, but the way you refuse to look inward and accept…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I’ve been through a lot. I know I have. But I’m not denying that. I know I need time to heal. I know I need breathing room so I can find myself again. I know I need to get in touch with my roots, to commune with the Prophets and ask their forgiveness for doubting that I was one of theirs. I know all of that, and that’s why I’m going to Bajor. But you…” She closed her eyes, but only for a moment, a second or two too long for a blink, and when she opened them again they were dark with sorrow. “Sometimes I think you’d let yourself die before you’d let someone else help you.”

“Is that what you’re worried about?” Dax quipped, straightening her back. “Well, then, the next time I’m dying, I promise I’ll call for help.” Kira didn’t so much as crack a smile, though, and Dax gave up the feint at gallows humour with a grimace. “All right, fine. I admit, you’re not the only one who’s been through an ordeal. But you’re also not the only one who knows how to take care of themselves. I know what I need, Kira, and it’s not real air or a pilgrimage on Bajor or—”

“Dax.”

Kira’s eyes were brighter when Dax met them, dangerous in a way that she didn’t often show in public, and the sight of them cut off Dax’s hollow diatribe so much more effectively than the sound of her name hitching in Kira’s throat.

She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. “Kira.”

Kira took her hands, letting her thumbs run across the backs of her knuckles. Dax wondered if she could feel the places beneath the skin where Doctor Bashir had spent the last three nights in a row knitting things back together, broken bones and torn ligaments fixed in less than a heartbeat. It was nothing like a real Klingon battle, all those quick fixes and shortcuts, pain turned to nothing with the hiss of a hypospray. She wondered too if Kira could feel the bloodlust humming beneath the surface, the burning in her veins, rage and hatred spitting and seething like molten steel, a bat’leth melted down to nothing, a proud weapon tamed and made useless. She wondered if Kira could feel the violence in the way her fingertips trembled, so much brutality just itching to get out. It was all so raw, so visceral; surely Kira could feel it in her. They were barely even touching, but surely she could feel it… surely she could…

If she could, though, she said nothing of it. For a very long time, she didn’t say anything at all; she just let her fingertips rest where they would, light pressure and soft skin against rough callouses and freshly-knitted bones, allowing Dax to take what she wanted from the contact, or nothing at all. And for a while, that was enough for both of them.

It was Dax who broke the moment at last, and broke the contact with it. She pulled away, taking back both of her hands and wrapping them around her half-forgotten cup, not because there was anything left to drink but because the stillness was too much to endure. Not too long ago, she had been a patient soul; she would have been in her element in the midst of all this silence and stillness, at home with tranquillity and unspoken words, but now it made her feel itchy and uncomfortable, like there were insects crawling under her skin, tickling and stinging by turns, and it took more strength than she had to keep from fidgeting. She felt like her nerves were on fire, like the rage igniting her veins was radiating outwards, out and out until it infected everything around her, until it infected even Kira, and she couldn’t allow that to happen. Kira had suffered too much violence in her life; Dax would not be responsible for any more. The urge to flee rose up within her, powerful and entirely overwhelming.

“Jadzia,” Kira said again, softer. She watched sadly as Dax lurched to her feet, flinching away from the sound of her name, that shy little girl’s name, and tried to reach out to her; something stopped her, though, in the moment before she made contact, and her fingers hung suspended in the air between them, trembling uselessly.

“I’m due back at Ops,” Dax mumbled, though they both knew it was a lie. “I promised Chief O’Brien I’d help him with—”

“Jadzia.”

It cut her down, stopping her in her tracks. She stood there, twitching indecisively, and clasped her hands behind her back so that Kira wouldn’t see that they were shaking as well. “What?” she demanded, forced impatience rasping in her throat. “I’m—”

“Come with me,” Kira urged, powering through Dax’s mumbling and her fidgeting. “Come to Bajor with me.”

“Kira.” Dax swallowed hard. This was more difficult than she’d anticipated, and she didn’t know why. “I don’t…”

“For me,” Kira pressed quietly. “If you won’t come for yourself, come for me. Like I said, I could invite Bareil, and I will if you say no… but I would really appreciate having a companion who… understands.” There was just the faintest twinkle in her eye when she regarded Dax then, like she was challenging her, like she knew that a challenge was the only thing Dax would respond to just then. “You do still understand, I take it?”

“Of course I do.” The words were out before Dax could stop them, warm and breathless on the air and condemning her completely. She thought of Joran, of the violence inside of her, and wished she could go to the holosuite and vent some of it. “I know how it feels to not trust your own memories. You know I do.”

For just a second after she said it, she was sure she heard a malicious little laugh in the back of her mind, familiar but unnatural, the unholy aura of an uninvited guest; it was an unnerving thought, but far more so was the moment later when she remembered that there was nothing ‘uninvited’ about this particular guest. The laughter may have been phantasmal, but its owner was not; she had invited him, taken him into her, welcomed him… and now she had to live with him. The realisation was disturbing, like ice down her spine, and she shivered.

“Dax?”

“All right,” she blurted out; in that moment, she would have said or done anything to silence the laughter, to suppress the dark thoughts that went along with them, and more than anything else to stop Kira looking at her like that. “If it really means that much to you.”

Kira beamed like a small child seeing the sun rise for the first time, awestruck and excited. “You’ll come?”

“I’ll come.” As beautiful as it was, the look on Kira’s face did little to keep the dread from settling in the pit of Dax’s stomach. “If you really, really want me to, I’ll go on your little ‘pilgrimage’.”

Kira was positively glowing now. She was almost ethereal, alight with exuberance, so caught up in her little victory that the part of Dax that wasn’t already lost found itself thinking that maybe that in itself was enough of a reason to do this. She could hold the hounds in her head at bay, she thought, if only Kira would keep looking at her like that. She could, she was sure of it. She could keep her temper under control, could keep herself under control, could keep Joran—

Don’t be so sure, the spectral non-spectre murmured, and Dax shuddered again.

Kira, of course, didn’t notice. “You won’t regret it,” she promised. “You’ll see. This will be just what you need.”

“I hope so,” Dax said, and bit her lip until it bled.

Chapter Text

Benjamin, of course, was sickeningly enthusiastic about the whole thing.

“It’s about time,” he grinned when she raised the subject. “I’ve been telling you to take some time off for years now.”

Dax rolled her eyes. As always, it seemed that Benjamin knew her too well for her own good, and she was grateful that she’d had the foresight to bring up the issue in private; the last thing she needed was the entire senior staff snickering behind their hands.

“I wouldn’t say ‘years’,” she muttered, irritable but self-deprecating. “Weeks, maybe.”

“I suppose that depends on whether you count all the times I told Curzon the same thing,” he replied with a wry smile. “You’re every bit as stubborn as he was, and then some.”

His expression flickered as he finished speaking, turning briefly sober, and his fingers flexed at his side. He looked like he wanted to reach for her, like he wanted to touch her arm or her shoulder, but remembered just in time that that would be playing the wrong role. She was asking permission for leave from her commanding officer, not joking with her old friend, and it was important that they both keep the distinction, at least in practice.

Benjamin was a laid-back sort of commander, and banter with his senior officers was far from unheard of, but Dax noted with some pride that he always made the effort to draw at least some lines between them when they were on duty; a shared laugh or a joke was acceptable, maybe even encouraged sometimes, but physical contact and advice was strictly out of bounds. Well, for the post part, anyway. The young initiate still alive in Jadzia approved of that approach, though the rebellious symbiont in her belly enjoyed making him push those boundaries as often as possible.

“Curzon’s stubbornness was the stuff of legends,” she reminded him with a smile, daring him with her eyes to cuff her shoulder as he would have done to her predecessor.

Benjamin snorted a derisive laugh, but didn’t break his self-imposed rule. “You’ll get no argument from me. The old man was the most indulgent person I ever met in my life, but just try getting him to take a day off when he actually needed it.” He shook his head, marvelling as he did sometimes at how similar two vastly different faces could be. “Just like you.”

“Well, I don’t need it,” Dax argued, petulant. “And neither did Curzon, all those times you tried to convince him that he did.”

Benjamin grunted; like so many of their little arguments, this was a years-long dispute, and they both knew there was no hope for reconciliation probably as long as either of them lived. Benjamin would say one thing and Dax would say the opposite; he would accuse her of being bull-headed and she’d yell right back that he was a callow young pup who didn’t know his ass from his elbow. Well, perhaps that was more Curzon than Jadzia, but the principle remained the same even now. They would argue themselves in circles for hours on end over silly little things that didn’t matter, eventually giving up — ‘agree to disagree’, as Benjamin was so fond of phrasing it — and starting a new game of chess instead. It was one of the most endearing aspects of their friendship, albeit also one of the most frustrating. Dax wouldn’t have it any other way, of course, and she knew that Benjamin wouldn’t either.

“You know,” she murmured, feigning thoughtfulness and trying entirely too hard to sound like she’d only just thought of something. “I did promise to help Chief O’Brien recalibrate the ODN relay. I really ought to—”

“You ‘really ought to’ get packing,” Benjamin said, cutting her off with a chuckle and a shake of his head; he really did know her far too well, she thought sullenly. “You know as well as I do that Major Kira doesn’t take kindly to excuses.”

Dax shrugged, the picture of innocence even as she returned his boyish grin. “I don’t think the chief takes kindly to me using him as one all the time either,” she pointed out. “But you can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“A noble effort,” Benjamin agreed lightly, then at long last he gave up his feint at being Commander Sisko, giving her that cuff on the shoulder that she’d hoped for. “Now go and pack for your vacation.”

“It’s not a vacation,” Dax told him, already halfway towards the door. “Apparently, it’s a ‘pilgrimage’.”

He blinked. “What’s the difference?”

“Hell if I know,” Dax replied, and sauntered out.

As she headed back to her quarters, she couldn’t help thinking that he was right. Jadzia and Curzon weren’t really all that similar, but they certainly shared the same stubborn refusal to accept that someone else might know what was best for them. Curzon was every bit as bull-headed as Benjamin said he was, brash and arrogant and absolutely certain that he knew everything; Jadzia was the opposite in a lot of ways, but she had something of his hardened resolve, that feverish determination to prove herself and not let anyone else do it for her. In that, at least, she didn’t have to try very hard at all to mimic her predecessor. She couldn’t help smiling at the way Benjamin teased her for it, and the way that even Kira seemed to know that sometimes there was simply no talking to her. She was bull-headed too, just like Curzon was… and just like him, she was also terribly proud of it. Benjamin found it deeply amusing; Kira, having never had the misfortune of being charmed by Curzon, just found the whole thing infuriating.

As it turned out, another thing that Jadzia and Curzon could agree on was that packing for a pilgrimage (whatever the hell that was) was no easy task.

Dax had been on more vacations than she could count over the last three centuries, and she had pretty much perfected the practice of preparation. It was simple: she knew what she needed, she knew what she wanted, and she knew what to leave behind (though whether she had the willpower to actually do so was another question entirely). Most of her vacation time, at least over the last hundred years or so, had been spent on Risa, and Dax had quickly learned than even packing an extra shirt was a waste of time there. It had been an obscenely long time since she’d actually needed to think about things like practicality, and for the first time in a good two or three lifetimes, she found herself reduced to sitting helplessly on the edge of her bed and staring into an empty bag.

It didn’t help, of course, that she had frankly no idea what a Bajoran pilgrimage entailed. As she’d told Kira repeatedly, she wasn’t exactly a spiritual sort of person, and religious retreats and soul-searching were hardly her field of expertise. Besides, she was a Dax, and when Daxes went on vacation, they sure as hell didn’t go to ‘find themselves’ or ‘commune with the Prophets’. Self-awareness was practically second nature to most Trills, and all the more so for joined ones, who had the added benefit of learning all about themselves at their zhian’tara (something that Jadzia still needed to suffer through, and had spent vast amounts of time over the last two years trying very hard not to think about). There really wasn’t any call for pilgrimages or any other such nonsense. They were naturally zen; they sure as hell didn’t need a vacation to make them any more so.

She wouldn’t tell Kira that, of course, but for the time being it left her in a bit of confusion. Weren’t these things all supposed to be about communing with nature and casting off comfort and luxury or something? Honestly, Dax didn’t know the first thing about it, but anything that required her to cast off her comforts and luxuries was a thing she didn’t want anything to do with. Not that she had any intention of sharing that little tidbit with Kira, either; the major had been kind and thoughtful enough to ask her along, and it clearly meant a great deal to her — both the trip in itself, and Dax’s company, for some unfathomable reason — and Dax had no intention of letting her penchant for pampering ruin it for her.

No, she decided. She would make do. She would pack the bare essentials — comfortable clothes and good book or three (the real ink-and-paper kind, that is, none of those PADDs that Benjamin and the other young people loved so much; they had their place, she couldn’t deny, but the joy of wrapping her hands around a real book was a luxury she simply would not deny herself, and especially not on vacation) — and leave the rest to chance, fate, or Kira’s dubious compassion.

The evening was still relatively young when she finally finished, but she found that she was tired just the same. Just thinking about the days to come was exhausting enough, and she found it difficult to shake visions of Kira exhorting the virtues of real planet-side exploration — ‘so much more exciting than your silly holosuites, don’t you think?’ — while Dax made a fool of herself by tripping over rocks and roots and anything else that got in her way, and probably ended up dead from insect bites (if she was lucky). She could fight her way through an army if she had to, probably even single-handed, but drop her on a hillside without a weapon or a computer to end the program when she got bored, and she was as helpless as any one of those ‘Starfleet types’ that Kira derided so often for being pampered and spoiled.

Kira, of course, knew all of this perfectly well. They’d run a mission together about a year ago that had required a detour to one of Bajor’s moons to ‘commission’ a piece-of-junk Bajoran flyer (if it could even be called that), and the hour or so it had taken to get the damn thing up and running had been among the most trying of Dax’s career. The bugs and beasts were bad enough, but a flyer without sensors or a half-decent propulsion system was another thing entirely, and she had spent the entire duration of the mission — at least until they’d crashed, but that was another story — feeling out of her element and thoroughly miserable. It was several months before Kira stopped giving her a hard time about it and longer still before she stopped smirking and shaking her head every time they crossed paths.

This time would be different, Dax decided. If Kira was dragging her along on this little ‘pilgrimage’ just to bait her again, then she would have to try a whole lot harder. This time, Dax would be the perfect pioneer, the perfect picture of a golden age warrior and as hardened and practiced in the wilderness as any damned Bajoran ex-terrorist.

She went to bed a few hours later with a fresh sense of vigour and determination; maybe she wouldn’t have any fun on this enforced vacation (or ‘pilgrimage’; whatever worked), but at least she had something to focus on while she was there. At least she had something to anticipate, something she could brace for and prepare herself to fight.

Kira was an excellent companion, and she challenged Dax in the best possible ways, constantly forcing her to rethink all of her preconceptions, both of herself and of everything around her. She was a good friend and a good soul, and Dax enjoyed spending time with her. No, more than that, she enjoyed those challenges, that pressure to be a better person herself. She enjoyed bracing for the judgement and the mockery, rising to the bait of a fresh new challenge, striving to better herself so that next time Kira would have to work a little harder if she wanted her to rise again. If Kira was expecting Dax to give her a free source of amusement while she sought her soul among the Prophets… well, Dax thought, she’d better start rethinking those expectations.

When she closed her eyes, it was with a grin on her face to match even Curzon’s most mischievous, and though she wasn’t quite looking forward to the next day’s departure, at least she wasn’t dreading it so much.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

*

Bajor was beautiful.

Even Dax, who would be the first to admit that this place was very far away from anything she’d call home, couldn’t deny that there was an almost ethereal beauty to it. Fresh streams of clear water, a sky so bright it left her dazzled and half-blind, and a panoramic view that stole what little breath she still had left after the climb. From up here, atop a mountain with no name staring down over a world touched by sunlight, it was easy to see why the Bajorans were such a spiritual people, how they found their faith in the Prophets so effortlessly. Dax was as far from spiritual as a soul could be, but even she felt touched by something greater than herself as she stood there, gazing down at the perfect curve of a planet that had suffered so much and still held such beauty, such hope, and such faith.

“You were right,” she heard herself say. “I did need this.”

Kira was watching her, eyes narrowed and darkened by something Dax couldn’t make out; they seemed to take in all the sunlight from the sky and hold it prisoner. Dax was mesmerised by the sight of her, enthralled by her eyes and the passion in her face, made breathless by her every breath. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anything quite so beautiful as this: the sky, the sun, the scenery… and Kira, most of all. Kira Nerys with those dark eyes, those eyes that seemed to hold all the secrets of Bajor inside them, those eyes that looked at Dax as if she was everything and nothing at the same time. Beautiful, just like Bajor. Kira Nerys, and the way she looked around her, too, as though this holy place was the essence of her soul made solid, as though it held the answers to all the questions she’d never needed to ask.

“You don’t belong here,” she said, a quiet observation that carried no hint of threat. “This is my home.”

“I know.” Dax bowed her head, as though Kira were a vedek about to bless her. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

Kira smiled, and as she did some of the darkness in her eyes seemed to evaporate, stolen sunlight radiating out from them like a wormhole in reverse, like she had captured all the secrets of her precious Prophets and was trying to bring them out in a way that Dax, neither Bajoran nor spiritual, could see and understand.

Dax was not worthy of the Prophets. She knew that, and had long since made peace with it. She wasn’t Bajoran; she was Trill. In seven lifetimes — eight, including the one that would never be named — she had never felt the least inclination towards the spiritual or theological. She had no gods, and didn’t want any either. She was content with what she could see and hear and feel, tangible ideas that she could reason and learn and understand. She was content with existence as she knew it, simple as it was, and didn’t waste her time thinking of anything beyond that. She was alive, and that was all she needed to know.

Until now, anyway. Here, in this moment, surrounded by the impossible beauty of a world that had been ravaged almost to destruction, stood next to the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, feeling the world come to life around them, light and beauty in every direction… for the first time in all her lifetimes, she felt touched by something more, something that went beyond who she was. She did not understand it, but for the first time in all her lifetimes, she didn’t care. She felt, and she almost understood.

Kira smiled, watching the sunlight play across her face, an imperfect reflection of the beauty in her eyes. “I could share a lot more with you…” she murmured, breath warm in Dax’s ear, tickling with promise. “If you like.”

Dax swallowed, suddenly very aware of the sweat drying on her skin, branding her with the flush of fatigue; she was naked, of course, and though she was not ashamed of her body, she felt exposed and vulnerable in this sacred place, unable to conceal the mark of exertion. They’d spent the whole morning scaling the mountain without a single rest-stop, and though Dax was no slouch in the fitness department, even she was feeling a little winded by now. Kira, of course, wasn’t showing any signs of flagging at all; from the look of her, she could probably climb another mountain right now and still not break a sweat. She was flushed too, of course, but it had nothing to do with exertion, and the shifting colours of her skin, the flashes of warmth reflecting the heat of the sun above them just as potently as her eyes reflected its light, only made Dax blush even deeper.

“I think I’d like that,” she whispered, inexplicably breathless.

Kira’s smile widened. “I’m glad,” she said, and kissed her.

It was by pure instinct that Dax closed her eyes. She wanted to keep them open, to take in the moment just as she had taken in the scenery, the sunlight and the smile on Kira’s face; she wanted to take it all in, to absorb it all, the way she tasted and the press of her bare skin, the scent of sweat and earth and nature, the glow turning her skin to something holy. She wanted to memorise the fingers threading through her hair and the wire-thin body pressing up against hers, the wet slide of Kira’s tongue in her mouth, the soft little gasps passing between them, everything. Here, in the most secluded and spiritual corner of Bajor, here where nobody but the Prophets could see them, Dax wanted to see them too. Here, in this most perfect of moments, she wanted to see everything.

She wanted so desperately to keep her eyes open, to drink it all in, to use all of her senses at once, but the moment overwhelmed her, contact and emotion and Nerys, Dax’s heart and soul colliding within her like a cataclysm, and she was helpless, disarmed and disoriented. She wanted to keep her eyes open, to lay herself bare to everything this place could give her, but she had no choice. She was weak and she was small and she was as nothing here; her eyes were closed before she could think to stop them, and once they were not even the Prophets themselves could find the strength to open them again.

Kira was passionate, though Dax had expected that. She kissed like she was possessed, frenzied and forceful, like she believed they would be torn from each other at any moment, like she wanted Dax to be wearing her mark when it happened, like she could somehow brand herself onto her skin, breathe herself into her mouth, drive herself inside of her, like she could make herself so much a part of Dax that they would never be separated, like she could nestle in her belly with the symbiont and not take up any extra room. Dax would have told her that it was pointless, that she was already inside her just like that, but she could not summon the breath to speak, and who could think of words when Kira was kissing her?

She kissed her as though the world were ending, this world so alive with beauty and spirituality, this world that had survived everything; she kissed her as though they would look up when this was over and find that Bajor had burned to ashes around them, as though there was nothing left for either of them but this.

It was all too easy for Dax to drown in it, to melt into the startling familiarity of Kira’s mouth and hands and body, the startling familiarity of everything, the feeling that they had done this a thousand times before, the feeling that it came as naturally as breathing, as though there was nothing new in any of this at all. It had the feel of something so much deeper than it should have been, something ethereal and eternal, something like faith, something that reached so far beyond either one of them. It felt like a gift from the Prophets, something holy and untouchable, and Dax didn’t even stop to think that that was absurd, that she wasn’t Bajoran, that the Bajoran gods had no place for a Trill in their timeless theology. She didn’t stop to think at all; she didn’t stop to do anything. She couldn’t.

The moment overpowered her completely, leaving her helpless and hopeless, whimpering and clinging to Kira with everything she had in her. Kira was the driving force behind them both, the strength holding them both upright. But then, wasn’t she always that way? Wasn’t she always the one driving Dax to new places and new challenges and new ideas? Wasn’t she always the driving force behind everything Dax thought and felt and was?

Dax didn’t know; she could barely remember who she was, much less how she defined herself. She couldn’t remember anything at all, only the way Kira’s body felt against her own, warm and strong, and the way her tongue tasted in her mouth, wet and slick and so familiar, so achingly and startlingly familiar…

They had done this before, she realised, even as she lost herself to the strangeness of that idea. It was old and new, and both at the same time, but then wasn’t that Dax all over? An old man and a young woman, a stupid adolescent boy and a wise ageing mother, the gift of the symbiont inside of her. Dax had always known how to balance the old against the new, wisdom and experience against youth and exuberance, the familiar with the strange. It was the nature of the Trill. Kira knew that about her; Dax remembered hearing her say once that she envied that a little, being so old and so young at the same time, so world-worn and yet still so eager to learn. Dax was a paradox most of the time, a maelstrom of memories, but right now Kira was so much more than she had ever been. Kira, who was a study in contradiction. Kira, who Dax knew with all the intimacy of a lover even as she felt like she had never even met her before. Kira, who stole her breath, whose heart beat in rhythm with her own. Kira, who she knew so well but would never truly understand. Kira, who was kissing her as though they’d been doing it all their lives, as though they’d never done it before, as though the universe was nothing more or less than the sum of them.

It felt like a lifetime before they pulled apart. No, more than that; a lifetime was nothing to a Trill. It felt like ten lifetimes, each one more spectacular than the last. Dax was panting, urgent and desperate for so much more than air, and she could hear the echo of Kira’s breath too, a hazy backbeat at the edge of her awareness, drumming in perfect rhythm with her own. She forced herself to calm down, steadied herself against the nearest solid surface, fumbling blindly for purchase… and then, at long last, she opened her eyes.

Everything was different.

All the beauty that had struck her before she’d closed her eyes was gone, leaving behind a wasteland of devastation, a world turned dark and twisted and terrible. The perfect bright sky had gone black with clouds, swollen with the promise of storms, and the scenery that had left her speechless a moment (a lifetime, no, ten lifetimes) ago had all been carved out and turned to craters and destruction and death. The air was choked and thick with smoke, the ground blackened and lifeless. There was nothing left of the Bajor that was, nothing left of anything at all but the charred remains of a world that had once been so impossibly beautiful.

“I told you,” Kira murmured. She still stood at Dax’s side, as she had before, but her voice sounded different somehow, harsher and more dangerous. “You don’t belong here.”

Dax turned to look at her, to ask her what she meant, but the face that looked back at her wasn’t her Nerys any more.

Vibrant red hair gone slick and black, featureless and undefined, and those eyes that had held the sun in them just a moment before were now void and unblinking. Skin that had been pink and flushed and alive was suddenly grey and half-dead, scaled and ridged and etched like stone. Markings she didn’t recognise, and a coldness in every part of her that was nothing at all like the woman Dax thought she knew, the Kira Nerys who was her friend and her… well, something.

And yet, something in the face was familiar, just like the kiss had been, a strange sense that this was both the first and the hundredth time Dax had seen her like this, that she knew this version of Kira just as well as she knew the other, that somehow she still was the same Kira underneath. It felt wrong, every bit as twisted and broken as the world around them, the storms and the craters and the destruction, all of it, but still she couldn’t shake the sense of knowing, of understanding, of empathy with this creature — this Cardassian — that stood in front of her in Kira’s place.

“What happened?” Dax heard herself whisper, gagging on the smoke-clogged air, and asking about so much more than the chaos all around them. Kira didn’t answer, of course; she was even more stoic as a Cardassian than as a Bajoran, Dax thought, and tried again, more specifically. “What happened to you?”

“You don’t belong here.”

The words chilled her, but she didn’t know why. She’d heard them before, and bowed her head to concede the truth of them, but right now, spilling from cold reptilian lips, that sinister Cardassian smile, knowing what those people had done to this world the first time they were here… it felt wrong. It felt alien and it felt wrong. Dax was cold all over — a strange sensation for a Trill who thrived on the chill — and had to fight to keep from shivering as those piercing obsidian eyes struck her to the soul.

“You don’t belong here either,” she said out loud, feeling the swell of something unpleasant inside her, a primal kind of instinct that scared and thrilled her in equal measure. “The Bajorans fought for generations to be free of your people. You don’t belong here any more than I do.”

Kira hissed. “This is my home.”

Though the timbre of her voice was different, she still sounded so much like Kira, so much like Nerys. Even now, she was so alive, so alight with passion and intelligence, so sure of who and what she was. She looked so very different, but in her heart she was the same Kira Nerys that Dax had always known, the same beautiful Nerys who had kissed her.

Dax’s heart ached, but her stomach seethed. She felt hot and angry, an uncomfortable sensation simmering beneath the surface, radiating out from where the symbiont rested. She didn’t recognise it at first, but it struck her like a blow just the same, heating her skin and firing her veins, chasing away the discordant cold and slicking her skin with sweat all over again. It was awful; she knew that much beyond a shadow of doubt.

She needed to get away from here, she realised in a moment of half-blind panic. She needed to get away. Away from Bajor, away from this new Cardassian Kira, away from everything. She needed to get away, far away, before she did something everyone would regret, something stupid and dangerous. The certainty rose up in her, sharp and sudden, panic and fear clamouring inside of her, and she knew she had to go now but she couldn’t move. She was rooted to the spot, transfixed and terrified and utterly helpless. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything. All she could do was stare at Kira, this new Kira, this twisted Cardassian Kira, this alien creature that was the nightmare made manifest of everything that the real Kira hated.

“What happened?” Dax asked again, tongue heavy and thick in her mouth. She could not run, could not breathe, but she could still speak. That much, at least, she still had. “What happened to you? What happened to this place? What happened?”

“You did.” Those haunting obsidian eyes carved right through her, tearing through her heart like the perfect edge of a Klingon bat’leth, and driving her to her knees. “This is your doing.”

And as she said it, Dax knew that it was true. She didn’t know how or why or what she’d done, but she felt the truth of it right down to her bones, the inescapable reality, the blame and the guilt and the shame. So much destruction, so much fire and violence, so much beauty torn apart and ripped away. Bajor and her people, the people who had already lost so much, who had watched their lives and souls be stripped away by the Cardassians, those soulless beasts, those sick and sordid monsters, the reptilian creature that Kira had become… the burnt-out husk of Bajor spreading out for miles in all directions, craters and storm clouds and destruction, and all of it by her hand. So much destruction, so much violence and devastation, so much pain, and it was all her doing. She didn’t know how, but she knew that it was.

“I’m sorry,” she said, but the unpleasantness in her stomach told her that she didn’t mean it.

She recognised the sensation now, that unknown-but-familiar, the twisted wrongness that was an inside echo of the world beyond. She recognised it now, as she would a phantom limb or the memory of summer: pure undiluted rage.

“You’re not sorry,” Kira said. Her face gave away nothing of what she was feeling. “You don’t know how to be sorry.”

Dax swallowed. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“That’s a lie too.”

And it was. It hurt to admit, but it was. She wasn’t sorry, and it was her fault. There was nowhere to turn, no scapegoat to take the blame, nothing to diffuse. All the pain and hurt, the death and destruction, the terrible things stretching out as far as the eye could see… they were her doing, hers alone, and she could not change that with hollow apologies and meaningless placations. It was done, and she had done it.

“They left me no choice.”

Kira laughed, cold and Cardassian. “Do you really expect me to believe that?” she demanded; there was no trace of Nerys in those icy obsidian eyes now, and they carved through the space in Dax’s head, piercing the corner of her that so desperately wanted to believe the lies, that so desperately wanted to be sorry. “There’s always a choice. You’re the one who taught me that. Remember?”

Dax didn’t remember. Not then. All she remembered was the rage, blood-red and ash-grey, thick as smoke and hot as fire, and she couldn’t think through it to remember anything else. She looked on the destruction again with new eyes, new thoughts and new feelings, and suddenly she didn’t even want to be sorry any more. She delighted in it, relished the chaos and the devastation, took pleasure from the pain. She thought about all the lives and homes lost and destroyed, the damage that would endure far beyond this moment. She thought about Bajor, about the Cardassians, about this Kira who was not Nerys, about the obsidian in her eyes, the ferocity still sparking behind them, the passion that was still so Bajoran, the fire in her heart turned frozen in a cold-blooded chest, those lifeless reptilian lips.

“You did this,” Kira said again. “You don’t belong here.”

Over and over, she said it, again and again, until Dax couldn’t take any more, until her fists were balled at her sides, until even the devastation around her was lost to a haze of red rage.

“This is your doing.”

The rage boiled over, hot and lethal, and she struck out, violent and reflexive. She couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t even feel the impact as her knuckles struck stone-like flesh, Kira’s face or her chest, or even some other part completely; there was no way of knowing. She couldn’t feel or see or think, couldn’t do anything at all but strike and strike again. The anger overwhelmed her, the need to hurt, to explode, to destroy, and for a very long moment there was nothing else at all. It crashed over her head like a wave, a torrent, salt lashing her eyes and blinding her, and when she finally blinked away the sting and looked down, her hands were soaked through with blood.

“You see?”

And just like that, with those two words, Kira was Kira again. Dax blinked away the last of the salt-sting, vision blurring back into focus, and there she was, as breathtaking as ever, smiling that beautiful Bajoran smile once again. The scales and ridges were all gone, the slicked-back hair and the obsidian in her eyes and the cold reptilian blood that extinguished all the fire in her heart… it was all gone now, all of it vanished like it had never been there at all, and all that remained was Kira Nerys. Beautiful, breathtaking Kira, her Kira, her Nerys. The Kira who had brought her to this place, the Kira who smiled that perfect smile, the Kira who closed her eyes and kissed her…

…Kira, standing before her with a knife in her chest.

Dax did see, then. She saw the destruction, all of it made manifest in the hole in Kira’s chest. She saw the blood rushing out to fill the space between them, staining Kira’s skin, soaking Dax’s hands and the knife, its handle still trembling between her fingers. She saw the shudder in Kira’s shoulders, saw the gasp as she choked on her last breath, saw that she was still smiling.

This was her doing, she realised once again. The blood, the pain, the destruction. All of it, her doing. Bajor was dead and Kira was dying and it was all her fault, her doing, all of it, all her fault…

She tried to scream, but no sound came out. She tried to run away, but she was fixed in place, legs like solid stone, hands locked like a vice around the handle of the knife. She tried to breathe, but the air caught in her throat, a ragged choking that echoed the last vestiges of Kira’s breath. She tried and tried and tried, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t save Bajor, and she couldn’t save Kira, so what was the point in trying to do anything?

“You see?” Kira asked again, voice as lifeless as her face as the blood drained from her. “You see what you’ve done?”

Dax bowed her head. That much, at least, she could still do.

“You left me no choice.”

*

“Computer, lights!”

Bolting upright in bed, it took Dax a few long moments to realise that the ragged voice screaming her awake was in fact her own. It was rather longer than that before her breathing returned to normal, and longer still before she was calm enough to feel even remotely like herself again. Her quarters felt very small, cramped and claustrophobic, the walls and ceiling closing in on her, swerving and swaying against the darkness in the half-second before the computer chirped its acknowledgement and flooded the room with light.

The momentary blindness that followed was almost a relief.

She shook her head, clearing it, and as the shadows of the dream started to fall away, eyes focusing with practiced familiarity on the comfortable worldly possessions scattered all around her, she began to feel a little silly. She wasn’t often the type to indulge in the echoes of bad dreams, to let the fear or the sorrow linger after she woke, but this felt different. It felt so real, almost visceral, and that sensation lingered even as the clarity of consciousness reminded her of how absurd it was.

She couldn’t shake the memory of Kira’s face, that reptilian skin and the heartless obsidian in her eyes. It unnerved her, left her disarmed and disquieted. She knew what Kira had gone through after her kidnapping by the Cardassians; she knew how confused she was, and how frightened, how the experience had shaken her to her very core. And that was understandable; Dax too knew how upsetting it was to think, even for just a moment, that she might not be the person she’d always believed she was. A moment’s doubt could last a dozen lifetimes; Dax knew that far better than most.

Kira knew it now, too, and Dax hated the way it had manifested in her dreams, twisting phantasms that should have been her own into something else. It was the last thing either of them needed, she thought, and felt a wave of guilt pass across the weightier emotions that still lingered. Kira was going through enough self-doubt of her own right now; it was unfair for Dax’s subconscious to lend itself to the same argument, to see that cold Cardassian face that no doubt still haunted Kira’s own dreams.

It was unfair. Dax was Kira’s friend; they had known each other for more than two years now, become as close as any two souls from such different backgrounds could ever hope to be, bonded and connected and come to respect and care for each other. If there was one person on Deep Space Nine who should be able to look Kira in the eye and remind her of who she was and what she stood for, to tell her without the least hint of doubt that she was Kira Nerys, her friend, her Nerys… if there was one person on the whole station who should be able to stand up and remind her of everything that mattered and everything that didn’t, it was Dax.

And maybe that was part of the problem too: Dax did know her, and she knew all too well what she was going through just now. It had felt almost like looking into a mirror, seeing that cold Cardassian stare where Kira’s eyes had once been, like looking deep into that part of her own self she was still so desperately trying to deny. It was like looking at Joran, that piercing cruelty radiating out not from within herself but from Kira instead, taking shape in the one person that should have been safe.

She could still feel the rage inside her, the fire in her veins and the blood pounding in her ears, desperate for somewhere to go, something to destroy, someone to hurt. Though she’d only just woken, still dazed and shaken, she was on fire with adrenaline, panting not with fear but with explosive energy, shaking fingers fisting the sheets, clenching as if in a fever, struggling for purchase, for anything to keep her grounded.

It wasn’t really Kira’s transformation that troubled her at all, she realised as she fought to get her pulse back under some kind of control. Kira’s part in the dream had been jarring in some places, unsettling in others, and somewhat unexpected in still others, but that wasn’t what struck Dax now. It wasn’t what heaved in her chest, what howled in her blood, the slamming of her pulse against her neck, the pounding of her heart against her ribcage, the urgent scream of adrenaline. That wasn’t Kira’s fault, and it hadn’t come from seeing her so transformed.

She couldn’t shake the image of those piercing obsidian eyes, the sound of that cold Cardassian laugh. It wasn’t Kira she’d been seeing there, she realised, or even some twisted Cardassian bastardisation of Kira. The Kira in her dream had died when she’d kissed her, died by getting too close; Dax should have realised that sooner. But she had been right, that lifeless Cardassian Kira; she had been entirely too right when she had pointed at Dax and blamed her for everything. That was what frightened her; that was what set her on edge now, a terrified little girl hiding from a twisted nightmare, afraid of the horrible things her mind was capable of.

The guilt still pressing down on her aching mind as it raced to make sense of it all, the sight of so much destruction wrought so suddenly and so completely, the smell of smoke and ash, the revenant taste of a kiss borrowed or given or stolen, the look on Kira’s face and the strangeness of accusation in the eyes of a soulless Cardassian. All of it, and Dax at the very centre.

You left me no choice.

She remembered the words, of course. Too well, she remembered them, and it stoked the fire of feeling within her once again just to think of them. His face, his name, his thoughts inside her head, his rage burning in her veins, so seductive, so impossibly potent… Joran Belar, and all the horror that went with him.

Still trembling, she swung out of bed. The covers were too hot and the sheets were too cold, and trying to be still just felt like suffocating anyway; she had to move, had to do something, had to shake off the shadows still throwing themselves around her.

She tried to breathe, slow and steady, deep and clean, tried to calm her lungs if not her blood, tried to quiet her body if not her heart; it was harder than it seemed, though, and as she stumbled half-blind out of the bedroom and into the oversized living space, she found herself having to brace against the wall, leaning heavily as she forced down a violent surge of discomfort that tasted far too much like violence for her liking.

It wasn’t the first time she’d woken like this, sweating and dizzy and reeling from the brutality of dreams that both were and weren’t her own. It wasn’t the first time she had dreamed of destruction, of blood on her hands and death on her conscience. In the couple of weeks since she’d taken in Joran’s twisted memories, integrating his life and his personality as best she could with all the other Dax hosts, it happened almost every night, and it often took more hours than she had to shake off the the lingering effects. The fear was easy, of course; young Jadzia was long accustomed to bad dreams and night terrors. That wasn’t the part she couldn’t shake.

No, it was the rage that took her captive, the hatred she couldn’t shake off. Joran’s rage, and his hatred. His emotions screaming in her head, holding her down until she begged for mercy.

“Computer,” she said, voice still thick and groggy. “What time is it?”

“The time is oh-four-hundred hours,” the computer chirped helpfully.

Dax spat a curse under her breath. Kira had been adamant that they set out for Bajor as early as possible, no doubt afraid that Dax would change her mind if they left it too long, but even so they weren’t due at the docking ring until oh-eight-hundred. That left a rather unfortunate window of four hours, and with the unpleasant dream still lingering, going back to sleep was not an option; after two weeks of them, Dax knew better than to waste her time trying.

On any other day, she would have given the night up as lost and simply wandered up to Ops; better to turn up a few hours early for her shift than pace her quarters feeling restless. She’d done that a few times over the last couple of weeks, sometimes trading out graveyard shifts with one of the yawning young ensigns or helping Chief O’Brien with his duties — like her, the poor chief never seemed to sleep. Thinking about it now, she couldn’t help wondering if perhaps the shift-swapping was one of the reasons why Benjamin and Kira were so adamant about getting her off the station for a while. “It’s not that we don’t appreciate your initiative, old man,” Benjamin had chided at one point, eyes sparkling with good humour, “it’s just that we can’t keep track of your schedule any more.”

There would be none of that tonight, though. She was officially on leave for the next two weeks, and not even Benjamin would turn a blind eye if she showed up asking to go on duty now. So then, what was a restless and anxious Trill supposed to do for four hours in the should-be-illegal hours of the night-slash-morning?

Why, kill time (and pre-programmed opponents) in the holosuite, of course.

Naturally, Quark’s was empty by the time she arrived; the bar had been closed for hours, and Dax knew from experience that even the all-hours tongo games tended to wind down and peter out by oh-two-hundred. The Promenade was deserted too as she wandered a well-worn path towards the bar, and she let her gaze wander to the vast starscape twinkling through the windows. It was strange to find such peace and quiet in a setting that was usually so bustling and frenetic, and the tranquillity in such an unexpected place made a pleasant contrast to the restlessness skittering beneath her skin.

Getting access to the holosuites, even at this hour, was simple and straightforward for someone like Dax. Quark trusted her rather more than he should, no doubt because she wasn’t a Ferengi. She was a Starfleet officer, and a female to boot; what could be more trustworthy? Dax, of course, had never bothered correcting him, and it served her well in moments like this. Besides, even if he had known that she’d misuse his trust to break into his bar, they were close enough friends that she knew he wouldn’t begrudge her a little off-hours visit, so long as she didn’t take anything without paying. Knowing him, she supposed, he’d probably encourage it, and not least of all because he knew her big heart well enough to expect an oversized tip out of it. Truthfully, if she really set her mind to it, she could quite easily sneak in and out of the holosuite without a trace, leaving him none the wiser for her impromptu visit, but for all her talents at the Ferengi style of gambling, she was still just a little bit too honest for that.

So, because fair was fair, she made a mental note to leave a few strips of latinum under the bar when she left. There would be no need for a note, of course; he’d know perfectly well who it was from, and why, and she smiled to imagine him shaking his head and chuckling as he pocketed the unexpected profit. Maybe she’d let him win their next game of tongo, too, if she was still feeling amicable by then, but even if she didn’t they both knew that it was more than an even trade for all the times she had turned a blind eye to his wheeling and dealing when she could just as easily turn him over to Odo or Kira or any one of a thousand others who wanted his head. They had an understanding, and she took no shame in using that to her advantage in moments like this.

Once she was inside, however, it was painfully easy to lose track of time.

That was part of the logic behind the holosuites’ inclusion on the station, Dax knew; certainly, it was one of the main reasons why Quark appreciated their business potential so much. Running over a pre-arranged appointment time tended to result in an excessively inflated fine for ‘keeping the next customer waiting’, even when there was no ‘next customer’ to speak of, and Dax herself had been penalised more times than she could count when a favourite adventure ran a little longer than she’d anticipated, or another sucked her in so deep that she forgot to check the time. It was entirely too easy to get caught up in the thrall of virtual reality, to get lost in a fantasy world so expertly crafted in every way that anyone could be forgiven for forgetting that none of it was truly real. That was part of the allure, and also part of the danger.

With four hours to kill, though, she naturally just assumed that this time she’d be safe from that particular pitfall. She had a lot of pent-up aggression to work through, true, and a lot of Joran’s violent influence to burn out, but she also had plenty of time to do it. Not even she was indulgent enough to lose track of time in a holosuite for four straight hours, she thought, and when she commanded the computer to send its highest-level Klingon warriors at her, she naturally presumed that she would wear herself out within the first hour.

Naturally, though, it didn’t turn out that way. Wave after wave of bat’leth-wielding warriors came after her, more and more in each fresh assault, and of course she bested them all. Driven by rage and hate, fury and fervour, by bloodlust and the insatiable need for violence, it was like child’s play, and it didn’t hurt that she was still haunted by the memories of a dream that had cut into her far more cruelly than she’d expected. Over and over again, wave after wave; she drove back everything the simulation threw at her, and more.

The first hour bled quickly into a second, and the second soon faded away into a third, and it wasn’t until the computer chimed in, a hundred or a thousand or a million faceless enemies later, and politely informed her that she was due at Runabout Pad C in ten minutes that she realised she’d whiled away the entire four hours.

Far worse than that, though, was the fact that she was pretty sure she could have easily kept going for four more. She didn’t feel the least bit sated, and she certainly wasn’t tired. Her body ached a little, the pleasant pulse of adrenaline and exercise, but she was not worn down, and she wasn’t ready to leave. She wanted to keep going. Just one more, just a couple more… surely Kira could wait a few minutes?

But that way lay madness, and she knew it. She’d already lost four hours; who was to say how many more would bleed away if she indulged herself for that ever-elusive ‘one more minute’? She was a trained Starfleet officer, and she knew better than to risk such things, as much as she wanted to. Still, though, it was with great difficulty that she told the obnoxiously bleeping computer to end the program.

Her body hummed as she crossed to the door, itching for more, and she closed her eyes. For the first time, she wondered how she would survive on Bajor like this, with no holosuite to keep her temper under control, no imaginary enemies to feed her need for violence. Suddenly she felt very, very frightened. How was she supposed to keep Joran contained without the holosuite to fall back on when she couldn’t hold him down any more? How was she supposed to keep from doing real damage to real people, maybe even to Kira? What was stopping her from turning her horrible, twisted dreams into something real? Put a knife in her hand after two days without a holosuite, and who could tell what she would do with it?

She shuddered, feeling sick, and held her breath as she stepped back out into the real world, with its bright colours and its flesh-and-blood people.

Quark was just opening up as she crept out through the bar. She knew better than to try and sneak past him unnoticed — he had practically made a living out of noticing little details, after all, and Dax was far from a ‘little’ anything — so she opted instead to swagger past as though she owned the place, hoping that he would at least be too tired to notice the tremors in her hands.

Nothing disarmed a Ferengi as quickly or effectively than a female with delusions of authority, and Dax knew perfectly well that she herself was a particular weak spot of Quark’s; she could get away with far worse than taking advantage of his facilities after hours if she wanted to, though they both knew that she would never try. She might have all the cunning of a Ferengi, but she’d never had the lobes for ruthlessness.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on duty, Lieutenant?” he simpered as she stopped to smile at him. “Not that I’d ever turn away a face as lovely as yours…”

Dax chuckled at the empty flattery, letting it warm and soothe the place in her chest that Joran had turned cold and sickly. “If you must know,” she said, “I’m going on vacation with Major Kira.”

Quark blinked his surprise at that little tidbit of information. “Such a shame,” he said, sounding sincerely disappointed. “Business is always slow when you’re not around to liven the place up.”

Dax flashed him another smile, this one a little easier, and cocked her head back in the general direction of the holosuite. “We’re leaving in ten minutes,” she explained, “so I thought I’d squeeze in a last-minute workout.” Letting the smile widen into a conspiratorial grin, the kind she knew he couldn’t resist, she leaned in, letting her sweat-damp skin brush ever so slightly against his oversized ears. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Well…” he stammered, struggling to hold on to his Ferengi dignity. “You know, there’s usually a premium on… ah…” He trailed off, apparently losing his train of thought as she upped the ante, moving in even closer and running a single fingertip along the edge of his lobe. “Well… I suppose… in the interest of good relations with the customers… I suppose we could waive it, just this once…”

Dax beamed, and pulled away. “That’s very sweet of you, Quark,” she purred, as though she hadn’t known from the beginning that she would get her way. “I promise I’ll make it up to you when I get back.”

“Make sure you do,” he mumbled, a half-hearted feint at mending his bruised ego.

The interlude was a brief one, barely worth noting at all, but it helped her to get back in touch with herself, to remember who she was and where she was, that she was more than the sum of Joran’s anger. At the very least, it helped her to reassert some measure of control over the inner conflict still eating away at her insides, the part of her that still wanted nothing more than to turn around and run back into that holosuite where it was safe, where she could kill and kill and kill and nobody would die.

She could still feel his influence now, like a hard-to-reach itch at the back of her mind, but Quark had helped to make it a little more manageable, a little less excruciating and a little more endurable; it was easier to ignore now, and easier to hope, even futilely, that she might yet be able to make it through a few days on Bajor without hurting anyone.

Idly, she found herself wondering what it said about her — or, indeed, about Joran — that a thirty-second feint at sweet-talking a Ferengi into waiving his holosuite fee had been more effective at calming the fury inside her than four solid hours of non-stop brutality and pure violence in the holosuite itself.

Maybe Kira was right, she thought, feeling uneasy. Maybe she could use some time away from the station after all.

Chapter Text

“You’re late.”

Kira, of course, was not late. In fact, judging by the impatient scowl on her face and the irritable tapping of her foot, she’d probably been waiting there for upwards of half an hour. Dax wasn’t that late, really, but Kira was a stickler for punctuality and, like Benjamin, she never turned down an opportunity to give Dax a hard time over her lack of it.

Dax, of course, was never one to back down from a challenge, and she met Kira’s scowl with a good-natured shrug, shifting her bag from one shoulder to the other in the vain hope of making it a little more comfortable.

“I was saying goodbye to Quark,” she said. “He told me to tell you that he’ll miss you terribly.”

“I’m sure he will,” Kira muttered, and rolled her eyes.

She seemed content to let the issue slide with that; Dax supposed she was worried that she’d change her mind and back out if she was antagonised too much. Normally she might have been a little offended, upset that Kira would think she was so flighty, but right now she was just grateful that she wasn’t looking too close, that she hadn’t seen the lines of weariness under her eyes or the haunted shadows that were no doubt still flickering behind them. She didn’t want to hear those questions, and she definitely didn’t want to answer them.

“I wasn’t sure what to pack,” she said quickly, changing the subject with her usual grace and precision, before Kira had a chance to look deeper and see all those things. She shifted the bag back to the first shoulder, then gave up the effort entirely and dumped it unceremoniously on the floor in front of her. “I figured you’d probably want to travel light. I mean, historically speaking, I know these pilgrimages are supposed to be about casting off the material, so…” She shrugged again, feeling self-conscious as Kira smiled. “I didn’t bring very much. I thought you might…”

“Good,” Kira said, interrupting tactlessly, apparently afraid to risk making them any more late than they already were. She gave Dax and her pitiful looking bag an approving once-over, then wrinkled her nose. “You didn’t shower this morning.”

Dax flushed, suddenly aware of the accumulated sweat of four straight hours fighting holographic Klingons. “I didn’t have time,” she admitted, though the excuse sounded weak to her own ears.

Kira glared at her, folding her arms tight across her chest. For a moment, Dax felt very much on display, terrified that if Kira looked hard enough or long enough, she’d see the breakdown beneath, the four hours wasted in the holosuite, the violence and the fury, the tumult she had indulged so completely and still not managed to scratch the surface. She was afraid that she would see it all, that she would realise how close to the edge Dax really was, and refuse to let her come along after all. Dax was not exactly enthused by the idea of spending a fortnight on Bajor with nothing to curb her savage instincts, but being turned away was a humiliation she didn’t think she could stomach.

Besides, if there was one thing last night’s dream made very clear, it was that spending a fortnight anywhere with Kira and her beautiful Bajoran eyes was not something to take for granted.

After a moment, Kira stepped back, snorting her disgust. “‘Saying goodbye to Quark’, my ass,” she huffed. “You overslept again, didn’t you?”

Dax breathed a huge sigh of relief, covering it up quickly with a sheepish smile. Well, she figured, why not? It was better than the truth, after all. “Guilty as charged,” she said.

Kira sighed, heavy and weighted heavier still with equal parts exasperation and amusement. “You’re hopeless,” she grumbled, though her lips were quirking upwards just a little. “Completely hopeless.”

“I’d like to think so,” Dax agreed with a smile that made her jaw hurt, and immediately had to stifle the yawn that threatened to expose her. “But then, I’m not the one wasting precious pilgrimage time by standing around outside an airlock and asking silly questions.” She gave up on the smile, stooping to pick up her bag again and hoping that that would keep Kira from seeing the strain etched on her face. “Do you want to leave the station this century, Major, or would you like to quiz me about my choice of breakfast first?”

“Perish the thought,” Kira shot back with an uncharacteristically sly smile. “I already know the things you like to put in your mouth.”

There was no countering a point like that, and Dax conceded with a hearty laugh. “You know me too well,” she said, shaking her head. “Far, far too well.”

Kira, having made her point, seemed content to board the runabout at last, though she took great pains in tapping her foot and waiting with exaggerated impatience for Dax to hoist the bag back over her shoulder and follow her lead. Dax, for her part, tried very hard not to grimace as her muscles protested every little movement; four hours in a holosuite might be only moderately effectual at silencing the rage of past hosts, but it was rather more brutal on the body.

It was just a few short hours from the station to Bajor, but that was long enough for a disoriented Trill to regain some semblance of self-identity, and Dax was rather looking forward to the task of sitting mindlessly at the helm. Jadzia was far from the most talented helmsman in the galaxy, but she was no slouch at it either, and she’d inherited an appreciation of shuttles and other such things from her previous hosts — Tobin’s fascination with phase coils and engines, in particular, and Torias’s penchant for speed-demon piloting. Between them, they had bred in Jadzia an immense enjoyment of any time she could get in the cockpit. It would be good to indulge their interests for a while, she mused, to take her mind off Joran and his.

For the first hour or so, Kira didn’t talk to her at all. Though she’d made a show of her punctuality, it seemed she hadn’t been nearly as well-organised as she wanted Dax to think, because as soon as they’d cleared Deep Space Nine she sheepishly grabbed a light breakfast from the cockpit replicator. She made a point of not looking at Dax as she ate, nibbling on a modest kava roll and settling comfortably in the co-pilot’s seat. Dax could have happily made a few snide comments about that, but she bit her tongue and focused on flying the ship instead; though it didn’t happen very often, she was not above being the more mature person once in a while.

When she’d finished her breakfast, Kira settled in to meditate. Dax knew better than to try and interrupt, of course, and so she didn’t. There would be time enough for conversation and small-talk in the days to come, she decided, and she had absolutely no intention of seeing their vacation (‘pilgrimage’) get off to a bad start just because she couldn’t sit in silence for a few minutes. She knew how important meditation was to the Bajoran people as a whole, and to Kira in particular, and some lines were simply not meant to be crossed. The limits between them were few and far between — almost anything, within the bounds of common sense, could be a good opportunity for a challenge or a good-natured debate — but some things were sacred, and Kira’s faith was certainly one of them.

So, while Kira sought inner peace or whatever Bajorans sought when they meditated, Dax just sat and quietly watched the stars winking on the viewscreen. She didn’t often get the opportunity to fly at sub-light speeds any more; generally, when she was called to pilot a runabout, it was for a mission into the Gamma Quadrant, or somewhere else that was far enough away to necessitate warp. Bajor wasn’t nearly that far away, and since they weren’t in any hurry to get there the runabout was happy to chug along at impulse. Dax was so used to seeing the stars streaking past at warp speeds, extended lines of light and occasional colour that flickered and flashed and then were lost to the horizon, or else static and stationary pinpricks from the window in her quarters, she’d almost forgotten what they looked like in slow motion. It was a rare luxury to be able to sit there watch a single star or system make its way from one side of the screen to the other, and she enjoyed it while she could.

Idly, she wondered what Kira could possibly be seeking inside her own head when the universe itself was looking in on them from all sides. Didn’t she see how beautiful it was, how vast and unending? How could she be so moved by wormhole aliens and so untouched by the vastness of space? To the scientist in Dax, it seemed like such a shame, a tragic waste of misplaced awe. Still, though, she supposed it was not her place to question. Faith was faith, and it didn’t matter in what; if meditating on the Prophets brought Kira peace, that was good enough for her. The Bajorans had their faith, and Dax had hers. She’d take the soft pulses of starlight over all the false gods in the galaxy, but if the Prophets kept Nerys strong, then who was Dax to argue?

After a long and relatively comfortable silence, Kira opened her eyes. Dax didn’t tear hers away from the viewscreen, but she smiled as she sensed the motion beside her and let her hands drop away from the helm console, fingers tangling around themselves as she lowered them to her lap.

“Welcome back,” she said.

Kira chuckled, a low and husky sound that carried a vague edge of disorientation; she sounded almost as though she’d just been woken. “How long?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Not long,” Dax answered, not bothering to check. “Another couple of hours, give or take. You haven’t missed very much.”

“That’s comforting,” Kira said, standing up.

Dax did turn away from the screen then, turning to watch as Kira stretched out her muscles. She moved like a jungle cat, strong and fierce, but effortlessly graceful, and Dax’s mouth went dry at the sight of her. There really was an ethereal kind of beauty in Kira Nerys, she thought, and inexplicably remembered the part of last night’s dream that hadn’t left her shaking with rage, the part that had left her shaking with other feelings instead… the part that came far more from Jadzia than Joran.

It wasn’t the first time she’d dreamed of Kira’s mouth on hers. To tell the truth, by her usual standards, the brief flicker of lust that had coloured the early part of her dream was practically tame; more often than not, her lips didn’t stay for very long on her mouth at all. There was nothing unusual about that at all, at least not beyond the fact that it hadn’t been the sole focus of the dream this time, and yet something about the momentary remembrance made her skin feel like it was too tight, her lungs like they were not big enough.

Since being joined to Dax, Jadzia had become incredibly self-aware. She was very much in tune with her thoughts and her desires, and those of her previous hosts, and she knew how to deal with unexpected or even unwanted feelings. Most humanoids were self-aware on at least a rudimentary level, but to a joined Trill, it was a matter of necessity to dig far deeper than the basic idea of what she did and did not like; for a joined Trill, any lack of self-awareness in the host meant trouble for its relationship with the symbiont, and that in turn could lead to rejection.

One of the very first things Jadzia had learned as an initiate was how to indulge and embrace the things that made her uncomfortable; physical sexuality were only a part of it, of course, but it was the part that young and shy Jadzia had struggled with most of all. She was a hardworking and studious initiate, but she’d had no real place in the world beyond her desire to be joined, and had definitely not had time to explore her own body, much less anyone else’s. Learning about such things, and on such an intimate and uncensored level as the initiate program had insisted on, felt to her like a kind of torture. She’d been humiliated, and frustrated too because she did not understand. But she had pushed through and persevered, learned to understand herself, the desires of her mind and the desires of her body, because nothing meant more to her than being joined.

Of course, once she finally had what she wanted, she realised just a little too late that her new symbiont’s old host had been an unapologetic and insatiable hedonist. Needless to say, the first few dreams she’d had after being joined were interesting, and considerably more educational than a hundred Commission-taught classes on ‘self-awareness’.

And then there was Kira. Kira Nerys was a strong and attractive woman, and it wasn’t just Curzon’s influence that made Jadzia appreciated those things in her. As confused and disoriented as she had been for much of her first year on the station, struggling to wrap her head around seven new identities (and the same old one she’d always had, which was frankly still struggling with a lot of her own issues), it had been all too easy for the newly-joined Jadzia Dax to latch onto Major Kira, to cling to that fierce Bajoran temper of hers, her fire and her fury. She’d used her as a foothold, a compass guiding her towards the right kind of righteous; she’d let Kira’s unrepentant passion steady her as she dangled off the edge of her own confusion.

Kira cared about things that mattered, things that were important, things that shaped lives. Her life had been a conflagration, and when they came together for the first time on Deep Space Nine, she had hated everything. It was safe to feel for her, safe to know that those feelings would never amount to anything, safe to allow those feelings when the object of them would just as soon shoot her as look at her. It was too easy for young-but-old Jadzia Dax, newly joined and still fighting off Curzon’s illicit thoughts about anything that moved, to focus all of those strange new feelings on the one person she knew would not indulge her.

She couldn’t possibly have anticipated that they would become friends. Not even the old and world-wise Curzon could have anticipated that, and it caught her completely off-guard.

The Kira Nerys who shared a station with her at the end of that exhausting first year was nothing like the Major Kira who had grudgingly welcomed her and Julian Bashir to Deep Space Nine. They were worlds apart, two completely different souls. The Kira who had become Dax’s friend was a softer Kira, a Kira who was slowly coming to realise that the occupation was behind her, that Bajor was free, and that meant she was free as well. It had been inspiring to watch, and Dax had found herself breathless and awestruck more times than she could count to, more so with each new moment where Kira realised something new about herself or her people, about the endless possibilities unravelling before them both. It was beautiful, and as their tentative friendship built itself a more solid foundation, Dax too realised — no doubt with a little help from Curzon — that maybe her illicit feelings weren’t so illicit after all.

After that, she stopped feeling so self-conscious about it. So what if she woke sometimes in the middle of the night, flushed and sweating and on fire with muscle memories of moments she would never experience outside of her imagination? So what if she turned up late to her shift once in a while because her throbbing body demanded that she finish alone what her subconscious mind had started with Kira? Worrying about it wouldn’t stop it from happening, would it? It wouldn’t change her feelings, and it certainly wouldn’t stop the dreams. And surely Kira of all people would understand that a colourful dream or two didn’t negate any of the respect that Dax felt for her as an individual, or how deeply she cherished their friendship.

So, then, if it wasn’t that — if she wasn’t embarrassed about the phantom memories of Kira’s mouth on hers, just one more in an endless stream of similar fantasies — it had to be something else.

Guilt, she decided at last, half-choking on the taste of it. Not over her silly subconscious yearnings, of course, but because of how the dream had ended. The rage itself, she’d tried to temper in the holosuite, and while she hadn’t been entirely successful at least it had taken the edge off the adrenaline. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. But as much as she’d worked at alleviating the most dangerous of her symptoms, she still hadn’t dealt with the guilt.

It was still as fresh in her mind as any of the rest of it, that sense of sick horror, the moment she looked down, vision blurred and hazy, to see her hands stained with blood, the lightning-bolt of dread as she looked around at a Bajor torn apart once more, this time by her own hand. She remembered all too clearly the moment that she realised. She hadn’t known, or even really cared, how or why or what had happened; she hadn’t been aware of anything at all, only that gaping chasm suddenly opening up in her chest as her heart stopped beating, only the world-stopping realisation that it was true, that she was to blame, that it was all her doing.

She watched Kira now as she stretched, watched the grace and beauty, the perfect lines and the arc of her back, so much strength in such a small form. She watched, enraptured, and remembered how it felt to kiss her — no, to be kissed by her — and how it felt, a moment later, to kill her.

“Dax?”

She blinked, swallowing down the flood of emotion, and balled her hands into white-knuckle fists. She squeezed, hard enough to hurt, then folded them safely back in her lap, to keep from looking down and searching for blood. “Hm?”

Kira’s hands were on her hips now, and Dax willed herself not to think about how perfectly it accentuated them, how authoritative she looked, how attractive and how dangerous…

“I asked if you wanted anything from the replicator.”

“Oh.” Dax shook her head, as much to clear it as to decline the offer. “No, thank you. I’m not really very hungry.” The look Kira gave her at that was as close to horror as she’d ever seen from her — ‘you? not hungry?’ — and so she covered it over with a quick careless shrug. “Anyway, I was saving myself for some real Bajoran-made hasperat.”

Kira smiled, nodding her approval. “That replicated nonsense doesn’t compare,” she said, as though she spent a great many hours thinking about exactly this issue. “I suppose it manages to emulate the flavour well enough, at least to satisfy you silly Starfleet types, but for a Bajoran there’s no substitute for the real thing.”

“I can’t wait to try it,” Dax said, returning her smile.

“You won’t be disappointed,” Kira promised.

Maybe she was right about that. Dax hadn’t really been invested in what she was saying; she’d said the words politely enough, good-natured and well-meaning if not exactly overflowing with conviction, more as a means of stopping Kira from interrogating her than out of any real desire to taste-test home-cooked Bajoran cuisine. Still, once she’d said it she realised that she maybe it wasn’t so far from the truth as she’d thought.

She still wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of ruining a perfectly good vacation with spirituality and soul-searching just to call it a pilgrimage, but Kira was practically glowing already; the damned thing hadn’t even started yet, and she already looked like she’d found all the enlightenment she could wish for. She didn’t get excited very often, Dax knew, and when she did it was infectious. Despite her best efforts to stay distanced and cynical, to roll her eyes every time Kira insisted on using that word — ‘pilgrimage’ — still she couldn’t deny that she felt an echo of Kira’s enthusiasm ringing in her as well.

“Thank you,” she heard herself mumble, as unexpected to herself as to Kira.

Kira blinked. “For what?”

The hot flush that crept up Dax’s neck now had nothing to do with the sight of her stretching or the memory of illicit feelings; suddenly, she felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, acutely aware of her own body, of how tall she was and how awkwardly she fit into the little runabout chair.

“For asking me to come along,” she elucidated, almost apologetic.

Kira looked surprised at that, like it was the last thing she expected to hear. And maybe that was a fair assessment, all things considered; Dax hadn’t exactly been the most enthusiastic companion up to this point, after all. She imagined that Kira had probably even considered collaborating with Benjamin, whispering and plotting behind her back if necessary, forcing her hand and giving her no choice about taking the time off. It hadn’t come to that, of course, but she had no doubt that both of her friends would have been more than willing to go to that extreme if she was stubborn enough.

That was yesterday’s Dax, though, the arrogant and bull-headed Trill who wanted nothing more than to spend her hours safely locked away with imaginary enemies, hiding from the real world and the damage she could wreak on it. Today’s Dax was a lot more sober than that Dax, and the heady cocktail of bad dreams and four hours lost in the holosuite without any of the desired effects had somewhat forced her to at least acknowledge, if not actually accept, a few problems she hadn’t wanted to. She couldn’t solve those particular problems with holograms, she’d learned; if four hours didn’t satisfy Joran’s bloodlust, another four days, or even four weeks surely wouldn’t either.

Besides, pilgrimage or no, and even with that odd uncomfortable feeling still humming in her, she did enjoy Kira’s company.

Kira, for her part, was still watching her, brows knitted into a guarded little half-frown. She seemed genuinely glad that Dax had come around to the idea, that at least on the surface she seemed more willing to embrace the concept of a spiritual retreat, but something in her face said she had her doubts. Dax was hardly the kind of person to stand up and admit she was wrong, even when she was, and she was far too stubborn to concede that maybe Kira had a point in dragging her away from the station for a while. Still, though, experience had taught her not to look too hard at an unexpected gift, and after a moment or two the frown dissolved into a smile. Still guarded and cautious, of course, but a smile nonetheless.

“You’re welcome,” she said, cocking her head to the side as she studied Dax’s face for any hint of what she was really thinking. “You seem a little more upbeat about it today.”

“I feel a little more upbeat about it today,” Dax replied; the words tasted bitter, unfamiliar and dishonest on her tongue, but she didn’t know why.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything. Kira was watching her again, though, scrutinising and gauging in that way she had, the intensity in her eyes that made Dax feel like she was being cut down to the bone; she felt exposed, naked in a way that made her blush and remember other dreams, dreams that had ended far more pleasantly than the previous night’s. This, at least, was familiar territory, and she turned her attention back to the helm console with an unsubtle cough.

It didn’t really help, not that she’d expected it to; she could still feel the weight of Kira’s eyes on her, the heat and the intensity, and just because she wasn’t looking directly at it didn’t mean it couldn’t still burn.

She wished she could read her mind. Kira was so inscrutable so often, and Dax wanted nothing more than to figure out what she was thinking, to read Kira as easily as Kira seemed to read her, to know all the things that she knew. Kira was a mystery of sorts, an open book in one moment and a locked box in the next, and sometimes it felt like a roll of the dice which version of her Dax would get in any given moment. Dax, for her part, wasn’t especially good at being either; more often than not, her feelings would be written all over her face, but the real trouble came when someone tried to get them out of her mouth. Kira stripped her bare, exposed her mind as easily as if she was stripping her body; Dax knew that she had no reason to hide her thoughts or her feelings, but she tried just the same because she’d learned early that old habits died hard.

Benjamin had once told her that Jadzia always wore her heart on her sleeve where Curzon had always clutched his in his fist, and that analogy never felt more accurate than when Kira studied her like this. Sometimes she wished she could be more like Curzon, to channel his cocksure confidence and his swagger, to clutch her heart in her fist like he did; some days, she would have given anything to be just like him, while on others she wished she could shake him off entirely. Sometimes, she wanted nothing more than to counter a curious look with an insult and a swing of her fist, and other times she wished she could cast off his ever-present influence and do things her own way, Jadzia’s way.

Of course, Jadzia’s way tended to involve hiding under the nearest table, closing her eyes, and hoping that nobody would see her. Not very effective against headstrong Starfleet officers, she’d discovered, and even less so against fire-hearted Bajorans. But then, maybe that was why she and Kira were so good for each other. Kira wasn’t afraid to push her when she needed it; she wasn’t afraid to climb under that table too and drag Dax out by force if she thought it was the right thing to do, and nine times out of ten, it was only when she stepped out and blinked at the lights that she realised it was exactly where she needed to be.

Kira was intuitive; she let her reflexes speak for her most of the time, and especially when it came to her friends. Dax supposed that was another bi-product of her time in the Bajoran resistance, forced to think on her feet because there was no other option. If a fellow rebel was crumbling, there wasn’t any time to treat them tenderly or dance around the issue; they were at war, fighting for their lives with every breath and every heartbeat, and they simply didn’t have the resources or the patience to deal with weak souls who cracked under pressure. Kira treated Dax like that too, like she was one of her rebel friends, like a resistance fighter with so much more at stake than living up to imaginary expectations. Dax appreciated that treatment, at least most of the time. It reminded her that some burdens were much heavier than pride.

“So…” Kira murmured after a long moment; she seemed to be thinking out loud, leaning back into her seat and lifting her feet up to rest on her console. “Since you’re feeling so much more upbeat about the whole thing…”

Dax grimaced. She didn’t like the sound of this. “What of it?”

“…do you feel like telling me what you were really doing in the holosuite for all that time?”

Dax bit the inside of her cheek, letting the pain brace her, safely out of sight of those prying Bajoran eyes. She stared pointedly up at the viewscreen, trying to pretend she didn’t feel Kira’s gaze on her, focusing on the throbbing pulse inside her mouth, the sting of her teeth and the dull ache when they released. She still wanted to bite her lip instead, to draw fresh blood and taste it on her tongue, but Kira was staring at her so intently that she didn’t want to risk inviting an interrogation about that as well.

“There’s nothing to tell,” she insisted; she forced her voice to stay light and steady, but she could tell that Kira could hear the tightness in her voice and see right through her. “Klingon workouts, just like you said.”

It was the truth, at least as much of it as Kira needed to know, but she still didn’t seem satisfied. This was a constant conflict in their friendship, how open Kira was when something was bothering her and how closed-off Dax became when it was her turn. Kira had learned from experience, she supposed, that it was more dangerous to keep troubling thoughts inside, lest they rise up and destroy everything at a critical moment; there was too much at stake to risk a bottled-up emotion overflowing at a bad time, and so she’d learned to deal with them as they arose. Dax had never learned that, and maybe she never would.

It wasn’t that she balked at confrontation, at least not really; Daxes thrived on that, even if Jadzia still found it intimidating and scary. It was just that every time she opened her mouth to admit to something, to confess that she was feeling overwhelmed or small, she could hear Curzon and Emony and the rest of them in the back of her mind, shaking their heads and sighing their disappointment. Daxes were many things, she heard them say, but they weren’t weak and they weren’t cowards. She knew that Kira would never judge her — rather the contrary, she imagined she’d probably think more of her if she took the plunge and let herself open up a little once in a while — but she couldn’t say the same about her former hosts, and they were a whole lot harder to ignore than a shoulder-height Bajoran. Even one as persistent as Kira.

Kira sighed. For a moment or two, she didn’t say anything, and Dax wondered if she was trying to decide whether there would be any point. She knew perfectly well how difficult Dax could be when she didn’t want to talk about something, but Dax didn’t think for a moment that would be enough to stop her.

She found herself wondering if maybe Kira felt the same pull as she did, drawn as much to the way they challenged each other as the way they complemented each other. Dax wasn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with, for a broad spectrum of reasons; she knew that perfectly well, and she wondered if Kira pushed her so readily because she too enjoyed the challenge of finding new ways to break through old walls. Kira wasn’t one to rest on her laurels, Dax knew; she did not take kindly to idleness, in herself or in anyone else, and if there was one thing Dax could say about herself with any confidence, it was that she was never idle; even at her most stubborn, at least she worked for it.

After a brief silence, Kira finally settled on a fresh approach. “You know,” she mused thoughtfully, taking on a reflective quietude that Dax recognised all too well. “I’m not entirely sure I would have survived in that place without Ghemor.”

She turned her face away, retreating inwards, and Dax took her turn to watch her. She thought about saying something, even just making a sound, something to show that she was listening and attentive, but she was afraid of shattering the moment, of bringing Kira back to the present and out of her moment. She knew too well how precious and precarious moments like this were, when Kira lost herself to reflection and contemplation, and she always felt blessed to be a witness to them. So, instead, she just sat quietly, watching in wordless wonder as Kira sighed deeply and pressed on.

“I mean…” She sighed again, shaking her head. “I’m not stupid. I know that’s why they chose me… because I looked like his daughter, because they wanted him to feel connected to me. I know it was part of their plan that he took to me like he did, that he tried to protect me and take care of me and…” She trailed off. “I know it wasn’t really about me at all. I know it was all about baiting him. I know all of that… but if he hadn’t been the man he was… if he hadn’t looked at me like he did… like a father…” She exhaled, shaky. “He wasn’t. I know that, too. He wasn’t my father any more than I was his daughter. But the way he acted… the way he treated me…” She closed her eyes, and Dax bit down on her lip. “I think, by the end, I wanted to believe he really was my father nearly as much as he wanted to believe I was his daughter.”

“That’s understandable,” Dax said gently. “You were in a terrible situation, and he treated you kindly. It’s natural that you’d…”

“I know,” Kira interrupted, a little sharply, then softened. “I mean, I know why I felt like I did. But part of me still felt like it was a betrayal. He was still a Cardassian, still one of them. It shouldn’t have mattered how he treated me. It shouldn’t have mattered what he did. I shouldn’t have felt anything for him at all. I shouldn’t have…” She looked so anguished, it was by pure reflex that Dax reached out to take her hand. “But I did. He was so honest, so desperate to keep me from hurting. He was so kind. Can you imagine a kind Cardassian?” She was talking to herself, Dax knew, so she didn’t answer. “He made it so easy to care about him. He made it so easy to… to…”

“…to confide in him,” Dax finished softly, trying to help.

“Yes,” Kira said, grateful. “And in the end, that’s what kept me alive. It kept me grounded. Even when they were so close to… even when I really thought they might break me…” Her voice was thick now, rich and low with sorrow, and Dax respected her personal space by turning away. “I felt like I could trust him. Even before I realised what was really going on… even before I knew it wasn’t me they were after… even before I knew that it was him… the whole time, it was all him… even before all of that, I felt like I could trust him.”

“Trust is a wonderful thing,” Dax offered, with a sad smile of her own. She turned back, letting Kira see the emotion on her face, how deep her feelings ran. “I know how hard it is for you to trust anyone.”

“It’s getting easier,” Kira admitted thoughtfully. “I didn’t even realise it was until…” She shook her head. “A year ago, I would never have trusted him. Even if he’d jumped right into the path of a phaser for me, I still don’t think I would have trusted him.”

Dax swallowed. She felt so proud, so unfathomably proud. She wanted to cry, to lay her head down on the helm console and weep for all the changes in this woman, her friend, the angry militant Bajoran who just two short years ago had hated everyone and everything, who had been kidnapped and tormented by the very people who had spawned all that hate in the first place… this remarkable woman who could suffer once more under the hands of her worst enemies, and yet somehow come back from that ordeal with more love in her heart than hate. It was unspeakably, impossibly beautiful, and the tears that stung behind Dax’s eyes felt beautiful too.

Suddenly, she was painfully aware of Joran. The anger and the violence still seethed within her, even now, even in this moment of such precious beauty; she could still feel it, still trembled as it threatened to rise up and drown her, to take away all the beauty and the wonder, the pride and the positivity, the love she felt as she looked at Kira, to take it all away and leave her barren, a bone-littered desert of anger and brutality. It took every ounce of strength she had to drive it back, to swallow it down, to push past it and remember that she was more than the sum of any one host, and certainly more than the sum of him. It took everything she had in her, and when it was finally over, she felt incredibly tired. She felt like she had been through yet another four-hour marathon in the holosuite, another army of holographic Klingons dead at her feet. She was exhausted, worn out and weary, and deeply ashamed.

“Nerys,” she whispered. The name tasted like a prayer on her tongue, like a pilgrimage, spiritual and holy.

Kira leaned in, one hand resting lightly on Dax’s shoulder. Dax recoiled at the look on her face, the sudden earnestness that said she was turning this around, reshaping her own struggles to reflect back on Dax’s, crawling under that damn table and hauling her back out into the light. It was a look that said ‘if you don’t stop nursing your ego and talk to me about this, you’ll live to regret it’. And she was right about that; Dax knew from repeated experience that she would.

“Did I ever apologise?” she asked, blurting it out without even thinking, fumbling to deflect the inevitable. The question came seemingly out of nowhere, and if the puzzlement on Kira’s face was anything to go by she might as well have asked it in Klingon for all the comprehension she got.

“For what?” Kira asked, and that earnest look crumpled into a frown.

Dax took a steadying breath, chewing her tongue. “You know… for when I… when you… when I thought you were… I mean, when I said…” She threw up her hands, feeling clumsy and helpless.

“Could you be a bit more specific?” Kira pressed. “You say a lot of things, and most of them warrant apologies.”

Dax swallowed, forced her spine to straighten. “A couple of weeks ago. When I was… not well…”

That was an understatement, she thought, though Kira seemed to know exactly what she meant. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to quash the memories of confusion, of feeling all that anger and not knowing why, of those terrible days before she knew who Joran was or where all her newfound rage was coming from. ‘Not well’; it seemed like such an futile word next to the reality of it, but she couldn’t phrase it any more accurately. Everything was still so raw, and her chest ached with shame and discomfort, the humiliation of all the terrible things she’d said to all her friends, to Benjamin and to Kira, who had only been concerned, who had only wanted to help.

“I remember,” Kira said, giving away nothing with her voice.

“I know you were worried,” Dax elucidated, unprompted. “And I’m sorry that I snapped at you.”

“You did a little more than ‘snap at me’,” Kira replied; her voice was still even and steady, but she couldn’t quite mask the hint of hurt. “You threatened me. Unless you’ve forgotten that part.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Dax said, hanging her head; part of her wished she had. “I’m sorry for that too.”

For a moment, Kira looked like she wanted to push her, to force Dax to look inward and see where the apology came from, to bring out the shame in her, to bring out anything that might force her to voice aloud the thing she was hiding from. She didn’t, though, seeming to realise that this wasn’t the way to handle it, and instead opted to shrug the whole thing aside.

“You know you don’t need to apologise,” she said, shaking her head. “You weren’t yourself.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Dax took a deep breath, trying to calm the tide rising inside her. The thought that followed surprised her, but the look on Kira’s face, hurt giving way to empathy, touched a nerve that flinched before she had a chance to stop it, and before she knew what she was doing, she had already blurted out the words. “And I kind of feel like I’m still not.”

She forced herself to look into Kira’s eyes, to meet the steadiness of her gaze and open herself up to that damned soul-baring scrutiny. It was harder than she thought it would be, and she found herself suddenly struggling not to remember how those beautiful Bajoran eyes looked through the frozen obsidian lens of a Cardassian face, how her precious Bajor looked after it was torn asunder, how the blood looked and felt as it soaked through her hands. She struggled not to remember how Kira’s mouth had tasted, how her body had felt pressed against her, how easy it had been to lose herself in the moment, to drown in it and drown out everything else. She struggled so hard not to remember any of it, not to remember anything, but the harder she tried the more vivid it all got, and suddenly all she could see when she looked in Kira’s eyes was her own darkness reflected back at her.

Kira sighed, soft and sympathetic, the remorse of someone who wished she could understand better than she did. “You got seven lifetimes thrown at you when you were joined,” she mused, as though she was trying to remind herself, not Dax. “What difference is one more?”

“It’s not that,” Dax said, but it was hard to articulate. “It’s not about having another lifetime’s worth of memories. It’s not about having a whole new personality to assimilate. It’s not about that at all.” Kira looked even more confused, and a little frustrated, so Dax took a deep breath and tried to make it as clear as possible. “It’s who he was, Nerys. It’s what he did, and what he felt when he did it.”

Kira looked thoughtful. “He was a murderer, right?”

“He was.” Dax closed her eyes, allowed herself a shudder as she remembered all too vividly. “He did unspeakable things. He thought and felt and did unspeakable things… terrible, terrible things. He was a terrible person, Nerys, and sometimes I still feel…”

Unable to resist the temptation a moment longer, she bit down on her lip, hard enough to draw the blood she craved so desperately, relishing the taste and hating herself for it. Blood, pain, destruction, so much of Joran and so little of Jadzia.

How could she explain? How could Kira possibly hope to understand how it felt to suddenly revel in all the things that were supposed to sicken her, to draw joy from sorrow, pleasure from pain, delight from suffering? How could she hope to understand the urge to do terrible things, the spark of excitement even just to think of them? How could Kira hope to understand how it felt to be so twisted, so deranged and dangerous, to be so unlike herself and yet somehow still feel as though she wasn’t unlike herself at all? How could anyone hope to understand, truly understand, how it felt to be someone like that?

“I guess I’ve just not processed it all,” she finished at last, frustrated and angry that that was all she could say.

Kira smiled again. “This trip will help you,” she said, sounding so certain that Dax couldn’t help believing her just a little. “That’s what these pilgrimages are for. To give you a shelter from your conflicts, and help you find some inner peace.”

Dax frowned at that, unconvinced. She opened her mouth to argue, to point out for the hundredth time that she wasn’t Bajoran and she didn’t believe in the Prophets, but before she had the chance to say anything, Kira’s whole face transformed, reshaping itself into something new, something bright and breathtaking, her whole essence alight with faith, soft and lit up with so many things that Dax would never know.

“You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual,” she added, very quietly. “And you don’t have to believe in the Prophets to be helped by them.”

“I’m not sure I can get what I need from the Prophets.”

The admission came hard, and not least of all because she knew how highly Kira thought of them; the last thing she wanted was to offend her, but she simply didn’t have the faith that Kira had. It didn’t seem to deter her, though, because that breathtaking smile never left her face, and her hands were impossibly gentle as she took Dax’s.

“It’s all right if you don’t,” she said, though Dax could tell she didn’t really believe that. “You don’t have to come out of this completely whole. But don’t turn away from it just because it’s something different to what you think you know.”

“I won’t,” Dax promised, then sighed. “It’s just… there’s no training for this. Symbionts aren’t supposed to be given to unsuitable hosts. Ever. There’s no reason we should ever need to know how to deal with…” She braced against the helm, biting more blood from her lip, and grimaced when she saw that Kira was watching. “This was never meant to happen,” she said at last. “I don’t know how to…”

“I know,” Kira murmured. Her fingers tightened just a little, still wrapped so tenderly around Dax’s own, and Dax forced down the sudden urge to break them all. She must have turned pale, shaken by the feeling, because Kira took her hands back pretty quickly, and leaned back as well to give her a little more space. “But you will. You don’t need to know everything right away, Jadzia, just so long as you get there in the end.” She smiled again, a little ruefully this time. “Take it from someone who’s spent the last two years learning how to do things she never even dreamed possible.”

Dax found herself choking on something that felt dangerously close to a sob. “You’re so much stronger than I am,” she breathed, before she could stop herself.

“That’s an excuse,” Kira retorted, eyes hardening to stone. “And a bad one.”

Dax knew that, and she conceded by bowing her head. She hated that they were talking about this, hated that she’d admitted even what little she had. She hated herself for still feeling like this, a slave to the clenching of her fists and the intoxicating taste of blood in her mouth, to hours lost in the holosuites, to the memories of dreams that shouldn’t still be haunting her like this and to the existence of those dreams in the first place. She hated herself. She hated the way Kira was looking at her, with all the faith of a thousand Bajoran temples, the Prophets themselves radiating out from behind her eyes. Dax hated the Prophets. She hated Kira’s faith. She hated everything.

She hated.

Apparently sensing the struggle rising in her, Kira slid out of her chair and onto the floor, sliding forward until she was pressed against the edge of Dax’s chair, crouched beside her. Then, though she must know how close Dax was to losing control, she took her hands once more, light and gentle and so tender it hurt.

“Dax,” she said, voice low but urgent. “Look at me.”

Against her will, Dax did. “Kira…”

“And listen,” Kira pressed, ignoring her. “I’ve done unspeakable things too. I’ve had unspeakable thoughts and felt unspeakable emotions, and all the rest of it. I’ve committed acts of violence so terrible that even your murderer would think twice. I have been a killer and a terrorist, and a thousand other things as well. My whole life was defined by violence, Dax. Everything I did, everything I thought, everything I felt. Every bone in my body was made up of hate and rage and violence.”

Dax didn’t need to see the tears in her eyes to know how deeply this was hurting her too, and she hated herself all the more for forcing her to say it, for dragging those words out of her, for dragging the memories out too. She hated that Kira was suffering, and she hated the heat pooling inside of her, the part of her that she was struggling to force down rising up in spite of herself to enjoy Kira’s mnemonic pain, to take twisted pleasure in someone else’s suffering. She felt sordid and perverse, and she felt sick.

“I…” she started, but couldn’t say anything more. All of her strength was lost on trying not to explode.

Kira, of course, continued to ignore her. “I’ve been a terrible person too,” she went on, voice getting louder as the passion took hold. “There are few things I wouldn’t do to a Cardassian, given half a chance. Things you can’t imagine, things you don’t want to imagine. Things even I don’t want to imagine. I hated them so much, Dax. I hated them with everything I had, everything I was. All my life I let that hate define me. All my life, it was the only thing I knew, the only thing I trusted, the thing that got me up in the morning and let me sleep at night. It was the only thing there was. For so many of us, it was the only thing in the whole galaxy. Hate for the monsters who had done this to us. Hate, Jadzia, and so much of it.”

She took a breath, squeezed Dax’s hands, and closed her eyes. Dax tried again to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t move.

After a very long moment, Kira pressed on once more. “And then… and then, three years after it was all over… three years after it should have been over… one of those monsters risked his life to keep me safe.” Her breath caught, and Dax felt her heart crack. “He risked everything, because he couldn’t bear to see me hurt. Because he thought I was his daughter… because, even when he realised I wasn’t, he knew that I didn’t deserve what they were trying to do to me… because he…” She trailed off, choked by emotion. “Because he cared. And I… I looked into his eyes, and I saw how much he was hurting, how much he cared… and I cared too. I didn’t care that he was a Cardassian. I didn’t care that he was one of them, that he was just as responsible for the occupation as any of the rest of them, that he’d probably slaughtered countless Bajorans in his life. I didn’t care about any of that. I just cared.”

Dax couldn’t breath. “Nerys…”

“Don’t.” Her eyes were damp when she looked up, and Dax felt tears pricking behind her own as well. “Don’t talk. Just listen to me. And listen well, because I’m telling you this as your friend, but also as someone who has actually lived through the things you’re only remembering through someone else. Listen to me, and believe me. If I can survive all of that… if I can move past it and come out the other side… if I can take a lifetime’s worth of hate and rage and violence and turn it into something good… then so can you.”

The depthless faith in her voice wasn’t directed at the Prophets this time; it was aimed right at Dax, like even the Prophets bowed their heads next to this moment, and it struck as hard as a blow. Dax could only sit there, breathless and speechless and utterly beyond words.

Even if she did have something to say in response to all of that, even if she could somehow have summoned some retaliation, some reaction, some way of expressing the countless things she was feeling… even if she had the words, the capacity for speech seemed to have abandoned her completely. The rage was gone as well, at least for the time being, leaving in its wake a sense of numb disbelief, countless thoughts and feelings churning like nausea within her as she stared down at Kira, at those bright Bajoran eyes gone suddenly dark with her own haunted memories.

There was no trace of that cold Cardassian onyx in her now, no trace of anything that had been so present in her dream, no scales or ridges or black-edged blame. There was nothing at all, just Kira… just Nerys, raw and open and exposing herself completely for Dax to see and learn. Nerys, challenging her like she always did, being the bigger person, the better person, the stronger person. Nerys, showing Dax all the things she should strive to be, all the things she had worked so hard to become herself. Nerys, who was so much, and Dax, with eight lifetimes and no chance of ever being even half of it.

“Kira,” she said again, voice thick, and before she knew what she was doing, she was sliding out of her chair too, kneeling awkwardly in front of Kira, taking her face in her hands, looking deep into her eyes until they were all she could see, all she wanted to see, all there was…

“There are other ways,” Kira murmured, reciprocal as Dax leaned in. “There are other ways to channel your anger, Jadzia. You don’t have to lock yourself in the holosuite.”

Dax closed her eyes, turned to press her face against the warm skin at the base of Kira’s neck, grounded herself in the scent of sweat and sugar, of kava rolls and unending faith.

“I can’t control myself,” she whispered, a confession that came with great difficulty, and cost her everything she had.

“Yes, you can.” One hand was in her hair, thin fingertips trailing through the fine strands, and the other rested at the small of her back. “You’re the most controlled person I’ve ever met. You’re strong and you’re stubborn, and sometimes you’re utterly impossible. But you have always been controlled.” Her body shifted as she smiled. “You were so patient with me when we first met. I tried so hard to antagonise you, do you remember?”

Dax laughed, the sound lost to Kira’s skin. “I remember.”

“But you wouldn’t let me. You never let me get to you.” She sighed, limber body pressing against Dax’s. “You were so stubborn. You refused to let me win.”

“I never back down from a challenge,” Dax agreed softly.

“Exactly.” Kira shifted, but didn’t try to pull Dax’s face away from her throat. “And you don’t need to back down from this one. You don’t need to be afraid of yourself, Dax. And you don’t need to hide behind holograms.” Her lips were warm against Dax’s temples. “You just need to find a little faith.”

The raw conviction in her words voice left Dax reeling. Suddenly, she understood what Kira had been talking about all this time, why it was so important to her that Dax come with on this damned pilgrimage. She wanted her to share her faith, yes, but not in the Prophets; she wanted Dax to see the faith that she had in her, the faith she’d once had in herself. She wanted her to recapture the faith she’d lost, the faith that had been cut away and replaced with violent tendencies and twisted dreams, the faith that fell a little further out of reach every time she lost her temper or felt the swell of excitement ignite in her blood.

It was humbling, and Dax tilted her face upwards, looked deep into Kira’s eyes, those eyes that had seen so much, and wondered what it was like to feel that kind of faith, to know that nothing could ever cut it away.

“Nerys…”

Kira smiled, breath warm against her brow. “Jadzia.”

There was more to the name than just a response, and Dax knew it; again, Kira was reminding her of who she was, who she had always been and who she would always be. A name, an identity, a memory. Jadzia, with or without Dax.

“Thank you,” she whispered, but it was not enough.

Kira let her fingertips trail down from her hair, featherlight touches tracing the line of spots that ran from her temple to her jaw and beyond, tentative touches that left Dax’s skin tingling and hyper-sensitive. Her breath caught again in her throat, a low hitching gasp, and before she even realised she was doing it, she found that she was covering Kira’s hand with her own, holding her in place and leaning up, close enough to see all the colours behind her eyes, so far from that unwanted Cardassian obsidian… close enough to taste her breath, to feel the warmth of her skin, heat rising as she blushed, as they both blushed. Close enough to drown in her, close enough that it wouldn’t take much at all to push through what small space was left between them, to lean in just a little further, to breathe in just a little deeper, to—

“Dax.”

“I know,” she said, but didn’t pull back. “I know…”

Kira’s fingertips trembled against her jaw; her lips, so close to Dax’s own, trembled too. They were both trembling, skin almost touching, so close, so—

“Dax,” she said again, a warning weakened by hope.

Dax closed her eyes. “Nerys, I…”

But she never got a chance to finish the sentence, or the sentiment that went with it. The moment, such as it was, was shattered in an instant as the console above them began to beep, a klaxon-loud warning overshadowed just a moment later by the unexpected hum of a transporter beam-in.

Flushed and stammering, Dax scrambled to her feet. Kira, of course, was quicker off the mark, back to business in less than the time it took Dax to remember how to breathe, and by the time Dax had regained some semblance of her balance, she was already halfway to the rear of the cockpit, reaching the transporter in two large strides.

She was too late to do anything about it, though. Already, the flickering sparkles were taking on a humanoid form, energy residue turning to solid matter, to a person, almost immediately, and there was nothing either of them could do to stop it now. Dax blinked as the energy sparkles began to dissolve, dazed and thrown by the unexpectedness of it all, and found herself wish that she hadn’t been so quick to shed her Starfleet uniform and the trusty phaser that went with it.

They were both facing the transporter pad, so Dax couldn’t see Kira’s face, but she heard the curse she snarled out through clenched teeth, and she heard the ferocity in her voice, less of a warning and more of a threat. She took another step forward, coming to a stop at Kira’s back, fists balled protectively, squinting past her as the last lingering traces of the transporter energy dissolved, and their unexpected guest stepped down from the platform.

Kira swore again, louder. Dax, for her part, could only gape.

Benjamin?”

Chapter Text

“What the hell are you doing here?”

It took Dax a moment to reconcile the impossibility of what she was seeing with the fact that it was actually happening. Unlikely as it was, the man standing before her was most definitely Benjamin Sisko, and she breathed a huge sigh of relief as she drank in the sight of him.

He was dressed in civilian clothes just as they were, a strange look on his face, and if Dax hadn’t been so weak-kneed as the panic-induced adrenaline flooded out of her, she might have noticed a difference in the way he held himself, the uncharacteristic gleam in his eye or the thinly-veiled threat in his smile. At the very least, she might have allowed herself the luxury of wondering where he could possibly have beamed in from, much less why he would have done so without contacting them first. She might have been a little quicker on her feet, might have seen the signs before they were pointed out to her… but of course she wasn’t.

The young woman in her was was still reeling from her sort-of not-quite moment with Kira, while the seasoned Starfleet officer was still ricocheting from the anticipation of potential invasion (was it the Jem’Hadar? had they accidentally gone through the wormhole and ended up in the Gamma Quadrant? did space pirates exist in this sector?). In brief, she just wasn’t at her best. Who could blame her for being a little slow, given the circumstances? Who could blame her for seeing what she wanted to, for seeing what was in front of her instead of using her finely-honed instincts to dig a little deeper?

Apparently Kira could, and her whole body was taut with tension as she threw out an arm to hold Dax back, keeping her securely behind her. “Don’t move,” she ordered, voice tight and authoritative, every inch the military first officer that Dax knew, so much so that it came as second nature for her to obey. “He’s not Sisko.”

Benjamin — or apparently not Benjamin, if Kira was to be believed — let out a laugh. It was wild and unrestrained, genuine amusement tangled up in a thread of danger. It was like nothing Dax had ever heard before, and certainly nothing she’d ever heard from her friend Benjamin, and it was all the evidence she needed to to realise that Kira was right. Whatever her eyes might be telling her, she knew without a doubt that the man who stood before them now was not her friend.

“Oh the contrary, Major…” The man who would be Benjamin was leering at Kira like she was meat on a skewer, spitting her title like it was a curse, and that alone was enough to get Dax’s blood up too. “That’s exactly who I am.”

Well, judging by his outward appearance, Dax supposed she could be forgiven for thinking that was true. Though he held himself completely differently, a closer inspection revealing a wildness that she had never seen in anyone bearing the name Benjamin Sisko, his face remained the same. Underneath the obvious savagery, the unhinged glint in his eye, the look of someone starved for everything and attention most of all, there was still a shadow of recognition, a ghost of the uncut young man that Curzon Dax had taken under his wing all those years ago. He was dressed strangely, dark clothing with the fabric all torn and stained, and he carried a very rough approximation of a phaser, primitive but functional. It wasn’t the sort of attire she would have pictured Benjamin wearing, at least not by choice, but the lines of his face did not lie.

Kira, it seemed, wasn’t fooled even for an instant. Evidence alone wasn’t enough to make her drop her guard, and she remained as tense and sober as Dax had ever seen her. Though her eyes were narrowed with suspicion, there wasn’t a hint of confusion in any part of her; in fact, she looked as though she understood the situation perfectly well, as though she knew exactly who they were looking at and exactly what was going on.

Dax, for her part, was completely and utterly baffled, and she wasn’t ashamed to show it. “Kira,” she hissed, though she wasn’t quite sure what she hoped to accomplish by whispering; there wasn’t enough room in the cramped cockpit for a quiet aside anyway, even if she had been able to get her voice low enough. “Would you mind explaining what’s going on here?”

“I’m not the one who needs to explain anything,” Kira snarled back, not bothering to even try and lower her voice in return.

Not taking her eyes off him for a second, she took a single step forwards, a warning shrouded in a challenge. Her movements were slow and deliberate, and though she had no weapon there was no doubt in any of their minds that she was the more dangerous of the two. Dax pushed her bewilderment to one side, willing herself to channel her Starfleet training and make herself useful; she kept close, shadowing Kira’s movements carefully and never letting herself get more than half a step behind. It was more of a precaution than a necessity; she knew perfectly well that Kira could handle the situation all by herself, but experience had taught her that it paid to keep close, just in case things got messy.

“What are you doing here?” Kira demanded, taking another step forwards. “Aren’t you supposed to be in another universe?”

Oh.

“He’s that Sisko?” Dax blurted out, the words spilling from her mouth before she could stop them. “The one you and Julian met when you—”

“Yes,” Kira interrupted, still not looking away from her target. “That Sisko. And he’s dangerous, so be on your guard.”

The Sisko who apparently wasn’t Benjamin giggled at the accusation. It was a deranged, manic sort of laugh, the deranged hysteria of someone clutching at the frayed edges of their sanity, and it sent a chill down Dax’s spine to hear it. This was definitely no Benjamin Sisko that she’d ever met, and as she waited for the laughter to subside, she found herself growing more and more uncomfortable. Frightened, almost, though the idea was absurd; he may be the only one of them with a weapon, but she and Kira were two and they had the home team advantage to boot.

“I’m flattered you think so, Major,” he quipped when he finally finished giggling. “If only the Intendant was as easy to win over…”

Kira growled at that. “Don’t you dare say that name around me.”

It took Dax a moment or two to figure out what was going on, why Kira was so angry, who the ‘Intendant’ was. When she did remember, of course, Kira’s belligerence made entirely too much sense; that was the title of her counterpart, a tyrannical mirror image that Kira had described in her mission report as a ‘cold-blooded narcissist’ and ‘unfit to carry the name Kira Nerys’, among other more colourful descriptions. Dax had found it all pretty funny at the time, and had even joked once or twice about the art of self-love (much to Kira’s disgust and annoyance), but now that she was faced with a flesh-and-blood revenant from that universe, looking into a face so identical to the man she knew so well and yet somehow fundamentally different in every possible way… well, suddenly it wasn’t nearly so funny any more. In fact it was downright unnerving.

“Isn’t he the one who helped you escape?” she whispered to Kira, still trying to keep her voice low. “He doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

Sisko-but-not-Benjamin laughed again at that, loud and raucous but blessedly less extensively this time. “You hear that?” he cried. “I don’t sound so bad to her!”

Dax wasn’t entirely sure what was so amusing about that, but she knew better than to ask. Kira seemed to know the strange new terrain a whole lot better than she did, and Dax had been a Starfleet officer for long enough by now to know when to sit down, shut up and let someone else take the reins. Besides, given everything that Kira and Bashir had said in their reports, Dax supposed she couldn’t blame the major for being a little bit unsettled right now. To say nothing of the fact that they’d just been boarded without permission, of course.

“What are you doing here?” Kira demanded again, louder and more aggressively. “What do you want from me?”

“From you?” the strange new Sisko echoed, as though that was the funniest thing he’d heard all year (which, considering the way he seemed to find everything anyone said absolutely hilarious, was probably quite the achievement). “Why, I don’t want a damn thing from you. You got me in enough trouble last time, ‘Major’, and I have no intention of making that mistake a second time.”

“Then what do you want?” Kira pressed him, still somewhat dubious. “If you’re not here for me, why are you here?”

He stared at her for a long moment, like he was waiting for her to wise up and figure it out for herself, like they all had the luxury of standing around and waiting for answers to fall down from the depths of space. When it became obvious that she wasn’t going to play his game, that she wanted to hear the words from his mouth, he shrugged and spread his arms out wide.

“Why, for her, of course!”

It took Dax an embarrassingly long moment to realise that there was only one other person on board the runabout. “Me?”

“Oh, she’s a quick one,” he said, giving her an appraising look and shooting her another of his feral grins before promptly turning back Kira. “Truth be told, Major, I was hoping to find you in company with that delightful doctor friend of yours. We could sure as hell use his so-called ‘expertise’ where we’re going.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Kira said flatly, her tone making it clear that this was not up for negotiation.

Sisko rolled his eyes. “We’ll see about that, Major.” He cut another glance at Dax, letting out a low whistle. “Like I was saying… as happenstance would have it…” He shrugged again, looking strangely philosophical for a moment, then barked another laugh and slapped his thigh, looking positively delighted. “Well, it looks like fate has a sense of humour, doesn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know…” Dax said, feeling discomfited.

He looked at her, long and hard. “I would.”

That said, he took a swaggering step forwards, until he was standing almost toe-to-toe with Kira. She stood her ground, of course, blocking his path as best she could, but it seemed that he was done with her now, and unceremoniously shoved her out of the way in his haste to get to Dax.

Naturally, Kira punched him for that, reeling around and lunging at him, but he shrugged the blow off as though it were nothing at all, and kept right on coming. Dax took a wary step back; she wasn’t afraid, exactly, but she couldn’t deny being somewhat unsettled by the villainy she saw reflected in the eyes of a man she had only known as good and honest for more than twenty years.

She didn’t let him see her discomfort, of course, but there was no shame in being cautious, and she could feel the grudging approval from Kira when she danced back another step or two as he continued his relentless approach. Good, she heard in the space between their breathing. Don’t underestimate this one. You’ll regret it if you do.

“What do you want from me?” she asked, forcing herself to sound affronted instead of uneasy. “I’ve never been to your universe. I wouldn’t know the first thing about—”

“It doesn’t matter what he wants,” Kira interjected, stepping back around to put herself between Dax and this strange sinister-looking Sisko. “Because whatever it is, he can forget it.”

“Oh, I was hoping you’d say that,” he purred, stopping to shoot her another of those volatile grins. “You see, I can’t really do anything to the Intendant right now; she’s got all her bodyguards and servants and that odious little Cardassian henchman of hers, and… well, it’s understandable, I suppose. Can’t be too careful with all those rebels running around…” He leaned right in, teeth flashing again to show off all the danger that Kira had warned about. “But you don’t have a posse of protectors bowing down to your every whim, do you? As far as I recall, you don’t have anyone at all. Isn’t that why you needed my humble services when you were the honoured guest in my universe?”

Dax blinked at that, and Kira bristled. “Well, we’re not on your playground this time,” she pointed out angrily. “We’re on mine. And I’m not as generous a host as your Prophets-forsaken Intendant.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘playground’,” Dax remarked, trying in her usual way to leaven the moment, but they both ignored her. That didn’t really seem very fair, considering she was the one being bargained for, so she crossed her arms and jostled her way back in front of Kira. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

“No,” Kira snapped; the outburst was reflexive, but she softened when she remembered that it was Dax and not Sisko who had asked the question. “Don’t listen to him, Lieutenant.”

The use of her rank was deliberate, Dax could tell, a subtle little reminder of who she was: a Starfleet officer with responsibilities even when she was out of uniform. After the last crossover, the unfortunate incarceration of Kira and Julian Bashir, it didn’t take a genius to know that ‘proceed with caution’ was the way to go when dealing with the other universe. Kira was reminding her, without having to actually say the words, that it was not her place to meddle with things like this, that she shouldn’t even be listening to this broken reflection of Benjamin Sisko in the first place. Unless he actually planned on using that weapon of his, neither of them should even be talking to him at all.

She was right about that, and Dax knew it. But she was a Trill as well as a Starfleet officer, a Trill with half a dozen excessively curious lives under her belt, and it wasn’t as easy for her to play the safe road as it was for someone like Kira. Dax may have a responsibility to Starfleet, but she had a responsibility to the symbiont as well — the more experiences a host could accumulate, the better — and it was just as difficult for her to turn away from that as it was to turn away from what her Starfleet training had taught her was proper procedure.

It was the symbiont who won out in the end, Curzon and Torias coming up as enthusiastically as ever on the side of adventure, and Joran whispering in her ear with urgings of a different kind of excitement.

“Why not?” she asked, in response to Kira’s insistence, raising an eyebrow that was as much defiance as it was curiosity. “He’s got a weapon. He could have shot both of us on sight if he’d wanted to.”

“Could’ve shot her plenty of times when she was on my side, too,” Sisko volunteered helpfully, with a boyish wink towards Kira. “But I didn’t do it then, and I don’t plan on doing it now.” He trailed off for a second or two, eyes narrowing, and Dax found she was getting a little dizzy trying to keep up with his whiplash-changing moods. “Well, not unless you lovely ladies force my hand, anyway.”

He had guts, she couldn’t deny that. And maybe that was part of the appeal. He wasn’t half as charming as the Benjamin Sisko that Dax knew so well, but he was still a Benjamin Sisko of sorts, and there was no denying that he still had some of the familiar charisma. Maybe it was because he looked so much like her Benjamin. Maybe it was because she really wanted to believe that he could be like the man she knew; she was aching, she realised, desperate to see some shred of familiarity underneath those dirt-smudged clothes and the primal gleam in his eye. Hell, maybe she was just a sucker for a good story. Whatever the reason, Dax found herself compelled to hear whatever it was he had to say.

“Don’t you think we should at least hear him out?” she asked.

“Yes, Major…” Though his tone was mocking and cruel, Sisko nonetheless made a token gesture of laying down his weapon. “Don’t you think you should at least hear me out? You don’t even know why I’m here. I could have a lot to offer you.”

Kira glared at them both. “There’s nothing you could possibly offer either of us from that wretched universe of yours,” she snapped.

“And how exactly do you know that?” he countered, still flashing that disarming smirk of his. “There’s more to my universe than Terok Nor, you know.”

Dax grimaced; the conflict was making her uncomfortable, Jadzia’s distaste for confrontation of any description undercut by Joran’s love of it, the excitement as Kira’s ire grew higher, as she grew closer and closer to the point of throwing a punch. That part of her, the dangerous and uncomfortable part, wanted to encourage it, to see how far they would go, to watch and smile as the two of them came to blows. Maybe they’d try to kill each other. Wouldn’t that be—

No. She took a deep breath, swallowing air, struggling to keep herself grounded, to be young and naive, idealistic and hopeful, to be Jadzia.

“Kira.” Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, high-pitched and sickly; she would have said anything, she realised, just to silence them both, to take the decision out of their hands, to quell the threat of a fight before it spilled over into bloodshed and she lost herself to Joran’s rapturous savagery. “I really do think we should hear him out.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Kira snapped. “I’m the superior officer here, and I—”

“Nerys.” Dax heard her voice crack, fragile as glass. “Please.”

Something in the way she spoke seemed to break through to Kira, touching her on a fundamental level, and her shoulders slumped. “You’re going to regret it,” she warned, but that was all the argument she gave.

“If I do,” Dax said, “I’ll be sure to let you say ‘I told you so’ before I keel over and die.”

“This isn’t funny, Dax.” She looked almost sullen, expression dark and bitter, clearly still unconvinced. “I’m the one who’s been to his side, remember? I’m the one who knows what they’re like over there.”

Dax nodded her acknowledgement, but wasn’t about to be overruled so easily. “You’re also the one who mentioned in her report, quite a few times, that he helped you to escape,” she reminded her, pointed but without accusation. “Come on, Nerys… what happened to that ‘trust’ thing we were discussing earlier?”

“Apparently it’s still limited to benevolent Cardassians,” Kira retorted, lowering her voice for the first time and gritting out the words through clenched teeth.

Dax chuckled weakly. She reached out, touching Kira’s arm and letting her hand linger just a beat or two longer than necessary, as much for her own sake as for Kira’s. She needed her strength, her conviction, she needed the faith they’d talked about just a few minutes earlier; she needed Kira to cool off, to push her own anger to the back of her mind, to step forward and be Nerys. Dax’s control was hanging by a thread; if Kira lost hers, then it wouldn’t matter what either of them thought.

“Look,” she forced out, willing her voice not to crack again. “I promise, if either one of us gets killed, it’ll be on my record, not yours.”

She was only partially joking, but it seemed to placate Kira at least a little. Well, either that, or else the frightened desperation in her eyes, the urgent plea for one of them to stay calm and composed, the closest thing she could muster to a cry for help right now. Kira had always been observant; she must have seen how close she was, and how much it scared her.

“It had better be,” Kira muttered at last, a grudging concession, and crossed her arms.

“It will,” Dax promised. Then, gulping down another steadying breath, she turned back to the man who looked so much like her dear old friend, the Sisko who was not Benjamin. “All right, talk. But keep it short and sweet; we don’t have all day, and you know as well as I do that Major Kira’s patience isn’t infinite.”

“Believe me,” Sisko deadpanned, “I remember.”

Dax snorted, the closest to a laugh she could muster just then. “Then we’re agreed. Talk fast. And keep your hands where we can see them.”

He grinned at that, entirely too suggestive, and Dax suppressed a shudder. “I’ll put my hands anywhere you want, sweetness.”

“Just get on with it,” Kira muttered, failing to stifle a groan.

So he did. The first thing Dax noticed was how animated he became when he was talking. He couldn’t seem to keep still, hopping restlessly from one foot to the other, and then pacing back and forth across the same metre or so of cramped cockpit space. He didn’t seem nervous, exactly; in fact, he looked like a man in complete control of the world around him, a man who knew perfectly well that he was going to get what he wanted, whether it came willingly or not, and Dax had to fight down another uncomfortable twitch at the sight of such wilful certainty wrapped up in such a jittery body.

She knew how single-minded Benjamin Sisko could be when he felt the need to be, how focused on a cause that he deemed just and righteous. She knew, probably better than he himself knew, where that kind of drive could lead, and seeing the same sort of feverish intensity in this odd counterpart — this man who shared his face but none of his warmth and integrity — struck a very unpleasant chord inside her. Kira was right about how dangerous he was; she knew that now beyond a shadow of doubt.

As he spoke, he continued to look her up and down, leering far more obscenely than he did at Kira. When he looked at Kira, it was with the keen eye of appraisal, as though he was trying to gauge her merit, or trying to figure out how far he could push her before she pushed back; not very, Dax thought, but didn’t say so out loud. When he looked at her, though, he was thoroughly unabashed about it, the lecherous grin on his face making it quite obvious that he was imagining her without her clothes on. Dax wanted to believe he was just trying to make her uncomfortable, working to disarm and unsettle her so that she wouldn’t be as much of a threat, but there was something almost secretive in the curve of his lips as he smirked, something that spoke of an intimacy far deeper than his would-be roguish charms.

He was clever, that much was obvious; maybe he wasn’t the Benjamin she was used to, but Dax could tell there was still a knowledgable slyness underneath all the primitive posturing, even underneath the predatory gleam in his eye as he ogled her, a kind of ruthless sanity that belied the half-crazed look in his eyes. He knew what he wanted, and he would do whatever it took to see it done. The more he talked, the less he actually said, and Dax had been in enough tight spots to recognise the warning signs in that.

She probably didn’t have much of a choice in this at all, she realised; like the real Benjamin Sisko, it seemed that this one already had a plan fully formed in his head, and he would do whatever it took to see it through. Better for all of them, Dax decided, if she could convince herself that it was her decision when she inevitably gave in to him, rather than risk him grabbing his weapon and taking pot-shots to prove his point. A runabout was no place for close-proximity phaser fire; that much she knew from experience.

The upshot of what little she gleaned from his rambling — a whole lot of noise and very little actual information — was that he wanted Dax to go back with him to his universe. Anything beyond that, he kept close to his chest, at least for the time being.

Dax was curious, hungry for details, but Kira had heard more than enough. “Forget it,” she seethed, and Dax had to hold her back to keep her from taking a swing.

This was clearly personal, and Dax knew better than to try and interject any kind of reason. Still, though, she couldn’t let Kira risk an inter-universe incident, and she kept one hand firmly on her arm even when it became clear that she wouldn’t actually try and hit him. It felt reassuring just to hold her, to relish the contact and let herself imagine that she herself was the one in control, the one who was standing quietly and listening, the one who wasn’t aching to throw punches.

She breathed deeply, focused on the face in front of her, Benjamin’s face. Whether he really was Benjamin Sisko in any meaningful way was another issue entirely; right now, Dax took comfort in looking at him and knowing that she didn’t want to hurt him. Joran’s violence took a backseat, at least for the moment, to the Starfleet officer and the worldly old man who recognised a friend in the face of this stranger.

Kira, of course, was still ranting. “Go back to your precious Intendant,” she seethed. “Go back, and tell her she can find someone else to do her dirty work. And while you’re at it, you can also tell her—”

Sisko burst out laughing for what felt like the hundredth time since his arrival, loud and booming and just as relentless as the rest of him. “You think I’m still working for her?” he chortled.

Dax felt a headache building behind her eyes, a pounding pressure born as much from the sound as from the situation itself. There were too many players in this game, she thought wearily, and nobody had thought to even teach her the rules. Oh, how she longed for a tongo wheel.

“Aren’t you?” Kira shot back moodily.

Sisko laughed again, shorter and sharper than before. “I’m sure it will shock you to learn, Major, that I’m not quite so easily sold as you’d like to think.” He shook his head, clearly amused. “You really don’t know the first thing about us, do you?”

“Of course I don’t,” Kira countered; Dax couldn’t help noticing how defensive she sounded, how protective of what little she did know. “And I don’t want to, either. It’s your universe. They’re your people, and your problems. It’s none of my business. And none of hers, either.”

That, Dax knew, was for her benefit, a reminder to them both.

Sisko, of course, wasn’t so easily swayed by logic and reason; Dax doubted Kira had expected him to be, but when he made his riposte, it was a vicious one. “Not counting the part where it’s all your fault, I suppose…”

The muscles in Kira’s arm went whipcord-tight under Dax’s fingers. “It’s none of my business,” she said again, harder, but Sisko must have noticed the way she didn’t deny the accusation. “And even if it was, I have no intention of setting foot in that place again.”

“Well, that’s just fine by me,” Sisko retorted with another of his unnerving smirks. “Your face isn’t exactly a popular one, in case you’ve forgotten. You’d be more trouble than help, and frankly my people have enough trouble on their hands already.”

“Your people,” Kira echoed, rolling her eyes.

Dax sighed. “Kira…”

“Be quiet,” Kira snapped. “You know even less about his universe than I do.”

“I know that,” Dax said softly. “But I still want to hear him out. It’s me he wants. Don’t you think I have a right to know why?”

“You shouldn’t care why,” Kira told her. “You shouldn’t care about anything except sending him back where he came from.”

“You’re probably right,” Dax conceded. “But I still want to hear him out. Benjamin—”

“Dammit, Dax!” In hindsight, she supposed she probably should have anticipated that explosion, and the fury in Kira’s eyes when she whirled around to glare at her. “Stop doing that! Stop talking to him like he’s our Commander Sisko. He’s not. He’s not Commander Sisko, and his not your friend ‘Benjamin’. He’s an intruder, and that’s all you need to know.”

Dax sighed. She knew that perfectly well. She hadn’t lost sight of who they were dealing with or what was going on; she was just trying to be the Dax she had used to be, before she lost herself.

She wanted Kira to see, to understand that she was just trying to get all of the facts together before she made a decision, that she was just trying to be diplomatic about the whole issue, to be a Starfleet officer instead of a Trill with a homicidal maniac inside her head. Kira must realise how hard it was for her, how painful to be the voice of reason when her head was fuzzy with bloodlust and violence, how much of an effort it was for her to silence Joran and be Jadzia, to hold Kira’s arm and hold her back when all she really wanted to do was let her go and relish the frenzy that would inevitably follow. Surely Kira knew that, surely she understood why it was so important for Dax to cling to the ghost of diplomacy, the calmness and the quietude, the need to hear all sides.

“I know he’s not Benjamin,” she said out loud. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t—”

“Yes it does!” Kira sounded positively disgusted. “He’s a deranged lunatic, Dax! A deranged lunatic from another universe, in case you’ve forgotten, and he’s asking you to go back there with him. This isn’t a discussion. It’s not a conversation, or a debate, or one of those ridiculous ‘let’s all sit down and talk about our feelings for an hour’ sessions you Starfleet types love so much. We’re not hearing him out, and you’re not going back with him. And that’s final!”

Apparently, Sisko had seen that coming, because he burst into another explosive fit of semi-psychotic giggling.

“Oh, that’s just what she would say,” he spluttered when he finally stopped, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Kira scowled, and he sobered a little, as much as he was capable of being sober at all. “You’re a lot more like her than you think you are, you know.”

“Shut up,” Kira snarled, cold as ice. “Shut up, or I swear I’ll—”

“Fine,” Sisko shrugged. “Deny it all you want. While you’re doing that, I’m going to do what I came here to do.” He turned back to Dax. “Look, I don’t know what you’re supposed to be on this side, but where I come from you’re… well, you’re her.”

“I am?” Dax asked, still befuddled.

He nodded. “You’re Dax,” he said, smiling like he’d known her all his life, like he really was her Benjamin. “You’re my Dax.”

Your Dax?” Kira interrupted furiously.

Under normal circumstances, Dax would have been a little flattered by how possessive she sounded, how offended on Dax’s behalf. She would have smiled, maybe even blushed a little, to think that Kira felt enough for her to take offence when someone else claimed her as theirs. She would have, and part of her wanted to, but right now there were more important things to worry about, and her mind was already occupied by the man standing before them, the familiar stranger, this man who both was and was not Benjamin Sisko, this man who seemed to look at her and see someone who both was and was not Jadzia Dax. She couldn’t deny that it was a little alluring; there was a taste of the forbidden in all of this, and if there was one thing Dax had never been able to resist, it was the forbidden.

“My Dax,” Sisko said again, a self-satisfied retort to Kira’s outburst.

Kira threw up her hands, shaking her head in despair and disgust. “You see?” she cried, glaring at Dax. “Be reasonable, Jadzia. Look at what we’re dealing with. Think about—”

But Dax was already halfway gone, lost to the call of forbidden familiarity. “Quiet,” she said, in spite of all the voices in her head telling her that Kira was right. “I’m listening.”

Sisko grinned at that, wide as a Cheshire cat, looking for all the world like a man who had already won his imaginary war. Somewhere in a distant, dusty corner of her mind, Dax realised that she was treading a very dangerous line, that this Sisko was even more charismatic than her own, that she was probably falling into every trap he was laying down; it was the same corner that knew Kira was right, even as she fought to ignore that possibility with everything she had. She was being the rational one, she reminded herself, seduced by the idea. She was the peacekeeper, the voice of reason. She was being diplomatic, just like Curzon would have wanted her to.

Still, though, she couldn’t help wondering if this Sisko knew what he was doing to her, how his presence was affecting her, how quickly she would yield to the sight of a friend in a stranger’s face. Was it deliberate?, she wondered. Had he come here specifically to worm his way into her head because he knew that she would fall for it where Kira would resist? The thought should have strengthened her resolve, should have turned her back to the place she needed to be, driven her to heed Kira’s warnings. Kira was definitely on her side, after all, and this unknown man who was not her dear friend still hadn’t made his alignment clear at all. There was evidence in every direction, but she didn’t want to see it. She felt helpless, blinded by loyalty, both to the Benjamin Sisko that she knew, and to the corners of Dax that weren’t driven by violence.

“I need your help,” Sisko said, suddenly looking very serious.

“We know that already,” Kira muttered.

Sisko and Dax both ignored her. “Actually,” he went on, “it’s your doctor’s help I was after. Your innocent little Doctor Bashir.” He shook his head, amused, then pressed on. “Truth be told, sweetness, you’re even better than I could’ve hoped for. You got smarts even your precious doctor doesn’t. You see, my woman…” He seemed to catch himself there, hanging his head in what almost passed for apology. “My Dax, that is. She… well, she’s a little unwell, you see.”

Dax flinched. As if this wasn’t already dangerously personal, that definitely got her attention. “What do you mean ‘unwell’?”

He rolled his eyes. “I mean ‘unwell’. And it’s not like we’re in the neighbourhood of a decent Trill physician. Or even a bad one, come to that.”

Kira threw up her hands, disgusted all over again. “So naturally, you decided that the best possible alternative would be to cross over to a parallel universe and get one from there?”

Sisko regarded her steadily for a beat, expression cool and calm. “Pretty much,” he said with a shrug, and for once he sounded almost serious. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say it’s the most viable option we have right now.”

“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Kira muttered, biting and sarcastic.

“Never said it wasn’t ominous,” Sisko replied. “Just being straight with you. I figure, if I’m gonna be taking your lady back with me, might as well be straight about it.”

“I wouldn’t call anything about this ‘straight’,” Kira grumbled. “Jadzia, you can’t seriously be considering this.”

“I don’t know,” Dax said, trying to come off as ambivalent and thoughtful, but even to her own ears she sounded like a child begging for approval, like someone who had already made up their mind and really hoped she could sweet-talk Kira into agreeing with her.

Kira threw up her hands, sensing a lost cause, and turned back to Sisko. “So what’s wrong with her?” she demanded without the least trace of sympathy. “Got hold of some bad bloodwine? Caught a head cold? Bitten by a Badlands mosquito?”

Sisko stared at her as though she’d grown an extra head. “If we knew that, we wouldn’t need help, would we?” he pointed out, then shot Dax a wry grin. “I guess the Intendant was the one who got the brains, huh?”

Dax chewed her tongue. Somewhere at the back of her mind, a klaxon was sounding, warning her to run away, to get out while she still could, to listen to Kira and send this madman back to his own universe. That was the sensible thing, she knew, the thing that any sane person would do… but even as she willed her legs to move, she found that she couldn’t. She felt morbidly invested in this now; it had become personal almost the moment her own name was mentioned, and just as she felt drawn to this man who looked so much like her old friend she felt a similar draw to the woman he called ‘his’, this potential other version of herself, a Dax that belonged to this Benjamin.

“Well, can you describe any symptoms?” she asked, before she could think better of it.

He shrugged, making an effort to appear as though he didn’t care, even as his presence here said that he did care a great deal. “She’s even more of a bitch than usual, if that counts?” he muttered, earning himself a fresh scowl from both of them.

“Watch your mouth,” Kira said on Dax’s behalf, but Sisko just laughed.

“She keeps whining about hallucinations,” he went on after a moment. “Says it’s probably some kind of Trill thing, but she won’t say anything more than that. She’s not exactly big on Trill stuff, if you catch my drift.” Dax didn’t, but she didn’t say so, and Sisko moved swiftly on. “And it’s not that I’m worried, you see, but she’s my woman and I swore I’d do right by her. Not that she deserves it, of course…” There was affection in the insult, a kind of warmth that sounded odd coming from him. “And besides, we’re not exactly in the safest of positions right now. It’d be dangerous for all of us if she took up permanent residence in the land of crazy.”

“I’m sure you’d know all about that particular neighbourhood,” Kira muttered wryly, but her features had softened.

For her part, Dax had stopped listening at ‘hallucinations’. Her blood was running cold and her breath was hitching and stuttering in her chest. She could still feel Joran at the edge of her mind, all the rage and hate still simmering, shunted aside for now by the seriousness of their present situation, but ever present and ever threatening, and she didn’t need to hear anything more than just that word to know exactly what the problem was.

Mirror universe or no mirror universe, it seemed that some things were doomed to be the same, and for a moment she felt that anger rushing back to the surface, the indignity and the fury at being used and abused and cast aside, Joran’s hatred at being erased coupling with Jadzia’s own upset. She was still shaken, she realised, by how ready and willing her erstwhile mentors at the Symbiosis Commission had been to just sit back and let her die for the sake of their damned secrets.

“You have to get her to Trill,” she heard herself mumbling, but her voice sounded distant and very quiet.

Sisko pouted, scowling at her like a child about to throw a tantrum unless he was given his favourite toy in the next two seconds. “I told you, that’s not an option.” He didn’t elaborate, and Dax didn’t ask him to.

“I don’t care if it’s an option or not,” she said. “She needs to get to Trill. She needs to…”

Her breath caught, ragged and choking in her throat, and Kira rested a light hand on her back. “Jadzia.”

Sisko, meanwhile, had levelled his gaze at her again, and for the first time she saw something in him that wasn’t raw mania, the half-crazed ferocity of a man on the run. Dax didn’t know the intimacies of his universe, but she could tell at a glance that this man was a far cry from the pampered puppet Kira had described in her reports, a simpering wannabe pirate running errands for the Intendant just to keep from having to do any real work. She had found it hard to believe that description at the time, and she believed it even less now with the evidence standing right there in front of her, looking at her with a face she knew so well and an expression that was equal parts anger and desperation. This wasn’t a man whose interests extended only as far as his own ego; she could tell that at a glance. This was a man who was willing to do anything to help someone he cared for.

This man really was Benjamin Sisko, she realised, and knew that she was lost.

“I can’t help you,” she told him, willing him to understand. “If she’s… if it’s the same there as it is here… if she’s dealing with what I went through… she needs a Trill doctor. She needs—”

“You’re a Trill,” he pointed out, grinning that half-crazed grin of his. “That’s halfway there. We can deal with the rest once we’ve got you there and you’ve seen her for yourself. You’re her, aren’t you? If anyone can help, it’s you.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Dax said, almost begging.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, and just like that, it was as though their brief moment of connection hadn’t happened at all. “It’s exactly as simple as that.”

All of a sudden, he’d devolved right back to where he had been; all of a sudden, he was the same twisted creature who had boarded them, the man who might have Benjamin’s face but was nothing like him at all, the man who may or may not have good intentions but was ready to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. All of a sudden, he wasn’t Benjamin at all; he was a madman, and he was extremely dangerous.

He took a step forward, heavier this time and echoing with very real threat. Whatever trace of the Benjamin Sisko Dax had thought she’d seen in him was gone now; his was the face of someone who could see only as far as getting his own way. He had formed a plan, and he was going to see it through, no matter the cost to those around him.

“Not another step…” Kira warned him, and Dax belatedly remembered that she too could be dangerous when she wanted to be. She cut a glance at Dax, but it was just that, a glance; clearly, she had made up her mind too, and she wasn’t going to stand idle for one more second. “You’re getting back on that transporter pad and you’re going right back to that hole you crawled out from.” She narrowed her eyes. “Now.”

Sisko didn’t move. “Like I said, Major,” he said, leering at her yet again. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

Everything happened at once.

Acting with her finely-honed Bajoran instincts, Kira shouldered her way between the two of them, trying to shield Dax with her smaller frame (like Dax needed her protection, she thought with some bitterness; like she wasn’t perfectly capable of taking care of her own problems). At the same time, moving so fast that she almost missed it, Sisko whirled about, spinning in a full and perfect circle and whipping his weapon back into his hand from what seemed like an impossible distance.

Truth be told, if she wasn’t staring unwittingly down its barrel, Dax would have taken a moment to be impressed by his speed and reflexes; in fact, somewhere in the back of her mind, she could hear Emony applauding. But, of course, there was no time just then to indulge the nostalgic fancies of a one-time gymnast, so Dax ignored her. The bigger issue now, for the second time, was the potential for bloodshed.

As quickly as the flurry of action had happened, it stopped, something of a stalemate passing between them, Sisko with his weapon and Kira who was more than able to disarm him before he got a shot off. Dax, standing uselessly behind her, felt frustrated and useless. She felt like a prize, like a token they were fighting for, the last cut of targ at a Klingon feast. She wanted to do something, to take her fate back into her own hands, even if it meant making the wrong decision, but she knew all too well that one or both of them would do something stupid if she took so much as a step.

“I told you,” Kira hissed in her ear, sounding utterly furious. “I told you not to listen to him. I told you not to let your guard down. You damned sentimental Trill, you’ll get us both killed.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” Sisko said with another laugh; this one was bitter, though, almost resentful, like he really had hoped to avoid all of this messiness. Dax supposed he was used to people doing what he told them to without question, because he was a seething cauldron of juvenile impatience, a temper tantrum just waiting to happen. “You’re the one who enjoys the killing, Intendant, not me. I’m just a regular guy trying to clean up the mess you made when you came over to my side.”

“Don’t pin this on me,” Kira hissed, jabbing a furious finger at him. “Don’t you dare try to blame me for any of this. And don’t you dare call me ‘Intendant’.”

“Why not?” he shot back, unoffended and completely at his ease now that he had his weapon back in his hand. “You’re her, just as surely as this pretty little thing is my Dax.”

“She’s not yours,” Kira snarled. “And I’m not responsible for your problems, so don’t—”

“But you are, aren’t you?” His voice was like molasses, sickeningly sweet and unbearably thick. “It was you who changed everything, wasn’t it? You and your little doctor friend, stumbling into my house and turning everything upside-down.” His expression flickered, but only for a second. Dax wondered if Kira noticed it, or if she’d only caught it because she knew the lines of Benjamin Sisko’s face so well. “It was perfectly fine before you showed up. We were happy.”

“Happy being a slave?” Kira shot back, bitter and angry. “It’s not my fault you grew a conscience. And even if it was, I wouldn’t be sorry about it. Your ‘house’ needed a little rearranging.”

“It sure did,” he agreed, a snarl through bared teeth, hating that she was right. “And I’m the poor idiot who has to make sure it happens.”

“You’re an idiot, all right,” Kira muttered.

“Look,” Sisko said again, sounding irritable. “We’re through talking about this. I came here to get help, and one way or the other I’m going to bring it back.” He waved his weapon, an open invitation for resistance from either one of them. “It’s up to you how this goes down, but I’ll say this one more time: I’m not like your friend the Intendant. I don’t like getting my pretty hands all messed up with blood. That stuff’s a bitch to get out. But just because I don’t want to, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it if I have to.” He spread his arms wide. “The choice is yours, ladies.”

Kira opened her mouth, no doubt to shoot him down once more, but Dax held up a hand to try and silence her. “Kira…”

“No.” Kira sounded nothing short of furious. “We’re not playing it your way any more. No offence, Dax, but you don’t know the first thing about this Sisko, or his damn universe.”

“I know that,” Dax said, very quietly.

And she did. Looking at him now, grinning like a lunatic as he trained his weapon on them, a desperate man in a desperate situation, willing to do desperate things, she knew perfectly well that she could not rely on her experiences with her Benjamin Sisko to predict anything this one did. But honestly, that didn’t matter. It wasn’t about him now. It had stopped being about him the moment he said that word.

Hallucinations. Somewhere out there, in a universe so far away and yet apparently within touching distance, there was a Jadzia Dax who was going through the same torture she had been through.

She could see her face — her own face — so clearly that it hurt. Another Jadzia, a Jadzia who was angry and scared, unaware of what was happening inside of her. A Jadzia who was fighting down those terrifying memories, the resurfacing life of a psychotic murderer, who was struggling against everything that Dax was still fighting within herself, but without any of the resources that had saved her life. A Jadzia who could not go back to the Symbiosis Commission, who had no benzocyatizine to bring her isoboramine levels back up when they dipped too low, who had no access to the symbiont pools that would help those unwanted memories resurface more easily. A Jadzia, isolated and alone and thoroughly helpless.

“Jadzia…” Kira sighed, seeming to sense the shift in her friend’s focus, knowing all too well what she must be thinking right now. Did she know, too, how deeply that name affected her right now? “Don’t make this personal. Don’t make it—”

“But it is personal.” Suddenly, Dax couldn’t look at either of them. “If she’s going through what I went through with… with…”

She bit down on her lip, swallowed his name back down as his temper threatened to rise up in her again. Kira stared at her as her lip started to bleed, as the taste of blood soothed her mind, and for the first time since the mirror image of Benjamin Sisko had beamed onto their runabout, she looked helpless.

“Jadzia,” she said again.

“Nerys.” Dax bit down harder. “I can’t. What I went through… what she’s still going through… I can’t. I can’t let her go through it alone. I can’t.”

“But there’s nothing you can do!”

Kira was tangibly angry, frustrated with Dax for even considering this, and with herself for letting it get to this point, furious with this unfamiliar ghost of Benjamin Sisko, this twisted madman who would manipulate the emotions of someone he hadn’t even met just to get his way, and then pull a phaser on them when that didn’t work. She was angry about everything, Dax knew, and it made her sad to see her that way, so unable to understand.

“I have to try.”

“She needs to go to Trill. You said that yourself.” It was a last-ditch effort; futile as she must know it was, she had to try too, and Dax commended her for that. “What exactly do you think you can do for her?”

“I don’t know,” Dax answered truthfully. “But I have to do something. I have to try, Nerys. I…” She heard a barking laugh from across the cockpit, and only then remembered that she was still being held at gunpoint, and that it was Benjamin Sisko doing the deed. “Not for you,” she told him. “You’re not the Benjamin Sisko I know, and I don’t take kindly to being dragged away to a parallel universe against my will. So don’t flatter yourself I’m doing this for you.”

He laughed again, waving his phaser about like it was a harmless child’s toy. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn why you do it, just so long as you do it.”

Dax ignored him; she turned back to Kira, pleading with her eyes and the tremor in her voice. “Nerys, please. For her. For me. Please.”

“She’ll be perfectly safe,” Sisko promised, though Dax didn’t believe that any more than Kira did. He took his eyes off them for a moment, fumbling in his pockets with his free hand, then carelessly tossed a small cylindrical device at Kira. “You’re more than welcome to follow us if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” He grinned, the lazy grin of someone who had everyone exactly where he wanted, and didn’t really care what they thought of him now. “Like I said, Intendant, your face isn’t exactly a popular one among my people.”

Kira caught the device, barely glancing at it. “I don’t care about your people,” she hissed, eyes locked on Dax. “I care about mine.”

“I’ll be fine,” Dax promised, brushing the back of Kira’s hand with her own, a fleeting moment of intimacy that did not go unnoticed by their invader-turned-captor. “Go to Bajor. Enjoy your pilgrimage. I’ll catch up with you there, once I’m done.” Kira’s expression wavered, tender emotion overshadowing the anger for a moment. “I promise.”

Kira swore, once under her breath and then a second time very loudly. She clenched the little device in her fist, hard enough that Dax was sure it would buckle. “If I don’t hear from you in two days — two days, Lieutenant, and not a minute more — I’ll come after you.” She shot Sisko a hard look. “Both of you. And believe me, you don’t want that to happen any more than I do.”

“I’m still smarting from the last time,” Sisko muttered. “I have no intention of seeing that repeated.”

“That makes two of us,” Kira said.

Sisko laughed again, once more for luck, then turned back to Dax. “Your chariot awaits, Madame.”

Dax took a moment before she followed him, squeezing Kira’s hand and looking right into her eyes. She saw anger there, frustration and betrayal, and that hurt; she willed Kira to see the urgency in her, the need to do this, to make peace with her own demons as much as to help this unfamiliar new version of herself. She had no idea what to expect, what kind of person this other Jadzia was, and it frightened her to wonder… but not nearly as much as it disturbed her to even think of turning away from her.

Joran’s memories were more painful than seven other lifetimes combined; even the visceral moment of Torias’s shuttle accident, relived in nightmares again and again for months after she was first joined, didn’t even come close to comparing. Back then she couldn’t have imagined the depth of pain, the weight of anger and hate, the twisted perversions that would soon be taking up residence inside her, banishing such sweet and simple things as death until they were nothing. It was beyond description, beyond anything anyone else could understand, even Kira, and just the idea of leaving another soul to suffer through all of that alone turned her stomach and made all her muscles clench.

No. She couldn’t do that. She couldn’t, and she wouldn’t. Even now, even with all the help she’d received on Trill, all the resources of the Symbiosis Commission and the symbiont pools… even with all of that, she could still barely endure Joran’s memories on her own. What kind of person would she be if she just walked away and let another Trill (no, so much more than that: another her, another Dax, another Jadzia) fight him off alone?

She had to try. And Kira had to understand.

“It’s not about him…” she whispered again.

“I know.” Kira breathed a tragic sigh. “I know what it’s about.”

“I have to.”

“I know.”

Dax leaned in, close enough to taste Kira’s breath. “I have to,” she said again. “For her. For… for both of us. Nerys, I…”

“I know.” Kira closed her eyes for just a moment longer than a blink. When she opened them again, they were wet and wide and impossibly dark. Obsidian, Dax thought, and shivered. “I hope you find what you need, Dax. I really do.”

Dax pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth. “So do I.”

Chapter Text

Inter-universe teleportation, it turned out, did not play well with symbionts.

Sisko tried to warn her, of course. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” he said, with obvious relish, and Dax had laughed off the warning with her usual cocksure confidence, channelling her inner Curzon, her inner Torias, all the corners of Dax that had endured and withstood the most unpleasant things the galaxy could throw at them. Even young Jadzia had always thought of herself as pretty durable. After all, she was the one who’d breezed through Starfleet Academy without so much as a flinch, and shrugged off zero-gravity training like she’d been floating around in space all her life.

Honestly, though, that was more a matter of necessity than anything else; even back then, young as she was, she’d had big plans, bloody-minded and determined to be joined as early as possible. Starfleet Academy made for good training, yes, but ultimately it was just a means to an end, and if she wanted any chance at all of being accepted into the initiate program once she returned to Trill, much less actually being chosen for joining, she needed to be beyond the peak of physical perfection. Starfleet had been a test, nothing more, and she had passed it with flying colours.

After all that, she thought, surely she could handle a little universe-hopping.

Apparently not, and in hindsight, she wasn’t sure which was worse: the trip itself, or the humiliation that followed.

She had just enough time to take in the basic outline of the world that flickered into existence around her — black and grey rock faces where she would have expected walls and a ceiling, a trampled-down dirt floor, and a hazy sea of faces staring at her — before she was struck by a wave of dizziness so potent that even those few bare-bones details turned fuzzy and distorted. That was all the warning she had, and then that strange-looking new world unravelled around her, greying out and fading to mist as her eyes rolled back in her head.

“Dammit…” she heard herself groan as she hit the floor, earth damp and cold, yielding beneath her knees as they buckled.

Above her, she could just about make out the silhouette of the man who wasn’t Benjamin, the half-crazed and manic Sisko that belonged to this dark earthen place, and though the lines of his face were blurry and indistinct, fading along with the rest of this place, she could feel the surprise radiating out of him. He didn’t say anything, but she was vaguely aware of the sudden tension in his posture, confusion and disbelief and the faintest hint of disappointment, all bound up in a kind of panic. He didn’t know what to do, she realised, and somewhere in her fog-clouded mind, she found that hilarious.

Apparently, for all his warnings, even he hadn’t expect her to crumble so completely. Even in her dizzied state, it worried her far more than she cared to admit that he didn’t snap off one of those acid quips of his, simply stood there frozen in place as he looked down at her.

And then there were others, a milling sea of bodies, people all around her. Some of them, she thought she recognised, and others she was sure she’d never seen before in her life, but she couldn’t quite make sense of either group. One or two were crouched at her side, more out of curiosity than any desire to help, but most of them just stood over her like Sisko, gawking like she was an exhibition in some old-world museum, like she was an object, something to be stared at but never helped. The world was spinning, her insides turning to gelatine, and all they wanted to do was stare.

“Wow,” someone said, the hint of an accent she thought she knew, but weather-beaten and worn down. “She’s not very tough, is she?”

“I don’t care how tough she is,” said Benjamin (or Benjamin’s voice, anyway, whatever that meant just now; she wished she could remember…). “So long as she does what she’s supposed to do, I don’t give a damn if she faints at the sight of blood.”

In some distant corner of her scrambled brain, Dax was alert enough to be offended by that.

That same rough-edged voice snorted a derisive chuckle. “Think the captain’s going soft.”

“You’ll think twice about that if you don’t back off.” There was danger in Benjamin’s voice, something jagged and savage, and Dax flinched on behalf of whoever he was talking to. “Now, give the lady some room.”

A low huff of laughter, a different voice with a different accent, but just as familiar. “You’d better do it, Julian. You know what he’s like when you piss him off.”

“Oh, please. Just look at him. He’s practically fawning over her. Just because she looks like his little—”

Crack!

In her hazy state, it took Dax a long moment to recognise the explosion as the sound of bone against bone, a powerful punch finding its target without restraint. She supposed it was Benjamin who had landed the blow, no doubt against Julian — was it Julian? her Julian? — but she didn’t have the strength to raise her head and check for sure.

She heard Benjamin’s voice, anyway, and one or two others as well, all of them yelling, each trying to drown out the others, but it hurt her head to try and make out any particular individual. They were fighting, she realised, a full-on fist-fight between maybe five or six of them, and she moaned against the wet earth as the scent of blood filled her nostrils. Her fingers itched to join in, to help them kill each other, if that was what they wanted, or else to stake her own claim in their savage little hierarchy.

In the back of her head, she heard other voices, familiar ones, ones that came as naturally as breathing. Curzon and Audrid and all the others. Her hosts, Dax’s hosts, those softly guiding voices telling her what to do and who she was. Curzon and Audrid, Emony and Torias, Tobin and Lela… and then, overpowering them all, shattering them just like that stomach-churning sound of bone on bone, drowning them all just like he drowned everything else that he touched, Joran.

Joran, with his hate and his poison and his sick and twisted mind. Joran, so much louder than all the others, silencing them without the least effort. She shouldn’t have been surprised, she supposed; Audrid always spoke too softly, and Curzon always slurred when he was drunk, and how was she supposed to make sense of that? Tobin mumbled and Torias bragged; Lela only spoke when she thought it was important, and Emony was too busy swaggering to say much at all. How was she supposed to block out all that violence when they were the ones who were supposed to tell her how? How was she supposed to ignore Joran’s bloodlust and his rage, the itch to rise up onto her shaky knees, to join the fight breaking out above her, to punch and kick and scratch and claw them all to pieces? How was she supposed to hear their cries to resist the taste of blood when its memory was spilling out inside her head and filling all of their useless mouths?

She tried to rise up, even just to her knees, but she could still feel the residual hum of transporter energy, her body twisted and contorted in impossible ways. She could feel the symbiont inside of her, scared and motion-sick, scrambled and confused and even more twisted than the rest of her; it felt like it was choking, like it couldn’t breathe, and its fear radiated out to take her too.

The symbiont always made everything so complicated, she thought dizzily, and pressed her face to the cold dirt floor. Benjamin (or whoever he was) was still on his feet, wasn’t he? He was just fine. But then, of course, he didn’t have a worm in his belly and he didn’t have seven lifetimes — no, eight lifetimes — living and dying and screaming in his head. He wasn’t Dax, and there was about enough time for her to remember that Dax was the reason why she was here in the first place (or Jadzia, anyway), before the voices outside got too loud and the ones inside got too quiet, before the fog got too thick and the world became too overwhelming, before what little strength she had left abandoned her completely, and even the dirt beneath her cheek felt warm and welcome next to the clamour fading out above.

“I’m tough enough to kick all of your worthless asses…” she heard herself mumble, a belated response to an insult she could barely remember, and promptly lost consciousness.

*

“This isn’t honourable.”

Jadzia growled, hunching over her prey like a wild animal. The bedsheets were drenched in blood, warm and red and sticky, but she paid the stain no mind; her skin was crimson too, and what meagre modesty she might once have had was long gone. The sheets were more for decoration than protection by now, ripped up and tangled all around her, a hindrance more than anything useful. She wanted to tear them from the bed and throw them out, but she didn’t have the patience to deal with them.

Besides, there were more interesting things to take up her time now. Laid bare and spread out between her knees, Kira’s body was bloodsoaked as well, ripped apart just like the sheets. Her chest was torn open, exposed and naked, a great gaping chasm of insides turned out, splintered ribs and raw meat warm against the bloody sheets, everything inside of her on display for all to see. Everything, that is, except her heart.

Her heart, of course, belonged to Jadzia. She had taken it, claimed it and won it like a prize. She had made love to it, and now she was eating it.

But she wasn’t alone. She should have been; she was sure she was alone when it happened, when the fury inside of her snapped, and Kira’s neck snapped with it. Kira, exposed and naked and beautiful beneath her, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong moment and had paid the price for it. She was sure they were alone then, because it wouldn’t have happened at all if they weren’t. If someone else had been there, even someone who was long dead, she knew they would have stopped it.

It had been nothing short of slaughter. Kira, still sweaty and euphoric, breathtaking in the afterglow of her orgasm, had no idea what hit her. She’d been smiling; that was the worst of it. In the moment when Jadzia’s hands went suddenly tight and relentless around her throat, she was smiling.

Jadzia had smiled as well. She’d felt the heat inside her as they’d made love, just as she always felt it, that itch under her skin, always there, even in the most intimate moments. The whole time, she had felt it, humming and crackling through her veins, arousal so wrong and yet so similar to the slick slide of her flesh on Kira’s, a very different kind of passion to the one given voice in whimpers and cries as Kira pressed against her and beneath her and inside her. That was a good passion, a good heat, the inevitable flames of desire, of too many feelings staved off for too long, of emotion and physicality, of sex and love and faith. It was the passion of being alive, the heat of living and breathing and feeling.

This wasn’t like that. This heat, this passion… it was raw and vicious, an exposed nerve made sensitive by too much stimulation, need turned to violence, want to hate.

She tried to think about it, to wonder at the differences, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t think at all. Thinking required sense, and she was countless light-years away from sense right now. All she had was the violence and the hate, need and want undercut by darker things, the taste of blood and muscle and meat in her mouth, Kira’s chest ripped open in front of her, the hollow where her heart should be. They had needed each other, she remembered idly, back before this began. At least, Jadzia had needed Kira; she suspected Kira had only wanted her, but even cooling want could sound like need between the sheets.

But what did any of that matter now? Kira was dead; she would never need or want anything again. It was Dax who needed now, Dax who wanted. It was Dax who hungered, and Dax who fed…

“It’s not honourable.”

She looked up, eyes wide and wild, the half-eaten heart still clutched like a treasure between two bloody fists. “What do you know about honour, old man?” she hissed, baring her teeth.

Curzon bared his own, jagged and Klingon. “Show some respect, little girl,” he snapped. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here at all.”

Jadzia huddled once more over the heart in her hands, taking another defiant bite as Curzon shook his head. It tasted bitter, unpleasant, treachery spiced with guilt, and it was a struggle to keep it down. Still, though, her stubbornness overpowered her weak stomach, and she refused to let him see that she was not as strong as him. She had earned this. The bitterness and the blood, the heavy weight in her stomach and the raw meat filling her mouth… she had earned it all. She had earned the body beneath her, too, the chest ripped open and the throat torn apart; she had earned everything, and she would not let him take it from her.

“She warned you,” he went on, as ruthless as the hate bleeding through her. “She said you’d lose yourself if you killed. She told you it would happen.”

“She didn’t know any more about it than you do,” Jadzia snarled back, snapping her jaws. “I’m not lost.”

“Who are you trying to convince?” he demanded. “I’m a lot older than you, little girl, and wiser too. You should have listened to me when you had the chance.”

“When you tried to kick me out, you mean?”

“When I tried to save you from yourself,” he corrected. “You weren’t cut out to be a host. Look at you. I’d say you’re proving me right, wouldn’t you?”

“And what would you know about it?” she demanded. “You couldn’t do any better.” She would have liked to kill him too, but he was already dead. It was typical of him, she thought, going out of his way to make things difficult for her. Well, she could make things difficult for him too, she decided, and hissed his name in a vicious curse. “Who are you to lecture me? All you ever did was drink and fight, and where did it get you? You’re just as dead as she is.”

“You’d be a better person if that was all you did, too.” he told her icily. “Drink and fight and die. You’d save us all a lot of trouble if that was all you ever were.”

That was true. Jadzia knew that, and it hurt. She covered the pain by taking another bite of Kira’s heart, choking on the taste, the rancid memory of lust and pleasure. “You didn’t seem to think so. You let me back into the initiate program. You let me have Dax.”

“I was wrong,” he said simply. “When you live as long as I did, you make mistakes.” He gave her a hard look, a warning as much as a threat. “And you were the worst mistake I ever made. I never should have let you back into the program. I never should have let you be joined at all… and to my Dax…” He shook his head, and Jadzia tried not to recoil from the distress on his face. “I gave you the greatest gift you could ever have hoped for, and you threw it away like it was nothing. Stupid, ungrateful little girl. You don’t deserve Dax. You’ve never deserved Dax, and you never will.”

“I will,” Jadzia snarled. “You’ll see. I will.”

“Liar.” Curzon’s eyes flashed, impossibly bright. “Seven lifetimes of potential, and look what you’ve done with them.”

“Eight lifetimes,” Jadzia corrected, forcing down another mouthful of muscle.

In a flash of unchecked anger, Curzon slapped the heart out of her hands. It fell to the blood-drenched bedsheets with a wet sound. “Don’t hide behind him!” he shouted. “You can’t blame him for this. He doesn’t define you any more than the rest of us ever did.”

“You did define me!” Jadzia yelled back, just as angry as he was. She rose to her knees, Kira’s body already forgotten. “For years, you defined me! You defined me when I was an initiate, calling me a silly little girl with delusions of joining. You told me I was a child, treated me like I was worthless, and I believed you. I let you define me then, and then I let you define me again when it finally happened, when I proved you wrong and got what I’d worked so hard for. Even after I was joined, that’s all I ever was. Just silly little girl, playing dress-up and pretending to be the great Curzon Dax!” She lunged at him, fists flying, but he parried the blows without the least effort. “Well, I’m not a silly little girl now, and you don’t define me any more.”

Suddenly, he looked incredibly sad. “No,” he murmured, speaking more to himself than to her. “I suppose I don’t.”

He was so deep in thought, so lost inside his own head, that he dropped his guard, and the violence swelled even higher in Jadzia as she found herself suddenly met with no resistance. It was more than she could do to resist the thrall of brutality then, and she was too gorged on blood to even try. She poured punches on him like water, fists colliding again and again with his face, his chest, his stomach, his shoulders, any part of him that she could reach. Again and again, she lashed out, again and again until he was a battered mess, bloodied and bruised and thoroughly unrecognisable, until the only thing left of the him was a sad smile and a vacant stare.

Where was the big man now?, she thought as she drove him back, up off the bed and back some more, all the way back until he struck the wall, a thick smear of blood marking his path as he slid down to the floor. Where was the ruthless field docent who had once held young Jadzia’s fate in his hands? Where was the old man who branded her a little girl, the would-be mentor turned heartless tyrant? Where was the great Curzon Dax now?

As he crouched, huddled and pathetic at her feet, he covered his face with his hands, both arms raised up high to protect himself, and she leaned in to wrench the barrier away, to haul him back up onto his feet, to glare down into that battered face, to meet those vacant eyes and see the fear, the pain, the defeat. She shoved him up against the wall, another smear of blood to mirror the first, and shook him forcefully as he slumped back against the surface.

“Get up,” she snarled, though he was already on his feet. “I’m not done with you yet.”

He looked up at her, bruised and bleeding and broken. “Yes, you are,” he said softly. “You’re done, old man.”

Just like that, the violence faded from her, the hate and the rage and the bloodlust. She felt weak and small and hopeless, every inch the silly little girl that Curzon always said she was… only it wasn’t Curzon looking up at her now.

“Benjamin?”

“Who did you expect?”

“I…” She shook her head, trying to clear it, but she couldn’t remember; all she could make out was the distant memory of hatred and violence. “I don’t know.”

Dark as they were, his eyes shone under the dim lighting, slow pulses of empathy and sorrow, the friend who had always been by her side, even back when she was— but no. Whoever that Dax was, he was gone and dead now. There was only Jadzia, and the man who stood before her now was her commanding officer. In another life, he might have been her friend, but who could remember that?

He looked down at the bed, at Kira’s open chest and her half-eaten heart, and the warmth in his eyes blinked out like the death of a distant star. “What have you done?”

“She left me no choice.”

The words came automatically, reflexive. It was an excuse she’d used a thousand times before, an echo of times and lives long past, and even as she said it she realised that the words were all she could remember. She left her no choice. They all left her no choice.

“How long do you expect me to believe that?” he asked, then sighed. “I can’t keep covering for you, old man.”

That struck a nerve; she couldn’t say why, but she flinched just the same. A flicker of the same old violence flared again in her chest, catching the spark of her heartbeat and drumming out its own rhythm in perfect tandem, one two three, every other beat that much louder. Who was he to act like some kind of protector? Who was he to look at her like she was worth something to him? Did he treat all his officers like this? Who was she to deserve such special treatment? Who was she?

“I don’t need you to cover for me,” she said acidly, rounding on him to vent her frustrations. “And I never asked you to. I don’t need you.”

“Well, you sure as hell need someone,” he told her. His voice was soft, as it always was; he never really raised it, never seemed to need to. The world bent to his will, now as it ever did, and he had no need for shouting or orders. “You’re in over your head.”

“No, I’m not. I know exactly who I am.”

He took her face in his hands, as forceful and as tender as Kira, but when she looked into his eyes, it was like looking at a stranger, like she’d never seen him before. Her commanding officer, her friend, one of the greatest souls she would ever know in as many lifetimes as she would live. Benjamin Sisko, and she knew him, but he was looking at her like he had never seen her before in his life.

“Then tell me,” he urged. His fingers left pale marks on her skin where they pressed, smearing the blood half-dried on her jaw. Kira’s blood, so sweet and so bitter. “Tell me who you are.”

“I’m Dax,” she said. “You know me. I’m Dax. I’m—”

“No,” he said, and for a fraction of a second he was Curzon again, then Torias, then Audrid, Emony, Tobin, Lela… all of them. All except one. “No. You’re not.”

She screamed. She screamed and she howled, and she picked up the remains of Kira’s heart and threw it against the wall as hard as she could, just short of his head. It tore through the bulkhead, leaving smoke and blood in its wake, a small heart-sized hole that grew bigger and bigger as she watched, expanding like a sun and cracking wide open until it wasn’t a small hole any more, but a chasm bigger than the wall itself, a great gaping void that seemed to stretch across the universe, unbinding everything she’d ever known.

“Then you tell me!” she cried, and she didn’t even know who she was talking to any more; it could have been any one of them, all of them, or nobody at all. “You tell me who I am!”

And then, as quickly as they’d all appeared, they were all gone. Lela, Tobin, Emony, Audrid, Torias, all the ghosts of Daxes past, even Curzon… and Benjamin too. All gone, as though they’d never been there at all, and for a few terrifying moment she was completely alone. Just her, silly little Jadzia, all alone with Kira’s body and that giant heart-shaped hole.

She felt frightened and lost, isolated and afraid, like the world was closing in around her even as the chasm in the wall grew wider still, expanding ever outwards, swirling and spiralling like a wormhole… and she looked into it (because where else could she look?) but it wasn’t the Prophets that looked back.

No, there would be no salvation for her, not now; she had killed one of their people, and she would not be saved. There was only her own reflection, a bloodstained skeleton of her face with blank eye sockets and dried-out spots, and a discordant echo of a voice that did not belong to her. No hope. No salvation. Just decay.

She tried to scream again, to yell into the void, to demand answers from whoever would hear her, but again she couldn’t speak. Her throat was closed up and her voice was gone, every part of her decayed and dying, unrecognisable and intangible, and who was she? Who was she really? Who was this skeletal wreck of a soul that looked back at her, paper-dry bone all stained with blood and skin long since burned away?

She didn’t recognise the face, though she knew it was hers. It definitely wasn’t Dax — no, Dax would never be reduced to this — but it wasn’t quite Jadzia any more either. It was something else, someone else, a face she recognised even through a century’s worth of decay and corruption, a sinister smile through teeth turned dark with blood. Curzon was right, she realised. There was no honour in this. There was nothing in it at all, and nothing in her but blood and pain.

But what did it matter that Curzon was right? Where was the old man now? Where were any of them? Where was Jadzia, even, that shy little girl with so much intelligence and so little wisdom? Where was she?

Who was she?

And then, just like that, she recognised the face, the twisted reflection staring back at her through the heart-shaped wormhole. She recognised the sinister smile, the bloodstained teeth, the hollow eyeless sockets and the decaying bones, the spots withering under the skin.

Decay and destruction. Of course. Who else but him?

Joran.

She recognised him now, and in his face she recognised herself. And as she saw them both, she knew. She knew the answer to the elusive question. She knew, of course she knew, but she had to ask it again. She had to hear the question, and hear the answer. She had to hear the words aloud, to hear the truth made real.

“Who am I?”

“You know who you are.” He smiled again, and this time she smiled back. “You’re me.”

*

She woke to a cacophony of voices, discordant and hazy and distantly familiar, all talking about symbionts.

“…frankly more trouble than they’re worth…”

Dax growled, offended. If she wasn’t still in the process of coming around, only semiconscious and too hazy to stand, she might have lurched to her feet and started throwing punches. The idea made her breath catch in her throat, excitement and horror wrapped around each other, and for a moment she couldn’t remember which was the right thing to feel.

She tried to choke past them both, to remember who and where she was, to remember the difference between what she’d dreamed and what was real, the violent urges that had been so swiftly satisfied in her mind and the savagery that would not be sated by a thousand punches out here in the real world. She took a breath, still struggling to separate them, and curbed the thought of hurting those idiots who did not understand.

And yet, she remembered. She remembered her fist in Curzon’s face, remembered Kira’s heart in her mouth. She could still taste it, still felt the sinew and muscle slide down her throat, unpalatable and undigestible, blood rich and thick in her mouth. The thought of it almost made her gag now, and that in itself was a comfort.

She was still Jadzia Dax; she remembered that too. She was still who she was supposed to be, and she had never killed anyone or eaten their heart. Not out here, not where it counted. She had come close, just once, but even then she had been spared the task. Still, that memory was one she held close even now, wrapped around her thoughts every time she felt a thirst for vengeance or a need for justice. She had been lucky, letting the task fall to a true Klingon, one with a strong stomach and a strong heart, and as grateful as she had been at the time, she was infinitely more so now. Joran was in her head, crying out for violence and death and hate, and there was a part of Jadzia that realised it wouldn’t be so easy to hold him down if she’d already crossed that line all by herself.

It was all so easy for Curzon, she thought. Everything came easily to Curzon, didn’t it? Curzon was smart and witty, worldly and charismatic, and he could get away with anything if he just flashed the right smile. She wondered how he would have dealt with Joran, how he would have responded to all those new memories, to the bloodlust and the hate and that unimaginable anger. Curzon was short-tempered enough on a good day; how would he have coped with a sociopathic murderer taking up residence inside his head? Jadzia didn’t know, and neither did he. How could he?

So then, let him say what he would. Let him judge her all he wanted, accuse her of being weak and small, tell her how unworthy she was. Let him throw his stones and call her ‘little girl’, if that was what he needed to do to convince himself that he was better than her. What the hell did he know, really? How the hell could he say with any confidence that he would have handled this better? He never had to! No, no; that burden fell on Jadzia, and Jadzia alone. Curzon may have been a nightmare as a field docent, but Joran was a nightmare of a different kind, and this time Jadzia was alone. There was no training for this, no advice an old man could give a little girl. Who the hell was Curzon to judge her? For all his years of life and living, he didn’t know a damn thing.

The anger frightened her, and she closed her eyes to ward it off. She didn’t wanting to go back there. She didn’t want to think about Curzon at all, much less to wonder what he’d think if he could see her now, and she definitely didn’t want to know how much better he would have handled this if he’d had the chance. Besides, thinking about his face in her dream just made her think of Kira’s broken body, and that hurt much more.

Again, she remembered the horrible taste of blood and meat and death, Kira’s chest torn open and her insides turning the sheets red, raw muscle in her mouth, bitter and sweet, so hard to keep down, the stench overpowering and the taste making her feel sick. She tasted it again now, so vivid and so clear, and before she even knew what was happening, she found herself rolling over and retching into the dirt, Kira’s name rattling in the back of her throat, choked down and gagged like a prayer from the faithless.

“See?” The voice was cool, distanced, and she wasn’t sure whether she recognised it or not. “More trouble than they’re worth, those slugs.”

Dax groaned, rolling back over onto her back. She tried to close her mind, to think of anything but Kira, to remember anything but the taste of blood and muscle, struggling against her body and her mind. She let herself focus on the insult instead, because it was easier than the rest, and squinted blearily up at a swerving cave ceiling as she caught her breath.

“That wasn’t the symbiont,” she said; it was a lie, hoarse and shuddery, but she didn’t want these familiar strangers to know just how weak she was. “That was me.”

“Great.” A low, frustrated sigh. “So, you’re just naturally pathetic, then?”

She recognised the face as it swayed into focus, though the voice remained distorted and she couldn’t remember his name. Back in the world that made sense, the universe that was hers, he was an ensign. At least, she thought he was; maybe he was a lieutenant. Either way, she had a vague idea of who he was now that she was starting to come back to herself. A headstrong security officer who wore his uniform like a badge of pride and made a living out of second-guessing Constable Odo at every available opportunity just because he wasn’t Starfleet. Here, apparently, he was just a loud-mouth with a bad attitude.

Not much change, then, she thought, and let the wry humour sustain her.

In the back of her mind, Joran suggested once more that she punch out his lights. She didn’t, though it was tempting. Instead, she just took a few more deep breaths and waited for the urge to pass, for Joran to go back to sleep and Jadzia to remember that she was in control.

“Keep that up, and I’ll show you how ‘pathetic’ I am…” By her own admission, it wasn’t her best comeback, and it was hard to sound intimidating when her was tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, but it helped to quell the urge for violence, and gave her a little strength.

It had the desired effect, too, regardless of how weak she must sound. Ensign Loud-Mouth, or whatever he was called on this side of the mirror, muttered something under his breath, but took a couple of wary steps back, and he didn’t antagonise her any more. She rather suspected the submission came more from fear of what this universe’s Benjamin Sisko would do to him if he upset their trans-universe visitor than any real fear of her, but she appreciated it just the same.

With a concentrated effort, she sat up, looking giddily around and trying to get her bearings.

They hadn’t moved her at all, she realised as she spat out a mouthful of copper-tasting dirt; they hadn’t even bothered to try and make her a little more comfortable. The part of her that just about remembered how to be generous wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt — maybe they were afraid that moving her might cause some damage — but the rest of her was too smart to really believe that was true. They hadn’t moved her because they didn’t think she was worth moving; she could hear the disdain and derision in their voices even more clearly than she could hear the words as the ringing in her ears faded away.

She was a burden here, she realised. Benjamin (no, Sisko, she reminded herself; it was important to keep the distinction in her head) had no doubt brought her here with the best of intentions, but she could tell at a glance that his ragtag band of misfits weren’t nearly as enamoured by her presence as he was. They didn’t want her here. Looking around at her surroundings, she supposed they didn’t think it was worth wasting their resources on a long-shot at helping one sick Trill. Why couldn’t this universe’s Dax just eat some soup like a normal person? Why all the fuss?

Honestly, she couldn’t blame them for their bitterness. She didn’t doubt for a second that her Benjamin would have been just as quick to break the rules if she was the one in trouble, but that didn’t mean her fellow officers wouldn’t be well within their rights to complain about it. The lives of the many over the lives of the few; it was the first and the hardest lesson that anyone in Starfleet needed to learn, but one that Benjamin Sisko had always had a hard time with. Curzon had told him again and again that one day he would have no choice but to leave a man behind, but in all the time Dax had known him, he’d never let it happen without a damn good fight.

This Sisko was similar, it seemed. At the very least, he was willing to risk the welfare of his men — some of them no doubt his friends — for the sake of someone he cared about just a little too much. It was comforting to see that some things transcended even this, even if the Curzon in her still shook its head at the unprofessionalism of it all.

“The decor leaves a lot to be desired,” she grumbled, more to test her ability to talk than out of any need to make the point, and she rubbed the back of her head as she took stock of her health.

She could feel the symbiont in her belly, dazed and miserable, and its discomfort radiated outwards to the corner of her brain that was exclusively Jadzia’s. She was confused, disoriented, like she’d suffered a blow to the head, and as she looked around and recognised a handful of familiar faces among the sea of rabble (a man who looked like Julian Bashir, who she remembered was at the forefront of the fist-fight that had started just before she blacked out, and one who resembled Chief O’Brien, to name just a couple), she wondered if that was why they were talking about symbionts with such disdain. Was that why she had fainted?, she wondered. Because the damned symbiont couldn’t handle a little inter-universe teleportation? She sighed, massaging her temples; some days, she mused bitterly, it was hard to remember why she’d wanted to be joined in the first place.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” She shivered as she recognised the disjointed mania of the man who would be Sisko. “Is our hospitality not to Madame’s satisfaction?”

“Shut up,” Dax griped, breathing slowly. “I’m here to help, remember? A little common courtesy wouldn’t kill you.”

Careful not to lose her balance, she climbed to her feet, gingerly pressing her hands to her abdomen. She could feel the rhythm underneath the skin, the subtle shifting of the symbiont as it wriggled around, trying to make itself a little more comfortable. It wasn’t happy, she could tell, but it wasn’t hurt either. Most likely, it was just a little fragile after the transport, its sensitive physiology unaccustomed to whatever tricks the people of this side had concocted to let them hop between universes. The scientist in her was curious about that, and wanted to know all the technical details, schematics and all, but the vast majority of her was just worried about her poor scrambled symbiont. It wasn’t the first time she had suffered for the worm’s lack of endurance, and she doubted it would be the last, but she was still embarrassed, annoyed that she could be made so weak by the creature that was supposed to make her so strong.

“My apologies,” Sisko said with an exaggerated mock-bow, putting on a show for his disgruntled men. His charisma was as winning on this side as it was on her own, and his friends spluttered their laughter. “We’ll roll out the red carpet next time.”

Dax, for her part, had turned to roll her eyes at the man who resembled Miles O’Brien. He was a lot rougher around the edges than the good-humoured chief of operations she knew so well; the differences were unmistakable and undeniable, but the likeness was as uncanny as anything else she’d seen.

“I’m guessing you’re the genius responsible for that little experience…” she muttered, cocking her head back in the general direction of Sisko and whatever pocket he’d opted to stash his little transporter device in. “If I were you, I’d spend some time making it a little more symbiont-friendly before you try and send me back home.”

Sisko burst out laughing, and the sound hit a chord in Dax’s chest; she was struck suddenly by how much she missed her Benjamin, the one who only laughed when something was funny, and wasn’t nearly so loud or obnoxious about it, the Benjamin who was warm and honest.

“You hear that, Smiley? She’s been here five minutes, and she’s already throwing out orders! Didn’t I tell you they’d be feisty on that side?”

O’Brien — Smiley — sighed his acknowledgement. “Aye, Captain.”

Though the response came quickly enough, the man himself seemed downtrodden and melancholy, like he was agreeing with Sisko not because he wanted to but because he was afraid of what might happen to him if he didn’t. Dax filed the look on his face away for future reference, in case she needed it.

There was no doubt in her mind by now that Kira was right about this universe’s Sisko, that he was dangerous and unhinged and positively not to be trusted, but she could already tell that Smiley O’Brien was a different story entirely. If Kira and Julian’s mission reports were anything to go by, he had stuck to Sisko after the breakout from Terok Nor because he wanted to inspire some kind of change, to spark a revolution and do something worthwhile. His face told a similar story; this was a man who wanted to do good, but was far better at being a lapdog than an action hero. She could work with that if she needed to, and she was already starting to suspect that it wouldn’t be too hard at all to get this guy on her side if she needed some backup, if things went wrong with Sisko and she found herself in need of an ally.

One thing she already knew for certain: charisma be damned, this Sisko was not in the business of making friends. In truth, that was just fine with Dax; she wasn’t here to make friends, either. She was just here to deal with… well, with herself, apparently.

As if she didn’t have enough identity crises going on at the moment.

“Where is she?” she asked. “You didn’t bring me here to stand around listening to your friends complain about my symbiont. I’m here for a reason, aren’t I?”

“Eager, aren’t you?” Sisko smirked, then winked at his men. “Just like I said, boys. Folks on that side get things done. Didn’t I tell you she would—”

“I’m not here for you,” Dax snapped, cutting him off impatiently.

The point was an important one, and she found that it helped to keep it in the front of her mind, repeating it over and over again in her head as he led her through the clamour of familiar strangers. She wasn’t here for him. She wasn’t here for any of them. She was here for Jadzia.

“She’d better not be,” a voice grated out from the middle of the crowd, and she caught a glimpse of Julian Bashir glaring daggers at Sisko; apparently, this version of Julian was a lot more antagonistic and trigger-happy than the one she knew. “You’ve got enough bloody Daxes already, Captain.”

Sisko returned his glare with one of his feral smirks, crude and unhinged. “Ignore him,” he murmured in Dax’s ear; his breath was warm, and entirely too intimate for the situation. “He’s just jealous I got to her first.”

He was just showing off, she could tell, staking a claim to her just because he knew it would irritate Bashir, and being used like that made her feel exposed, uncomfortable in a way she wasn’t used to. Young Jadzia was long accustomed to being pawed by libidinous men (and occasionally women, though they usually had the good sense to be more subtle about it), to say nothing of seven accumulated lifetimes of it, but she was acutely out of her depth in this place, and she felt much more discomfited by the attention here than she would have in the safety of her own universe.

She tried not to think too hard about it, about the vicious looks that Bashir shot them or the smug self-satisfaction that Sisko shot back; the conflict between them was obvious, and she wanted nothing to do with it. She also tried not to think about Sisko’s ominous words — ‘he’s just jealous I got to her first’ — and what they words meant for her, and for her counterpart. Was this universe’s Dax the prize in some kind of power struggle, or was she just a favourite toy? She hadn’t seen many other women in the group of loud-mouthed rebels, and that unnerved her.

Sisko was possessive as he muscled past Bashir and the others, and his hand was heavy where it rested on her waist, inching its way lower, down to her hip, fingers dipping downwards. It was a message to his men, Dax could tell, that she was his too, and she did not like that one bit.

As soon as they were out of earshot, she leaned in and hissed a warning in his ear, voice low and dangerous. “Don’t ever do that again. I’m not here so you can make some macho point to your little friends. I’m here to help your…”

She trailed off, feeling uncertain all over again. What, exactly, was this Sisko’s relationship to his version of Jadzia Dax? Just how intimate were they? And did she really want to know?

“…my woman,” he finished for her, leering helpfully, and she elbowed him sharply in the ribs, hating that word. Joran smiled at the flutter of violence, just a taste, and Dax swallowed him down before he had a chance to tell her to do more. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about me and her. Or me and you, for that matter. I won’t get any ideas. She’d kill me if I even thought about it anyway… even if it’s technically not—”

“You don’t want to finish that thought,” Dax told him coldly. “Or any of the others you’re not doubt entertaining right now.” He gasped, mock-insulted, and she rolled her eyes at the posturing. “Watch your mouth. And watch your hands too, while you’re at it, or you won’t have any left.”

Sisko laughed off the threat, but he took his hand back from her hip just the same. “Oh, you’re just like her!” he cried, delighted. “Two of you in one room! Heaven have mercy on us all.”

Dax glared at him for that, but didn’t dignify it with a riposte. Truth be told, she was starting to feel the tug of nervousness again, the choking tickle of discomfort creeping its way up her throat and holding down her tongue. She wished she’d had the foresight to ask Kira how she’d dealt with this, how it had felt to come face-to-face with another version of herself, someone who didn’t just look just like her but who really was her. She thought about the Intendant, remembering the chilling reports, and wished she had asked Kira how she’d felt when she saw her for the first time. Thinking on it, she supposed it wouldn’t have helped much, but she would have welcomed the input nonetheless.

Self-identity was very important to joined Trill. It was vital that a potential candidate be self-aware, alert and comfortable in their own body and mind, content within themselves before they even thought of taking on a symbiont. Taking on so many new memories, so many old personalities, different people both separate and connected in so many unfathomable ways, tested even the strongest of souls.

Jadzia struggled with her own self-identity, far more than she would ever admit; sometimes she thought that was probably one of the reasons Curzon had washed her out of the initiate program. Now that he was a part of her, it was so tempting to let him take over, or Emony or Torias or any of them, to sit back and bask in their confidence and their accomplishments. Jadzia wanted so badly to leave her mark on the Dax symbiont, to carve out a space for her own name next to those of her former hosts so that one day in the distant future some green young initiate would talk of ‘the great Jadzia Dax’, talking of her the way she herself had talked of Curzon. She wanted so badly to be worthy of the symbiont, worthy of the name Dax, but ultimately, the largest part of her still felt like that stupid, worthless little girl.

It was a constant effort to remember who she was, what she thought and how she felt, to remind herself that she wasn’t Curzon and she shouldn’t want to be. She wished she could blame that on Benjamin, on the friendship they had both wanted so desperately to salvage, but she knew that it wouldn’t be right; the fault was with her, not with him or anyone else. The fault was hers, and so was the effort, that never-ending struggle to remember her own name, her own body, to look into the mirror and realise that the face staring back was her own. It was a constant effort, a never-ending struggle just to be herself, much less to know what that really meant.

With Joran now inside her too, it was a thousand times harder. She still didn’t know how she’d managed to absorb his memories, his thoughts and his feelings, to absorb all of him and not lose herself completely. She had been warned, but the warning had been woefully inadequate; she imagined that must be what it was like to get joined without any training, the sudden overwhelming sense of chaos inside. Maybe she was stronger than she thought she was, to survive as she had, faced with that. Maybe she was even as strong as Benjamin believed her to be. Or else maybe she’d just got lucky.

Either way it wasn’t until much later, back in her quarters on Deep Space Nine when she awoke from the first of countless dreams, that she realised the fight hadn’t ended in the symbiont pools on Trill. Oh, no. It hadn’t even begun.

Every day became an uphill climb, a desperate clamour to sustain her own identity, to remember even Curzon, much less shy little Jadzia who spent most of her time hiding under tables anyway. Every day, it was all she could do to remember that she didn’t really want to kill everyone, that she didn’t really want to hurt and break and destroy, that she wasn’t the one feeling all that hate.

It was shy little Jadzia who locked herself away in the holosuite for hours at a time, who let Joran take over because she was too small to fight him, Jadzia who let him do unimaginable things to holographic Klingons because Dax was too strong let him do them to real ones. It was Dax who imagined what their hearts must taste like, Jadzia who retched to think of it, and both of them who immediately hungered for more. It was Dax and Jadzia, the two of them in this together together, and then, when she was done (when he was done, when they were done), it was the combination, Jadzia Dax, who went back on duty, smiling at the ensigns and answering questions and doing her job like she always did, and nobody knew that she could still smell the blood.

How was she supposed to help this other person, this mirror image of herself? How was she supposed to help another Dax, another Jadzia, when she couldn’t even help herself?

Sisko stopped them outside a little alcove, not too far from where they’d first beamed in. There wasn’t much in the way of privacy in this place, it seemed, because the only protection came in the form of a hanging curtain, loose and not particularly effective. Dax blinked for a moment at the sight, then swallowed down her discomfort; the last thing she needed was for Sisko to pick up on it, to see how uneasy she was and start second-guessing the wisdom of bringing her here in the first place. They were both in enough trouble already.

Maybe that would be better, she thought. Maybe he’d realise this was all a terrible mistake and would send her back where she came from. Maybe she would be on Bajor in less than an hour, catching up with Kira and laughing off how stupid she had been to agree to this madness. Maybe…

But no. This Sisko wasn’t her Benjamin, and she couldn’t be so sure of his actions. Maybe he wouldn’t blame her for being dubious, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop him from getting her out of the way if he thought she’d be a threat, maybe even taking arms against her, or letting his rebel friends do it for him. Dax had known Benjamin Sisko for years, and she had always thought she knew him well enough to anticipate what he would do in any situation. But this man was not her Benjamin, and when she looked at him, she was struck to realise she truly had no idea what to expect.

No, she decided. Best to keep on her guard. Best to play up Curzon’s cocksure confidence, his smugness and his bravado. Best to beat this charismatic loose cannon at his own game.

He didn’t bother to knock, just husked “Jadzia…” from some place deep and low in his throat, seductive and threatening in almost equal measure. The name sent a chill down Dax’s spine, but she didn’t have time to process any more than that, because he was already moving.

The sound of her name — assuming it really was hers — was the only warning the room’s occupant got, less than a second’s worth, and then Sisko was barging through the modesty curtain, shoving it impatiently out of the way and dragging Dax helplessly behind him.

“I brought you a gift, sweetness,” he announced, all swaggering self-satisfaction. “I hope you’ll forgive me for not wrapping it.”

He sounded entirely too pleased with himself, Dax thought irritably, and it seemed that her counterpart felt the same way, because before either of them had a chance to take so much as a step into the room, a hand snapped out from the darkness, lightning-fast and pinpoint-accurate, slapping Sisko across the face with a crack that echoed off the walls.

“That’s for not knocking before entering.”

Chapter Text

“You’re a damn low-life, Benjamin Sisko.”

If the look on her face was anything to go by, she wanted to do a whole lot more than just slap him. The word ‘castration’ sprung to mind, or at least it would have if Dax’s mind was capable of processing any words at all. But it wasn’t. At that point, it wasn’t capable of doing anything; it was almost more than she could do just to keep from fainting again as she stared into her own bright blue eyes.

It was definitely her. There was no doubt about that. Her eyes, her face, and a predatory grin that she had worn herself a time or two. There was no question about it: this woman was Jadzia Dax, just as surely as she was.

And yet, somehow, for all that they were alike, everything about her was fundamentally different. Dax couldn’t explain how or why, but it went far beyond the obvious surface dissimilarities; she couldn’t help herself, couldn’t resist the urge to stare, to drown in the sight of the woman standing in front of them, so much like the reflection that looked back from the mirror every day, and yet so far away that she couldn’t even begin to count the distance.

Her hair was different, for a start. That was the most obvious thing, the most basic and tangible change. It was shorter, cut rough and ready, sleeker than it should have been in a place like this, but feeling the wear and tear of desperation just the same. It seemed a little darker, too, at least compared to what Dax was used to, but then maybe that was just the lighting, the gloom-touched aura of this place. It was a darker world, a darker universe, and light seemed to be so scarce everywhere; it made sense that even something as plain and unimportant as a woman’s hair would have all the colour sucked out of it. This woman, this dark-haired mirror-image… she was a reflection of herself, that much was obvious, but she was just as much a reflection of this universe, and Dax made a note not to forget that.

It wasn’t just her hair that seemed darker, though, and the cut wasn’t the only thing about her that was rough and ready. Everything about her was dark and troubled and dangerous; everything about her was a shade of this dark place, twisted and chaotic in ways that Dax couldn’t even begin to make sense of. It wasn’t anything physical, at least not anything she could put her finger on; it was more like a feeling or an idea, an intangible something that pricked at every part of her, something she couldn’t really put into words. It was indefinable, but it was also inescapable; as hard as she tried to see beyond it, she couldn’t, and that was the really disturbing part. She was staring at herself, but she wasn’t quite sure what she was really seeing.

Looking at her, seeing the troubled life etched like wounds in the hollows of her own eyes, honing in like a magnifying glass onto those subtle little differences, the small scar on the underside of her jaw where Dax herself had never been injured, the curl of her lip, as savage as it was salacious… it was deeply unnerving, and as she took in all those things, contradictions and mismatches, Dax couldn’t help feeling like she was looking through a pane of shattered glass, one not just broken but crushed into pieces, destroyed in a blind rage. It was fitting, she supposed, given the reason they were both here, but it chilled her to think of it just the same.

She knew that this woman was her, just as she knew that the shattered mess was once solid glass, but she was completely unable to recognise anything at all.

“What would you have me knock on?” Sisko was demanding moodily. “The goddamn rock?”

“That would be a start,” Jadzia — Dax — Jadzia — grunted in response.

Feeling stupefied and stupid, Dax mumbled the only thing she could think of. “She slapped you…”

Sisko rubbed at his jaw, seeming to notice the sting for the first time; he seemed remarkably unruffled by the hand-print colouring the side of his face, and by the twin pairs of dark Trill eyes now staring at him. “That’s how she shows affection,” he explained with a winning smile.

“The hell it is.” Dax tried not to stare at the mouth she’d seen so many times in the mirror as it curled into a cutting sneer. “He’s a show-off and a ruffian, and we’d all be much better off without him.”

She crossed the tiny living space in a single step, grabbed Sisko by the collar, and kissed him full on the mouth; Dax, meanwhile, stood idly by and wished that she hadn’t been right in her suspicions about the two of them and their relationship. She desperately hoped this wouldn’t make things awkward the next time she saw her own Benjamin Sisko and thought of their decades of friendship.

When she was done kissing her captain senseless, her other self didn’t waste a second. Her eyes were bright when she turned back to Dax, looking calm and thoroughly careless, like the incident had never happened at all.

“So,” she said, amicably enough. “You’re me.”

Dax mustered a wan smile. “I suppose I am…”

“Great.”

The other her (Jadzia? Dax? how did this one define herself? was it her place to ask?) countered her smile with a cool shrug, loose shirt falling over her shoulder to reveal rather more collarbone than Dax would normally be comfortable seeing on a mirror image of herself, at least not without buying it dinner first. Did she wear her clothing that well?, she wondered. And did she fill out—

No. Let’s not go there. She lowered her face, uncomfortable, and tried not to blush as she realised that she wasn’t the only one having those thoughts.

“Don’t get any ideas, you lecherous bastard,” the other Jadzia was muttering at Sisko, and he hung his head, seemingly just as abashed as Dax was. “You hear me?”

“I hear you both,” he grumbled, like a child deprived of a favourite toy, then shot a glance back at Dax. “Didn’t I tell you she’d have ’em cut off if I even thought about it?” He turned back to his precious Jadzia, the picture of innocence. “She threatened the same thing just five seconds ago, you know.”

Her other self quirked a curious eyebrow. “Did you, now?” she asked.

Feeling very self-conscious, Dax nodded. “I’m not here for him,” she said again. “I’m here for you.”

Her counterpart (Jadzia, she decided again) seemed to like that. She shook her head, amused, and favoured Dax with an earnest grin. It was a sharp-edged look, really more like a smirk than a grin, similar in a few ways to the one that Sisko sometimes gave her; there was a feral ferocity to it, all bared teeth and attitude. It was attractive on her, Dax couldn’t help observing, but also utterly disarming.

“Well, then,” she said, stepping right up into Dax’s personal space. “In that case, it looks like you and I are going to get along just fine.” The smirk softened somewhat, a half-smile that dazzled under the dim cavern lights. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

By this point, of course, Dax had no idea what she would or wouldn’t agree to, and so she decided not to say anything at all. She just nodded again, trying not to look as helpless as she felt, and turned desperately back to Sisko in the vain hope of getting them all back on track.

“Can we please…?”

“Yes, yes.” Sisko rolled his eyes, and turned back to his paramour. “They’re all business over there,” he explained. “All about getting stuff done as quick and efficient as possible. Didn’t I tell you—”

“Good,” Jadzia cut in, interrupting. “I don’t want this one sticking around a moment longer than necessary.” Dax made a noise of protest before she could stop herself, mouth already half-open to say ‘I’m just here to help’, but her counterpart cut her off before she got the chance, waving a hand and gracing her with another smile. “No offence, lovely. I just don’t trust that chauvinistic bastard to get any work done as long as he’s got two of us to ogle and mistreat.”

“I treat you just fine, don’t I?” Sisko huffed, making a show of rubbing his jaw again as he turned back to Dax. “She’s the one who mistreats me. You saw it for yourself.”

Dax massaged her temples. “Listen,” she said with a sigh. “As endearing as all this posturing is, I’m not here to play peacekeeper between you two.” She gave her counterpart a sympathetic look. “Your friend—” Jadzia snorted her derision at that, and Sisko choked on another half-hysterical giggle. Dax, of course, made a point of ignoring them both. “—says that you’ve been hallucinating, and he… that is, we… that is, he thinks that I might be able to help. And that’s why I’m here: to help you, not to stroke your respective egos.”

“That’s a shame,” Sisko ventured. “My ego could use a good—”

Jadzia slapped him again. “It’ll get a good beating if it doesn’t shut up,” she warned.

Sisko grimaced, pouting. “And I’m the one who mistreats her?”

Dax sighed again. “Look. I’ve come a long way for this, and I’m risking a lot just by being here. So, if it’s all right with both of you, can we please focus on the task at hand instead of—” She spread her arms, taking in the two of them. “—this?”

Jadzia put her hands on her hips, expression guarded but turning playful. She seemed almost impressed, albeit reluctantly, by Dax’s attempt at authority in this place that was so new to her, and when she ran an appraising eye over Dax’s body, it was with the same unabashed eagerness that Dax herself often used to unnerve unsuspecting young ensigns with inflated senses of self-importance. Impressed, yes, but with just the barest hint of flirtation; she was long accustomed to fending off looks just like that herself, of course, but seeing such shameless appreciation reflected back through her own eyes, the unapologetic appreciation lifting the corners of her own lips, the smug self-satisfaction shining from her own face… well, it was more than a little disorienting.

“She is cute, isn’t she?” Jadzia said after a moment. “All right, Benjamin, I take it back. You can have her, but only if I get to play too.”

Sisko beamed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, sweetness.”

Dax, meanwhile, covered her face with her hands. She wasn’t entirely sure what was worse: that she’d just been propositioned by a parallel-universe mirror-image of herself, or that it was the best offer she’d had in months. Either way, she had no intention of letting these people see how quick she was to blush, and so she took the authoritative tack once again.

“Is everyone in this universe as unfocused as you two?” she asked.

“Depends who you ask,” Jadzia said, with another clavicle-baring shrug.

“Or what kind of ‘focus’ you’re talking about,” Sisko added helpfully.

Dax was starting to wish she’d listened to Kira and just vaporised him the moment he’d first materialised on their runabout. The mountains of paperwork would have been painless next to this.

“All right.” Jadzia sighed, exaggeratedly weary, though Dax could have sworn she caught the flash of something like fear in her eyes. “She does have a point. We really should get started.”

“Yes,” Dax said, eager to move on from the awkwardness. “We really, really should.”

For a moment, it looked like the fear in Jadzia’s eyes intensified at the idea, like she was nothing short of terrified. Dax supposed she could understand that; she wouldn’t be too eager to sit down and hear all the things that were wrong with her from a perfect stranger, either, even if the stranger was technically herself.

Even if she was frightened, she controlled herself just like a true Dax, wrapping up the unease and smothering it with false bravado. “Benjamin,” she went on, not looking at either of them. “Don’t you have some Alliance recon to run or something?”

“Not really,” he said brightly. “I’m at your disposal, m’lady.”

“Well, ‘dispose’ yourself somewhere else,” she snapped, unexpectedly harsh, then softened seemingly with a great effort. “Your new friend isn’t here for you; she’s here for me, and neither one of us want you breathing down our necks and distracting us.”

Though she’d only been in this universe a few minutes, Dax could tell that something was off about the exchange, the sharpness of Jadzia’s tone and the fear still flickering behind her face. It took her a moment to realise what it was, though, and when the moment came it struck like a bolt of lightning, hard and fast.

It was a facade. Though she rolled her eyes in all the right places and curled her lip at all the right lines, Dax could tell that she was just going through the motions, saying anything she could think of just to get Sisko out of the room. That much was clear enough, but Dax realised suddenly that it had nothing at all to do with his tendency for distraction, or his apparent infatuation with all things Dax. What it did have to do with, however, was Dax herself. Both of them, in fact.

Maybe she could fool Sisko with the careless brush-off; after all, from what she’d seen, he wasn’t exactly the brightest tool in the box. But Dax was her, or some version of her, and she knew herself better than that. Jadzia could mask the fear all she wanted, cover it over with bravado and arrogance — apparently the staples for everyone in this strange new universe — but that didn’t stop it from existing, and it wouldn’t stop Dax from seeing it. It was easy to fool Sisko with empty strutting and hollow words, not least of all because he was just as empty and hollow as she was, and no doubt hiding just as many latent insecurities. But Dax wasn’t from this universe, and she didn’t play by their rules. She knew what she was looking at, just as surely as she’d seen it in herself when she looked into the mirror after her first hallucination.

She was scared to death.

This Jadzia was terrified, just like Dax herself had been. She was terrified of the hallucinations themselves, of course, because they were frightening and horrible things, but what really scared the hell out of her were the countless questions that came with them, the unknown and the uncertainty, all the reasons why Dax had come here, all the things she needed to know but didn’t want to hear. What’s happening to me? Why? What did I do wrong?

That was why she was sending Sisko away, Dax realised. It had nothing to do with his relentless posturing or his bad attitude or his big mouth. No; it was far simpler, and so much more painful. She wanted him to keep believing that she was strong enough, brave enough, good enough to survive on her own. For all that they both must know how badly she needed help, she still wanted him to believe that she could handle it all on her own. She was desperate to keep up that facade of self-control, the appearance of being unafraid and invulnerable. She wanted her Sisko to respect her, just as Dax had wanted her Benjamin to feel that way when it had happened to her.

Against her will, she remembered. She remembered feeling helpless, lying there in the infirmary, wretched and hating herself, feeling all that seething anger and not knowing where it had come from. It would be days before she learned about Joran and discovered that the rage was his and not hers, and the whole time she had felt lost and scared. She remembered looking up into the worried eyes of the friend she’d known for the best part of two lifetimes, and feeling frightened and ashamed. She remembered the awful things she’d said to him, the baseless accusations and the cold and empty threats; she remembered the hurt look on his face as she’d stormed out of his office… and in that moment, staring deep into her own eyes and seeing that same fear and pain on her counterpart’s face, she realised that none of it mattered.

Her Benjamin didn’t care. He didn’t care what she said, what she did, what she accused him of. He didn’t care how badly she crossed the line, or how unjustifiably angry she got. He didn’t about anything at all except the fact that one of his closest friends was going through something he could not understand. He cared that he couldn’t help; he cared that he was helpless to do anything but stand over her and wish he could do more. In its own way, that had been worse than anything she’d said or done. When she lost her temper, she wasn’t herself; ‘herself’ was the frightened young woman lying helpless in the infirmary as Julian Bashir ran test after test while Benjamin held her hand and offered tight-lipped jokes that weren’t funny. That was her. That was Jadzia Dax.

She would have given anything to spare Benjamin the sight of her like that, and she could tell with the intimacy of experience that her counterpart felt exactly the same now.

That was reason enough for her to intervene on her behalf, she decided, and felt her spine straightening.

“You heard the lady,” she said, eyes locked on Jadzia’s.

Sisko rolled his eyes; clearly he was already second-guessing his decision to bring her here. Well, that was just fine with Dax; she was kind of second-guessing it herself right now.

“All right, all right…” he groused, turning to glare at each of them in turn. “I’m going already. You two are no fun.”

When he was gone, and the two of them were left alone, Dax allowed herself the luxury of a heavy sigh. “He keeps forgetting I’m not here to have fun,” she said softly.

Her counterpart gave her another appraising look, the ghost of a smile just lifting the corners of her lips. “That really is a shame,” she said. “Benjamin might be an unrepentant vagabond, but you can’t deny it would’ve been something special.”

Dax found it rather more unsettling than she wanted to admit that the most disconcerting part of that scenario was picturing it with Benjamin. This universe’s Sisko was certainly no-one she wanted any involvement with, and even if she had, there was too much history between Dax and her own Benjamin Sisko, the callow young ensign that Curzon had taken a shine too and the warm familiar commander that Jadzia had come to care about just as deeply. He was her friend, her confidante, and she respected him far too much to ever consider it. Under normal circumstances, Dax would be the first to dabble in the forbidden with a willing participant from a parallel universe, and all the more so with one who happened to share her face, but doing it with Benjamin Sisko, in any incarnation, was simply a step too far.

She didn’t voice any of that out loud, of course. Instead, she just shot a quick glance back at the modesty curtain, rustling in the wake of Sisko’s departure, and took Jadzia’s hand on her own.

“He’s gone now,” she said softly. “You can drop the bravado.”

Jadzia bristled, as Dax had known she would. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really?” Dax mustered a smile, sad and sympathetic, and gave her hand a pointed but reassuring squeeze. “Your hands are shaking.”

The look on Jadzia’s face as she yanked them behind her back was almost painful. The instant Sisko disappeared, the self-assurance had fallen from her face, and with every moment that passed between them she seemed to sink deeper and deeper into a kind of inarticulate despair. She must have realised that Dax wouldn’t coddle her, and perhaps that was fuelling the obvious anguish on her face. They both knew that something was wrong; that much went without saying. Dax wouldn’t be here at all if that wasn’t the case, and she liked to think that any version of herself would be respectful enough of someone else’s time not to want to waste it.

All of that was reason enough to dispense with the chicanery, and as the truth of the situation seemed to sink in for Jadzia, the self-satisfaction and the swagger that seemed to be the trademarks of this universe fell from her face like a discarded scarf, unwrapped and cast aside, leaving behind only fear and discomfort, huge bright eyes set in a face that was suddenly very pale.

Dax had to dig her feet into the dirt floor to keep from closing what little space remained between them, wrapping her arms around her whole body, pulling her into a hug so tight and so fierce that it would break both their ribs. She wanted to tell her that it would be all right, that she was here and she understood, that she knew what was wrong and that somehow, some way, by some miracle, she would make it better. She wanted so desperately to do all of that, to chase away the pain from those eyes that seemed so much brighter than her own, to stop herself from feeling the sting of it too, fear like the edge of a bat’leth thrust into her chest. She wanted so badly to do something, anything, to make this better through the power of her own shared experience, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything at all until the woman who shared her face admitted that she needed it.

It was harder than she expected, getting her to that point. Even by Dax’s own standards of stubbornness, Jadzia was a cut above. Old habits died hard, that much Dax had learned herself, but it seemed they died even harder in this hope-abandoned place. Though the bravado and the smugness were long gone now, Dax could still feel the distance stretching out between them, an invisible wall of mistrust and doubt, suspicion even through the flirting and the surface-level acceptance. Dax would give anything to tear the words out of her, to rip them from her throat, just as she’d ripped the heart from Kira’s chest in that terrible dream. But it was her own face she was looking at now, and not even Joran’s terrible temper could make her rip out her own throat.

“You don’t have to pretend it’s all fun and games,” she pressed; she tried to sound soft and gentle, to sound like Kira had on the runabout those few hours ago, but it came out rough-edged and raspy. “Not with me.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Jadzia replied, though her voice was tremulous too.

“I’m here for you,” Dax reminded her, not rising to the bait. “I’m here because you need help. We both know that, so let’s not stand on pride and pretend either of us are tougher than we are.”

Jadzia’s expression flickered; for about half a second, the fear was subsumed by hope. Dax could feel the ache in her, so desperate to believe what this backwards reflection of herself was saying. It was almost more than she could do to bite her tongue, to let Jadzia reach her own conclusions, not to push or press too hard. Patience, she remembered; she’d been patient once, before Joran, and she could be patient again. She had to be. Faced with Jadzia, her own features lined and strained with the same struggles that she herself still fought at every turn, she had to be. If she wasn’t, they would both be lost.

At long last, Jadzia took a breath. “You wouldn’t understand.”

To anyone else, it would not have sounded like much. It was just another stubborn deflection, after all. Dax, of course, knew better, and to her, it might as well have been an open invitation. She was this woman, after all, and she shared her thoughts. She’d said those very words herself, more times than she could count, and hearing them from Jadzia’s lips now, she might as well have been saying them again. She knew. She knew because she’d been there. She knew that when Jadzia said ‘you don’t understand’, what she really meant was ‘make me believe that you do’.

But, of course, she couldn’t do that. Flowery speeches and pointless promises only got so far, and they were both beyond that now. They were reflections, both staring into their own eyes, and they knew each other all too well for this to work. Dax could throw down the most articulate and well-formed argument any universe had ever seen, and it wouldn’t do any good; Jadzia still wouldn’t believe her, because she was afraid to. And so, though she heard the plea in the words, though she knew what was really being asked, she just shook her head.

“Maybe I wouldn’t,” she said. “But then again, maybe I would. Either way, don’t you think it would be a shame to bring me all this way and not try?”

Jadzia faltered at that; again, Dax knew that she would. All the empathy in any universe would never be as effective as a guilt-trip, not against a Dax. This Dax had crossed universes for Jadzia, at great risk to herself and probably to this universe’s Sisko as well; that was reason enough for Jadzia to give a little, whether she believed in it or not, and they both knew it.

“I guess so,” she admitted reluctantly. “Benjamin did risk his neck to bring you here.”

“He’s not the only one,” Dax pointed out.

Jadzia’s lips thinned at that, and she bowed her head; she clearly did not like being reminded of that particular fact, and Dax supposed she couldn’t blame her; being in someone else’s debt turned her own stomach sour as well, no matter how justifiable the reason.

“I guess not,” Jadzia conceded after a moment.

It was probably the only victory Dax would get for a while, so she took it with a smile. “So talk to me,” she said; it was an invitation, not an instruction. “Tell me everything, and we’ll see how much I understand.”

They started out slowly. That was to be expected, of course; Dax couldn’t imagine trying to explain everything she felt to a stranger, even one who looked just like her. It had been difficult enough to look up from that bed in the infirmary, to see Benjamin’s face, and Julian’s, to see the concern in their eyes and know that she needed to tell them what she was feeling, all the anger churning inside her, eating away at her insides and leaving her raw and exposed. It had been hard enough to keep from bursting into tears as their faces fell, simple worry dissolving into outright distress on Julian’s face as he checked her isoboramine levels, and the desperate feints of humour from Benjamin that she recognised all too well as his tried-and-tested coping mechanism. Curzon had taught him that: ‘laugh the loudest when you want to cry’. All of that had been hard enough, and she knew Julian and Benjamin much better than this shattered-glass reflection of Jadzia Dax knew her.

“I’m so angry…” Jadzia confessed at last, a hushed whisper that contained more intimacy than any inter-universe threesome could ever hope to.

Dax remembered that feeling all too well. She still felt it, too, but she couldn’t let her counterpart see that. “Go on,” she said.

“What else do you want me to say?”

She sounded frustrated, closer to upset than aggressive, but something in her hopeless desperation struck a chord deep in Dax’s chest. G Minor, Joran quipped jokingly, and she almost choked.

“Say anything you like,” she said out loud, chasing him away.

Jadzia spread out her arms, helpless and anguished. “That’s all there is. That’s all I have. I’m just angry. All the time. It’s all I feel. So angry, so…” She shook her head. “And I can’t… sometimes I feel like I cant… like I’m…”

She trailed off, as though realising how much she’d admitted in just those few scattered words. Dax tried to smile, to offer some sliver of reassurance even just in her expression, but her features were frozen in the still waters of her own memory, of history and Joran and empathy in G Minor, and all she could do was hold this Jadzia’s hands, hold them tight and squeeze them tighter, and wordlessly will her to see and know and believe that she understood, that she understood everything, all of it and more besides, that it hurt her to know the feeling it just as much as it hurt Jadzia to speak the words.

“And the hallucinations?” she pressed after a beat, and gazed into her own haunted eyes.

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth, Dax could tell, and not just because she remembered feeling the same way, hazy and discordant, unable to make sense of the things that had terrified her on such a fundamental level. She remembered feeling paralysed, sick and shaking with all the fear of a thousand nightmares yet utterly unable to articulate what it was that had so frightened her. It wasn’t even particularly realistic, not next to the dreams that haunted her now, and yet it had stuck in her throat like bad gagh and threatened to suffocate her with inexpressible terror.

“Try,” she encouraged gently.

“I don’t know. They don’t make sense. It’s like… like I remember something, but I don’t know what… like I’m trying to remember, but it’s so raw… so painful…” She closed her eyes and made a tiny choked sound in her throat, so close to a whimper that it stole Dax’s breath and left her wondering if maybe they weren’t so different after all. “It’s like there’s something out there… something terrible…”

“…only it’s not out there at all,” Dax finished for her, very quietly, trembling with mnemonic sorrow. “It’s inside you.”

The sudden clarity in her counterpart’s eyes was startling. She looked almost awestruck, so close to grateful in the second or two before she remembered who she was and who she was dealing with. It was a beautiful moment, if agonisingly short, a fractured heartbeat of relief so potent that even Dax felt it. But, of course, it couldn’t last; Daxes were nothing if not universal when it came to augmenting their own pain, and this Jadzia was no different.

Dax could have predicted the precise second she flipped the switch, remembering that she could not be too appreciative, could not show too much in front of this familiar stranger, remembering Curzon and Lela, the need to be stoic and strong. Just like that, the moment was gone, replaced by that same hardened attitude that Dax used so often herself, that well-worn security blanket of arrogance and false courage.

“Okay…” she said, sounding sullen and indifferent. “So maybe you do understand. Maybe. A little.”

“Maybe,” Dax agreed, hiding her smile. “A little.”

She knew better than to push her when she got like that, of course; she knew how she herself would have reacted in this situation, identical almost down to the second her breath hitched. It was ridiculous, absurd; in so many ways, this aggressive and arrogant young woman was nothing like her. Her hair was too short, her shoulders too tight, and she had a scar where Dax did not. So many differences, all adding up to shape them into two very different people, and yet, at the same time, neither of them could ignore or deny the simple fact that they were the same. And maybe she didn’t know the nuances of this particular Dax, this particular Jadzia, but she knew herself and she knew what she was going through. That was a lot more than Sisko or any of those other rebel lunatics out there knew, and it gave her an advantage. She would play this her way, Dax’s way, and hope for the best.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything at all. Jadzia crossed over to sit down on the bed; it was a strange luxury to have in a place like this, Dax thought, out of place and oversized, but she didn’t say so out loud. She just watched quietly, keeping a respectful distance as Jadzia folded her hands in her lap and stared down at them. She looked very thoughtful, like she was lost inside her own head, and Dax was hesitant to intrude.

That was a feeling she knew well, too, the need to retreat, to spend time alone inside her own head, as close to meditation as she would ever understand. With so many lives and memories and thoughts all vying for attention at the same time, it was difficult sometimes to pick them apart, to tell one from another and hear any of them at all. It was difficult to think through it sometimes, hard to cut through the straight lines and right angles of dead memories and living personalities, and harder still to try and do it when other people kept throwing the balance off with well-intentioned small talk and chatter. Better, Dax knew, to stay quiet and give her counterpart as much time and space as she needed to work through the confusion and chaos bouncing around inside her. She understood, and she would wait as long as Jadzia needed.

She didn’t need very long, as it turned out, and Dax felt her own shoulders relax as Jadzia exhaled a tight little breath and looked up once more.

“Benjamin doesn’t understand, of course,” she murmured, as much to herself as to Dax.

Though the words came out simple and matter-of-fact, a shadow flitted across her face as she said them, as though she was afraid of the confession, afraid of its implications and what it might mean for her and Sisko. Dax felt her heart clench with sorrowful sympathy, though she didn’t know what she could say to make it better.

“I’m sure he—”

“No.” Her eyes were hollow, and Dax could hear the edge of anger in her voice. “He doesn’t even try. Damn arrogant bastard just thinks I’m being dramatic, that it’s all in my head. He said that, you know. He actually said it.” She rolled her eyes, struggling to come across as dismissive and careless, more annoyed than upset, but Dax could tell she was more bothered than she wanted to let on. “He’s a chauvinist bastard as well as a scoundrel.”

“My Benjamin Sisko isn’t like that at all,” Dax said.

Curiosity sparked like lightning in Jadzia’s eyes at that, and Dax smiled. Like Jadzia before her, she had mostly been talking to herself, suddenly deeply grateful for her Benjamin Sisko, her dear friend, but she was glad nonetheless for the reaction it earned from her other self, smoothing the rough edges of her wounded pride, at least a little, and replacing it with uneasy intrigue.

It was true, too. Her Benjamin was a friend, a confidante and the most trustworthy soul she had ever known, and he would have done anything within his power to make sure that he understood what his old friend was going through. Dax was far from talented when it came to explaining her feelings, but Benjamin would have sat with her for the entire thirty-six hour flight to Trill if that was what it took to get her to make sense. It made her sad but also incredibly grateful to learn that this particular trait did not transcend universes. For all that he was willing to cross universes and find someone who did understand, it seemed that this Sisko simply couldn’t be bothered to do it himself.

“What’s he like?” Jadzia asked softly. “Yours, I mean.”

Jadzia thought for a moment. “He’s one of the most honourable men I’ve ever known,” she said. “And the truest friend I’ll ever have.”

“Is he?” her counterpart asked, like she didn’t really believe it but very much wanted to. “Does he treat you well?”

It was a loaded question, the implication heavy on each syllable, and Dax deflected it as best she could. “It’s not like that,” she explained. “My Benjamin is… not like yours. I mean, our relationship isn’t.” She felt awkward talking about it, even with herself. “Curzon was like a father to him, a mentor… and I think there’s a part of him that looks at me and still sees the old man.”

It was more than just a part, she knew, and truth be told, it still kind of bothered her sometimes. One day, maybe, he would look at her and see just how different Jadzia Dax was from Curzon, and how much more different she might yet be if she stopped clinging to the old man’s legacy. One day, but probably not any day soon. It was hard for non-joined species to understand the changes, physical and psychological, when a symbiont changed hosts; she knew that very well. Benjamin hadn’t been thrown by the physical, at least not as much as she’d expected he would, knowing as she did the sorts of things he and Curzon had got up to with young women just like her… but the psychological, it seemed, still eluded him sometimes.

Honestly, she herself probably wasn’t helping. It was easy to cling to Curzon, to wrap his stubborn hot-headedness and sense of Klingon honour around herself, to shield Jadzia’s weak heart with his strong one. It was easy, even now, to want to be Curzon, and who could blame Benjamin for seeing the old man in her when he was in everything she tried to be?

She thought of her dream, Curzon becoming Benjamin, both so quick to judge her for what she’d done. In the comforting light of whatever passed for day in the depths of the underground, she knew that she agreed with them, that they had taken on the voice of her own conscience. But it hadn’t been so easy to see that at the time. She wondered if the time would come where she really would fall that far, where even Benjamin’s well-meaning counsel wouldn’t be enough to pacify her, where even Curzon’s ever-present influence wouldn’t bring her back from the brink. It was a disturbing thought, and she shuddered.

“Are you all right?” Jadzia asked, noticing.

Dax forced herself to laugh it off. “Of course. I was just thinking… my Benjamin would probably have a heart attack if he ever saw what you get up to with yours.”

“That’s a pity,” Jadzia said with a wicked smile that Dax was already coming to recognise far too well. “We could’ve had a lot of fun, the four of us, don’t you think?”

She was relentless; Dax had to give her that. She recognised the game, though, the deflection and the evasion, the way she was focusing in on pointless little things, redirecting all her energy on flirting and witty banter, on playing the charismatic old Dax instead of the frightened young Jadzia, on anything she could think of to distract them both from the real issue here, the chaos in her head, the fear and the confusion, and the overwhelming rage. Dax knew the game sure enough; after all, she’d played it herself more times than she could count. She swallowed over a suddenly dry throat.

“Curzon certainly would,” she admitted softly. “He always was a bit of a narcissist.”

“He’s not the only one,” Jadzia retorted with a laugh. “I kind of get the feeling you’re not opposed to a little narcissism yourself.”

Dax conceded the point with a self-deprecating shrug. “It’s part of the job description when you’re joined.”

“Oh, I know.” Jadzia laughed, self-deprecating. “Benjamin always says I love myself more than I love him.” Her voice lowered, conspiratorial and very mischievous. “He might be right.”

There was a lightness in her now, a slow-rising enthusiasm that had been sorely lacking until now; it was like she’d suddenly found a kindred spirit, someone who really did understand, not just what she was going through here and now, but everything about her, the fundamental basics of what it was to be Trill, to be joined. For the first time, Dax found herself wondering how long this Jadzia had been away from the Trill homeworld. Did she miss it? Did she find herself longing sometimes for old friends, for her family, for favourite foods or a corner of her childhood home? She herself had all but forgotten most of those things, but it was easy to forget something when there was no danger of it being snatched away. Trill would be there for her whenever she wanted; it wasn’t going anywhere. There was no need for her to commit it all to memory, not when there was no risk of her being torn away. Jadzia, it seemed, already had been. Dax wondered if she’d had a chance to say goodbye before getting dragged into all of this.

It felt strange, she mused, sharing experiences with this woman who both was and wasn’t her. It felt strange to feel her words resonate with everything inside of her, not simply as a Trill but as Dax, as the man who had been Curzon and the woman who was Jadzia. It felt strange to watch the shifting expressions on that face that was so like her own but so different, that rough-and-ready haircut and the glint of danger in eyes turned darker than they should be by this lightless place. Most of all, it felt strange to enjoy it; Dax was here to help, and she was under no illusions of anything beyond that, but there was something inescapably intoxicating about the simple act of being here, of standing in a tiny alcove with an echo of herself, and talking like this. Jadzia was so much more than a like-minded soul, so much more than Kira or even Benjamin could ever be; she was her, and in her Dax couldn’t deny that she was finding something so much deeper than understanding.

“Jadzia,” she said, and marvelled at how unnaturally the name — her own name — fit around her tongue. “I mean… can I call you that?”

Jadzia stared at her, raising a bemused eyebrow. “Well, it is my name,” she replied. “I assume it’s yours as well. We’re not that different, are we?”

Dax shrugged. “I suppose not.” Still, it felt odd to say it. “Look… Jadzia. I could talk for hours about how strange this all is, and how interesting…” Jadzia grinned at that, and Dax recognised just a hint of Curzon in the lifting of her lips. “But that’s not why I’m here. We need to talk about your—”

“I know.” Just like that, the roguish grin had vanished, and in its place was a warning tightness, a vague promise of aggression. Dax recognised the flash of anger in her, the momentary loss of control, and she shivered as she felt an answering twitch of that same violence in her. “I know why you’re here.”

“You really do need to go to Trill,” Dax told her, breathing slowly through her nose and trying very hard to stay calm. “I know your situation is a delicate one, but what you need, you need from Trill.”

Jadzia growled. “That’s too bad,” she said, edgy. “Because it’s not going to happen. Even if I wanted to go back to that hellhole — which I don’t, by the way — it’s not possible. It doesn’t matter how desperate we are, or what I need. None of it matters. Going there isn’t an option. So either think of something else, or go back to your own damn universe, because that’s the situation.”

Dax was surprised; she’d caught a hint of something like nostalgia in Jadzia’s voice a moment ago, a kind of wistfulness as she’d looked at Dax, and had been so sure that she was thinking of home. It didn’t gel with what she was seeing, hearing her dismiss the place so savagely. Was she trying to convince herself it was true so that she wouldn’t miss it so much? Or was she genuinely so bitter?

Either way, she could tell she wouldn’t get an answer; whatever wounds were there, they were deep and raw. So, taking her own advice, she focused on the task at hand instead. “Isn’t there someone you can contact there?” she asked, scrambling for a solution. “Get a doctor brought here?”

Her counterpart stared at her as though she’d completely lost her mind. “We brought you here,” she reminded her, like that explained everything. “It was easier to cross over to a parallel universe than to get help from Trill.” She shook her head in exasperated disbelief, and Dax recognised the helplessness in her, wondering for the first time if perhaps the sharpness came more from Jadzia’s fear than Joran’s malicious influence. “Honestly, genius. Do you really think you were our first choice?”

“Are you really so isolated out here?” Dax pressed.

Jadzia glared at her, growing edgier by the second. “I said it, didn’t I?”

Dax could tell this line of argument wasn’t getting her anywhere; she knew herself well enough to know that she would never dismiss an idea out of hand if there was the least chance of success, and so she trusted that this Jadzia had the same common sense, the same ‘never say die’ attitude. If there was any hope of getting a message to Trill, surely she would have tried.

“Your isoboramine levels are low,” she said, hating that she had to let the easy option go. “You need to get them back up, or you might—”

“How do you know that?” Jadzia demanded, interrupting. Dax almost laughed at the predictability of the question, though she had no doubt she knew the answer perfectly well. She was still clinging desperately to that anger, that aggression; Dax wished she didn’t understand why. “You may be a Trill, but you’re not a doctor. And even if you were, you’ve not even tried to take a look at me. All you’ve done is ask a couple stupid and unhelpful questions about my hallucinations and acted like you understand everything. What makes you so damn sure you know what you’re talking about?”

Dax closed her eyes. She could feel the accusation radiating out from her counterpart, belligerence spilling over into rage, into something that might soon become hate, and then where would they be? She had to stem the tide before it had a chance to become a flood, before it had a chance to become something brutal, but she wasn’t thinking like Jadzia Dax just then. She was thinking like Joran, like a psychopath and a murderer, and though she had reminded herself a thousand times of all the reasons why she was here, the only thing she could think about in that moment was how desperately she wished this other Jadzia — this wannabe, copycat Dax — would stop whining and take a damn swing. At least then she’d have an excuse to hit back.

“I do know what I’m talking about,” she said through gritted teeth, each word coming with great difficulty. Stay calm, Curzon’s voice murmured in her head. Do this with honour. “I went through the same thing myself.”

That got her counterpart’s attention; though she must have realised this was the case, it was a different thing entirely to hear the words spoken out loud, and she reacted as though she’d been struck. All the anger seemed to flow out of her, at least for the time being, and the cocky rebel that had swaggered about in front of Benjamin Sisko was gone as well. Suddenly, Dax was looking not at a hardened terrorist or a self-satisfied smartass, but at a young woman scared witless and completely out of her depth. She had never seen herself look so small.

It didn’t last very long, of course, but then Dax didn’t expect it to; they were both Daxes, after all, and neither of them would allow a moment of weakness to last longer than it absolutely had to. She remembered feeling that way too, remembered the terror, the disorientation and the confusion, remembered how it had come as second nature to fight down those feelings, to latch onto the building anger because it made her feel strong and powerful, a warrior instead of a child. It had seduced her, even before she had known what it was; even Curzon would have admitted that there was more honour in temper than cowardice.

She knew that this other Jadzia would be no more able to resist the thrall of it than she herself had been, and so it came as no surprise at all when the momentary flash of weakness vanished as though it had never been there at all, and the aggression came flying back in full force, strong and fierce.

“So tell me something useful, then!” she snapped, almost shouting. “Tell me what’s causing it. If you really know what’s happening to me, you must know why. You have to, or why else are you here? You didn’t come all this way just to mumble a couple of cryptic clues then fly off again, did you? So stop hiding behind your stupid medical bullshit and tell me what’s wrong with me!”

Her hands were balled into fists, shaking at her sides, tremors and spasms that wracked her whole body. Dax’s heart ached for her even as the rest of her still wished that she would just stop yelling and throw a damn punch. It surprised them both that she didn’t; though she kept her fists clenched tight enough to turn the knuckles white, she seemed to be finding it harder and harder to sustain the anger, to overpower the fear and the pain, and when she finally found the strength to speak again, it was in a tiny, tremulous voice.

“Tell me…” she said again, barely a whisper; Dax could hear the unspoken ‘please’. “Just tell me.”

And so, because she couldn’t stand to see such fear and helplessness in her own face, because it hurt more to see those things than it did to force back the rage surging like wildfire inside of her, Dax did tell her. She swallowed the violence in her throat, doused it in her chest, choked back Joran’s thoughts and his memories, held down all the things threatening to overpower her, and, for the first time since all this started, she let herself become Jadzia again.

She told her how it had started, so much like this. She told her about her own hallucinations, her own anger, the loss of control and the fear every time it happened. She told her about the memories, how slowly they’d resurfaced, fragmented bits and pieces of things she didn’t understand but somehow knew, the discordant echo of words and thoughts and songs she both could and could not remember, the chaos and the confusion, the cavalcade inside her head. She told her how cruel she’d been to her friends, how she’d felt like she was losing herself, how she’d curled up on her bed and cried like a child when Julian informed her that she needed to go home to Trill. She told her as much as she could, until her breath stuttered in her chest and her throat burned. She told her everything she went through, and as she said it she felt it all over again.

It hurt to remember, but it hurt far more to say it. She didn’t realise how weak Jadzia was until she became her once again, scared and small, a child curled up under the table, too frightened to face the monster inside her and too young too understand it, a silly little girl who did not know what anger was, unprepared for the fire and fury that ignited in her chest. How could she have failed to notice? She was Jadzia, wasn’t she? How could she have failed to notice how worthless she was?

By the time she finished, her face was wet and her shoulders were shaking. She was so angry she couldn’t see straight. She heard the intake of breath as Jadzia — the other one, not her; not that silly little girl — opened her mouth to say something, but there wasn’t enough left inside her to process any more words. She couldn’t bear to hear her speak, couldn’t bear to hear her own voice. Not now.

Without thinking, she held up a hand to silence her. Jadzia didn’t blink; she just closed her mouth again and nodded through the film of tears misting Dax’s vision.

Dax took a deep breath, then another, then a few more. She tried so hard to calm the tempest inside her, to silence the screaming in her chest, the hate blazing like flame through her veins, the violence rising in her, but it was futile. Of course it was futile; what did she expect? Silly little girl, how could she possibly think she could control this? How could she possibly think she was strong enough to hold it all inside? How could she hope to overcome it? How could she hope to overcome him?

She couldn’t, of course.

And so, she didn’t try.

She just turned away and slammed her fists against the nearest wall, again and again and again, until stone and skin alike were dark and dripping with blood.

Chapter Text

“Feeling better?”

Huddled in a crouch, hands cradled to her chest, Dax loosed a low growl. The surge of adrenaline had well and truly worn off by now, taking with it the lingering vestiges of anger and violence; all that was left now was pain, tempered by humiliation, and that was the sound that wrenched from her. Not rage, not indignity or righteousness, not even violence. Just pain and humiliation. The whimpering cries of a silly little girl.

She had lost track of time, though she suspected she’d been slamming herself against the stone wall for a good few minutes before the exhaustion set in and dropped her to her knees. Jadzia, no doubt afraid of what Dax would do to her if she tried to intervene, had just left her to it, retreating to the other side of the room and watching without a word. Dax supposed she couldn’t blame her for that.

She hurt. Her knuckles were bruised and swollen, still bleeding and tender to the touch, and her lungs screamed; she felt worse now than she had after four hours spent fighting holographic Klingons in the dead of night without a break. Honestly, though, she didn’t mind that. Joran enjoyed pain of all descriptions, and his own as much as anyone else’s; she could feel the sweet intoxication of his hunger dulling the worst of it, soothing the pulse and throb. Besides, the physical pain was nothing next to the humiliation of having lost control.

She felt worn out, drained and exposed. Her mind was on edge, and for the last two weeks her temper had constantly felt like a fuse being lit and extinguished over and over again, sometimes with just seconds to spare. She’d lived with that feeling almost every waking minute, a near-permanent struggle against herself, but this time, instead of being snuffed out a second too early, the spark had been extinguished a second too late.

That difference, tiny as it was, was cataclysmic. Losing her temper was frightening enough, Dax knew, but losing her control was a thousand times worse. She hated herself for letting it happen, hated that she hadn’t been able to stop it from happening, and hated most of all how completely she’d lost herself when it did. She hated the nonsense smears of blood on the wall, imperfect reflections of the drying stains painting her knuckles. Everything in this damned universe was an imperfect reflection of something else, it seemed, and she huffed a deranged little laugh.

Jadzia was laughing too, seemingly just as deranged as she was, and though Dax didn’t have the strength to turn around and look at her, she knew exactly why. In truth, she would probably have done the same if their positions had been reversed, so overwhelmed by relief that she wasn’t the first one to break, the first Dax to lose control, so blind with joy that she was not the first one to show the depth of her weakness… she would have laughed as well, and kept laughing until her imperfect reflection turned those bruise-bloody fists on her face and made her shut up.

And yet, though she did understand Jadzia’s relief, and the giddy self-satisfaction that went hand-in-hand with it, that understanding did little to ease her own misery, and when a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, support mingling with amusement, it was all she could do not to pull away and storm out. She wanted to be done with this place. This bedroom, this cave, this universe; she had only been here five minutes, and already she wanted to be free of it. She was tired and humiliated, and in a great deal of pain, and she just wanted to go home.

“Feeling better?” Jadzia asked again, a little softer.

Dax growled again, more like a mouse than a lion. “I’m fine,” she said in a voice gone rough and raw.

“Oh, I can see that.”

A sigh, soft and breathy and very close to her ear, and Dax fought the urge to lean into the body that pressed against her back, to close her eyes and rest for a moment. Not here. Not in this place, and not with her. Not when she knew that she would see all her own conflict shining back at her if she did turn around. Not when it was her own body, her own breath; not when it was her. She would not rest here, and she would not rest with her.

And so she fought instead, feeling her muscles go tight, tension where a moment ago she had been too exhausted to remember what tension was. She fought, and let the will to fight lend her strength.

“Leave me alone,” she said, too tired to be angry but too angry to indulge the tiredness.

To her surprise, Jadzia did. Well, in body, at least; the familiar contours suddenly disappeared from behind her as she leaned back, the meagre support dissolving, and her voice turned deep and thoughtful.

“Is this what I have to look forward to?”

More than anything in the world just then, Dax wanted to say ‘no’. She wanted to turn around, to look herself right in the eye and say that no, this was her own weakness, her own failing, that the blame was on her and nobody else, that Jadzia was stronger, that she would be all right, that she could be strong where Dax was weak and lost. That was why she’d come here, wasn’t it? To meet this other version of herself, to do whatever it took to spare her from the same fate that she’d endured herself, to make damn sure that there was a Dax out there somewhere who didn’t succumb to Joran and his seething violence. It hurt, so much more than the blood and bruises on her hands, to know that she couldn’t do it.

“I don’t know,” she said; it was the only compromise she could offer, the only way to keep from lying without having to tell the terrible truth: ‘yes, I am you, and if you’re not careful I’m what you will become’. “I just know that you’d have a better chance of not having to look forward to it if you’d just go back to—”

“No.”

Dax acknowledged with a stiff nod and a heavy sigh, and tried to think of something else.

She wished she could remember more of what they’d told her when she went back to Trill, what the doctors and experts had said about her condition and what it meant for her as a host. She’d paid attention, at least as well as she could, but at the time she hadn’t been in any condition to absorb very much of anything. She’d been confused and frightened, and very unwell; her isoboramine levels had been dangerously low, and she’d barely recovered from neural shock. When they talked her through it, rushed and worried, she could barely string a sentence together. How was she supposed to absorb so much new information in a state like that? Who could?

If Julian were here, he might have a better idea of what to say, what to do, or at least what to suggest, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t here, and neither was Benjamin or Kira or any of them. It was just her, just Dax, and the only thing she knew with any kind of certainty was that she would not allow another version of herself to fall prey to those violent urges. There had to be something she could do. There had to be something.

Her counterpart shifted a little, moving around to rest on her haunches in front of Dax. She took great care to crouch as close to the floor as she could, keeping Dax above her and looking up with a steady, stoic expression. Dax was grateful for that, for the way she ducked down, glad that she could still be the taller one, in even if she wasn’t exactly any bigger.

“Can’t you…” Jadzia took a breath, blithely hopeful. “Can’t you just… I don’t know, talk me through it or something?”

“Talk you through it?” Dax echoed, and tried not to laugh at the absurd simplicity of the idea. “It’s not like learning to pilot a runabout, you know…”

“I know.” Her jaw clenched, but her eyes remained clear. “But you said it’s to do with repressed memories or something. Can’t you just bring them out by telling me whatever it is I’m supposed to remember? Can’t you talk me through what I’m supposed to know, and help me remember that way?” There was a kind of desperation in her, a childish plea for things to really be that simple. “We’re both Dax, aren’t we? We’re the same person, more or less. Surely our memories can’t be that different.”

“You’d be surprised,” Dax said softly.

“Maybe,” Jadzia replied, almost feverish now. “But what could it hurt to try? Tell me about him… this ‘Joran Belar’.”

Dax flinched at the name. It was one thing to talk about her own experiences, to remember her own struggles as the anger and the hallucinations had manifested in her. It was one thing to talk about the symptoms, to treat the whole thing like a sickness, like a disease that had gone into remission. But to tap into the very thing that frightened her? To tap into him, into Joran… to dig into that part of herself, and to do it willingly? That was something else entirely.

She didn’t want to do it. That was the plain and simple truth. Jadzia might be right, for all she knew; maybe it would help her to grasp at the things she couldn’t reach. Maybe it would do for her what a dip in the symbiont pools had done for Dax. Maybe it would solve all of Jadzia’s problems, do everything Dax had promised herself she would do, save her from turning out like she had. Maybe. But she still didn’t want to do it.

She didn’t want to bring out those horrible memories, the rage and the violence and all the things she still couldn’t quite hold in check, even now. Even just talking about the whole thing as a series of symptoms, clinical and detached, had been enough to shatter her control, to ball her fists and pound the wall. Even just talking about Jadzia’s struggle had done that. Talking about Joran’s life, his memories, his feelings, all the things that had driven her to this point? That would end her. She knew it.

“You remember, don’t you?” Jadzia pressed, oblivious to her inner panic. “You remember who he was, how he lived, what he did when he was joined to Dax. You remember everything.”

That’s the problem, Dax wanted to cry. Don’t you understand that?

But, of course, how could Jadzia understand what she didn’t know? How could she understand how heavily Joran’s memories weighed on Dax when she couldn’t remember them herself? Dax could see the strain deepening the lines of her face as she leaned in closer, the ache and the anguish darkening the shadows under her eyes. She could see the frustration and the fear, the shame and the misery; she could see everything, but it was all undercut by that ever-present anger, the rage and the simmering hate that she could not make sense of.

Dax felt it in herself, too, the echo of what she saw in Jadzia. Fury, hot and hungry, rising in both of them again, and they turned away from each other at the same time, catching their breath in perfect sync.

“You know everything I need to know,” Jadzia went on, breathing hard; Dax could hear the shudder in her voice and wondered if it was more fear or anger this time. “So why won’t you just tell me?”

“It’s not as simple as that.” It was almost a plea.

“That’s bullshit.”

Jadzia’s eyes flashed, bright but very dangerous, and Dax found herself flinching backwards almost by reflex. If it did come down to a fight, she had no doubt that she would be the victor, even with her knuckles almost too painful to use, but she really didn’t want it to go there. Oh, a part of her was still aching for it, veins pulsing and fingers itching, but the part of her that was still rational — Lela, probably, or else the shy Tobin — didn’t want to light that particular powder-keg. Not with both of them so raw with Joran’s rage.

“Jadzia…”

“Don’t ‘Jadzia’ me. You don’t have a damn clue if it’s as simple as that or not. And you don’t care, either. You just don’t want to deal with it.” She folded her arms. “You’re scared. You’re scared of that maniac inside your head, and you’re scared of having to deal with his memories. You keep saying you came here to help, but apparently that doesn’t count if you have to suffer too.”

“That’s not fair,” Dax said, but the words rang hollow.

“I think it is.” Jadzia’s eyes were cold as ice now, dark as the blood smeared across the stone. “You’re scared.”

Dax bristled, but she couldn’t deny it. Maybe if it was Kira or Benjamin, but not herself. She could never lie to the mirror.

“Even if I am,” she said carefully, “it doesn’t matter. Until your isoboramine levels are stabilised, we’re in no position to try anything. If you won’t believe I’m here to help, at least believe me when I say you don’t want to deal with those memories when you already risk rejecting your symbiont.”

This time, it was Jadzia who stiffened. “Maybe I should do that, then,” she snapped. “Just reject the damn thing and be done with it.”

“You’d die,” Dax reminded her, as if she didn’t know. “And so would the symbiont.”

Jadzia opened her mouth, but Dax raised a hand to silence her before she had the chance to to say it, bruises facing outward so her counterpart could see them clearly, as much a warning as anything else. It was just the anger, she knew. It was just the unconscious influence of Joran Belar twisting her thoughts and her words, making her consider things that she would never dream of if she was in her right mind. During some of her worst moments, right after she started to remember, even Dax had found herself almost wishing she could rip the symbiont out of her and relish the sweet release of death it would bring. Anything to keep from drowning in all that hate.

She climbed stiffly to her feet, turning away and giving Jadzia a moment to wrestle with her thoughts. How desperate she must be feeling, to say such things aloud, to go against everything she knew and believed. Risking suicide was one thing, but risking the death of a symbiont was the worst crime a joined Trill could commit. Jadzia needed to remember that, and Dax gave her the distance she needed to do that.

She stared at the wall for a few moments, the smear of blood left behind to mark her loss of control for all to see, stone stained with shame, and tried not to think at all.

Truthfully, though, she was just playing for time. She felt out of her depth, lost and helpless and confused, and the despair radiating from Jadzia lashed at her back like a whip. For the first time since she materialised in this dark and twisted universe, she wondered if it was a mistake, if maybe Kira was right after all. What could she have possibly hoped to achieve? She wasn’t a doctor, and she didn’t know the first thing about any of this. The only weapon — no, this place had enough weapons — the only medicine she had was herself, Jadzia’s experiences and Joran’s memories, and most of the time she couldn’t even tell one from the other. She wished Julian was here, or Benjamin, or Kira, or even Quark. Someone she could recognise beyond the surface, someone she knew. Here she was, surrounded by familiar faces, and yet she felt completely alone.

A hand on her arm jolted her back to the present, to the issue at hand, and she turned to look into her own familiar face. Jadzia was looking at her in much the same way that Benjamin often looked at a particularly inexperienced ensign, like she was young and stupid and needed to be told exactly what to do. She looked irritable and impatient, and Dax tried not to wonder if she was perhaps a little disappointed that rejection wasn’t really an option.

“All right,” she said, gritting out the concession like an order. “So stabilise my damned isoboramine levels, and then talk me through it.”

“And how, exactly, do you propose I do that?” Dax shot back, hoping that the tension in her shoulders was just the discomfort of being too still for too long. “You said yourself that getting to Trill isn’t an option, so unless you happen to have a supply of benzocyatizine just lying around, there’s really not much I can do.”

Jadzia snorted her disgust. “Does it look like we’d have something like that ‘just lying around’? We don’t even have coffee!”

No wonder everyone’s so bad-tempered around here, Dax thought.

Still, though, Jadzia’s expression was already starting to shift, annoyance undercut by something a little colder and a lot more cunning. Dax’s spine gave a warning twitch, and she took a couple of automatic steps back. She wondered briefly if she ever got that look on her face, that unnerving expression that said ‘I’m concocting a dangerous plan, and you’d better run like hell’. She probably did; it would certainly explain why Benjamin looked at her sometimes like she was a snake readying to swallow him whole. Suddenly, she understood his reticence entirely too well; whatever Jadzia was thinking Dax could already tell that it was something she wasn’t going to like at all.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, wishing she didn’t sound so uneasy.

“Nothing,” Jadzia murmured, seeming to speak more to herself, as though voicing her thoughts out loud to give them some cohesion. “But… say we could get some…”

Dax blinked. “Coffee?”

Jadzia stared at her as though she couldn’t believe anyone could be quite so stupid and still know how to breathe. “Benzocyatizine,” she said. “Did you leave your brain on your side?”

“I’m starting to think so,” Dax admitted.

She wasn’t sure she liked the direction this conversation was heading in, and not least of all because she had no idea whether benzocyatizine would do them any good in the first place. All the benzocyatic regimens on Trill hadn’t been enough to keep her from going into neural shock, had they? And they sure as hell hadn’t prepared her for the hell of letting Joran’s memories resurface. Still, it was better than nothing, and at least it distracted Jadzia from the idea of ‘talking things through’, so she indulged her with a curious look.

“How?” she asked. “I thought you said we were cut off from Trill out here.”

“We are,” Jadzia confirmed quickly. She chewed her lip, looking thoughtful and suddenly very young. “But that doesn’t mean we’re cut off from everything. If you were willing to stick your neck out a little…”

Dax grimaced at that, massaging her temples. “Don’t you think I’ve stuck my neck out for you enough already, just by being here?”

Jadzia flinched, suddenly hyper-defensive. “Feel free to leave if I’m such a damned burden,” she muttered viciously. “Bringing you here was Benjamin’s idea, not mine. I didn’t ask for—”

“Cut that out,” Dax snapped, a little sharper than she’d intended. “You know I’m not going to just walk out and leave you to go through this alone.” She didn’t like that she was being pushed into admitting it, though. “What do you want me to do?”

Jadzia met her gaze, expression even; the aggression had mostly bled out of her now, but so too had the little girl, the frightened young thing that looked so small and helpless. When she spoke, it was with a straight face and a steady voice, like she’d been practicing the words for days, even though Dax knew she must have only just thought of it.

“I thought you might take a trip to Terok Nor.”

Dax sucked in her breath. What scant details she’d gleaned of this place from Kira’s and Julian’s reports were hazy at best, but there was no forgetting that name, the same name their Deep Space Nine had once held under the authority of the Cardassians, or what it stood for on this side of the mirror.

“Are you insane?” she demanded.

“Not at all,” Jadzia replied, quite calmly. “I used to do good work for the Intendant, you know. Well, before Benjamin lost his balls and grew a conscience in their place, and dragged the rest of us bleeding hearts down with him.” She turned away, as though that was something to be ashamed of, then heaved a confidential-sounding sigh. “Just between you and me, I probably should have stayed where I was. Easy money, easy living, and why should I care about Benjamin and his silly little Terrans?”

“Freedom is important,” Dax said carefully.

“To them, maybe,” Jadzia shot back. “But I already had my freedom. I’m no damned Terran. Why should I care what happens to them? I had a warm bed before all of this. A warm bed, three square meals, and a well-stocked ship. I came and went as I pleased, and as long as the Intendant got what she wanted, so did I.” Dax opened her mouth to speak, but Jadzia waved a dismissive hand. “Anyway. My point is, if you go crawling back to that deluded little tyrant in my place, and tell her how desperately you’ve missed her, she’s just about stupid enough to believe you.” She smiled. “She always did let her ego drive her common sense.”

That much, at least, gelled with what Dax remembered from Kira’s report. “So I’ve heard,” she said.

Jadzia grunted her acknowledgement. “You might have to get your hands a little dirty, of course,” she warned, making the implication clear. “But if you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’ve done worse for less.”

She was probably right about that, Dax thought wryly, though she wouldn’t admit it out loud.

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy,” Jadzia added, moving swiftly on. “But that woman is the most self-involved narcissist anyone could ever hope to meet. Throw enough compliments her way, and she’d do anything for you. And she’s got more than enough contacts to get hold of your precious benzocyatizine.”

Your benzocyatizine,” Dax reminded her pointedly.

Jadzia waved a hand. “I’ve been careful to keep my head down. Don’t want to burn my bridges like Benjamin burned his. You understand…” Dax wasn’t sure she did, but she didn’t say so. “As far as I know, the Intendant has no idea I joined his little band of outlaws. So even if she does have the common sense to dig a little deeper — which is unlikely enough — she wouldn’t uncover anything incriminating anyway. You’ll be back with us in no time, safe and sound.”

Dax still wasn’t sure she approved of any of this, and she wasn’t afraid to voice her qualms. “And why, exactly, does this little venture fall on me?”

Jadzia shrugged. “I’d go myself,” she said in a low purr, “but Benjamin can be so protective when he thinks I might get in trouble…”

Dax snorted. “Protective? More like ‘possessive’, if you ask me. But then, your relationship is none of my business.”

“No, it’s not,” her counterpart shot back, angry once more; she was even quicker to anger than Dax herself, it seemed. “So keep your nose out of it.”

Dax looked down, and saw that once again their tempers were mirroring each other. Both of their fists were balled, white-knuckled, at their sides; the only difference between them was the blood and bruising on Dax’s and the dirt under Jadzia’s nails. They were both breathing hard, too, the tension between them palpable on the air. It was Jadzia who pulled herself back first, fingers unclenching one at a time; Dax supposed it was because she was still blessed with the benefit of having Joran mostly submerged; she rather wished she still had that ignorance herself.

“I’m sorry,” she forced herself to say, struggling to unclench her own fists. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Damn right,” Jadzia huffed, then shook her head. “But that’s not the point. You’d know better than I do how much of that stuff to ask for. And, hell, you know what it does better than me, too. I’ve not been home in…”

She trailed off, looking very sad, and Dax respected her sorrow by not interrogating her this time.

“Really?” she asked instead. “That’s the excuse you’re running with? You want me to risk my life going to Terok Nor in your place, just because I know what I’m talking about a little better than you do?”

Jadzia shrugged, though there was a tension in her shoulders that hadn’t been there before, even when she was angry. “Honestly?” she asked, too forcefully cheerful. “I just want to take bets on how long it’ll take before you lose that temper of yours and sock the Intendant right in her smug face.”

As cute as the line was, it was as much an excuse as any of the others. Dax could see the conflict playing out behind those eyes, eyes that looked so much like her own, eyes that gave away the same tells no matter how hard either of them tried to conceal them. She could see as surely as if she really was looking into a mirror that it was so much more than any of the things she’d said, that it was nothing to do with an over-protective lover or their respective knowledge about benzocyatizine. It was something else entirely, something that Jadzia was ashamed of, and Dax narrowed her eyes, suspicious and a little worried.

“There’s something else going on here,” she said, ignoring the faux-wounded look on Jadzia’s face, deliberately designed to bait her. “Don’t try to deny it. You can’t fool me like you can fool those idiots out there.” She cocked her head towards the curtain, then levelled Jadzia with a sober look. “You’re me, remember? I’d never willingly sit on the sidelines and send someone else out to do my dirty work for me, especially when I knew they risked getting hurt. I couldn’t live with myself if I did that… and I’d bet anything that you’re the same way.”

Jadzia scowled, but didn’t deny it, and Dax felt her argument pick up speed. “So what?” she snapped.

“So why?” Dax frowned, trying to figure it out. “Are you afraid of her?”

“Afraid of the Intendant?” She laughed, but it was a little too loud and a little too shrill. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“Well, you’re definitely afraid of something…”

Though she said it mostly to herself, mulling over her responses, the tiny flicker on Jadzia’s face was all the confirmation Dax needed. She didn’t volunteer an explanation, but Dax didn’t really expect her to; that little flicker alone was more than enough to convince her that this was a subject worth pressing, and she did so with ruthless efficiency.

“Look, if you expect me to get my hands dirty on your behalf, don’t you think I have a right to know why I’m doing it? Wouldn’t you expect the same thing from me if I was in your shoes?”

Jadzia looked away, and Dax saw a bead of blood form on her lip as she bit it; the urge to do the same rose up hot and hungry inside her, but she choked it down and cracked her knuckles instead. The pain was more brutal than biting her lip would have been, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying. She swallowed over a rising curse, and kept her eyes locked on Jadzia as she stared down at the floor.

“You already know what I’m afraid of,” Jadzia mumbled, sounding thoroughly miserable. “You told me so yourself.”

That was all it took, and suddenly Dax did know, as surely as if she had said the words. “You’re afraid of your hallucinations,” she said, very quietly. “You’re scared that you’ll start hallucinating while you’re on Terok Nor.”

Jadzia couldn’t meet her eyes. Dax respected her unspoken request for space and distance, knowing that she would have needed it just as badly if their positions were reversed; she wheeled away, pacing the tiny space and shaking out her throbbing hands, pain on pain on pain. She could hear Jadzia’s breathing, different from her own only in the way it hitched in her chest every now and then, like she was fighting down panic (or possibly just another screaming bout of anger). It was strangely comforting, even just a subtle difference like that, and she let the stuttering staccato rhythm fill the silence and the space between them.

“Can you tell me it won’t happen?” Jadzia asked after a few long moments, and Dax noted that she still couldn’t look at her. “Can you promise me it won’t?”

Reluctant, but unable to deny it, Dax shook her head. “No,” she admitted, hating herself for it. “I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Then I’m ‘afraid’ I can’t go.”

The carefully-woven shroud of arrogance was an effective one, and it probably would have fooled anyone else in either of their universes, but it didn’t fool Dax. How could it, when they were one and the same? She could practically taste the fear rising like bile in the back of Jadzia’s throat, the regret and the shame, self-loathing and pain to know that she was too much of a coward to do her own dirty work. She felt it, just as she would have felt it if she’d been in Jadzia’s place, and it stung behind her eyes as though the emotion were truly hers. Maybe they were more alike than she thought, she and this shattered-glass reflection of herself, because she could tell that she had got the measure of it perfectly: Jadzia didn’t want to ask Dax to do this any more than Dax herself wanted to do it, but she was so scared she could barely speak.

The realisation changed everything, and it brought a dozen fresh ones in its wake. Jadzia wasn’t just ashamed of herself, she was furious. It was driving her crazy to know that she couldn’t do this for herself, that she couldn’t do anything at all for herself. She felt impotent, Dax knew, so paralysed by fear and anger and confusion, laid so low by these half-remembered non-memories that she had to crawl to a stranger from another universe for help… no, worse still, that she’d had to commission Sisko to do the crawling for her.

That alone was bad enough, but now there was this as well. This, the one task she might once have been able to do on her own, a task that required stealth and bravado and cocksure arrogance, exactly the kind of task that anyone named Dax would leap at. It was perfect, tailor-made for someone like Dax, or Jadzia, and yet even this was a stumbling block she couldn’t get past. Even now, she had to duck her head and defer to someone else to do the job for her. Even now, she wasn’t good enough.

No wonder she was so aggressive about the whole thing, Dax thought. No wonder she was so angry, even without Joran’s whisperings. The helplessness alone was killing her.

Though she knew it was a bad idea, Dax let herself think back. She remembered her own hallucinations, how terrifying they were and how shaken she was afterwards, disturbed not just by their content but by the visceral emotions that went with them, injections of pure adrenaline, fear and hatred as sharp and potent as any hypospray. She remembered feeling dizzy and disoriented, stumbling and bracing against the nearest solid surface, unable to focus when she heard the sound of her name, waiting for her vision to clear and all those twisted feelings to subside, waiting and waiting… but of course it never happened.

She thought about Benjamin, her Benjamin, and about Julian. She remembered how eager they were to help, how willing to drop everything for her, how Benjamin had insisted that they take the Defiant instead of a runabout because it was so important to them that they get her to Trill as quickly as possible.

She thought about Kira, too, remembering with a twinge of sorrow the look on her face when they left for Trill. “Deep Space Nine can’t run itself, Major,” Benjamin had told her with a sad little smile, “and I for one will rest easier knowing it’s in your capable hands.” Kira had nodded, ever the dutiful first officer, but Dax had seen the frustrated helplessness in her eyes, anger at being left behind even if she did understand. She had wanted so much to go with them, to be there for Dax just as Benjamin and Julian were, even as she knew that the station was the best place for her, that staying was helping too, in its own little way.

They had all been so eager, so willing to do whatever it took. They would have turned the galaxy upside-down if they thought for a second it would do any good. Benjamin, Julian, even Kira; there was nothing they wouldn’t have done for her. Dax felt her eyes sting again at the thought, and couldn’t do anything to hold back the drop of moisture that splashed onto the bloody bruises of her knuckles, salt itching and stinging unpleasantly in the tender wounds.

How would she have coped in a place like this, she wondered, and the thought put a sour taste in her mouth. How much worse would those horrible hallucinations have been without that support network to hold her hand while she rode them out? How much more unbearable would they have been without her friends and her home, without the soul-deep knowledge as she came back to herself that she was safe among these people? How much more frightened would she have been without Benjamin’s reassuring smile, or Julian’s bedside manner, or the fierce devotion blazing behind Kira’s eyes as she hugged her goodbye?

This universe’s Benjamin Sisko was nothing like hers, and as intimate as it seemed her counterpart was with him, Dax could tell they weren’t exactly the type to talk ‘feelings’. Sisko, this Sisko, was dangerous and ruthless; he was a savage, on the cusp of starting a fight all the time. What kind of support network was that for someone dancing with a creature like Joran Belar?

Jadzia, her shattered-glass reflection, seemed to be rather the same way most of the time, even without her current situation; at least in that, Dax supposed the two of them were well-suited to each other. No doubt they got along well enough when they were both having a good day, but there wasn’t much for them outside of the physical, the raw animal magnetism of it. Certainly, Jadzia would find no confidante in Sisko, no kindred spirit to confess her fears to, no sanctuary for her weakness. It was a miracle she’d let enough of it through that Sisko had recognised the need for help in the first place.

Little wonder this Jadzia was so hardened, she thought sadly. Little wonder she tried to make excuses and cover up her fears. Little wonder that she couldn’t even trust the woman who shared her face, that she couldn’t even bring herself to open up in front of the one person in two universes who truly did understand her. Under the same circumstances, Dax couldn’t help thinking she wouldn’t be half so well-adjusted.

“How long?” she heard herself ask, blurting out the question before she realised it was aloud.

Jadzia blinked, annoyed, and Dax could tell it was a relief to have something new to spur her ire rather than her fear. “What are you talking about now?”

“How long have you been dealing with it?” Dax pressed with a sigh. “The hallucinations, the anger, all of it. Everything. How long were you going through it before you told him?”

Jadzia turned her face away. Dax could hear the catch of her breath, and knew that she was fighting down tears. Dax watched her profile, shadows falling about her face; the lines should have made her look old, wizened and weary and worn down, but they just highlighted the sickly cast of her skin and the fear glowing half-silhouetted in her eyes. She looked impossibly young for someone who had lived so long.

“Long enough,” she said at last, a confession that gave away so much more than any real span of time ever could.

Dax didn’t push her any further. She would elaborate in her own time, Dax could tell, once she found the courage still smouldering under the fear, but she needed to get there by herself. She found it difficult too, sometimes; it was a unique kind of challenge in moments like this to dig down deep and pull out the parts of her that were uniquely Jadzia, to push past the other hosts, their memories and personalities, and really latch on to what she herself was feeling, to learn and understand how much of any given moment was truly her own.

That was something only a joined Trill could truly understand. It was one of the reasons why Kira chastened her so often for ‘bottling things up’, for not being open enough with her own troubles even when she was so good at nurturing other people’s. It was why she’d dragged her to Bajor on a silly pilgrimage rather than let her continue beating herself up day after day in the holosuite. Being joined was a gift, and one that Dax was forever grateful for, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge; sometimes it was so difficult she wasn’t sure if she would even see out the day. Those days were few and far between, but moments like this were not so rare at all, moments when she needed to step back, when she needed to catch her breath and pick apart what was really going on inside her head, what was what and who was who.

Without a word, she moved in, closing the space between them in a couple of steps, and without hesitation pulled Jadzia into her arms, holding her tight. Jadzia didn’t flinch like she expected; she melted into the embrace, head resting on Dax’s shoulder, and sighed very deeply.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she murmured, the words breathed out like secrets against the curve of Dax’s jaw. “But Benjamin is not exactly a sensitive man. He doesn’t have the patience, or the time, to deal with this kind of thing.” The bitterness in her tone was unmistakable, but Dax didn’t push her to elucidate. “We’re fighting a war out here. If it’s not fatal, it’s not important. If you’re strong enough to stand, you’re strong enough to pick up a weapon and use it. It’s as simple as that.”

It wasn’t, though, and Dax knew it. Jadzia pressed her face to her cheek, cool on cool, and Dax suddenly realised just how long it had been since she had touched another Trill, how much the contact felt like home.

“But it’s not really,” she said, very quietly. “Is it?”

She felt the flutter of motion, warm air pressing between them as Jadzia shook her head. “He thought I was just being short-tempered. He didn’t understand, and he didn’t want to listen when I told him I didn’t feel right. It was getting in the way, he said. It was distracting both of us from what was important, from his damned rebellion, and what was the point in trying to talk to him about something that I couldn’t even really explain anyway?” She made a small miserable sound, a whimper choked by a growl. “How the hell do you explain something like that? How the hell do you make them understand?”

Dax held her a little tighter. “You can’t.”

“You can’t,” Jadzia agreed. “I couldn’t even make it make sense to me, and I sure as hell couldn’t make it make sense to him. So in the end I just stopped trying. It wasn’t worth fighting over. It wasn’t worth making him angry.” Her voice shook as she said it, and Dax knew why without having to hear the words.

“Because that made it worse,” she said quietly. “When he got angry, you got angry.”

Jadzia nodded. “You’ve seen him. When he gets angry, it’s like he explodes, and I…” She closed her eyes, lashes fluttering against Dax’s cheek. “Well. Daxes aren’t very good at backing away from a challenge, are we?”

Dax smiled. “No, we’re not.”

“It’s easier to stay calm when he’s calm… and that’s rare enough at the best of times.” Dax’s heart ached at that; not for the first time, she found herself missing her Benjamin, her kind and gentle-hearted old friend. “And anyway, it’s not like it was stopping me from doing my job, so what was the point in making a drama out of it?”

“I suppose there wasn’t one,” Dax said. “You didn’t even know if there was anything really wrong.”

“Exactly. And he kept telling me there wasn’t. And I really… I wanted so badly to believe him, to believe that it was all in my head, that I was just over-tired or over-worked, but…”

She didn’t bother to finish the sentence. Not that she needed to; Dax could piece the rest together well enough by herself. She had been through it too, after all, and she knew without Jadzia having to tell her that her problem wasn’t the kind that would go away if she ignored it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know how bad it had become, how bad it needed to become for this universe’s Sisko to sit up and take notice. Suddenly she felt very, very sad, and incredibly protective of this woman who might have been her.

“You must have felt very lonely,” she said, very softly.

“Not really.” Jadzia sighed. “I just felt angry. I… I still feel angry.”

She bit her lip again, drawing a fresh wave of blood, and Dax’s own mouth watered to imagine the taste, fresh and rich and metal-sweet and— not now, please not now.

“I know.” She did. She really, really did.

She took a deep, steadying breath. Honestly, she felt a little cornered, trapped by her own empathy. She couldn’t abandon Jadzia now any more than she could have turned her back on her when Sisko explained the situation. It was frustrating, like everything was spiralling rapidly beyond what meagre control she might once have had, like she didn’t have a choice in anything any more. Part of her knew that the trap was one of her own making, that she had brought this all upon herself; Kira had tried to warn her, and her own common sense had screamed at her to get out while she could, but how could she listen to either of them when there was another Jadzia Dax who was in pain?

It was a mistake; it had been a mistake to come here, and it was a mistake to even think of going to Terok Nor. She knew that, but she knew just as well that there was no alternative. Going might be a mistake, but even if she died out there, at least she’d go down knowing that she had done the right thing, that her stupidity was for a good cause, that she went down as a champion for someone who had nobody else. If she turned her back now, she would be safe, but how could she live with herself knowing what that safety had cost?

She had everything. She had a whole universe of friends and family waiting for her, a support network so wide she couldn’t see the end of it any direction. Whatever happened to her, she would be taken care of; all Jadzia had was a bad-tempered savage who didn’t have the time or the patience to take her seriously even when she was losing her mind. How could she turn away from that? How could she look at this frustrated young woman who was her, but a version of her who had been deprived of all the things that she herself took for granted… how could she look at her and say that she would have to find somebody else to save her? How could she do that, knowing perfectly well that there was nobody else?

She couldn’t. Of course she couldn’t. Who could?

Kira, perhaps. But, of course, Kira wasn’t here now.

“All right.” The words out of her mouth before her brain had the chance to keep them inside, and though the voice was her own, she didn’t recognise it at all.

Jadzia stared at her; for about half a second, she looked very small and very broken, that rough-and-ready haircut and those perfectly straight shoulders doing nothing to hide the heartbreaking hope on her face, or the self-loathing that chased it away. It was obvious that she hated it, hated that she had become so dependant, that she had no choice but to lay all she was at the feet of a familiar stranger, hated that it had come to this at all.

Dax knew how she felt. She had felt the same way herself that night on the Defiant, weak and stupid, scared and unable to look after herself, huddling on the bottom bunk of Julian’s quarters like a child in need of comfort, unable to even provide herself with a safe haven to sleep. She’d felt useless, and even as she found comfort in Julian’s company, in the very same breath she had hated herself for needing it. She knew what Jadzia was going through, knew the conflict churning inside her, and she knew that there was nothing she could do to make it less.

So she didn’t try. She didn’t sugar-coat the issue, and she didn’t pretend it wasn’t there. What would be the point? They were both Dax. They both knew the story; they both were the story.

“All right,” she said again, steadier and more decisive. “You want me to go? I’ll go.”

“You will?” Jadzia managed, voice high and hopeful.

Dax nodded, then sighed. “You need benzocyatizine,” she said simply, as though that really was the answer to all their problems. “And if you really believe I’m our best shot at getting hold of some, then I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“Of course you do.” Jadzia seemed stunned that she would even think that way. “You always have a choice.”

“Not with this,” Dax told her, a statement of fact that she desperately wished wasn’t true. “Not with you.”

Jadzia exhaled tightly, the weighted sigh of someone who hated how heavy they were. “You’re a better person than I am.”

Dax didn’t want to say it aloud, but she couldn’t help thinking she was right. At the very least, she was a luckier person, and goodness always came easier to the lucky ones.

She thought again of her Benjamin, of her Julian and her Kira, of the universe that was hers, the people that were hers as well, the seven lifetimes that belonged to Dax and the youth and optimism that was Jadzia’s. She thought of herself, of all the things she had become, of all the things her life had allowed her to become. She had opportunities, she’d had space and resources, the luxury of education and learning, safety and friendship and generosity. She’d had everything a growing young soul could hope for.

Then, inevitably, she thought of this other woman, this broken-down version of herself, this young Jadzia, so angry and so aggressive, in bed with a Benjamin Sisko who was so unlike the one she knew. She thought of her, utterly surrounded by familiar faces but without a soul to talk to. Maybe she wasn’t alone, but Dax could tell that she was incredibly lonely.

I am a better person, she thought, chest tight with sorrow. But that’s not your fault.

Of course, now that she’d agreed to stick her neck out for this unfortunate other version of herself, now that she’d actually said the damn words, being a ‘better person’ didn’t really feel like a good thing at all. She felt completely out of her depth, drowning in this alien universe that was so like and so different from the world she knew. She felt stupid and stubborn, all the things Kira shook her head at and told her she needed to stop indulging. What kind of idiot would agree to something like this?, she thought, and shook her head. How stupid must she be? She imagined Kira on Bajor right now, rolling her eyes and looking up to the heavens, bowing to her Prophets, and begging them to explain why she couldn’t have just picked a nice, normal Bajoran to be her friend.

Feeling very alone, Dax heaved a sigh. “One day,” she sighed, sitting down heavily on the bed, “being a better person will be the death of me.”

Jadzia shrugged, not particularly concerned about that now she had what she wanted. “For both of our sakes, I hope that won’t be today.” No doubt she thought the feint at wit was cute, but Dax found herself biting back the urge to throw a cushion at her. Sensing her annoyance, Jadzia sobered a little. “Look, it won’t even be that dangerous. I’ve kept a low profile. The Intendant has no reason to suspect I’m part of Benjamin’s little rebellion, so unless you let something slip…”

Dax shook her head. “I won’t.”

Jadzia smiled, and for a second Dax was sure she saw Kira’s depthless faith in the impossible ice-blue of her eyes. “Then we have nothing to worry about.”

We. The word felt strangely intimate, almost uncomfortable. “You’ll have to brief me,” Dax said, trying to shake off the feeling. “If I’m going to get into her good graces, I need to know everything about her. And you. And the station, too, probably. Hell, just give me everything you know about everything.”

Jadzia sat down beside her, one hand on Dax’s shoulder and the other resting lightly on the bed for balance. “You’ll get whatever you need,” she promised. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

Dax acknowledged with a grunt, ignoring the sarcasm. “And I still need to get there without being shot out of the sky on sight,” she reminded her. “Which might prove more of a problem.”

“No, it won’t.”

There was such confidence in her voice, such unshakeable certainty, that Dax blinked. “You sound pretty sure of yourself,” she remarked coolly. “For someone who’s too scared to do the job herself.”

Jadzia glared at her for that. “Do you want my help or not?” she snapped. “Because I’m not opposed to keeping my secrets for myself if you push me.” Dax quirked a brow, calling her bluff, and she relented almost instantly, like there was no fight left in her at all; it was painful to see. “All right. Fine. We both know I’ve got too much riding on you to play coy.”

“Don’t forget that,” Dax told her, quiet but serious. “I’m risking a lot for you.”

“Trust me,” Jadzia quipped, rolling her eyes. “Even if I wanted to forget it, we both know you wouldn’t let me.”

That was true enough, and it probably went without saying, but getting it out there diffused a little of the tension between them; it wasn’t quite mistrust, but it danced close enough to make Dax uneasy. For all that she was risking just by being here at all, and for all that she was opening herself up to risk even more by infiltrating Terok Nor, there was still that impenetrable barrier that Jadzia had put up, hiding herself away like that wall was the last line of defence in an interplanetary war.

Dax knew that defence mechanism well — she’d lived behind that particular barrier herself all through her initiate training, and she still hadn’t quite managed to pull it all the way down — and she knew better than to take it personally. She knew better than anyone, even Benjamin, that it was just her, just Jadzia, but of course knowing it didn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with.

The longer she stayed here, the better she understood how annoying those defence mechanisms must be for people like Benjamin and Kira, even for Julian, the friends and confidantes who tried to reach out to her sometimes, just like she was trying to reach out to this Jadzia, the friends who would drop everything just to get her to Trill, even after she had been so terrible to them, the friends who only wanted to help. She was lucky, she remembered again, that she still had those friends. She could be as prickly as she wanted, build as many barriers as she needed, but they would still be there when the wall finally came down.

This Jadzia had none of that; she didn’t have anything at all, and Dax supposed the least she could do for her was to show a little patience while she processed the idea that maybe, just maybe, she really did just want to help.

With a little effort, she pushed the thoughts aside, focusing on the task at hand. The sooner she got to Terok Nor, she reminded herself, the sooner she’d be back, and the sooner she got back here, the sooner she could help Jadzia and go home. There was no point in dwelling on their differences now, or even their similarities. This wasn’t the time to think like a Trill, and it definitely wasn’t the time to think like a Dax. No. This was the time to think like a Starfleet officer.

“So,” she said, “what do you propose?”

Her counterpart grinned, devious and predatory, and for the first time it seemed almost natural. She leaned in very close, close enough that a few rough-cut strands of loose hair tickled the spots crossing the edge of Dax’s jaw; the sensation was maddening, and just a little intoxicating.

“Something I’ve not even proposed to Benjamin,” Jadzia murmured, breath warm against her ear.

Dax’s breath caught, skin flushing hot. Too close, she thought. She’s too close, I’m too close, we’re too close…

“What’s that?” she managed in a breathy squeak.

Jadzia’s lips curved devilishly against her skin. “I’m going to let you into my cockpit.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, that wasn’t a euphemism.

When they talked about it with Sisko afterwards, he burst out laughing. Dax would have been offended by his manic mirth, but she’d come to realise by this point that he just found everything funny. Nothing, not even a potentially life-threatening jaunt into Alliance space to infiltrate one of their most closely-watched space stations in the quadrant, was exempt from his twisted sense of humour. Still, that didn’t make it any less irritating, and she tapped her foot and glared until he calmed down.

“She must really like you,” he chortled, once he finally had himself back under control. “She won’t let me near that goddamned ship.”

Jadzia rolled her eyes, exaggerated but affectionate. “I don’t see you volunteering to put your worthless life on the line for me,” she shot back. “Maybe if you were half the man she is—” She gestured suggestively at Dax, who ducked her head, uncomfortable all over again. “—you’d actually be up to the challenge. But until then, you ride bitch.”

“I could teach you a thing or two about bitching…” Sisko muttered under his breath. Dax wasn’t quite sure which of the two of them he was talking to, and she was fairly certain she didn’t want to know. “And about riding, too.”

Not wanting to hear any more of this, Dax let out a frustrated groan. “Can we please focus?” she begged.

Sisko shrugged, like he didn’t particularly care one way or the other. And why would he? As much as she might look like his lover, talk like her and smile like her, even crack stupid jokes at inappropriate moments like she did, she was no more his Jadzia than he was her Benjamin. She didn’t mean a damn thing to him. So what if she decided to go off on some kind of half-cocked suicide mission to Terok Nor? Why the hell should he care? So long as his Jadzia was safe, what did it matter to him if another one got shot down or killed?

“Fine,” he said, heavy-laden with indifference and boredom. “If you want to go, go.” He shot Dax a warning look, one that said she wouldn’t try to tell him what to do again if she knew what was good for her, then spread out his arms, washing his hands of her. “Do what you like, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me.”

Dax opened her mouth to argue, to point out that she was doing all of this for his damn woman, but Jadzia beat her to the punch, offended as much on her own behalf as on Dax’s. She took a long step forwards, and Dax was sure she saw the air shimmering with the heat of her aggression.

“Of course it doesn’t,” she said, voice thick with bitterness; her fists clenched and unclenched spasmodically at her sides, and Dax wanted to step forwards and calm her, but part of her couldn’t help thinking that Sisko had this coming. “Nothing ever makes any difference to you, does it? You don’t care about a damn thing. Not unless it’s got your name stamped on it.”

“I care about you, don’t I?” Sisko retorted.

“And we both know I’ve had your name stamped on me for months.” She rolled her eyes, then slapped him. “That’s for being an idiot. In case you forgot, you arrogant bastard, she is me. So you sure as hell better start caring about her too.”

Sisko rubbed his jaw, turning to Dax for sympathy. “You see what I put up with? I do nothing but treat her well, and this is the thanks I get. What’s a man to do?”

“If I ever meet one, I’ll ask him,” Jadzia muttered. She turned to Dax as well, elbowing her sharply in the ribs. “I’ll brief you in the morning,” she said as Dax winced. “I don’t know about you, but I’m too tired to think about the damned Intendant tonight.”

Dax hadn’t really thought about it until then, but as soon as she heard the word ‘tired’, she realised that she was exhausted. She had somewhat lost track of the passage of time; her brief dalliance with unintentional unconsciousness when she’d beamed in didn’t really count as ‘sleep’ in any meaningful sense, and she had spent most of the previous night slaughtering imaginary Klingons in the holosuite. She’d naturally assumed that she would be able to take a nap after she and Kira arrived on Bajor, but those plans had gone to hell and back when Sisko had shown up and dragged her into a parallel universe.

Sleep hadn’t been a priority for quite some time, she realised dully, and it was only now, faced with the prospect of a full night’s worth, that she realised just how long it had been since she’d had any at all. By this point, even the tamped-down dirt floor seemed like a decent place to put her head down.

“A little sleep does sound good,” she admitted out loud.

Sisko shot her a disbelieving look, like she’d just demanded something utterly extravagant. “Awfully presumptuous, aren’t you?” he snorted.

Dax glared. Given what they were asking of her, she thought, a little corner to curl up in really wasn’t a lot to ask for in return, and her expression hardened into a challenge. “You bet your ass I am. I’m putting my life on the line for your ‘woman’, going to hell and back just to get her some damn medicine. The least you can do is clear a little floor space for me, don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Jadzia cut in, before Sisko had a chance to lodge his foot even further into his mouth. “Benjamin is just being his usual abrasive self.” She glared, eyes shining like steel. “Aren’t you?”

He glared, not at all happy to be taking orders from two versions of the same woman. “I guess you can bunk with Smiley,” he huffed irritably.

Jadzia muscled him out of the way, scowling as he lost his footing. “Ignore him,” she said, shooting Dax a winning smile. “You can stay in our room. Benjamin won’t mind.”

“He will mind,” Sisko snapped.

“He won’t if he ever wants to get laid again,” Jadzia shot back, not missing a beat.

In hindsight, Dax supposed she shouldn’t have been so quick to take up such an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture. Truth be told, even the offer to bunk with Smiley was more hospitality than she’d anticipated, and the promise of an actual room with some relative privacy was too good to pass up. But then, how was she to know that “you can stay in our room” would translate in practice to ‘you can sleep on the floor while Benjamin and I have loud and aggressive sex in the bed less than a metre away’?

Self-restraint, she mused, curled up in a ball with her hands over her ears, was not a friend to Daxes in any universe.

*

“Harder.”

Jadzia looked up at her, teeth bared. Her eyes shone in the darkness, twin sparks of ice-blue, bright enough to burn. Bright enough, yes, but not brave enough. They shimmered, damp and hazy, trembling blue stars cutting through a cave as cold as night, twinkling and beautiful but doomed to sputter out long before they hurt anyone. Just like Jadzia herself, small and weak and ultimately worthless. Poor little girl, she didn’t stand a chance, and the gleam of her teeth as she twisted that snarl into a smile was as pitiful as the rest of her.

“Well, well, well,” she purred, but her voice was shaking too. “You are insatiable.”

Dax growled, fingers curled around the blade of the knife, hot blood seeping between her fingers. “And you’re not listening.” She lashed out, quick as lightning, beads of blood flying as she raked a deep gash across Jadzia’s beautiful face. “I said ‘harder’.”

Jadzia shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

She toyed with her own blade, just as curved and just as sharp as Dax’s; it was as beautiful as she was, but cracked along the hilt. Just one more imperfect reflection in this imperfect mirror, Dax thought, and shook her head. The weapon was flawed, just like Jadzia, and she would teach them both the danger of showing their weaknesses so brazenly.

And brazen she was. Jadzia was young and stupid; she hadn’t learned how to control herself, to feed the fire inside her, to let it grow before setting it free. That was another mistake she would pay for, that and her damned arrogance. She smiled lazily, flipping the knife from one hand to the other, catching it effortlessly between her fingers, drawing a trickle of blood to echo Dax’s own. A fitting tribute, she supposed, if a wasted one.

“Harder,” she commanded again.

“Of course, my lady.” Jadzia smiled, bowing low, and Dax thought of all the ways she could kill her before she had a chance to straighten up. “Your wish is my command.”

She lashed out with her fist, sharp and sudden. The blow was clumsy but effective, and the body between them crumpled to the floor, helpless and choking. It mustered a low wheezing grunt, but nothing more, and Dax laughed. Where was all that worldly advice now? Where was the old man’s wisdom he crowed about so often? It was a glorious sight, the shuddering spasms of a body beaten to within an inch of its life, and this body more than any other. Dax allowed herself a moment to relish it. She never got tired of watching her dear old friends suffer.

Jadzia, the one who’d landed the blow,, beamed her triumph.

Silly girl, Dax thought, misinterpreting her pleasure as approval, her perversion as praise. Did she expect applause for managing to hit a half-dead target? Did she expect to be lauded for not missing what a blind Bolian wouldn’t have missed? She was clumsy and lazy, giving only as much as she thought she needed to, and Dax lashed her face again for having the gall to think that was acceptable.

“Still not hard enough,” she snapped, savouring the frustration on that beautiful bleeding face as self-satisfaction gave way to bitterness and disappointment. “He could still beg for mercy if he wanted to.”

“But he won’t,” Jadzia said. Her smile was dangerous, Dax would give her that. “He’s not stupid.”

“No, but you are.” Jadzia hissed but didn’t retaliate. Dax shook her head. “It doesn’t matter that he won’t. What matters is that he could. You’re not striking hard enough. Where’s your killer instinct? Where’s the bloodlust? What are you trying to do here? Make him cry?”

“Why not?” Jadzia asked. “His tears taste so sweet.”

“They taste of salt and waste.” Dax swung with the knife again, but this time Jadzia had the good sense to duck out of the way. “If that’s good enough for you, then you’re wasting both of our time here. Unless it’s blood you’re thirsty for, get out of my sight.”

Jadzia hissed and snarled, impatience and insult rushing to the surface and colouring her skin. Her tongue darted out, quick as a flash, and caught the trickle of blood from the gash on her cheek. “Blood,” she said, and let that be answer enough.

“Good,” Dax said. “Ache for it. Hurt for it. Want it so badly that you stop breathing. Let it break you, then maybe you’ll have a chance of breaking him.”

“I don’t want to break him,” Jadzia told her . “I want to break you.”

It was inevitable, of course, and for the first time Dax really did approve. She had been waiting for hours, anticipating and excited, pulsing for the moment when this silly little girl got tired of being under her wing and decided to spread her own. She had hoped, of course, that she would be better than this by the time it happened, but she supposed it was silly to hope for miracles. No, this would suffice; Dax had always been an expert in making do with what she had.

There was a smile on her face as she met the sudden bitterness in Jadzia’s eyes, ice-blue turned to plasma, the same familiar hunger twisted and turned into something else, something ravenous and desperate. It wasn’t just hunger now, oh no; this was starvation.

Yes, Dax thought. Good.

She smiled. She would have cracked her knuckles, only they were still bruised and bloody, raw from use and abuse. Besides, she didn’t want to put the knife down for the sake of a token gesture. Holding it was a rare kind of pleasure, the slide of steel under skin, the sweet intoxication of blood on her fingers, the pain kicking like a drug in her veins. Oh, this little upstart had no idea who she was dealing with, did she? She had no idea how outmatched she was, how easily Dax could strip her of everything she had learned and everything she was. But then, of course, that was the point.

Who was Jadzia, after all, but the sum of what Dax made her?

“Silly girl…” she said, and that was all it took.

Just as she knew she would, Jadzia lunged at her. Dax didn’t bother to block, letting her lazy fist connect with her jaw for no reason other than because it felt good.

That was the best thing she’d learned from Joran. Not the first, oh no, but the best. Definitely the best. Pain wasn’t just for giving. No. The blood on her hands felt just as good when it was her own as when it was someone else’s, and the pain swelling outwards from the crack in her jaw fired the heat in her veins, stoked the flames in her chest, woke the monster beating in time with her heart. It was a good lesson, the best lesson. It was the most valuable lesson, and she owed him for it. She owed him so much.

How would it feel, she wondered idly, to paint her skin with little Jadzia’s blood? How would it feel to know that the blood was her own, but not truly hers? How would it feel to watch the spasms twitch and shuddering on her own face as she died? Would she feel the pain in herself as well? Would it heighten the triumph?

She wanted to know, she decided, and when Jadzia lashed out again, this time she would not let it connect. “Silly little girl,” she taunted. “Don’t you know never to strike the same place twice? Mother Nature could have taught you that, if only you were willing to listen.” Jadzia swung again, blind and furious. “But you never will. You never listen, so you’ll never learn. There are so many lessons out there, little girl, if only you were willing to learn.”

Jadzia howled, rearing back for another swing. Without the least effort, Dax stepped aside, catching the flailing fist in the hand that held the knife, squeezing tight, and catching the blade between their fists, blood on blood, hers mingling with hers, and oh, it felt spectacular. Blood shed and blood spilled and so much blood — Dax’s blood — but not all hers. She would bleed this little one dry, and still have blood left inside her. Dax would die, and Dax would watch. What a delightful thought.

She wondered what Dax’s heart would taste like. Weak and watery like the host, or tough and full of flavour like the symbiont?

There was only one way to find out, she decided, and drove her free hand into Jadzia’s exposed stomach, an open-palmed strike with the heel of her hand, slamming with full force into the place where the symbiont cowered. Jadzia, weak as she was, crumpled instantly, hitting the floor with a horrible retching sound, arm twisted up at an impossible angle as Dax refused to release her blood-slick fist.

“You’re not very good at protecting yourself,” she said with a bored sigh. “But then, you’re not very good at anything, are you?”

Blind with rage and pain, Jadzia lurched to her feet. She swayed where she stood, staggering as though she was drunk. Maybe she was, wrecked and wasted on pain and anger, and who could blame her for finding that a little intoxicating?

Dax watched with a smile, licking her lips as Jadzia heaved blood and bile, imagined yet again the taste of her heart. In the corner of her mind, she heard Curzon’s voice, telling her over and over again that this was not honourable, that she was not honourable, that she couldn’t fight like a Klingon and eat like a Klingon and wear Klingon colours and yet still kill without honour.

But then, what did Dax care for honour? What good was honour when all she wanted was blood and brutality? Klingons fought with rage and hate too, didn’t they? They killed with violence and bloodlust, and ate the hearts of their prey, and wasn’t that just as damn important? Curzon could keep his precious honour; Dax would take the rest.

Jadzia swung again, but it was as wild as she was, unfocused and easily avoided. Dax laughed; she didn’t even need to take a step in order to dodge the blow. “Silly girl,” she said again, yanking her hand free at last and plunging the knife into Jadzia’s shoulder. “Silly little girl.”

Of course that struck a nerve; the insult was so much more painful than the open wound, Dax could tell, and when Jadzia howled, it was edged with mania. There was that fury, that violent Dax temper, that brutal Joran hatred. There was that killer instinct, that wild animal savagery. There was everything she had tried to teach her, all the lessons she would not learn, and as she struck again, harder and with precision, a white-knuckled fist landing right between Dax’s ribs, Dax wondered if maybe she would get some of the brutality she’d been looking for after all.

“Better!” she shouted, relishing the crack of bone on bone.

Jadzia lunged once more, spurred on in spite of herself by the encouragement. Dax ducked again, but the pain in her ribs made her sluggish and slow, and the bruise on her jaw found itself a fresh companion as her head snapped back, the blood-soaked walls beginning to spin.

“Harder!” She spat blood. “I could still beg for mercy!”

But, of course, Jadzia wasn’t after mercy. She wasn’t even really after death, either; all she wanted was pain. Her pain, Dax’s pain, the pain of the twitching body still choking on breath between them and the six lifeless others lying dead behind him, their hearts already ripped out and devoured, the spoils of that still staining the floor pink and red. Death wasn’t good enough for this Jadzia, this silly little girl, this shattered-glass reflection of the real Dax. Death wasn’t enough, or destruction, or even violence. For her, it was all about pain.

Dax supposed she could understand that. She was still young, still nurturing the half-buried memories rising up slowly inside of her. She didn’t fully understand, not like Dax did. She wasn’t truly one with Joran yet, so how could she be expected to see beyond that one valuable lesson, the best if not the first?

But the best lesson was not the only one, and there was so much more. Dax knew it, even if Jadzia didn’t. There was so much more than pain; however intoxicating it was, there was always so much more, and that was where Dax had the advantage. She already knew the pain, knew it intimately and personally; she had learned that lesson a thousand times, over and over again until she had each line memorised.

Even now, she was thriving on the taste of her own blood, the rich salt in her mouth and the sticky-wet stains on her fingers. Even now, she was letting it hone her rage and drive her hate. But it wasn’t just the pain; the taste, the texture, the colour, the salt and the sweetness, the raw strength of it. A wound had so much more to give than just the pain, and that was why poor little Jadzia didn’t stand a chance. Poor little girl, wielding her pain as though it were her only weapon. Even now, she refused to learn. She would never learn.

They traded blows and blood for what felt like a lifetime. Exhaustion was another weapon, Dax knew; sometimes it was the best one. Jadzia was young, but even her endurance wasn’t infinite. Dax held her fatigue against her, turning that into a blade as keen and sharp as any other. Even pain couldn’t stand up when exhaustion took hold.

Dax was tired, yes, but she had learned to harness her own fatigue as easily as she harnessed her own pain. The sweat slick and slippery on her skin was another incentive to keep going, the salt sharp and stinging in her eyes, tearing through the open wounds, the weight bearing down on her eyelids, the heavy shaking in her limbs. She was exhausted, and she let the exhaustion fuel her for another step, and then another, on and on and on.

Jadzia was exhausted too, of course, worn down and worn out and bleeding half to death. It was a miracle she was still standing at all, though Dax wasn’t exactly surprised that she was. If she let herself falter, if she fell down and stayed down, then she wouldn’t be a Dax at all. She’d forfeit in the moment she fell, and this would be all over. If she could breathe, she could fight. Wasn’t that another valuable lesson? If she could breathe she could fight, and if she could fight, she could win.

She could win.

She could win.

Dax saw the moment of clarity flash in those ice-blue eyes, even before Jadzia realised it was happening. She saw the strain-lined clouds lift, saw the pain take a sudden step backwards, opening up light-years of fresh new space for other things. She saw everything as clearly as if she was experiencing it herself, as if she was living it again, felt it again now as if it were in her too.

Finally, Jadzia was learning.

Finally, she saw and felt and knew. Finally, she was Dax. Finally, she could carry that name, and everything it meant; finally, she could let it define her. Finally, she was as much a Dax as the one who stood over her. Finally, as the exhaustion poured down on them both, sweat-soaked skin and blurred vision, Dax half-blind in one eye and Jadzia entirely blind in the other, finally that silly little girl understood.

That was all it took. A flicker of clarity, a flash of understanding, and suddenly the tides were turning.

Suddenly, Dax was the one on the floor. Suddenly, her ears were ringing, and the world was tilting, and the blood in her mouth was bitter and sickly, thin with salt. Suddenly, Jadzia was the one standing, on her feet standing over her. Suddenly, Jadzia was the one with, fire in her eyes and someone else’s blood on her hands and death cracking like a whip with the rise and fall of her breathing. Suddenly, they were where they should have been hours ago, at war. Suddenly, it was everything Dax had hoped for, blood and pain and violence, hatred and the promise of death. Dax on Dax, Jadzia over Jadzia, and she couldn’t tell any more where Dax ended and silly little Jadzia began.

But no, she thought. She wasn’t so little now, was she? She wasn’t silly at all now that she was learning.

“Good,” she said out loud. “Very, very good.”

But little Jadzia wasn’t after praise or approval now. Not any more, oh no. Now she was after blood. Dax’s blood, the blood that was her blood.

Dax saw the hatred in her eyes, ravenous hunger replacing that little girl’s simplistic love of pain, the urge to kill overshadowing even her laziness, and she was so proud. This was her doing, she thought. This was her work. This vengeful killing machine, this mercurial hellion, this monster that shared her face, this perfect paragon of violence… it was all hers. She was hers.

“I’m going to kill you now,” Jadzia said, plain and simple and matter-of-fact, like they were talking about the weather. “You taught me everything I know.”

“And you finally started learning,”

Jadzia backhanded her, and Dax smiled as her lip split.

“You made me what I am,” Jadzia snarled, accusation far more than appreciation. “You put those thoughts into my head. And now I’m going to kill you.”

“If that’s what you want,” Dax said, baring bloody teeth.

In a lot of ways, this felt inevitable. Where she should have felt fear, or at least anticipation, Dax found that she only felt resignation, acceptance without excitement, like she’d always known it would come to this, like every minute before this moment had just been a waiting game, like there had never been anything more to her existence than making Jadzia what she was now.

There was excitement, once. Dax anticipated this moment, waiting with bated breath while Jadzia refused again and again to learn, heart pounding with real enthusiasm every time that silly little girl raised her fist against an innocent soul, hoping against hope that the next blow would be aimed at her, that the next rain of violence would find the right target. She had looked forward to it, that glorious moment when the student surpasses the teacher, where the teacher rests at last, content to know that her work is complete.

Jadzia had earned the right to stand over her like this, knife in one hand and bruise-bloodied fingers balled into fists in the other, fire alight in her veins and the endless drumbeat of her heart rending the air between them. She had earned the right to take Dax’s life, to reach in and rip her heart from her chest, to feel its last beat against her own pulse, blood mingling with blood, Dax with Dax, forever and completely. Jadzia had earned that, and Dax had earned it too. Between them, they had earned it.

But now that the moment was here, now that Dax looked up into Jadzia’s eyes and saw the ice in their depths — not just in the shade of blue this time, but in everything behind it — she found that she didn’t care. The excitement was gone, washed down with the blood pooling in her mouth and the salt-sweet taste as she swallowed it down, sharp in the back of her throat. It was inevitable. The moment was here, but death was death, and Dax found that hers brought little comfort just because it was wrought by her own hand.

Still, though, Jadzia had earned this. Jadzia had earned it all, and Dax would give her what she deserved.

“Good,” she said, and smiled as Jadzia drove the knife deep into her chest.

“Good,” Joran echoed, hollow in her head, and smiled as her ribs split wide open.

“Good,” said silly little Jadzia, and smiled as she swallowed her first bite of Dax’s heart.

Good. Good. Good.

But where was the good in dying like this?

*

She woke to the sound of gasping and the terrifying realisation that she couldn’t breathe.

Her lungs were on fire, and it felt like a lifetime before they caught up with the rest of her. She choked and gagged, helpless and terrified, death-knells ringing in her ears as she waited for her body to realise that it was alive, panting through a closed throat, noiseless and starving.

The air around her grew heavier, more oppressive, too thick to swallow, and she listened with a rising sense of panic to the hollowed-out echoes of breathing all around her. It couldn’t possibly be her own breath she was hearing, because her burning lungs were still putting themselves back together, but it sounded like her, and it was an embarrassingly long time before the spectral shadows of the dream dissolved and her mind cleared enough to remember where she was.

“Through the looking glass”, Kira had said once, and Dax shuddered to think of how accurate that description truly was.

It was Jadzia’s breathing she could hear, she realised, and forced herself to match the rhythm with her own as soon as her respiratory system started working again. It was just little Jadzia. Jadzia, the reason she was here in the first place, the reason she was going to Terok Nor, the reason she was sleeping on the floor and not bunking down with some rebel or another. Jadzia, who needed her help, who was depending on her to understand, who had nobody else in the whole universe.

Jadzia, who had ripped the heart out of her chest and swallowed it.

No, she reminded herself, shaking with the memory. That was a dream. A vivid, visceral dream, sure, but just a dream. It didn’t matter that she could still taste the blood, still feel the pain, still remember choking as her own blood as she breathed her last, as her lungs collapsed and her chest was torn open. None of that mattered, because it was still just a dream. Just a senseless, stupid dream, no more real than any of the others. She hadn’t really ripped out Kira’s heart, had she? And Jadzia hadn’t really ripped out hers either. It was all just a dream. A child’s nightmare. Just a dream, nothing more.

Still, though, it was a long time before she could chase those shadows away and calm her racing heart, the pounding kick-drum a potent reminder that it was still there, inside her chest where it belonged.

She sat up, tentative and a little sore. It had been a very long time, almost longer than she could remember, since she’d had any reason to sleep on the ground, and cold dirt floors weren’t exactly kind to sensitive Trill skin. Her back ached, and her head throbbed a little, though that was probably more from the revenant shadows of the dream, pressure and pain bearing down on her like a solid weight, than the awkward position she’d been sleeping in. Her knuckles still hurt, long-dried blood and dark bruises standing stark on pale skin in the hazy half-light of this place. She wasn’t sure where the light was coming from, but she supposed it didn’t really matter. She could see; that was enough.

With a heavy sigh, she leaned back against the wall, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, and for the ghosts of violence and brutality to fade out from her mind. She was so tired of these dreams, tired of the savagery and the ruthlessness, tired of the feral feelings it filled her with, tired of waking up unable to think or breathe, tired of the endless minutes it took to shake the shudders and the shadows. She was tired of everything, and thinking about how tired she was just made her even more tired.

The solid stone surface of the wall was still dark with blood, long-dried stains caking the slick stone surface because nobody had bothered to clean it up. Water was probably a rare commodity here, she thought, and was immediately struck by how thirsty she was.

“You’re awake.”

Dax blinked, looking up to find her counterpart staring down at her from the bed, eyes wide and pale, taking in the dull half-light and turning it to cold mist.

“That makes two of us,” she observed lightly.

Jadzia shrugged, stretching lazily. “You were thrashing around.” Her voice was low; Dax supposed she didn’t want to risk disturbing the still-slumbering Sisko. “You were making so much noise I’m surprised you didn’t wake the dead.”

“You’re exaggerating.” Dax tried to chuckle, but the sound rasped like sandpaper against the dryness in her throat. “Do you have any water?”

On closer inspection, she saw a flicker of conflict in Jadzia’s eyes. They darted about the room, uneasy and uncomfortable, like she was searching for something hidden in the shadows, and Dax found herself wondering if perhaps she had been dreaming too. She thought back once again, remembering the time she herself had spent fighting off low isoboramine levels and invasive visions of things she could not remember. She thought about the hallucinations, how terrifying they were; at the symbiont pools, the Guardian had asked her about ‘dreams’, and she had corrected him, but in that moment she’d really wished that they had manifested as dreams instead. Dreams were easily forgotten on waking, she’d thought, and wished for something so simple.

When the dreams had come, much later and long after the hallucinations had subsided, they were just as bad. But how could she have known that at the time?

She remembered that night they’d spent on the Defiant on the way to Trill, how anxious she’d been, how afraid to sleep. There were no dreams then, but she had been afraid just the same, something off-balance inside her head. Julian had let her stay with him, and his gentle compassion had helped her to stand strong against those fears, against the demons in her head. She had fallen asleep then, peacefully and easily, comforted by his presence so much more than his words.

Looking up at Jadzia now, she wondered if she felt the same pull, that desperate need for comfort and companionship, for someone to watch over her and keep her safe from the terrible thoughts, the visions that she could not fight and could not understand. She wondered too if that was why she had been so aggressive last night as she’d made love to Sisko, relentless in the way she wore him out; how much of that enthusiasm was born of real passion, Dax mused, and how much from the ache to be kept safe?

Whatever the reason had been then, she seemed grateful for Dax’s company now, and even more so for an excuse to get out of bed. She moved with surprising grace, showing no signs of grogginess. How long had she been awake? Had she even slept at all? She was naked as she stood, not that Dax should have been surprised by that, and mustered a weakly lascivious smile as Dax watched.

“Enjoying the view?” she asked with just the hint of a purr, seemingly as much to take her mind off her own troubles as to take up this new excuse for inappropriate flirtation. “I could give you a tour, if you want…”

Dax chuckled, shaking her head. “Just the water for now.”

Naturally, Jadzia didn’t bother to cover her modesty before stepping out into the main living area. Dax followed, looking around at the dozing rebels, huddling together in whatever space they could find, mostly in small groups of twos and threes with just a few scattered individuals. For the most part, they were still heavily asleep, and so naturally paid the two identical newcomers no attention at all; Dax noted with some amusement the familiar shapes of Julian Bashir and Chief O’Brien curled around each other, though whether it was for warmth, convenience or simply companionship she didn’t venture to guess.

Jadzia ignored them as readily as they ignored her, moving past the still bodies of her friends and hunkering down in a vaguely secluded corner where stockpiles of various supplies were stacked up in haphazard rows against the far wall. Dax kept a little distance as she watched, respecting the boundaries of their property. After a few moments of clumsy fumbling, Jadzia found what she was looking for and tossed a worn-looking waterskin across the short space. Dax caught it effortlessly and took a long grateful sip, willing herself not to take too much; who knew how short the rebels’ water supplies were?

“You can clean up in the bedroom,” Jadzia told her when Dax handed the skin back. “But I would wait until Benjamin’s awake, if I were you.” She looked her up and down, not for the first time, but this time with a very different air, appraisal rather than appreciation. “And you’ll need clothes, too, I suppose. The Intendant will eat you alive if you show up looking like that.” She smiled to herself, but there was a touch of bitterness in the expression. “Well, she’ll eat you alive anyway, but let’s at least try and get you looking the part before she does.”

Dax swallowed, discomfited by the idea, the unvoiced warning, and forced herself to focus on the issue of clothes. “You can lend me some of yours. And anything else, I’m sure.”

She thought fleetingly about her hair, how different it was. Hers was long, neat and straight where Jadzia’s was rough-cut and curled around the nape of her neck. She took better care of her appearance than most of the rebels, it seemed, but there was still a vast difference between the two of them. Dax hoped Jadzia didn’t expect her to cut hers; it would take much more than a potentially life-threatening undercover mission as an alternate version of herself to make her consider that.

As though reading her mind, Jadzia leaned across to free her hair from its ponytail. Dax shook it out, letting it fall about her shoulders, and scowled when Jadzia huffed an irritable sigh.

“You’re too clean,” she said. “You look like you’ve never done a day’s work in your life.”

Dax rolled her eyes, conceding the point with a shrug. “We’ll make do,” she insisted. “Besides, isn’t it a little more important that you get me briefed? It won’t matter what I look like if I can’t even answer basic questions.”

“True enough,” Jadzia acknowledged grudgingly.

“Might as well do it now,” Dax pressed. “Before Benjami— before your captain wakes up and starts throwing his weight around. I’ll need to know everything you can tell me. About you, about the Intendant, about Terok Nor. Anything you can think of.”

They sat down in a quiet little corner, as isolated as they were likely to get in a place like this, and Jadzia talked her through it.

That part didn’t take nearly as long as she’d expected it would. Jadzia had never been under the Intendant’s thumb, at least not as completely as Sisko was; Dax learned quickly that there were benefits in this universe to not having been born human (“Terran,” Jadzia corrected with a barely-repressed sneer). She had come and gone as she pleased, at least for the most part, and so long as she kept the Intendant ‘entertained’ and well-stocked with trinkets and tributes, she didn’t really pay her much mind.

So far as she was aware, the Intendant had no idea that she was involved in Benjamin’s Terran rebellion; after all, why would she be? Regardless, she said, it wouldn’t take much to convince her that she was on her side; she wasn’t one for drawn-out explanations, and all Dax needed to say was that she’d been in the far reaches of the galaxy stirring up trouble for a few months.

It all sounded so simple, put like that.

“The thing you’ve got to keep in mind about the Intendant…” Jadzia pressed, sensing Dax’s uncertainty; Dax wished she had a PADD to take notes on. “The thing you’ve got to remember is that she believes what she wants to believe. Like I told you before, she’s an unapologetic narcissist. And I do mean unapologetic. She’s much worse than you or me, or even Curzon. If you tell her she’s the centre of the universe, she’ll believe you, and not even think to question it.”

That was very good news. If there was one skill Dax valued above all others, it was her talent at shameless flattery.

Slightly less valuable, it turned out, was her so-called talent as a pilot. Torias would be turning in his grave, she thought, frustrated, as Jadzia talked her through the controls of her ship for the hundredth time.

“There’s no point in any of this if you can’t even land the damn ship,” she grumbled. “If you let anything happen to her, I will hunt you down and break every bone in that pretty little body of yours.”

Dax didn’t doubt it for a second, but she scowled just the same. Part of her was deeply offended that Jadzia seemed to care more about her precious ship than the woman who was risking her life for her, but she supposed she would have been the same way if she had her own ship. Certainly Tobin had been known to be possessive of his tools and equipment, and Torias would bite a hand clean off if it touched his cockpit without permission. Still, she couldn’t help venting a little of her aggravation, slamming her palm down on the console and uttering a string of Klingon curses.

“It’s not my fault,” she snapped. “This universe isn’t anything like what I’m used to.”

Sisko, who finally saw fit to join them halfway through the morning, laughed heartily. “If it would help any,” he offered cheerfully, “I can always just shoot her down in full view of the station. I bet the Intendant would love that.”

Naturally, Jadzia slapped him for that.

It was a long and arduous process, and it was well into the afternoon by the time Dax finally thought that she might actually be able to get the damn thing up and out of the atmosphere without immediately crashing, but their work was far from done.

They spent a few hours after that on her appearance. Sisko, blessedly, was banished from the bedroom, and Jadzia took advantage of their solitude, taking careful note of every detail of Dax’s body as she undressed, shedding the last remnants of the world she knew, the universe and the life that were hers. It was unsettling, becoming Jadzia, and for a moment she lost touch with herself, losing the Jadzia she used to be when faced with the one who stood opposite her.

Jadzia touched her arm, then her hip, lingering and just a little suggestive. The contact brought her back to herself, and Dax gulped air, sweat beading between her bare shoulderblades. Curious but not questioning the reaction, Jadzia brushed her hair back, and Dax let herself lean into the contact, cold skin against the rough fabric of Jadzia’s clothes. She wanted to strip her, too, so that they could both be on equal footing, both treading the same ground.

Though she’d seen her naked just that morning, she found herself wishing she’d paid more attention, suddenly aching to see Jadzia as Jadzia was seeing her right now, to see the marks she didn’t have and the ones she did, to trace the lines of her own body with someone else inside it. She wanted to map out all the differences, to shape her fingertips against hips and thighs, to press her palm against her belly and feel the rhythm of her symbiont, her Dax, within. She wanted…

But then she remembered her dream, Jadzia’s eyes like ice as she reached in and tore out her heart, fingers squeezing through the cracks in her ribcage.

Bile rose in the back of her throat, fear and pain and muscle memory, and she pulled away, bracing against the wall as she fought to catch her breath. Jadzia let her go without protest, fishing out a weather-beaten shirt from a pile of discarded clothes, and holding it up against her own chest. “This one will bring out your eyes,” she said, and didn’t touch Dax again.

“Is there anything else I should know?” Dax asked when they were done, when she was dressed and suitably roughed up, clad in the patched and torn garb of a mercenary captain, hair tousled, smudges of dirt and lines of fatigue deepening her features.

She felt uncomfortable; they were the same person, but Jadzia’s clothes didn’t feel like they fit her at all. They were loose around the chest, but tight at the waist and arms, stretched and wrinkled in all the wrong places. She didn’t feel like a mercenary, or a captain; she felt young and stupid, like she was back at the Symbiosis Commission, like she was going through her initiate training all over again. For the first time, she felt like the small one, the one who was helpless and confused while her counterpart taught her how to be herself; for the first time since she’d arrived her, it felt like she was the little girl, shy young Jadzia, and the woman standing before her was Dax in all her glory.

Jadzia shrugged. All of a sudden, she seemed very tall. “Nothing else that I can think of. But I do have a few questions of my own, if you’re done asking yours.” She smirked. “For example, I’m simply dying to know about that scar on the inside of your—”

“You can ask when this is over,” Dax said quickly, blushing and taking another long step backwards.

Jadzia laughed, unperturbed by her reticence. “I’ll hold you to that,” she replied with a wicked grin.

Realistically, Dax knew there wasn’t anything else they could do. They had gone through everything either of them could think of, in as much detail as they could; the only way of knowing if it was worth anything was by putting it all into practice, and they couldn’t do that here. They could sit around talking for days on end, cramming little details into Dax’s head, checking and double-checking that she remembered it all, going through the same old stuff over and over again until they both went crazy from it, but in the end, the only way to know if she was really ready was by taking a deep breath and jumping in. She’d been on enough delicate missions to know that by now. There wasn’t anything else she could do from here, and every minute she wasted in learning what to do was an extra minute she wasn’t doing it. And far more important, it was an extra minute before she could go home.

She missed Deep Space Nine. She missed her home, her friends, her universe. She missed Benjamin, and Julian, even Chief O’Brien and his early-morning diatribes about the computer systems. She missed them all, more and more every time she saw their other selves here in this universe, dirty and angry and bitter. But more than any of them, she found that she missed Kira. She missed the wry quips, the way she challenged her, and the boundless faith. She missed the starry look in her eyes when she talked about the Prophets, and how sure she was that they could help Dax. She missed her encouragement, and the callouses on her hands. She missed Nerys.

Had she contacted the station and told them about this?, Dax wondered. Had she gone straight to Bajor to start her pilgrimage like Dax had told her to? If she had, was she enjoying herself? Had she got in touch with Bareil after all, seeking his companionship now that she was alone? Was he taking care of her, offering a distraction to keep her mind off her absent friend? Did she even think of her at all, lost in another universe, alone and confused? Or did she just shake her head every time Dax came to mind? ‘Stupid stubborn Trill,’ she imagined her saying. ‘She has no idea what she’s let herself in for.’

Two days, she’d said, and Dax realised with a jolt that she would never be finished here that quickly. They were already halfway through the first day, and she knew Kira well enough to know that she did not believe in making hollow threats. If she didn’t hear from Dax by tomorrow, she would come after her, just as she’d threatened. But then, if Dax did contact her before she was done here, get in touch just to let her know she was safe, she knew beyond all doubt that Kira would take it on herself to make certain she never came back. She’d tie her down if she had to, hold her in place and stop her from going back, and Dax was just weak-willed enough to let her.

She thought about it for a few minutes, trying to find some middle ground, but she didn’t have time to come up with an elegant solution. In the end, she just confronted Sisko, taking comfort in the knowledge that it was all his doing in the first place. He could go in her stead, she decided, and told him as much. If she wasn’t back in time to make her rendezvous with her Kira, then he would go on her behalf and update her on the situation. It was only fair, she told him, and it wouldn’t kill him to do something for her after all the loops he was expecting her to jump through.

At first, not unexpectedly, he balked at the idea, resistant far more because it involved taking orders from someone else than because it meant crossing paths with the major again. This universe’s Sisko was a man who very much hated being told what to do, and even if he would normally be understanding, or at least vaguely receptive to the necessity, hearing it spoken like a command made him instinctively recoil from it. He was the goddamn captain, he said with a snarl; things happened his way, or they didn’t happen at all.

It took some wheedling from Dax and another well-timed slap from Jadzia to convince him to suck up his macho ego and do something decent for someone else for once. He still wasn’t happy about it, but at least he was complicit, and though Dax still didn’t trust him to see his promises through, she did trust Jadzia to force him to if it came down to it.

Once that weight was off her mind, at least as well as it could be, there were no more excuses to stay, no more unfinished business to hide behind, nothing left to keep her here. Besides, Jadzia was starting to look like she’d slap her too if she asked for any more unnecessary clarification.

“All right,” she said at last, with a reluctance that she knew Jadzia wouldn’t miss. “I guess this is it.”

Jadzia grinned, though even that expression was tense; Dax could see the shadows behind her eyes, the guilt and shame of having to send someone else to do her job, the self-loathing and the fear that she couldn’t quite overcome. She was content with their preparation, but that didn’t make the moment any less of a bitter pill.

As much as she hated being put into this position, Dax found that she couldn’t be annoyed with Jadzia. In truth, she was more annoyed with herself, frustrated at her bleeding heart, the haemorrhage of empathy that had brought her here in the first place, the need to help where she should have just listened to Kira and left things alone. Jadzia was the reason she was here, but it wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t do this for herself. Dax knew that; she remembered the fear, remembered how soul-shattering her own hallucinations were. Honestly, she wouldn’t have trusted herself to infiltrate Terok Nor in that condition either. It was common sense, loathe as she was to admit it, though it didn’t really help either of them to know that.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” she promised, very softly, and mustered a grin of her own.

Jadzia looked away, unable to meet her gaze. Dax could feel the conflict radiating from her, the familiar fear, guilt and regret and shame, a thousand things all fighting for control, all overshadowed by a depth of worry that was startling. She was worried about Dax, of course, and about the success of the mission; she was worried about the life that would be on her conscience if it was lost, just as much as Dax’s own well-being. And, of course, she was worried for her own sake, for her sanity, for what would happen to her if things turned out badly and she was left to fend for herself with no medicine and no help.

So many things could go wrong, after all; if Dax failed to get hold of the drug they needed, or even if she did and the drug simply didn’t do the job, if the repressed memories and dropping isoboramine levels killed her anyway… every breath brought a new thing to worry about.

Worst of all, she knew, was the ever-present terror, the very real possibility that, even if everything went perfectly, it might still not be enough; no matter what happened, she might still be doomed to live with these hallucinations for the rest of her life, forced to ride out this impossible anger day after day. She was scared of that, more than all the rest combined; Dax knew, because she felt the same way every time she woke from another new dream or wasted another ineffectual afternoon in the holosuite. She was so incredibly scared, and Dax wished there was something she could do to ease the weight from her shoulders. Well, something a little less dubious than a suicide mission to Terok Nor, anyway.

“You’d better,” Jadzia said after a long moment; her jaw was trembling with the effort of not letting all those emotions boil over. “You’d better get back real soon. I want to hear about that scar.”

Dax laughed, clapping her on the back with a show of enthusiasm that neither of them really felt. “You will,” she promised.

Jadzia looked away. “Good.”

The word resonated, setting Dax’s teeth on edge and striking a nerve somewhere in her psyche, a flickering revenant of last night’s dream. Good, the dream Jadzia had said, just before she devoured her heart. Dax shivered at the memory, but forced herself to shove it aside. Now wasn’t the time for childishness; dreams were dreams, and there was no place for them in a moment like this. So she forced herself to focus on the Jadzia that was instead, the Jadzia standing in front of her, how pale she was and how tragic.

It was harder than it should have been, she realised, saying goodbye to this woman she didn’t know, this woman she knew all too well, this woman who was and wasn’t her.

It was harder than she’d expected, too, to simply turn around and fly away, to climb into that strange unfamiliar cockpit and hope that she would remember how to pilot this ship when it came down to the wire. It was harder than she’d expected to take on a stranger’s attitude when she already wore her face. It was harder than she could ever have anticipated to look at the fear and worry and strain on that same face, the face that was hers, to squeeze fingers as long and thin as her own, to whisper hollow placations and useless promises to someone who must surely see the lie in her own traitorous eyes. It was so much harder than it should have been to walk away and leave Jadzia alone.

And yet, as she leaned in to kiss her forehead, a feather-light touch of trembling lips to delicate spots shaped so much like her own, committing to memory the life she was going to save, she found that it wasn’t so hard at all.

“Take this,” Jadzia said, breathless with urgency, leaning in even as Dax pulled back.

Her fingers were shaking even harder than the rest of her as they pressed something cool and solid into Dax’s hands. A knife, she realised, but didn’t look down; she was afraid to look at it, afraid of what she might see, afraid of remembering the dream.

Still, the gesture was unexpected, startling, and it struck Dax squarely in the chest, as keen and sharp as the weapon itself, albeit not so subtle. She swallowed past a sudden lump in her throat, trying not to think too much. A symbol of violence, of brutality, one that promised pain or protection, depending on how it was turned. Dax could not think of a better parting gift, and she let her own fingers brush against Jadzia’s in a contact that lasted just a heartbeat longer than necessary.

“Take it,” Jadzia said again. “I never fail a mission as long as I’ve got it at my side.”

Dax smiled her thanks, and tried not to think about how easily the blade could slide between her ribs.

Chapter Text

At first, the solitary cockpit was almost pleasant.

As a rule, Dax tried to surround herself with as much company as possible. She was a social soul by nature, and she had become even more so than usual since Joran took up residence in her head; her thoughts had become frightening over the last couple of weeks, and she found herself trying especially hard to stay out of situations where she had no choice but to indulge them.

Still, at least for a little while, she found herself uncharacteristically relieved to have a little time all by herself. After so long spent in the company of a near-perfect mirror of herself and a not-so-perfect mirror of her friend Benjamin, all the while trying to wrap her head around a universe that was so similar and yet so vastly different to the one she was used it, she couldn’t deny that she needed a bit of a social breather. At the very least, it was a relief to no longer worry about walking in on those mirror images in flagrante delicto. That was a mental image she wouldn’t be able to shake for a very long time, and she shuddered all over again to think of it now.

The momentary reprieve didn’t last, though. Peace and quiet was one thing, but it wasn’t so easy to banish those unwanted thoughts once the isolation hit with full force.

She found herself wondering what Chief O’Brien would make of this place, of the subtle differences in technology, the differences in propulsion systems and controls. Admittedly, she was rather glad he hadn’t been there when she’d utterly failed to grasp the fundamental basics of piloting a ship out here ( and she was sure she could hear Torias snorting his disgust somewhere in a quiet corner of her mind, stifled by the more potent presences of Joran and Curzon), but a part of her couldn’t help thinking it would have appreciated the chief’s insights. At the very least, the Tobin in her was kind of itching for a like-minded soul to indulge his countless theories.

Of course, if that was as far as her thoughts went, it wouldn’t have been so bad. If she’d just left it at that, she would have remained content and calm in her quiet solitude. Unfortunately, thoughts of the chief inevitably led to thoughts of her other friends back on Deep Space Nine, and before she knew what was happening she found herself thinking of Julian and Kira. They'd spent some time on Terok Nor, hadn’t they? What would they have to say if they knew she was on her way there now? What stories would they have to tell? What warnings would they give?

The meagre details she remembered of their reports had already helped her to no end, but by their nature they were somewhat lacking in personal insights. How must Kira have felt, Dax wondered, to stand face-to-face with a version of herself who was as cold and cruel as the Intendant was supposed to be. It was easier for Dax; her counterpart seemed to be at least a basically decent soul, give or take the lousy hand existence had dealt her. Dax saw so much of herself in Jadzia’s hard blue eyes, and she felt a kinship with her, a familiarity that ran so much deeper than the lines on her face or the patterns of her spots. She saw herself in Jadzia, yes, but not just the young woman she was now; she saw the ghosts of Curzon and Emony, Torias and Tobin, Audrid and Lela. She saw all of them, even Joran… though of course poor Jadzia couldn’t know or understand that herself just yet. She looked at this universe’s Jadzia, and saw Dax.

How different it must have been for Kira, she thought sadly, to look into her own eyes and see a complete stranger, a cruel and twisted perversion of everything she herself held dear. How frightening it must have been.

Part of her was looking forward to meeting the Intendant, for precisely that reason: twisted curiosity and a morbid sense of fascination. Dax knew Kira Nerys very well, or she thought she did, and it made her heart ache to think of a version of her that was so calloused and so heartless. Kira, her Kira, was one of the bravest souls she’d ever met, in any lifetime, a Bajoran with the heart of a Klingon warrior. She would cut off her own arm in less than a heartbeat if she thought it would serve Bajor, and she wouldn’t even blink at the pain.

Dax couldn’t imagine any version of Kira Nerys being like the Intendant, a cold-blooded and soulless creature who cared about nothing but her own gratification, who served only her own wants and desires, who would cut off someone else’s arm without so much as blinking just to make herself a little more comfortable. She couldn’t imagine a Kira with eyes that were hollow and empty, void of all the passion and power that made Kira who she was. Every time she tried to picture it, all she could see was her own Kira’s eyes, her Nerys, a firestorm of right and good, eyes bright and beautiful, lit up with the most unfathomable strength.

She remembered the devotion shining from those beautiful Bajoran eyes when Kira talked about Ghemor. She remembered the awe in her, the radiance. Every part of her seemed to grow soft and warm, breathtaking and heartbreaking in the same moment… and oh, the way she smiled. That smile, Kira’s smile could reduce a whole solar system to cosmic dust.

Dax remembered the urgency in her too, the ache trembling in her voice when she talked about her life and experience, the past that would chase her to the grave and the present that would hold it back, and the vast distance between them. She thought about the faith spreading out from within her every time she looked at Dax, remembered the unwavering honesty when she told her that she would survive, that she would overcome her violent memories, that she was more than what she was becoming. She thought about so many things, all of them come together in her Kira, in her Nerys…

Suddenly, she felt terribly homesick.

That was strange in itself, she supposed. Seeing the same faces she saw every day, dealing with the same problems she herself had dealt with, flying off to the same space station she’d lived in for more than two years, and yet feeling so far away from everyone and everything she knew. Bemused, she shook her head, not realising until a moment too late that there was nobody there to see it.

Suddenly, the cockpit that had felt so peaceful just a few minutes earlier felt very big and very empty. Suddenly, this whole universe felt very empty, and she herself felt very small. For a couple of seconds, she thought about telling the computer to play some music, something soft and exotic, just to drown out the silence, but it tugged unpleasantly at her heart to think of all her favourite composers and wonder if they even existed in this upside-down universe.

It was a dangerous precipice, indulging thoughts like that; Dax knew that perfectly well, and she forced herself to take a step back before she slipped and fell.

She could already sense Joran kicking away at the edges of her mind, trying to find the weakness there, trying to force his way through and inject his madness into her again. The peace and quiet was definitely gone now; solitude was dangerous, she remembered, and almost laughed at herself for forgetting.

There it was, the haze of anger, already closing in on the edges of her thoughts, just like it always did. Bitterness at Sisko for bringing her here in the first place, frustration with Jadzia for being too damned weak to deal with her problems by herself, hatred for this universe that kept so many things hidden from her. Even as she knew it was irrational, that there was no foundation for any of those feelings, that Sisko had only come for her because he truly thought it was the only thing he could do, that Jadzia was every bit as frustrated with herself for those damned weaknesses as Dax was, that she wasn’t supposed to be in this place anyway so why should she care what it hid… even as she knew all that, it didn’t help. It didn’t stop her from hating, and it didn’t quash the anger.

She hated this place. She hated these people. She—

“No.” She took a deep breath, clenching her jaw and forcing herself to bite back even some of the fury, to swallow it down along with the air. “Not this time.”

This was exactly what she’d been afraid of. There was no holosuite here, no army of imaginary warriors to help her stem the tide of rage, no fabricated villains to take the brunt of her hatred as she beat them bloody. There were no holograms to hide behind in a cockpit, no safe haven to lock herself up in, no way of venting all the things she couldn’t fight. There wasn’t even a wall she could punch, just shoddily-built bulkheads that would crumble if she so much as leaned on them. There was nothing. Nothing. She had nothing. She was completely alone.

What was she supposed to do? Helplessness rose up in her, lodging in her throat and making her choke, and her fingers clutched uselessly at the helm console. She could feel herself starting to panic, but what was she supposed to do?

Jadzia knew. She must have known it would come to this, must have realised just how precarious Dax’s control really was, must have understood somewhere deep inside herself that Dax would need an anchor, a grounding point to keep her sane, a weapon to drive out the madness. She must have sensed it; somehow, she must have known. Dax hadn’t even realised it at the time, but her body remembered it now. Her mind was a maelstrom, a swirling vortex of anger and fear, tangled up and feeding each other, but her body was something else entirely, and her body remembered Jadzia.

Her body remembered, and as she finally gripped the handle, new but somehow familiar, her mind remembered too.

Pain. Pain squeezed out from a curved blade and a polished handle. Pain, sheathed and belted at her hip. Pain, a last parting gift from Jadzia. Pain, clutched in a trembling fist, precious as a prayer. Pain, the blade drawn across her palm. Pain, the blood beading on her skin. Once, twice, again and again and again. Pain. Grounding and anchoring and simple. A knife to frighten the anger away, and pain to soothe the fear. Pain, hot steel sliding through cold skin. Pain. Thank the Prophets, pain.

The knife made a more than adequate substitute for the holosuite, and a far more efficient one than a rock wall. There was no rock in the depths of space, and a holosuite couldn’t be tucked neatly into a belt. It was all too easy to fall back on something so small and simple, something that fit so neatly into either hand. It was all too easy to draw it across one palm and then the other, back and forth until they both hurt like hell, until they hurt so much she didn’t have the strength left to be angry.

By the time she reached Terok Nor, just a few hours after departure, her hands were almost unusable.

The journey, it seemed, was the hard part. Jadzia had been right to assume that she wouldn’t meet with much resistance in trying to dock on the station. Dax’s ship was not one of Sisko’s rebel fighters, and though she was braced the whole time for a confrontation, whipcord tight and on edge nobody seemed to pay her arrival very much mind at all.

She couldn’t help wondering if Jadzia had planned it this way, not for Dax but for herself, if that was why she was so protective of the little ship. It felt like an escape plan, like an exit route carefully and deliberately left uncovered. Dax hadn’t been here for very long, but it was long enough to know that for all her bluster and belligerence, Jadzia rarely denied Sisko anything he asked for. His throwaway remark about not being allowed near her ship had puzzled Dax at the time, but now it seemed to make a kind of sense.

Jadzia, it seemed, was not nearly so dedicated to the Terran rebellion as her lover was. She had practically said as much to Dax, albeit not in so many words, and Dax decided that she wouldn’t be surprised at all if she discovered her counterpart had been planning a trip of this sort for a long while. Not that she would be able to play the same card now; if Dax did somehow manage to get out of here alive, she rather suspected that it would leave this particular bridge well and truly burned. Jadzia would have to find herself another exit route if she wanted to defect; Dax didn’t have time to worry about keeping her nose clean.

Not that she had much time to dwell on any of that, of course, with a ship waiting to be docked. Given how high-profile Terok Nor seemed to be in this universe, the lack of protocol caught her somewhat by surprise. She identified herself to some grim-faced Cardassian who glared and rolled his eyes at the viewscreen, and that was all it took; before she’d even managed to catch her breath, her bloody fingers were flying over the console again, desperately trying to remember how to dock the damn thing.

Honestly, it was all so simple and straightforward that she almost expected to be met by an army of stone-faced Cardassian security officers the second she set foot onto solid ground; that was the only explanation she could think of for the lack of security. Presumably, Terok Nor didn’t need any protection because any attempted infiltration was ended before it began.

From what little she knew about this place, it made a twisted kind of sense — why ask questions at all when you can just shoot and be done with it? — and Dax took great comfort in the kiss of blood-slick steel against her fingertips as she squeezed the blade, readying for anything.

Her palms were both wet, long thin lines of blood half-dried where she’d used the knife over and over to cut out the violence in her head, and her bruise-purple knuckles were screaming from the strain of piloting the ship. She hurt. Good, sweet, brutal pain, the kind that would keep her under control, keep her wits sharp and her attention sharper, and that was exactly what she needed if she was to survive this place.

“Well, well, well. Look who finally came crawling back.”

It wasn’t exactly the ambush she’d expected, and for a long moment Dax could only stand and stare.

“…Garak?”

She’d know the tailor’s face anywhere. The soft edges of his features, curved and sympathetic where most Cardassians were hard and streamlined, the wide-eyed faux innocence where most of his brethren would take pride in seeming hard and cold, the rich derision in every syllable out of his mouth. Though the darkness of this place had clearly left its mark on him just as deeply as it had on Benjamin and Jadzia, there could be no doubt at all that he was Elim Garak.

“There’s no need to act so shocked,” he said dryly. “This place is as much my home as it is hers, you know.”

Dax swallowed hard, struggling to regain some shred of dignity. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… that is…”

Garak rolled his eyes, bored and utterly disgusted. “Oh, spare me the niceties,” he huffed. “Say what you mean, my dear: you’re surprised she hasn’t made a throw rug out of me yet.”

Thinking on her feet, Dax mustered a shrug. “Actually,” she shot back, “I’m just surprised you haven’t made one out of her.”

That seemed to be an acceptable response, because he burst out laughing like they were old friends. “Oh, how I’ve missed your rapier wit.”

Had he really?, she wondered nervously. Was he testing her? His laughter sounded sincere enough, but as with her universe’s Garak, it was hard to pierce the surface of it, hard to tell if there really was any truth in what he was saying. This Garak was just as unsettling as the one she knew, just as hard to read, and Dax suddenly felt very much out of her depth. Jadzia hadn’t said anything about Garak being here at all. She’d only mentioned the Intendant and her voracious appetite for self-indulgence.

Well, Dax supposed, maybe she should follow her lead.

“I’m sure the Intendant has missed rather more than just my wit,” she said out loud, and tried not to blush.

Garak snorted. “Oh, I’m sure she has,” he agreed readily. “She’s been so terribly lonely over these last few months. Ever since that vagabond Benjamin Sisko decided to run away and play the rebel with his Terran friends, she’s been practically inconsolable.” Dax bit her tongue, then her lip, struggling to keep her mouth shut. “It’ll improve her mood no end to discover she’s not lost all her privateers to that ridiculous cause.”

“Perish the thought,” Dax replied, smiling. “I know where my loyalties lie.”

His eyes narrowed at that. “I’ll bet you do…”

Dax swallowed again, tightening her tentative grasp on the situation before it had a chance to slip away. She straightened her spine, threw back her shoulders, willed her whole body to take on the form of a mercenary, an untouchable spacefarer with nothing to fear. If she was in any danger here, Garak would have struck her down already; that he was still standing there staring at her said that she was safe enough, and that made it less of a struggle to be bold and arrogant.

“As pleasant as this is,” she started, twisting her lips into a sneer. “I think I’ve kept the Intendant waiting for long enough, don’t you?”

Garak coughed, looking almost uncomfortable for a second or two. “Of course.” He coughed again. “Her patience is second only to your own.”

For a moment, Dax saw the Elim Garak she knew, the good-natured (if somewhat elusive) tailor, quick with his mouth but quicker still with his eyes. Was this one as attentive to detail as her Garak? Could she afford to find out?

“Exactly,” she said, giving her voice an edge. “So, if you don’t mind…”

“Of course,” he said, lowering into a sarcastic bow. “Should I take you to her immediately? Or would you like to freshen up first?” He cast a disapproving eye over her appearance, shaking his head as he took in her hands, dark with bruises on one side and slick with blood on the other, and the painful dents in her lower lip where she’d bitten blood from it again and again. “I’m sure I could find someone to make you more presentable…” His lips twitched. “Though I can’t promise miracles.”

For a second, Dax thought of taking him up on that offer, but she stopped herself before she could get the words out. If push came to shove with the Intendant — and she had no doubt it would — she supposed she could use the injuries to her advantage; it wouldn’t take much to convince her that she’d earned them in a skirmish with Sisko and his rebels, or some such thing. If she could play down the pain and play up the damage, it could get her more easily on the Intendant’s side. She just needed to play it right, keep her cards close to her chest and play the ones that fit the field; if there was one thing she’d learned from all those hours she’d lost in late-night games of tongo with Quark, it was never to throw down a card that still held some profit.

No, she decided. She would keep the blood and the bruises, wear them like badges of honour, let the little lightning-strikes of pain ground her, and wait for a chance to boast about them.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said to Garak. “You know the Intendant. She likes her tributes a little rough around the edges.”

“Indeed,” Garak deadpanned, rolling his eyes.

The forced civility between them stretched almost to breaking point as he gave another exaggerated bow, gesturing somewhat expansively for her to follow him. He moved off quickly, making his disdain clear, and didn’t even bother to look back and see if she was following; Dax had a sneaking suspicion that the two of them travelled this particular road very often, and that it grated just a little more on Garak’s waning patience each time.

Once they’d settled into a comfortable pace, he finally did turn to look back at her again, eyes narrowed. Dax met his suspicion with a condescending smile. “Is there something I can do for you?”

He rubbed his hands together, briskly, as though to warn them, and as he did, his eyes narrowed a little more. “I was just wondering…” he pondered, danger dripping from his voice. “Where have you been these past few months?”

Dax knew better than to fall into that particular trap, and she forced her expression to harden. “Come now, Garak,” she said. “You don’t really expect me to tell you that.”

Garak rolled his eyes, as though he’d been expecting that. “Of course,” he muttered, more to himself than to Dax, and not bothering to hide his bitterness. “Nobody ever tells the lackey anything.”

“Exactly,” Dax said, forcing herself to sound cool and calloused, like she imagined her counterpart would, filled with the adrenaline of authority and fresh from a long time out in the vastness of space. “When you treat me as well as she does, then you can wonder all you like.”

Garak actually laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you, my dear, but you’re not my type.”

Dax returned his laugh, feeling the tension in her shoulders lessen just a little. It was a shame, she thought, that Elim Garak was so untrustworthy in any universe; it was hard enough to trust the one she knew on Deep Space Nine, and she’d known him for a couple of years now. This one was darker, dangerous; he was like everything else in this universe, glinting with promise on the rare occasion he caught the light, but as dark and deadly as obsidian the rest of the time. Trusting him would be madness; that went without saying.

Still, though, she couldn’t help thinking that under different circumstances, they would get along strikingly well. His sense of humour echoed hers nicely, and even when he was taking offence at something, he did it with a self-deprecating smile on his face, just like she did; it was comforting to see an echo of something so simple in a place so complicated, and despite her better judgement, she let herself take some comfort from it. Oh, she’d read the reports, of course and she knew all about his attempts to overthrow the Intendant, but if what those reports said about this place was to be believed, she’d more than deserved it. Better to throw her lot in with an untrustworthy Cardassian who was at least up-front about his untrustworthiness than the snake-skinned Intendant.

Stop it, she chided herself, shaking her head. She wasn’t here to pick sides or play at politics; letting herself get invested, even hypothetically, in anything here was extremely dangerous, not to mention stupid. She needed to keep her head down if she wanted any chance of surviving at all, and that meant keeping it out of their business. This wasn’t her Deep Space Nine, and these people weren’t her friends. Hell, it wasn’t even her damned universe; nothing that happened here was any of her business. Nothing. She needed to remember that.

It was just hard when all she could see when she closed her eyes was the fear-touched anger in Jadzia’s.

“Don’t expect a warm welcome,” Garak warned her as he slowed his pace; though the lighting was different, the layout was the same, and Dax recognised the outer levels of the habitat ring. “She’s not exactly the most trusting sort at the moment. This rebellion nonsense has her up in arms, and she’s even more unreasonable than usual. I hope for your sake that you’ve brought her a worthy tribute.” He gave her another appraising look, shaking his head with obvious disdain. “Aside from the obvious, I mean. I’m afraid a few crates of worthless contraband and a quick roll between the sheets isn’t going to cut it this time.”

Dax grimaced. Jadzia hadn’t said anything about this, either, though Dax hadn’t really been so naive as to expect a free ride . Not that it really mattered either way; she was too deep into the lions’ den to step back now. She would find a way around the Intendant; that, at least, Jadzia had taught her well, and so she shrugged off this latest blow like she did all the others, stretching and smiling and looking for all the world like she knew exactly what she was dealing with.

“Why don’t you let me worry about pleasing the Intendant,” she said, “and go back to worrying about whether your shoes match your uniform.”

It must have been a passable imitation of Jadzia’s playful menace, because Garak gave an irritated cough and picked the pace up once again.

Dax smiled as she followed, and tried not to think too hard about how good it felt to be so effortlessly intimidating, how exciting to incite such fear without even trying. She could feel the violence pulsing again at the edge of her mind, fed by the excitement, but she was in no position to pull out the knife or punch the bulkhead or employ any of her growing collection of self-control tactics; she couldn’t stifle the feeling here, not with Garak so alert and attentive, keyed in to her every breath. So, instead, because it was all she could think of, she bit down on her tongue and thought of Kira. Kira, with her passion and her strength, Kira who looked at her with such boundless faith. Kira, Kira, Kira.

The name was like a mantra, whispered inside her head, over and over in time with the pressure of her teeth against her tongue. Kira. Nerys. And bit by bit, a little more with each syllable, she felt the violence grow less, never retreating completely, but quieting just enough that she could keep putting one foot in front of the other, just enough that she could keep breathing, slow and steady, deep and even, calm and composed. Just enough, at least for now.

At last, after what felt like a lifetime of careful self-control, Garak came to a stop. Distracted as she was, it took Dax a moment to realise that they’d arrived, that the door suddenly in front of her must lead to Kira — no, to the Intendant. She was here, she realised dumbly. She was here and it was time. She needed to pull herself together now, to put on her best poker-face and take up the hand she’d been dealt.

Play the game, she thought, and took comfort in hazy memories of late nights in Quark’s. Play the game. The risk’s to you, Lieutenant, so check your cards, spin the wheel, and confront, confront, confront.

“Thank you,” she said to Garak, willing herself to sound dismissive and not just nervous. “You can go now.”

He stared at her for a moment, surprised, then shrugged as if to say ‘it’s your funeral’. Apparently, his job description did not include arguing for the sake of it, for all that she could tell he enjoyed it; besides, he seemed to relish the idea of Dax getting herself in trouble by not letting him announce her arrival, and she supposed that in itself was enough to still his tongue.

Well, she thought, let him underestimate her all he liked; the less he thought of her, the better her chances of outsmarting him when it mattered. And the Intendant too, come to think of it, though she somewhat doubted that she would be quite so easily turned away.

Once Garak left her alone, Dax took a couple of much-needed moments to brace herself. She still felt edgy, hot underneath her skin, anger and malice closing in and turning her vision red, making it hard to think. It might work to her advantage, she thought hopefully, if the Intendant was really as unreasonable as Garak implied; a little aggression went a long way when dealing with the unreasonable, Dax had learned, and even before Joran had made it so alluring she had never been afraid of raising her voice to make a necessary point. That was one thing she could still thank Curzon for, she supposed in the half-second before Joran surged up again and shoved Curzon and his honourable intentions aside.

There’s no room for idiots like him in a place like this, he told her, sweet and seductive in her mind, and Dax had to struggle again to keep from listening to him.

She looked around, checked that the corridor was all but deserted, and palmed the edge of Jadzia’s knife again. Not much, just enough to break the skin, just enough to push down the whispers, just enough to silence that sweet-deadly voice, just enough to keep that blood-streaked palm from closing into a fist. Just enough.

Her hand throbbed, a painful mess of blood and bruises, but from what she’d learned of the Intendant she suspected the damage would do her more good than harm. According to Jadzia, and Kira and Julian’s reports, the Intendant was an egotist and a sadist; no doubt she would delight in the sight of such raw wounds, take pleasure in the flicker of pain dancing behind the violence, relish the idea that Dax might have been marked to defend the Alliance’s honour against those damned dirty rebels. From what she’d learned about her, Dax suspected they would get along wonderfully. At least, if Joran had anything to say about it.

Taking a final steadying breath, she pressed the door chime.

“Enter.”

The voice alone was enough to send a chill up her spine, freezing her in place. Dax squeezed the blade of the knife one last time, steel sliding through flesh, and gulped sterile station air. It was a very long moment before she summoned the strength to slip the blade back into its sheath, and an even longer one before she found the courage to step through the waiting doors.

What she saw drove the air right out of her lungs.

She was not prepared. How could she be? Nothing in any universe could prepare her for the sight of Kira Nerys — her Kira, her Nerys — clad in a figure-hugging bodysuit, lounging luxuriantly on an overstuffed couch and fawning over an entourage of scantily-clad slaves. Nothing in any universe could prepare her for the smouldering heat in her eye, the wanton desire, the unabashed gluttony, the ravenous hunger for anything but food. Nothing in any universe could have prepared her for that.

Somewhere in the corner of her swiftly short-circuiting brain, Dax knew how important it was, now more than ever, to focus. She needed to keep her thoughts clear and her body straight, needed to keep up the facade of authority and carelessness, to behave like she would have done if she’d seen this scene a thousand times before. Now, more than ever, she needed to truly be her care-free counterpart, to truly be Jadzia. On every possible level, she knew it, and yet Dax still found herself standing there helplessly in the doorway, open-mouthed and slack-jawed, paralysed and utterly unable to do anything but stare.

“Well, well, well…” the Intendant purred, stretching languidly on the couch and turning that ravenous, wanton gaze right on Dax. “What do we have here?”

Just like that, all her careful planning dissolved, everything she’d learned so well from Jadzia disappearing as though they hadn’t even discussed it at all, her faculties abandoning her entirely and leaving behind a stammering little girl, completely in over her head. Dax floundered, flushed and speechless, fumbling to shape her useless tongue into something that sounded like words.

“Kira…?”

And just like that, the smouldering heat was gone, replaced by something hard and cold as ice. “Intendant,” she corrected. “I admit, it’s been a while since you last showed your face around here, but surely it’s not been so long that you’ve forgotten your place?”

Dax bowed her head, grateful for the excuse to look at the floor instead. “I’m sorry, Intendant,” she mumbled; the shame came easily to her voice, hot as the blush on her skin. “I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, I’m sure you didn’t.” She heard a flurry of motion, and knew without having to look up that the Intendant was rising from the couch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw an expansive, exaggerated gesture, followed instantly by a coolly-issued command: “Leave us.”

For a fleeting and foolish moment, Dax thought the Intendant was talking to her. She was just on the brink of turning around and stumbling out the way she’d come, ashamed and awkward, when she realised that she was actually speaking to her harem of slaves. There were only three or four of them, but they all moved as one, scurrying in perfect sync to do their mistress’s bidding, so fast that Dax practically had to leap to get out of their way.

Apparently, this version of Kira liked to play with her food in private; Dax wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or terrified.

She didn’t have much time to decide either way. Before she’d even fully recovered from the stampede of fleeing slaves, she found herself thrown up against the nearest bulkhead, stars spinning before her eyes as the back of her head slammed against the solid surface. The jolt of pain grounded her, banishing the uncertainty for a moment or two, but then the Intendant pressed up against her, figure-hugging fabric pressed tight against the loose folds of her privateer’s garb and fingers wrapped around her throat, and all rational thought flew out of her head once more. Everything was a blurry haze of panic and fear and sensation, fabric and skin and Kira, and she couldn’t think at all.

“You forget yourself.” The Intendant’s voice was a hum, the pulse of a warp core about to blow, but she sounded so much like Nerys that Dax could hardly breathe. “Calling me by that name in front of them. What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t,” Dax admitted, and even she wasn’t sure whether the tremor in her voice was born of fear or something entirely less innocent. “I mean… I’m sorry, Intendant. It’s been a long time, and I’m not… that is… I mean, I wasn’t. Thinking. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Of course you weren’t.” The Intendant sighed, low and breathy against the shell of her ear. Every syllable, carefully enunciated, was so suggestive that Dax’s breath caught, gurgling helplessly in her closed-up throat. “That much is woefully obvious.”

Dax tried, and failed, to swallow. “It… it won’t happen again.”

“It had better not,” the Intendant said flatly.

She held her there for a few more moments, presumably to make sure the point had penetrated Dax’s obvious haze, then finally let her go, releasing her throat and pulling away. Though she knew better than to give into the weaknesses of her body, Dax couldn’t stop herself from whimpering, breathing rough and ragged as she sagged back against the bulkhead, struggling just to stay on her feet.

The Intendant stared at her for a beat, then husked a throaty chuckle. “My, my…” she said. “It really has been a while, hasn’t it?”

With a considerable effort, Dax pulled herself upright, stumbling away from the wall and holding herself steady by sheer force of will. Once again, she tried to channel Jadzia’s roguish carelessness, that cocksure confidence and steadfast refusal to care about anything. This was the only Kira that Jadzia knew, she reminded herself. This was the only Nerys she’d ever met. Jadzia wouldn’t be thrown by the sight of her, and she definitely wouldn’t be reduced to trembling by a little roughness. She’d probably think of it as foreplay.

This whole universe was a viper’s nest of physicality, it seemed; violence and sex came as second nature to almost everyone, and usually hand-in-hand. Dax couldn’t deny that there was a part of her that appreciated the raw animal instinct of it all — Curzon’s influence, probably — but it was still a difficult adjustment for someone who had spent so much time living under Federation prudishness. By her own admission, Dax was much freer with her body than most other Starfleet officers she knew, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have her own boundaries, and it was difficult adapting to this place, a place where even those few safe-words did not exist.

It had been easier with Jadzia, laughing off the sensuality of it all and taking the strangeness of the situation in stride. It was easy to laugh off the lingering touches and the lack of modesty, the physicality that skirted so close to inappropriate, easy to shrug it off and roll with it because they were both Jadzia Dax; they were both the same person, living in the same body, so why waste time on blushes and embarrassment? She was familiar and comfortable with her own body, after all; why should it be surprising to learn that another version of herself was just as familiar with hers?

But, of course, Jadzia wan’t Kira. Kira was Kira, and Dax had spent the best part of two years making the very clear distinction between inappropriate physical appreciation and simple innocent friendship. Any thoughts of a Kira who looked and dressed and acted like this were locked up firmly in the most private corners of her mind, the secret subconscious that came to her only in dreams and fantasies, the last refuge of the hopelessly infatuated.

The very idea of being shoved up against the wall by a barely-dressed Kira dressed with want in her eyes… well, it wasn’t a situation she’d ever expected to have to deal with in practice, and now that it was actually happening, Dax couldn’t deny that she felt more than a little helpless. Her mind was very clear on where she needed to stand here, but her body was saying something else entirely, and they were both as loud and insistent as each other. It was too much input, an overload of conflicting thoughts and feelings, and though she knew how important it was to stay in character, it really was all she could do just to stay upright, much less to remember that all of this was supposed to be coming as second nature.

“Intendant,” she stammered, locking her knees to keep from falling. “I need—”

But the Intendant didn’t want to hear it. “I’m sure you need plenty of things,” she said, waving a dismissive hand, and Dax flushed hotly when she realised what she meant. “A lesson in etiquette, for one.” Her smile turned softer, and yet somehow more sinister at the same time. “But business before pleasure, hm? What did you bring me?”

Dax didn’t have an answer, and she must have floundered for a moment or two too long, because the Intendant started tapping her foot, looking deadly.

“I…” she managed. “I mean, well… I didn’t…”

“You didn’t?” Suddenly, the Intendant didn’t look or sound anything at all like Kira Nerys. “You didn’t?”

Her eyes narrowed, and her lips did too, thinning until they were nothing more than a thin line, a slash of displeasure across her face. Suddenly, Dax’s body was giving her an entirely new set of signals — ‘run! run for your life!’ — and suddenly it was taking every ounce of strength she possessed not to heed those cries, to turn around and flee while she still could. Even Joran had abandoned her now, it seemed; whatever vestige of fury still existed within her was nowhere to be found now, no doubt cowering in a corner just like the rest of her, the deranged maniac seemingly just as wary of this woman as Jadzia and Curzon, and all the others were.

“I was busy,” she forced out, willing her voice to harden into steel, even as the rest of her quaked and trembled, clenching her teeth and hoping it would look more like ire than terror. “You’re not the only one who has things to do, you know.”

She didn’t see the Intendant move, though, she must have done, because the next thing Dax knew was a swirl of stars and a reeling bolt of queasy pain. She was sprawled on her back, she realised as her vision cleared, jaw aching and head pounding. Kira’s shapely hips swayed above her, and the thin line of her mouth was curled up into a smile that was anything but amused.

“I could have you killed for that,” she said. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”

Dax struggled to her feet, rubbing her tender jaw and smearing it with blood. “You’d miss me too much,” she offered weakly.

The Intendant huffed. “Sadly, I’m afraid you’re right. It’s so hard to find good entertainment these days.”

She looked at Dax for a moment, piercing and suspicious, and for a heart-stopping moment Dax was certain that she’d blown her cover somehow. Were her spots patterned differently to Jadzia’s? Did the Intendant really know her counterpart well enough to tell if they were? She hadn’t thought to check little things like that back in the rebel camp, and now she was kicking herself for the oversight. How could she explain it? Could she fabricate some elaborate lie about Trill physiology? But then, what if the Intendant knew about Trill physiology? What if she—

“You’re hurt.”

—oh.

In the flurry of overwhelming sensation and emotion, Dax had almost forgotten her brutalised hands. She jerked them quickly behind her back, clasping them together and drawing strength from the pulse of pain.

“It’s nothing,” she insisted.

“You’ve always been a terrible liar, my dear.”

That was true enough, Dax supposed, and conceded the point with a shrug. “Well, it’s nothing serious, anyway.”

The Intendant sauntered forwards. She closed the space between them in a single long stride, pressing in close and tripping playful fingertips down the length of Dax’s arms, bare beyond the shoulder-short sleeves of Jadzia’s loose-fitting shirt. Dax’s pulse began to race, heart pounding with a surge of fresh adrenaline, excitement that had nothing whatsoever to do with the ache in her jaw or the blood-soaked bruises on her hands. She swallowed hard as thin fingers wrapped tight around her wrists, tugging her hands back out in front of her.

“Come, now,” the Intendant pressed, softly seductive. “I think we’re both past the point of modesty, don’t you?”

Dax squeaked helplessly. “I…”

The Intendant chuckled, chiding but sober. “You silly thing. Let me take a look.”

What choice did she have but to comply?

The Intendant was shockingly gentle as she studied the mess of Dax’s self-inflicted suffering. It was a sharp and unexpected contrast to the violence of a moment before, and Dax found herself reeling once again. The look on her face was sorrowful, almost reverent, and as she leaned forward to press a possessive kiss to the angry dark bruises, tongue flicking out to taste the blood, Dax could have sworn she saw the ghost of Nerys behind her eyes.

“Who did this to you?” the Intendant demanded after a moment. There was fire in her eyes now, passion so much like Kira’s, and it burned. “Who dared to mark my property?”

“Your property?” Dax snapped, then ducked reflexively in anticipation of a blow. It didn’t come, though; the Intendant just continued staring at her hands like she hadn’t spoken at all. Annoyed, Dax pulled her hands back, hiding them behind her back once more. “Nobody did anything to me,” she said. “And even if they had, it wouldn’t be any of your business.”

“Dangerous words,” the Intendant warned. She didn’t raise a hand, but Dax could tell she wanted to. “On this station, everything is my business. You know that as well as I do.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve not been away that long, and feigning forgetfulness won’t protect you. Remember your place, or get out of my sight.”

How would Jadzia play this?, Dax wondered. Would she bow her head and apologise, swear fealty to this dark and deadly woman who seemed to hold the whole sector in her hands, or would she be all the more defiant just because she’d been told not to? Both seemed almost as viable as the other, and she had no idea how far Jadzia’s arrogance went, how close to the edge she was willing to go to prove her point, or how deeply she was in the Intendant’s pocket.

Truth be told, she didn’t even really know what she herself would do in this situation. She’d never been down at heel to anyone before in her life. Not in any of her lives, in fact, and though Curzon and Lela had done their share of grovelling as diplomat and litigator, they had never been threatened or hurt if they didn’t comply. Their heads were bowed by ambition, not necessity. They grovelled because they wanted to, because it was part of their job, because…

…because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get what they want.

Just like her.

That was all Dax needed remember why she was here, and there was her answer. It didn’t matter what the Intendant thought of her; she was not Kira Nerys, so why should Dax care if she thought of her as a spineless mercenary? What did she care if she thought anything at all, just so long as she got Jadzia’s benzocyatizine out of her? What did she care about the politics of this station, or its inhabitants? She had a job to do, and if she had to play the submissive boot-licker to get it, then so be it.

“I’m sorry,” she said, bowing her head and biting down on her lip. “You’re right. I did forget my place.”

“Yes,” the Intendant said. “You did.” She cupped her chin and forced her to meet the fire-forged steel of her eyes. “You disappear for months at a time, then come sauntering back like you never left, without so much as a trinket in tribute. And then, if that’s not bad enough, you talk down to me like I’m some lowly Terran.” She spat. “It’s simply unacceptable. You may not be one of them, little Trill, but I can put you to work just as easily if you push me too far.”

Dax swallowed. “I know,” she lied. “And I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”

“I should hope so,” the Intendant retorted, releasing Dax’s face and letting her head drop back down. “Now, then. Let’s try again, shall we?” The threat was palpable. “What happened to your lovely hands?”

It was exactly the question that Dax had been hoping for, the perfect opportunity to slide her way into the Intendant’s good graces. Here was her opportunity to claim the wounds as marks of Alliance honour, trophies won in a skirmish with the rebels. She could even blame Sisko himself, if she wanted to, and fuel the fire of the Intendant’s bitterness over his betrayal. If the Intendant thought for one moment that she’d been bruised and bloodied by the very man who she hated so much, the game would be won without another word from either of them.

The path was sure, as clear and easy as anything Dax had ever done in her life, and yet the lie would not come. She felt ill at ease, wholly out of her depth, and it was all she could do just to look the Intendant in the eye and not see her Nerys. She was hanging on by less than a thread to every lie she told, and the more widely she stretched the truth, the more obvious she felt. There were too many balls in the air, too many cards in play, too many wheels spinning and dice rolling, and even Quark would retreat if he was here right now. She knew it. Deep inside, where her heart trembled against her ribcage, she knew she couldn’t get away with it. Not here, not yet. Not while she was still reeling, not while Kira’s face was so close, not until she remembered how to breathe.

Maybe Jadzia could pull it off, but she wasn’t here and she was no more use to Dax now than Quark. It was just her, just Dax and the scream in her head and the pain in her hands and this fire-eyed woman who was not Kira, this passion-crazed Bajoran who could never be Nerys.

She was in too deep, tangled up in a web of lies and deceit, words and names she couldn’t remember and thoughts that were not hers. She was lost, stumbling and stupid, and the only thing she could count on in that moment was the truth. And so, hating herself for her weakness, she told it.

“It was me,” she admitted. The words were out before she had a chance to second-guess them, and a shiver tickled up her spine. It felt strange to say the words out loud, shameful to admit the truth of it. “I got angry and there was nobody around for me to hit. So I hit the wall instead.”

The Intendant quirked a brow. Dax balled her fists behind her back, sucking in her breath at the pain, then grimaced as the Intendant pulled them back out in front of her, turning them over so the blood-lined palms faced upwards. “Is that all you did?” she asked, breath suddenly shallow.

“No.” It was by pure reflex that Dax reached for the handle of the knife, still sheathed safely at her hip, a demonstration without the need to say the words. “That’s not all.”

The Intendant took a long step back, and Dax recognised the same smouldering look that she’d cast on her slaves, ravenous and wanton. She wanted to duck her head, to sidestep the heat, but she was trapped like a Cardassian vole staring down the barrel of a phaser-rifle, helpless and reduced to incoherent squeaking. She gripped the knife a little tighter, swallowing back the bite of pain.

“You poor little thing,” the Intendant purred, watching her with fever in her eyes. “How difficult it must have been for you, out there in the depths of space with nobody to talk to… all alone for all those months without a soul to share your troubles with…”

The words had the taste of a trap, or at least an innuendo, but Dax didn’t know how to dodge it. “Is it any wonder that my first thought was coming back here to you?” she asked, recalling what Jadzia told her about the Intendant’s malignant narcissism. She let her voice get low, the tone shaping itself unnaturally to her mouth. “I really, really missed you.”

“Oh, I can tell.” The Intendant chuckled, rising to the bait just as Jadzia had said she would. “Otherwise you wouldn’t dare show your face in my quarters without a tribute.”

“Exactly,” Dax agreed readily, allowing herself a moment to think of Nerys, to remember her passion and her faith, to help the lie go down easier. “You cloud my judgement.”

The Intendant chuckled, all false modesty and razor-edged smiles. “I’ve been told I have that effect,” she said, then sighed. “You really should consider yourself lucky, you know. It’s been so boring here since that low-life pirate Benjamin Sisko ran off to start his little ‘rebellion’.” She hissed, then seemed to catch herself and stared at Dax again, lust in those fire-burned eyes. “Besides, you know I can’t resist those delectable spots of yours.”

Dax swallowed; her mouth was suddenly dry, and the room felt unbearably hot. “Thank you, Intendant.”

“You’re very welcome.” That sinister smile turned even sharper, a warning or a promise, or some twisted hybrid of the two. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway. What would I do with another crate of useless contraband?” She leered, licking her lips. “No, no, no. I can think of far more enjoyable ways for you to pay tribute to me…”

The implication was obvious. Dax opened her mouth, desperate to say something, but she couldn’t make a sound. It was as though her throat had closed up completely; she could still feel the the Intendant’s fingers tight around her neck as she squeezed, could still feel the solid coolness of the bulkhead as she was thrown against it, could still feel that figure-hugging fabric rustling against her, warm and tight and— oh, she was in trouble. She was in so much trouble.

She had to get out of this. She had to run away, even blow her cover if that was what it took, to do anything, everything, to do whatever she could to keep this from happening. There were so many reasons why it couldn’t, so many reasons why she needed to come back to herself, to find her voice, to stop this now, while she still could before it went too far, before it got too dangerous, before—

No.

The stakes were too high, her inner tongo player was crying. The risk was too great, the cards weren’t right, and the wheel was jammed. She had to evade, she had to retreat, she had to—

“Come here.”

Dax groaned. Ignoring the instruction would be suicide, and she knew it. The Intendant would strip her anyway, and flay her while she was at it. She knew that, knew that she had to obey, but she could no more move than she could speak. She was rooted to the spot, paralysed with fear and panic and something that she desperately hoped was not desire (but oh, she still looked like Nerys, didn’t she? she looked so much like her…). To obey or to run away, what did it matter? She couldn’t think, could scarcely breathe; how was she supposed to move in either direction?

She could hear Joran whispering in the back of her mind, tickling words like fingertips along the edge of her spine, telling her how delightful it would be, how close the Intendant was to the Kira she wanted (but how could he know that when she’d tried so hard to keep it hidden?), how similar she was to her Nerys. His smile was sharper than hers, and more dangerous too, a blade inside her head just as keen as the one at her hip. He twisted that blade in deep and sharp, telling her again and again how good it would feel, how wonderful to yield to her at last — no, no, to make her yield — and before she knew what was happening, her eyes were rolling up into the back of her head, and her knees were buckling.

The Intendant shrugged as Dax sank to the floor, watching her with the lazy carelessness of someone who was just going through the motions of politeness, someone who didn’t really care how this happened, so long as it did, and Dax realised in a sudden panic that she didn’t care about anything at all. She didn’t care what Dax wanted. She didn’t care what Dax thought or felt, or even who she was. She was the Intendant, and she would have her tribute one way or the other.

“Very well,” she said, and took a step forward. “If that’s how you want it…”

But I don’t, Dax tried to scream. I don’t want it like this, I don’t want you like this, I don’t want her like you!

She wanted to lash out, to kick and fight and struggle, to harness every last ounce of Joran’s hate and rage and fury, to use every weapon she had, to get the Intendant away from her, to destroy this woman who wore Kira’s face but was not her Nerys, to separate herself from this moment, this forbidden thing, this chance to make real what she had dreamed of so often and never imagined she would truly experience (and definitely not like this, oh no, never like this…).

She wanted to drown in Joran, to drown in his violence, to thrive on the pain in her hands, the bruises and the blood and everything, to drink it all down and let it fuel her, let it burn in her until she’d branded her mark on the Intendant’s perfect skin — on Kira’s perfect skin. She would give anything to be Joran just then, to be ruthless and violent and so full up with hate that she could tear this woman to pieces before she could lay a hand on her. She wanted… she wanted…

But then, Joran wanted too. He wanted this, just like the Intendant did. Violence didn’t just come from killing, he reminded her, and Dax’s body responded. Traitorous, hateful, it responded, growing flushed and heated as though by instinct, reacting, aching, wanting. There could be pain in pleasure, he reminded her, and what could be more painful or pleasurable than this?

Didn’t you dream about this?, he demanded. Didn’t you wake up all those lonely nights soaked with sweat and need, aching and sticky and desperate for a moment just like this?

Not like this, she thought, trembling. Not like her.

But why not?, he asked. Why not this? Why not her? They’re all the same aren’t they? So why not?

She had no answer to that. She had nothing at all.

Let her, he urged, so much more seductive than the Intendant. Let her take you. Then you can take her too.

The Intendant was right above her now, so much passion aflame behind her eyes that Dax could almost believe she really was Kira. There was a kind of urgency in her, too, uncontrolled and unrestrained; it was intoxicating, at least to the part of her that was Joran.

Dax closed her eyes, tried to think of her other self, the Jadzia who was going through all of this alone, the Jadzia who was depending on her to see this mission through, the Jadzia who had nobody else. It hurt less to think of her than than to think of Kira, imagining her passion when the Intendant’s eyes flashed. It hurt less to think of Jadzia, frightened and hallucinating, than to realise that Joran was right, that she really had dreamed about this moment, that there was a part of Dax that wanted this too. Even before Joran, even before any of this, she had wanted this.

It hurt less to think of that other Dax, a Dax made dark by a darkened universe, than it did to think of herself, to realise that she wanted this woman, this twisted Intendant who stood over her, this imperfect image of Kira Nerys taking her face in her hands, looking into her eyes, holding her and taking her and claiming her.

“Jadzia,” she heard herself whispering, over and over until it was the only thing she could say, the only thing she could think, the only thing in the world that didn’t hurt. “Jadzia, Jadzia, Jadzia…”

When she finally opened her eyes again, vision gone cloudy, the Intendant was smiling. “Such a delectable narcissist,” she purred. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

She leaned in, teasing and enticing, lips hovering barely a breath away from Dax’s own, lust and need and want, passion surging between them too hot to bear. The Intendant would have her, take her, claim her, and as she leaned in, breath ghosting across the blood on her lips, it was by pure reflex that Dax felt her own body surging up, closing the space, meeting the Intendant’s hungry mouth and bearing up with a savagery that surprised them both.

Claim this, she thought, and bit down hard.

She would claim the Intendant too. Just like Joran wanted, just like Dax wanted. She wasn’t Kira, wasn’t her Nerys, but she had her face and she had her voice, and sometimes her eyes took flame in the same way. She wasn’t hers, and she never would be, but Dax could claim her just the same. She could make her want to be hers, then laugh because she never would be. And maybe that would hurt too, but she would survive. As long as the weapon was in her own hand, she could claim the pain as well.

Joran was right, she decided. Pain could be pleasurable.

It would have to be.

Chapter Text

The Intendant wasted no time.

Her quarters were luxuriant to say the least, a study in excess and extravagance that screamed of ancient stories, royalty and decadence, things abandoned long before the stripped-down days of the Federation. The couch alone was almost the size of Dax’s entire bedroom back on Deep Space Nine; she could scarcely imagine how soft it must be, or how many slaves had died so that she could own it.

She didn’t get much time to indulge such thoughts, of course, because the Intendant ground her hips down hard, and the question flew from Dax’s mind along with everything else as that ridiculous skin-tight fabric pressed in all the right places against the loose-fitting leather of Dax’s privateer’s outfit.

Suddenly, the few short metres between the two of them and that luxuriant-looking couch seemed like an impossibly great distance.

She moaned. Though she knew it was dangerous, it seemed that her body had a mind of its own, arching up to meet the tantalising pressure, fabric sliding over fabric, over skin, over her, Bajoran hips sharp and hard against the curves of a belly made taut by the symbiont within. It was all she could do to keep from crying out, to keep from screaming as the Intendant met her teeth and tongue with eager reciprocity, aggressive almost to the point of violence — almost to the point of Joran — as she returned in kind everything Dax tried to take from her. Stars exploded behind her eyes, passion and fury, and she found that she couldn’t breathe.

“How long?” the Intendant murmured, pulling back to bare her teeth against the curve of her throat as Dax scrambled hopelessly to make sense of the question. “How long has it been?”

“Too long.” She was panting, she realised; the Intendant hadn’t even touched her, and already she was panting. “Too long.”

That was true enough, far more for Dax than Jadzia, but of course the Intendant didn’t need to know that. She certainly didn’t need to know how deep that truth ran, how the only release she’d found in months had been drawn out of a body aching for Kira Nerys, sweat and heat and desire, carefully contained in the safe haven of her bedroom so that not a trace remained by the time she got to Ops. The Intendant didn’t need to know that it was her face Dax saw when she closed her eyes, her body she imagined covering hers. She didn’t need to know any of it.

And yet, from the gleam in her eye, she did know. Dax hadn’t said a word, but still the Intendant knew.

She leaned back, eyes impossibly dark as they reflected Dax’s own, and it was all Dax could do to keep from reaching up and pulling her back in, claiming her again, taking her mouth, taking her. She didn’t want to look at her, didn’t want to drown in those dark eyes, those beautiful Bajoran eyes. Kira’s eyes. Kira’s eyes and Kira’s passion and Kira’s heart, Kira’s hands and her lips, the sharp edges of her jaw, the press of her body, of warmth and heat and Kira—

No. She wouldn’t think of that. She couldn’t let herself remember that this woman was Kira. But then, at the same time, it was impossible to forget. She didn’t want to think of Kira at all, but it was so hard to keep her mind clear when the Intendant looked at her like that, when her eyes flashed so much like Kira’s, when her breath hissed through her teeth, so intense and ferocious, when she leaned in, over her and on top of her, commanding and possessing, a ground-down promise of roughness and tenderness and everything in between. It was impossible. Faced with all that, how could she hope to forget the Kira she knew, the Kira she missed, the Kira her body and her heart still ached for?

Kira Nerys was her friend. A good friend, and a good person, a hero to her people, and it was wrong for Dax to taint her like this. It would be wrong if it was anyone, but especially Kira, especially her Nerys, the friend who was not hers at all. It was wrong to be pressed up against a body that was hers but didn’t belong to her, wrong to see her face, wrong to remember beautiful Bajoran eyes, on fire with faith. It was wrong to see her, wrong to think of her, wrong to feel for her. Illicit dreams and feverish fantasies were one thing, but this was real; the body on top of her was real, and the face smiling down at her was real too.

She felt dirty, unclean, so much worse than illicit. Nobody could control their dreams, and fantasies were as safe as holosuites. There was no shame in a little imagination, Dax knew, but there was nothing imagined in any of this. The Intendant was real, and she really was Kira Nerys.

“Stop,” she managed, trying to sit up.

The Intendant, of course, ignored her. Dax was her property now, just like everything else on this station, and she’d be damned if she’d be told what to do by something she owned.

“Poor dear,” she murmured, leaning back in to press her tongue to the spots under Dax’s jaw; in spite of herself, Dax groaned at the contact. “To go so long without a lover’s touch…”

“Don’t,” Dax forced out, the syllable coming as a whimper.

“Did you make do by yourself, I wonder?” She was relentless; Dax shivered, feeling the curve of her smile against the side of her neck, sharp teeth nipping the skin, branding but not breaking as she answered her own question. “Of course you did. You’re such an unrepentant narcissist, I’m sure you had a thousand ways to keep yourself… entertained…”

Dax closed her eyes, struggled to drown out the sound of her voice, Kira’s voice twisted into something new, something perverse. “Don’t,” she said again. “Kira…”

Those animal-sharp teeth sank in deep at that, finally breaking the skin. No doubt she thought it was a warning, or perhaps a punishment, but Dax took strength from the sting, revelled in the prick of blood.

“What have I told you about that?” the Intendant snarled when she pulled back. “You have no right to call me by that name.”

Dax closed her eyes, focused on the marks at her neck, sharp pain and fresh blood. It ignited something within her, a new wave of the rage she’d fought so hard to keep at bay. She didn’t fight it now; she didn’t exactly indulge it either, but she let it bolster her, let it feed the drying dregs of her courage as it trickled away.

“I’ll call you what I like,” she muttered, hearing the words echo with Joran’s voice.

The Intendant fisted her hair, rough, and yanked her head back. Dax sucked in a sharp breath at the discomfort, but did not cry out, taking that pain along with the rest. Irked by the lack of response, the Intendant leaned back in, tongue pressed flat against the mark on her neck, soothing the sting for a moment and then biting down again, harder.

It was a warning this time, a threat, the promise of a worse punishment to come if Dax continued to defy her. Maybe that kind of thing would work on Jadzia, but the Dax beneath her now was someone else entirely. The Intendant didn’t know about the hate bubbling under the surface of her skin; she didn’t know about the anger, the violence, and she certainly didn’t know that the danger would turn itself back on her, fierce and unstoppable as a tidal wave if she did not back away now.

“Are you forgetting your place again?” she demanded, voice as rough as her tongue and sharp as her teeth. “Do I have to remind you?”

“No,” Dax panted.

She tried again to sit up, but the movement only served to press her body more firmly against those perfectly pointed hips. The anger still throbbed through her veins, just as heated as the desire she was trying so desperately not to feel, and between them both, Dax felt as though she had been split in two, her body writhing with two very different kinds of desperation, nerves permanently on the brink of one kind of violence or the other.

“Are you sure about that?” the Intendant demanded, amusement colouring her temper.

“Yes.” The word was a whine. “You don’t have to remind me of anything, Intendant. I know who you are.”

“But do you know who you are?”

And then, all of a sudden, Dax had hands to worry about as well as tongue and teeth and hips, strong sure fingers squeezing roughly at the curve of her breast, so much closer to pain than pleasure (but then, pain was pleasure, wasn’t it?). She gasped, choked, wishing she could fight off her body’s responses, or at least her mind’s desires, one or the other. Something, anything. How could she win if she couldn’t fight at all? How could she best the Intendant when she couldn’t even defeat herself?

“Do I need to remind you? She hummed for a moment, feigning thoughtfulness, then laughed. “ Or perhaps you’d prefer to do it yourself?”

Dax opened her mouth to tell her that it wasn’t necessary, that she knew exactly who she was, but every atom in her body was telling her the opposite. She didn’t know. That was the painful truth. Was she Jadzia or Joran? Which part of her ached for Kira Nerys, arching up into those hands, that mouth, those familiar curves? Which part of her was wet and wanting, more and more with every jolt of pain? Which part of her ached and which part hurt? Who was she, this sick and sordid Dax who let herself respond to this?

The Intendant laughed at her wordlessness; again, she answered her own question. “Yes,” she murmured, thumb pressed against a hardening nipple and, oh, how Dax hated — loved — hated this… “Yes. I think perhaps you should remind me who you are.”

“What—” Dax started, but her breath hitched as the Intendant squeezed her breast again, then bit her shoulder.

“Hush now,” she purred. “Show, don’t tell.”

She pulled back once again, and Dax gasped with relief as her body became her own again, at least as much as it was ever hers any more. The reprieve lasted less than a moment, though, and then the Intendant was reaching for her again, capturing her wrists and bringing her arms up, pulling them in close to study the mottled blue-and-red of her injured hands, tongue trailing over the shallow cuts along her palm, tasting and tempting.

“Tell me, dear…” she pressed in a low murmur. “Just how badly damaged are those lovely hands of yours?” She caressed the undersides of Dax’s wrists, as close to tender as she was capable of, and licked another line of blood from her palm. “Can you still use them?”

Dax clenched her jaw, struggling to rise above the Intendant’s voice, the rough pressure of her tongue, the blood and the bruises and the sweet, sweet pain.

“I don’t…”

But trying to speak was futile, and trailed off into another hopeless whimper as the Intendant drew back and traced her thumb across the trail her tongue had just drawn, digging in with the edge of her nail across the thin red lines; they looked so small, so thin and insignificant, but that didn’t stop it from hurting like hell. The pain was just as sharp even without the blood flowing fresh, as biting and brutal as if it was, and it made Dax shudder, a ripple of anger-turned-desire quivering through her, so much more intoxicating than pain should be.

“Oh…” she gasped, grasping desperately, palm closing into a fist over the Intendant’s thumb, the white-hot pain of her nail mingling with the dull pounding throb of the bruises cracking across her knuckles.. “…oh.”

“That’s what I thought.”

She chuckled, trailing kisses back up to the low-cut collar of Dax’s borrowed shirt, and licked a slow path back up the sensitive line of spots. She came to rest just under Dax’s ear, breath hot and hungry as her teeth teased the hyper-sensitive skin, barely even tickling. Dax clenched her jaw, trying not to sob, struggling to keep herself under control, but she could barely think through the red haze of heat and want.

“Please…” she rasped, but she had no idea what she was begging for.

“Yes,” The Intendant laughed, breath and teeth and lips. “All those lonely months, out there with just those poor wounded hands for company… no wonder you’re so eager. No wonder you’re so hungry. No wonder you’re so…”

“Don’t,” Dax pleaded again. “Don’t.”

The Intendant pulled away. “Oh, don’t you worry,” she said, inching back, and Dax gasped with relief as cool air flooded in to balm her overstimulated body. “I won’t.”

Dax was panting. “Thank—”

You will.”

For a moment, Dax didn’t understand. She just blinked and gaped, body still trembling as it fought off the influx of contradictory sensations. “What?” she managed pathetically.

“You heard me.” The Intendant’s face was like stone, like a Cardassian. “Put those poor abused hands to good use.” There was danger in her eyes, the colour of obsidian. “Show me exactly how you kept yourself entertained in that cramped little tin-can you call a ship. Show me how you passed the time, out there all alone with no-one to talk to and no-one to interrupt.” Her lips curled into a deadly smile, and Dax shivered. “Show me all the dirty things you did to yourself while you thought of me.”

Dax choked; the very idea sent another jolt of heat right through her, unwitting and unwanted, and she shut her eyes in a desperate bid at banishing it.

What’s the problem?, demanded a voice inside her head, Joran or Curzon, she couldn’t tell. It would hardly be the most sordid thing you’ve ever done, would it?

That was true enough, but it didn’t help. Every part of her was alight with sensation, skin too sensitive, nerves too exposed, but it felt so good that she could barely stand it. The violence surged in her, rushing up and out through her hands, pouring in to fill the space where the new blood flowed. Her limbs felt like they were on fire, her muscles twitching on the edge of spasm, like they didn’t know whether to seek out pleasure or pain or both, and the sight of Kira’s face warped into a cold cruel smile — an Intendant’s smile — sent a pulse right through her, igniting the blood on her hands and the heat she’d tried so hard to douse between her legs.

It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever done, that was true; even before she knew about Joran, the Dax symbiont had a list of perversions light-years long. But that didn’t help, not now. Everything about this felt so wrong, so twisted and discordant, but she couldn’t suppress the ache, the desire and the heat, need and want and pain, the sight of Kira’s face and the sound of her voice, and the irrepressible knowledge that it was not her, that it was all wrong, all so very wrong, that this wasn’t the Kira she knew, wasn’t the Kira she wanted—

—but oh, she did want her. This black soul, this deadly sadist drawing out the pain and feeding the violence, whispering promises and threats to the darkest parts of her, enticing and encouraging. She wanted this. She wanted the Intendant. She wanted…

Joran wanted. And what Joran wanted, Dax got.

“Show me,” the Intendant murmured, seductive and dangerous. “Show me how you entertained yourself.”

“Don’t you want me to entertain you instead?” Dax breathed, scrabbling futilely at the lush carpet, seeking any kind of support, any kind of balance.

The Intendant smiled, wet lips at her jaw. “Oh, you will.” Her teeth flashed, and so did her eyes. “All in good time, my impatient little Trill. But first…”

She waved a hand, and Dax let out a low whimper. How could she argue with that? Even if she wanted to, she was powerless: her body and the symbiont’s fractured memories were already taking sides with the Intendant, already lowering her shoulders back against the carpet, hands sliding over the unfamiliar fabric of her own clothing — Jadzia’s clothing — and down towards the pressure of strong hips wrapped in skin-tight fabric, pressed against her own.

She closed her eyes, forced herself to think of Jadzia, the woman who should be wearing these clothes, the woman who should be making love to this Kira, the woman whose place she had taken. She thought of that Jadzia, of her quick wit and the curved blade of her knife, of isoboramine and benzocyatizine, of Trill and Terok Nor, of Benjamin Sisko and Joran Belar, of—

“I’m waiting.” The Intendant kissed her, sudden and possessive. “Don’t tell me all that solitude has made you shy.”

Did Jadzia do this? Dax shivered at the thought, desire striking sharper than lightning inside her. Was this part of the ‘good work’ she claimed to do for the Intendant? Was it part of the ‘easy living’ she missed so badly? Dax wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know the answer, but it gave her some meagre consolation to think that maybe she wasn’t the only Jadzia Dax to harbour illicit thoughts and feelings for Kira Nerys.

She thought of that Jadzia as she slid her hand down, the one from this universe, the one who should be here instead. She remembered all too clearly the sounds she’d made last night as she made love to Benjamin Sisko. Did she think of the Intendant when she slept with him? Did she imagine slender fingers curled inside her, soft Bajoran skin in the place of Sisko’s unyielding hardness? Did she ache for whispered threats, sordid seduction instead of indifference and simplicity? Did she close her eyes and imagine thin sinew in all the places where Sisko was rough and strong? Did she cling to the memory of a different kind of authority, a different kind of passion, a different kind of sex?

Her body responded of its own accord, enjoying the thought even as she hated it. Her hips lifted, aching, to meet the path of her hand as she slipped beneath the fabric, skin on skin, the familiarity of her own touch suddenly strange and thrilling under the Intendant’s watchful gaze. She saw the lust in her eyes, the desire and the want, urgent and unabashed, and turned her face away; she couldn’t bear the sight of Kira looking at her like that, so hungry and so wild, like she wanted nothing more than to devour her. It hurt, almost more than the throbbing of her bruised knuckles as she flexed her fingers, and much more than the shallow cuts as her open palm pushed past the scratchy mercenary’s clothing, sliding over her abdomen and feeling the staccato shifting of the symbiont within.

Dax, she thought, and wished that she could shield her next host from these memories.

“Good,” the Intendant said, and Dax’s tongue flooded with the memory of meat and muscle, of a dead lover’s heart, of blood pouring down her throat, gorged on death.

She pressed her face to the carpet, choking down a moan as her hand slid lower and her hips rose higher. Though she still couldn’t bring herself to look up, she could feel the Intendant’s eyes on her, could see the passion and the fire etched indelibly on the screen of her mind. She could see and feel and sense it all, as though she were looking right at her, and as her fingers found the slick flesh throbbing between her thighs (ready, so ready, too ready…) she couldn’t quite keep herself from imagining, remembering, gasping—

“—Kira.”

In less than the time it took to finish the word, those thin Bajoran fingers were wrapped around her throat again, this time squeezing hard enough to bruise, more shades of purple to add to her collection. Dax choked, struggling for breath, but the Intendant held her too tight, thumb pressed with impossible brutality against her larynx, cutting off any hope of air.

“What have I told you about calling me that?”

Dax tried to apologise, but she couldn’t breathe. How could she apologise when she couldn’t breathe? How could she say anything at all when her vision was closing in and the world was darkening around her? She thrashed, as best she could, but that only made things worse; it drove her forward, bucking, pressing her throat even further into the Intendant’s vice-like grip and pushing her own fingers even more tightly against herself. She couldn’t breathe, but she could feel, and she felt everything.

It was terrible, worse than terrible, but her body reacted like it was wonderful, like it was the best she’d ever had, sense and sensation, fear and feeling, too much but not enough. Another desperate sob tried to claw its way out through the her crushed throat, but all that managed to escape through between the Intendant’s fingers was a horrible choking gurgle. Her eyes rolled back, and the last thing she saw before she gave up on trying to see anything was that sick and sadistic smile tainting Kira’s beautiful face.

“Such a pity,” Kira’s voice murmured sadly, pressing her lips to Dax’s jaw with reverent sorrow. “You used to be so obedient…”

Without warning, she pulled her hand away. Dax gulped air, so desperate to fill her lungs that the urgency almost made her gag. Her throat hurt, a battered pulsing throb that echoed the pain in her knuckles as her fingers still worked between her legs, but she couldn’t gag and she couldn’t rest. Not with the Intendant still hovering over her, not with her hand still so close to her throat, ready to strangle her again, completely this time, if she didn’t get what she wanted.

“In…” she forced out as soon as she could, and her lungs screamed because they still weren’t full enough. “In… ten… dant…”

That twisted smile turned softer, almost sweet. “Much better,” she purred, and when she drew back there was honest affection in those firestorm eyes. “I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me.”

She kissed her again, brief and light. Dax wanted to kiss her back, but she did not have the strength. Her throat felt raw and beaten, her lungs no better, and what little energy she did still have was being spent with increasing fervour between her legs. It hurt. Her hands, her throat, even the throbbing heat turned slicker and wetter by her aching fingers. Everything hurt, all of her, but nothing hurt quite so much as the flash of Kira reflected in the Intendant’s smile.

“I’m sorry…” she forced out, heaving sobs in between desperate lungfuls of air. “I… I’m… I’m sorry…”

The Intendant smiled again, that dazzling smile etched with just enough sweet softness, just enough Kira, and when she leaned in to kiss her again, Dax allowed herself to close her eyes and remember the Kira she knew.

She had tried so hard to resist, to fight the urge to think of her, to fight the urge to make this another twisted fantasy, a dream played out like a holosuite, but real, so real, so wrong. She tried to resist, but she couldn’t. It would be the end of her if she did, the end of her and the end of Jadzia; she couldn’t survive if she forced herself to think about what this really was, about who this really was — not just the Intendant, but Dax, her, a Dax who should know better, a Dax who should control herself, a Dax who was not Joran. She couldn’t. She couldn’t do any of it.

And so she let herself remember. Not imagine, no, but remember. Because it was all she could do. It was all she could manage in this moment, with this woman, this beautiful Bajoran who was not Kira, this woman who looked so much like her… and with herself, her own fingers, her own wet heat, her own need and want and desire. It was all she could do, so desperate and so close and in so much pain. It was all she could do to breathe through broken lungs, to press and rub and slide with aching fingers, to arch with urgent hips, to cry out with cracked and split lips. It was all she could do.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered again, face soaked through with tears and sweat and shame.

And she was. Sorry as her muscles went tight against her fingers, sorry as the spasms shook through her, sorry as she gave the Intendant all she wanted, sorry as she realised it was what she wanted too. Sorry, and again, sorry as the lights exploded behind her eyes, sorry as the world dissolved around her, sorry as cold Trill tears fell on wet Bajoran lips, shaking and silencing the screams as she came. Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, because the only thing she could think of was Kira.

She closed her eyes when it was done, and didn’t open them again for a very long time.

She felt twisted and broken. She felt perverted, as bad as the Intendant, and worse. The Intendant at least had the veil of this universe to shroud her sins; what did Dax have but her own sullied conscience? She felt like a fraud, a traitor. She felt like she had betrayed Kira’s trust, like she’d betrayed Kira herself. She felt like she had betrayed their friendship, that beautiful slow-blooming thing, stripped it of everything it was and everything it could be, torn up every word they’d ever spoken to each other, every moment they’d ever shared, everything they had ever done together. She felt like she’d crossed a line, like she’d done something unspeakable and unforgivable, like she had taken something rare and precious, and twisted it into something unclean.

It was only when she felt the touch of a familiar hand, the backs of warm fingers stroking the side of her face, that she summoned the strength to open her eyes again.

The Intendant was crouched at her side, resting on her haunches, completely naked. The lust in her eyes had lit up the firestorm behind them, turning it to a great cataclysm, a torrent of heat and passion. Dax couldn’t look directly at her, afraid that she’d be burned to ashes. She wondered if Kira looked like this when she made love to Vedek Bareil. Did the world burn around her like this? Was she so brutal, so dangerous? The heat between her legs ignited again at the thought, slick and sore, and she felt sick for letting it happen.

The Intendant sighed, trailing delicate fingers along Dax’s jaw. “You do love to test me,” she said, shaking her head, like she was talking to a disobedient child. “Sometimes I think you enjoy it when I punish you.”

Dax mustered a smile, and that made her feel even worse, bile rushing up to replace the pain in her throat. “You’re very good at it,” she heard herself croak.

“It’s one of my many skills,” the Intendant said, without a trace of false modesty. “And you do bring out the best in me.”

“Thank you, Intendant.”

The hollow placation came almost as second nature; Dax felt like her guard was down, like there was nothing left in her to protect her pride, and the words spilled out of her before she had a chance to step up and stop them. The Intendant seemed pleased, though, if a little surprised, and her features softened.

“Or perhaps it’s the worst…” she mused, lost in self-involved contemplation. “What do you think?”

Dax didn’t want to think at all. It hurt to think, just as it hurt to swallow, just as it hurt to pull her hand free, stained and sticky with shame. The Intendant smiled as she did so, taking her by the wrist and raising her fingers to her mouth; Dax shivered at the sensation, the rough tongue warm against her skin. She closed her eyes again, unable to bear the sight even as it did nothing to block out the sensation, then whimpered as the Intendant flexed her other hand, the one still at her face, shifting to squeeze her jaw, harder and harder, until she opened them again.

“I asked you a question,” she said, lips shaping the words around Dax’s damp fingertips. “What do you think you bring out in me? The best or the worst?”

“I don’t know,” Dax admitted, because she had to say something, then winced at the flash of warning in the Intendant’s eyes. “The best of you is the worst of you. They’re the same thing.”

The Intendant laughed, releasing Dax’s fingers. “Such a clever answer.”

She leaned back in, and when she kissed Dax again it was with an open mouth and a tongue that tasted of sex and blood. Dax nearly choked on it, but she couldn’t push past the part of her that thrived on pain, the part that drew pleasure from her own suffering. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine that the blood came from Kira’s heart, that the sex came from the flushed frustration of awakening, that this was all just another dream, that she was in her bed on Deep Space Nine, that the tongue in her mouth was just a phantasm, the manifestation of subconscious yearnings made rich and sweet by illicit feelings.

After a long moment, sweet-sick and half-imagined, the Intendant pulled away. “You always were a clever little thing,” she murmured, almost affectionate. “Maybe that’s why I keep you around, even when you talk back to me.”

“I’m a challenge,” Dax offered, sounding hoarse and feeling nauseous. “You like a challenge, don’t you?”

“Sadly, I do.” She sighed, a low sound that was almost content. “Whatever shall I do with you?”

Dax closed her eyes again, but only for a moment. “Whatever you want,” she answered sadly, and hated the truth of the condemnation.

Of course, that was exactly what the Intendant wanted to hear, and Dax honestly couldn’t tell whether it was the words themselves that so delighted her, or the exhausted hopelessness in her voice.

“What a splendid idea,” she cooed, leaning back in. “You do still owe me a tribute, after all…”

Dax didn’t say anything as she was hauled up to her knees. She felt almost numb, worn down and worn out, like there was nothing left in her at all. She felt sordid and shaken, disgusted and dirty, the taste in her mouth threatening to make her sick even as the memory of it slicked her thighs all over again. In one moment she wanted nothing more than to crawl into a sonic shower and cleanse herself of all this, but in the next all she wanted in the world was to do it all over again. Her body ached, and so did her soul. She closed her eyes, but all she could see was a Kira Nerys who smiled like she meant it, who took her hand without taking the rest of her, who had beautiful eyes and a smile that could stop worlds, a Kira Nerys who held her not by the throat but by her heart.

Thinking of it hurt almost more than anything else, and when the Intendant took her roughly by the hair it was almost a relief to think of her instead. It was a relief, too, when she pressed her face against wet heat, commands issued roughly from a slender throat, and when she leaned in to do as she was told, it was a relief to replace the taste of her own shame with the taste of something else.

In a strange sort of way, it was peaceful. Down here, pressed against hot flesh and pulsing need, she didn’t need to look up and see that smile. She didn’t need to see her own face reflected back in eyes that looked so much like Kira’s, just as hot but burning so much darker. She didn’t need to think about who she was servicing, about what she was doing and why. She didn’t need to think of Jadzia, of herself or anything else. Curzon had been here a thousand times, and so had Emony. If she held her breath for long enough, she could imagine they were here instead, that this was just another half-lost memory of another long-dead Dax.

There was a blissful simplicity in this, the duty laid out before her. Everyone looked almost the same from this angle, and it was disarmingly easy to just focus in on the task, to do what was expected of her and close her mind to the rest. It didn’t matter that her heart was unclean and her soul was twisted and her mind was torn apart by perverse and sordid thoughts. None of it mattered at all, because when she was here, pressed between the legs of some faceless woman, listening to the discordant hum of whimpers and moans, want and lust, feeling spasms in muscles that were not hers, she could pretend that none of those things existed at all.

Even Joran was silent here, at least for now. The anger and the hate were distant memories, a half-vanished echo of something she might have once been strong enough to feel, and the blood in her veins was too thin now to feel the tug of violence. He could have taken control of her quite easily, pitiful as she was, but why would he? Her body was spent and her mind even more so; what good was she to him when she was little more than a hollow husk, a weakling on its knees? What use did Joran have for a pathetic little creature who could barely draw breath?

She didn’t have the strength to feel angry any more. She didn’t have the strength to stand up and punch the wall, or to draw the curve of a borrowed blade across her open palm, to wring out blood and bruises or broken bones, to wring out pain and use it to fortify her. She didn’t have the strength to do anything at all, anything but this, and what good was that to a sadist like Joran Belar?

For now, for the first time, she felt almost safe. Safe from him, safe from herself, safe from the terrible things that she became when she let him drive her. She felt like she could think without being overwhelmed by violence, like she could feel without wanting to kill. She felt almost like herself again, like the Dax she had been before this all began, before she learned about Joran, before she felt him stirring inside her, before she started hallucinating and hating and hurting.

It didn’t surprise her that the Intendant was loud, expressive and vocal and quite content to issue commands when she wanted something. Her voice was deeper than it had been, distorted by passion and pleasure, and Dax was thankful for that. She didn’t sound like Kira, and Dax didn’t feel like Jadzia. She felt like a tool, a sex toy with a heartbeat, something a little warmer than whatever black-market devices she kept hidden under her bed but no less expendable. It helped to think of herself that way, to separate herself from who she was and where she was and what was going on. It helped to think of this as a duty, a tribute to be paid to someone she needed a favour from.

The Intendant was not very emotive, and there was nothing sweet or gentle in this; for all the fleeting flashes of tenderness Dax had seen when she submitted, there was nothing but need in her now. This was just business, and they both knew it, and when the Intendant tightened her fingers in Dax’s hair or ground out another ragged instruction, Dax did as she was bid without words and without thought.

When she came, it was with the same calculated cruelty as she did everything else, delicate shudders contrasted sharply by loud keening cries as she tugged on Dax’s hair hard enough to tear at the scalp beneath. Dax made no complaint, of course; she didn’t even acknowledge her discomfort, simply rode it out in tandem with the Intendant as she crested the waves of her climax, teeth clenched and muscles shaking.

The fresh pain grounded her; it was simple and straightforward, everything her hands were not. The pain in her hands was a tangle, a mess of conflict and confusion, of Jadzia’s lack of restraint and Joran’s thirst for violence. The tearing in her scalp was not her doing, and that made it easy. The carpet burns on her knees, the bruises on her throat, the rattle in her chest when she tried to breathe, even the bone-deep exhaustion that shook her limbs, the aftermath of too much adrenaline… none of those were her doing, and that meant they were not her fault.

It wasn’t her weakness that closed her throat and bruised her larynx. It wasn’t her weakness that clenched fists in her hair, tugging and yanking and issuing ragged-voiced commands. It wasn’t her weakness that shoved her to her knees, pressed her mouth to slick heat, coated her tongue with sex and shame. None of that was her weakness, and none of it was her doing. It was the Intendant. All of it.

After a long moment, the Intendant dragged her to her feet. The air was thick with heavy breathing, little panting gasps from both of them, and Dax let the rhythm of it guide her movements. She went willingly as she was hauled upright, yielding as she should have yielded from the beginning, and when the Intendant plundered her mouth for the lingering taste of her sex, Dax gave that up willingly too.

“You’re such a pretty little thing,” the Intendant mused idly, speaking mostly to herself even as she let her fingers trail through Dax’s hair, as close to affectionate as she could get. “So lovely. So attentive. So… entertaining.” The double entendre was not lost on Dax, and she lowered her face to hide the blush. “It’s such a shame you insist on talking back so often.”

“That’s why you keep me around,” Dax ventured, swaying unsteadily as the Intendant shrugged into a loose-fitting robe. “You like it when I test you.”

“Oh, I do.” The Intendant chuckled, crossing back to the couch and sitting gracefully, legs spread wide so that the robe couldn’t possibly cover her modesty. Dax swallowed at the sight, and the Intendant noted the reaction with a condescending smile. “You are such a delight. So rough and aggressive, and so insatiable. It’s one of my favourite things about you, you know.”

From what little she’d learned about Jadzia, Dax wasn’t exactly surprised. “I could say the same about you,” she said evenly. “If I’m insatiable, it’s just because I’m trying to keep up.”

The Intendant laughed. “You do yourself too little credit, my dear,” she said, then frowned as Dax looked away again. “Yielding to me doesn’t come easily to you, does it?”

She shook her head, idly amused. Dax got the impression she was used to speaking to herself even when she was addressing others. Still, though, she shrugged and ventured an honest response. “No, it doesn’t.”

“I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, really,” the Intendant went on, as though she hadn’t heard her. “After all, you couldn’t even yield to your own people. What chance does a poor Bajoran have after that?”

Dax blinked, so thrown that she was momentarily unable to cover up her surprise. “What are you—” she started, reflexively, then stopped as she remembered who she was supposed to be. Cursing inwardly, she masked the momentary slip with a growl of irritation. “You’re hardly a ‘poor’ anything,” she said instead.

“Careful,” the Intendant warned. “I’ve already taken what I wanted from you, my dear, and I’m not opposed to sending you down to Ore Processing with the Terrans if you forget your place again.”

She huffed an exaggerated sigh and brought her legs back together in what was no doubt a very deliberate gesture. Dax, recognising the demand for an apology, bowed her head.

“I’m sorry, Intendant,” she said. The words tasted like acid, like someone else’s pleasure. “I just meant…”

“Oh, I know what you meant,” the Intendant retorted, shrugging off the point and pressing on with the other, brow knitted in overblown thoughtfulness. “It really is a terrible shame, though. The Trill are such an advanced species, and yet they insist on clinging to those ridiculous traditions and taboos of theirs. I can’t say I blame you for defying them in the name of ‘true love’.”

Dax sucked in her breath. “You—”

Misinterpreting Dax’s confusion for anger, the Intendant smiled, deadly as a snake poised to strike. “Now, now. I’m on your side, remember?” She shook her head, feigning sympathy. “Besides, who could have possibly foreseen what happened to that delightful young lady of yours… oh, what was her name?”

“Don’t,” Dax said. She had no idea what the Intendant was talking about, but she still felt choked up just the same, resistant and protective of this woman she did not know and probably never would.

Kahn,” the Intendant said, finishing her own monologue with an air of venomous triumph. “That was it, wasn’t it?”

Dax flinched. She recognised the name, of course; how could she forget it? Nilani Kahn had been Torias Dax’s wife, a beautiful young woman made a widow far too early by a husband who didn’t know what was best for either of them. Dax always felt a pang of anger when she thought of Torias, of the life he’d given up, the pain he’d caused and the danger he’d put the symbiont in.

She let herself think of Nilani sometimes too, when she felt particularly lonely, let herself indulge in Torias’s memories, a warm bed and a warm body beside him, of the love they shared and how deep it ran for such a tragically short time. Curzon had tried not to think about it too much, no doubt for fear of bringing out his carefully-buried sentimental side, but Jadzia enjoyed the sweetness of the memories, the innocence of it all and the flash of hope that had died too young. Jadzia was the one who let herself remember Nilani Kahn, but it was Dax who missed her.

This universe’s Jadzia, it seemed, was not content with simply remembering, and the realisation struck Dax with all the force of a physical blow. How had it happened?, she wondered. How had they crossed paths? What could possibly have possessed her to risk reassociation, to throw away everything that joined Trill held sacred? Inexplicably, she found herself feeling angry all over again, dangerous and exposed.

“Yes…” the Intendant went on, studying Dax’s face with calculated intensity. “That’s right. I remember her now. Such a terrible tragedy, what happened to the poor little thing.” She chuckled, deep and throaty, a lash against Dax’s nerves. “And exile. Such a permanent punishment for something that was so fleeting.”

Dax could feel the violence surging up in her again, a red haze descending over her field of vision as the rage rose up once more, so close to a loss of control. The Intendant could feel it too, she could tell, and it ignited the passion in her, that sadistic appreciation she had for bringing out rebellion only to crush it. It was easy to assume Dax’s fury was aimed at her, after all. Why should she think otherwise? Just like before, just like always, she heard and saw and imagined what she wanted, instinctively turning the focus of everything back towards herself, because who else in the great wide universe was half so important as Intendant Kira?

This time, though, she was wrong, and Dax was too angry to use that misjudgement to her advantage. It wasn’t the Intendant that she was angry with now; in fact, she’d all but forgotten that the woman was there with her at all. All of a sudden, even her own Kira’s face was a distant memory, a hazy half-remembered ghost of something that didn’t really matter. Everything was fading out, dissolving until there was nothing left but her. Dax, and Jadzia. Herself and the Jadzia of this universe, a sad and lonely Jadzia who had given up everything for nothing.

That was it, she realised. That was why she was here, why a deranged mirror-image of Benjamin Sisko had dragged her into a parallel universe, thrown her into this twisted dark place that was nothing like the world she knew. That was why she was here, losing what small shred of decency she might have still had, on her knees in front of a woman who looked so much like Kira Nerys but was so different. That was why she’d been commissioned to risk her life for a few doses of benzocyatizine. That was why Jadzia had been so adamantly opposed to going back to Trill.

Her words were true enough, she knew now. Going back really was not an option.

Dax, naive and simple as she was, had naturally assumed that it was because of the rebellion. Sisko’s little army of ragtag Terrans, the cause they were fighting for, the risk to their lives if they flew in the path of an Alliance patrol. She’d just assumed that it was the war keeping her from Trill, the conflict that made their position so precarious. That was the impression they’d given, anyway, and they’d been quick to leave out critical details. Let her draw her own conclusions, they must have thought, and of course Dax hadn’t even thought to ask questions because why would she?

She should have known better, she realised now. Nobody could shroud the truth as well as a Dax.

Exile. It was the price to be paid for reassociation, for reconnecting and reestablishing relationships with old lovers from past hosts. For most joined Trills — the ones who took their responsibilities seriously — that price was simply too high. To be exiled from Trill was to willingly be cut off from everything they held dear and precious, rending away not just their home but the future of their symbiont as well, the single most important thing to any joined Trill. When an exiled host died, so too did the symbiont, and with them all those lifetimes of wisdom and experience, extinguished for the sake of a few heartbeats. Gone forever, just because one stupid host couldn’t keep their primal passions under control. What was Jadzia thinking, to throw something so priceless away on something so fleeting?

She was angry. Furious. Here she was, trapped in a nest of vipers, in bed with the most poisonous snake of them all, wounded and alone, debased and desecrated, and all for her. All for Jadzia, the shattered-glass reflection of herself who was so far from home, so lost and so afraid, bearing alone the weight of something she couldn’t possibly understand. Dax had felt so sorry for her; she had shared her pain so deeply and so completely. She had connected with her, understood her, put herself in great danger for her… and the whole time, Jadzia had brought it on herself.

Dax had always thought she understood betrayal. She had lived a great many lifetimes, and had seen the worst side of most species. Most of the time, it was easy enough to shrug it off, to roll her eyes when a Klingon diplomat reneged on an agreement, to laugh and dismiss it when a slow-witted Ferengi cheated at tongo, to shake her head at the humans who thought they knew better. From Lela to Jadzia, every Dax host had faced its share of two-faced treachery, and she had long ago grown a thick enough skin to grin and bear even the worst of it.

But she had never been double-crossed by herself before. Jadzia was her. She knew her, she understood her. She had opened up to her, spilled out her fears and her feelings. They had connected, been intimate on a deep and profound level, connected in a way that Dax had thought wasn’t possible, and yet still Jadzia had held back the truth, the fundamental crux of why Dax was there in the first place. She had trusted her with her deepest feelings, but not with the basic facts, and that hurt more than anything else.

“My, my…” the Intendant said, still swept up in her delusions of grandeur. “Old wounds still cut deep, don’t they?”

“Don’t,” Dax said, voice sharp as she balled her fists again.

The pain was comforting, perfect patterns of blood and bruise that complemented each other in all the best ways. She could feel the danger in it, knew that she was skirting the edge of that awful violence yet again, but it was better to focus on that than the alternative, safer to indulge the masochistic pain than the rage and the betrayal. She was here now, and there was nothing she could do about that; getting angry with Jadzia would just put them both in needless danger. So what if she was in exile? It wouldn’t undo what Dax had already gone through for her, and it wouldn’t protect her from what she might yet need to.

“Was that a command?” the Intendant gasped, feigning surprise as she clapped a hand to her chest. “Have you forgotten your place, again, so soon?”

“No,” Dax said, breathing deep through her nose to control the anger. The Intendant watched her, expectant, almost excited. “I didn’t forget anything.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it.” The Intendant’s smile widened, reptilian. “Now, what were we talking about? Ah yes, your dear departed—”

“Stop it.”

She met the Intendant’s hungry gaze, willing herself not to lose control, willing herself to focus on anything but the heat and the rage, anything but Jadzia. Even the Intendant was safer than that, or so she thought; her eyes were aflame, diamond glinting and flickering behind the obsidian, and Dax reeled, momentary thrown. There would be no sanctuary there, she knew, and watched as the Intendant smiled.

“You’re trying to make me angry,” she realised out loud. “You want me to forget my place. Why?”

The Intendant laughed and spread her legs again, open and inviting. Dax saw the fresh wetness glistening there, a threat and a promise and both as dangerous as each other.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked, shaking her head. “You’re delicious when you’re angry.”

“Don’t,” Dax said again, not commanding this time but pleading. The staccato throbbing in her fists was resonating in her blood now, the pulse in her veins and the red haze in her head, her own body responding to the desire she saw in the Intendant’s, so close to losing control, so painfully close… “Intendant. Please.”

The Intendant shivered at her obvious desperation; Dax wasn’t surprised in the least that she found the pleading to be as much of a turn-on as the challenge, but she tried not to think about that. She couldn’t let herself think about anything but quelling the rage, silencing the hate and the fury swelling within her, silencing Joran until she was safe and alone and could punch the wall or slide the knife through her palm or find a holosuite or… or… or anything. Anything to hold the anger down, anything to get herself back under control, anything to stop her from thinking of all the ways she wanted to—

“Delicious,” the Intendant purred again, cutting past Dax’s thoughts with all the precision of a blade but none of the bite that Dax needed so desperately.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said, a tremulous whisper.

The Intendant laughed again. “Come now,” she cried. “We both know that’s not true.”

She slid a hand down, open-palmed, fingers trailing lazily through her evident arousal, watching Dax through half-lidded eyes. Dax bit down on the inside of her cheek, then her lip, holding her fists at her side, struggling with everything she had in her not to do the same. Her body ached, desire flaring once more between her legs, throbbing every bit as powerfully as her knuckles or her palms or the blood split from her lip. Want, just as painful as blood or bruises.

“I…” she started, but she couldn’t finish.

The Intendant chuckled over a luxuriant moan. “Of course you want to hurt me,” she said, eyes flashing. “Just look at you. It’s all you can think of.”

Technically, it wasn’t true. It wasn’t the Intendant Dax wanted to hurt; it was Jadzia, cool and clever Jadzia, Jadzia who was so lonely, who had doomed them both by leading with her heart instead of her head, who even now led with her privates because it was easier. Poor Sisko, Dax thought bitterly; did he even know Jadzia was suffering alone now, suffering in isolation and exile, because she had cut herself off from anyone who could help her, anyone who could possibly understand, because she had taken the blade as surely as Dax had, and instead of cutting her hands, had slid it across her own throat. Silly little girl, didn’t she realise she had given away the only weapon she had?

Dax wanted to hurt her, not the Intendant. She wanted to take her by the shoulders, shake her until she cried for mercy. She wanted to make her see how stupid she was, how dangerous her choices, how this bed of razor-wire she slept in now was one of her own making. Part of her wanted to send her back to Trill just to watch them execute her, to watch her die for her shallow-mindedness; let her heart stop, if that was what it wanted.

But no, that wouldn’t be good enough. Joran smiled inside her head, and Dax smiled too. She didn’t just want to watch Jadzia suffer, she wanted to make it happen. She was the one who’d been wronged, wasn’t she? She was suffering for all of this. Jadzia had made her own bed, but Dax was the one who had to lie in it. Wasn’t it only fair that she eke out the punishment too? She wanted to see it done herself, to see fresh blood spill on her hands, to cut that silly little girl open, carve her up with her own damned knife, tear the symbiont out of her and give it to someone who would treat it well. She wanted to hurt her; a hundred times and in a hundred different ways, she wanted to see it done. She wanted to make Jadzia hurt.

But then, Jadzia wasn’t here. Dax would be driven crazy long before she had a chance to do any of that; the hate would consume her and drive her to far worse things than vengeance. It would take her by the throat just as surely as the Intendant had, and wring the breath out of her until there was nothing left, until she died in Jadzia’s place. Jadzia wasn’t here to suffer like she should, and Dax could not wait until she was.

“That’s right,” the Intendant said, watching the malice flicker like starlight across her face. “There’s no sense in denying it. I can see it in you. All that anger…”

“I am angry,” Dax admitted, and saying it was half the battle.

“I know you are.” The Intendant leaned forwards, breathing in Dax’s rage, thriving on it. “It’s beautiful.”

“No, it’s not,” Dax snarled, gritting out the words through clenched teeth.

“Yes, it is.”

There was a fire in the Intendant’s eyes now, nothing like the malice of before, the cold-cut diamond winking in a chasm of obsidian. All she saw now was heat, lust and desire and a grudging kind of respect, all those things that Dax had dreamed of seeing in her Kira’s eyes, wrong and right and everything in between, erotic and intoxicating. The sight did unspeakable things to her, slicking her thighs and quickening her pulse; it mingled dangerously with the fury coursing through her veins, shaped it all into something deadly, a twisted thing that she couldn’t resist, temptation and terror.

She tried to close her eyes, to strain against it, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t do anything but feel, hate and violence and need and pain, anger and fury and rage, so many things she didn’t want to feel, so many things she did. So many, so much, and what was she supposed to do? Where was Kira now to tell her that she could rise above it? Where was Nerys to wrap her in faith?

Not here. Here, there was no Kira no Nerys, and no faith. Here, there was only the Intendant, a twisted and sordid mirror cast in diamond and obsidian, a Cardassian in all but her face. The Intendant had no interest in damming the flood, in saving Dax from herself, in helping any of them. The Intendant wanted Dax to hate, to hurt, to destroy. She wanted to watch it all, to swim in the torrent, to bask in everything that Dax tried so hard not to be. She wanted… and Dax felt sick as she realised that she wanted it too.

“Come,” the Intendant purred, an invitation and a command. “Come here, and show me how angry you are.”

Chapter Text

Resistance, of course, was futile.

Once she’d been given free reign to explore it, Dax couldn’t hold the rage at bay. She didn’t want to, either, she found, and it was all too easy to indulge it when she’d been given a free outlet, even encouragement. Maybe the other Kira — her Kira, the one she could barely even remember just now — would have told her to push past it, to think through the anger, to remember who she was and what she felt, but that Kira wasn’t here now and Dax couldn’t bring herself to care what she would say. Faith and good wishes from a universe away couldn’t reach her in this place, and Dax wasn’t strong enough to hear them even if they could.

The Intendant wouldn’t let her punch the walls, though, and she wouldn’t let her turn Jadzia’s knife against herself. “Such lovely hands,” she cooed when Dax drew the weapon, instinct sharpening her reflexes. “It would be such a tragedy to let them suffer any more needless damage, don’t you think?”

Dax didn’t think. She couldn’t let herself think. She was too far gone now, too deep in the thrall of rage and hate and violence, too deep in the thrall of the Intendant and the way she plucked the knife from between her fingers and held it up to the light like she was examining a priceless jewel. The sight thrilled in her veins, a heady cocktail of anger and arousal, bloodlust and carnal desire.

She wanted this. She’d always known it, but knowing it was a different thing from allowing it. Her body was an exposed nerve, raw and open, and she couldn’t separate the rage from the desire any more. The Intendant knew what she was doing, how she was feeling, and that was seductive as well; she knew, and she understood. Not like the other Kira, not like Nerys, but like Joran. She knew and she understood, and she felt the same things as Dax. For the first time, she could almost believe that feeding Joran’s violence was not something shameful.

The Intendant played her like an instrument, like Joran played his music. She knew how to keep the anger burning, and Dax was helpless to stave it off. She couldn’t even fight it when she was alone; what chance did she have in the arms of someone who knew how to manipulate her?

Besides, the Intendant was an expert. She fed off Dax’s rage just as hungrily as she fed off her desire, the tips of her fingers and the flat of her tongue, taking almost more enjoyment from the way Dax opened herself up to pain than from her whimpers of pleasure. Dax, for her part, relished the hurt as well, taking new joy from feeling it at someone else’s hand; she let the Intendant carve out shallow little channels across her ribs, free-flowing testaments to the power she had over her, the power that kept her smiling.

For the Intendant, those thin lines of blood were a brand, a mark of possession and control, her name cut into Dax’s flesh; to Dax, it was nothing more than pain, the only thing she could depend on to hold herself at bay, the only way of turning that horrible, terrible, beautiful hatred inwards… the only thing keeping her her from striking the Intendant dead.

Perhaps the Intendant did understand how dangerous she was. Perhaps she could sense the anger in her, how deep it ran and how close Dax was to a precipice that every breath threatened to push her over. Perhaps she knew that those shallow little cuts, those patterns of blood and power were the only thing keeping Dax from breaking down and destroying them both. Knowing her as Dax flattered herself she did, it was probably as much the danger that seduced her as the violence itself, the enticing certainty that one wrong step would see them both dead. No doubt she found that sort of thing alluring, but Dax did not. She was the one hovering on that edge, not the Intendant. She was the one fighting the war within herself, the little girl who couldn’t even kill a spider without tears struggling against the sadist who would kill innocent men with a smile.

The Intendant acted like there was no shame in any of this, like it was natural for a soul to hold so much fury and hatred inside, like she really did believe all that anger was something beautiful, something to encourage and not extinguish. Her blood was just as hot as Dax’s — perhaps even hotter; she was certainly wet enough for them both — and the marks left by Dax’s teeth and nails gave her nearly as much pleasure as the press of her tongue and fingers. The Intendant thrived on fury, as much as Dax depended on pain, and every time she lost control of her temper she was rewarded with a cry of ecstasy and a fresh new river of blood.

It was hours before they were both sated, the Intendant spent and sticky between her legs and Dax weak and whimpering as the last of the fury drained out of her like the blood between her ribs.

The hatred felt so distant now, the rage and the violence, the desire to hurt. She remembered it like a dream, fleeting and flickering, smoke and shadows. She remembered hating Jadzia, but she could not make sense of why. Anger was one thing, but she had wanted so much more than to simply shout at her. She had wanted to see her dead, had wanted her slaughtered, had wanted to hurt her herself. She had wanted to punish her, just as the Intendant had wanted to punish Dax, but in the wake of fresh blood and bruises, pain and pleasure and sweat-slick exhaustion, it all felt so far away. She remembered, but she couldn’t make sense of it at all.

But then, maybe that was just the nature of what Joran did to her. Irrational, nonsensical, obscene. He made her into something dangerous, someone who would see her own reflection killed in the very moment that she risked her life to protect her. What greater form of self-destruction was there?, she thought, and shuddered.

“Poor Jadzia.”

Dax flinched at the name, cool and calloused on the Intendant’s lips. She’d felt the shiver in her, and as usual had bent its meaning to fit her ego. She held Dax’s head to her breast, stroking the sweaty tangles of her hair away from her face, and Dax had to fight with everything she was to keep from leaning into her body and letting her shield her from herself.

“Poor Jadzia…” she heard herself echo, and wondered if the Intendant would understand the pain shot through in her voice.

Of course she didn’t. Her mind, as always, was elsewhere. “All those months out there in the depths of space…” she purred, toying with Jadzia’s knife, carelessly threading the blade between her fingers. “All those lonely months with nobody around to satisfy those violent urges…” She sighed, and Dax’s cheek brushed against the point of her nipple as her breasts rose with the breath. “How you must have missed me…”

Dax thought of her Kira, the Kira who looked her in the eye and told her that one day she would be able to take all of that unwanted violence and turn it into something new, something good. She thought of the Kira who had wanted to take her to Bajor on a pilgrimage, the Kira who had wanted to tend her soul and make it pure and whole again, who had wanted to heal her and heal with her. She thought of the Kira who was her friend, the Kira who understood how it felt to think and do and want such terrible things, to feel the way she felt and hate herself for it, to hate everything she was and and still feel unable to keep from becoming that person again and again and again, unable to hold down those terrible things that defined her. She thought of that Kira — her Kira — and then she looked up at the Intendant and tried to breathe.

“I did,” she whispered, the truth made into a lie. “I missed you so much.”

The Intendant, of course, heard only what she wanted to hear. She smiled, holding Dax a little more tightly, like she was something rare and precious. “I know,” she murmured. “I know you did.”

Dax closed her eyes. Her head ached, the dull pounding that usually hit after she indulged the worst of her anger, but it wasn’t the only thing that hurt. Everything did. Her hands, used and abused and ill-treated as much by the Intendant as by Dax herself, felt even worse than they had before, fingers squeezed and twisted by strong inner muscles until they were cramped and sore. The narrow rivers gouged out across her palms were not alone now, either, matched by long thin lines raked across her ribs and her back, Jadzia’s blade and the Intendant’s hand. The bruises on her knuckles had partners now too, in the blue and purple mottling that stood in stark relief against her pale wrists and the dark fingerprints branded in effigy onto her neck and the insides of her thighs. The Intendant had not been gentle, and Dax’s body throbbed all through with grounding pain.

Lying beneath her, the Intendant hummed, discordant snatches of militant-sounding songs that rang in Dax’s ear; she wondered if they were Bajoran songs, if her Kira knew them too. She shuddered as the hand in her hair drifted down, tripping over her body to rest between her legs once more, applying a little pressure for a moment and then returning to the same rhythm she’d been threading through her hair, restless idle strokes that ignited the desire but did not feed it.

Dax inhaled sharply at the sensation, but didn’t resist. She hurt there, too; the usual hum of satisfaction was overshadowed almost entirely by the revenant screams of torn flesh and forceful entry, a pain as welcome as all the rest. The dull weight of the Intendant’s hand there was almost reassuring, in its own unpleasant way, reminding Dax of all the brutality inside of her, the violence that was all her own, and the cost of indulging it.

“You must be tired,” the Intendant murmured, casually conversational.

Her hand never stilled in its ministrations, fingertips light and lazy against Dax’s centre, never stilling. Dax knew that she would take her again without a second thought if the inclination took her, and she didn’t know whether to be chilled or excited by the idea. Her heart was sickened, but her body was eager and her soul, though sated, was still hungry.

It was a moment, red-hazed and white-hot, before she realised that the Intendant was still talking to her. “You’ve come a very long way to see me, haven’t you, my dear?”

Dax had to laugh at that. “You have no idea…”

“Why is that, I wonder.” She was talking to herself again, voice low and troubled, as though she’d either forgotten Dax was there at all, or simply didn’t care. “So many months without so much as a word from you, much less a token in tribute, and suddenly you show up out of the blue. And right in the middle of a rebellion, no less.”

Her fingers turned to steel where they stroked, and Dax whimpered at the tangible threat. “Intendant…”

“Quite the unlikely coincidence, don’t you think?” the Intendant pressed, ignoring her; she allowed the tip of one finger to dip inside, just barely, and Dax clenched.

“I’ve seen far more unlikely ones,” she forced out through gritted teeth.

“I’m sure you have.” She pressed in a little deeper, just a little, smiled at Dax’s keening whine. “So tell me, then, why are you here?”

“I don’t…” She trailed off, whimpering as the Intendant pulled back, resuming her restless stroking. “I…”

“Come now. Don’t be shy.” Her voice was gently wheedling, but her fingers said something else entirely. “What do you want from me?”

Dax thought about her counterpart, the Jadzia of this universe, the Jadzia who had sold her symbiont’s life for a few stolen kisses. She thought of exile, of reassociation and self-destruction, of all the things she hadn’t even bothered to think about when she’d thrown them away. She thought of hallucinations, of fits of temper and unexpected violence, of Joran’s influence but none of his memories to temper them. She thought of isoboramine, of the reason why she was here, of hosts and symbionts and two identical sets of spots. She thought of putting an end to it all, of just saying the word, benzocyatizine, and being done.

But then she thought of the Intendant. She thought of anger and hate, of want and lust, pain and pleasure, desire and sex. She thought of the lean naked body stretched out and wrapped around her own, the slim sinew and long graceful limbs, the swell of a breast beneath her cheek and the heartbeat in her ears. She thought of how this woman looked so much like Kira, and how she acted like someone else entirely, the way she could make her forget Joran ever existed and then a moment later make her feel like he was the only one worth listening to. She thought of Kira, her Kira and this Kira, of faith and seduction, of a cherished friend and a perverted lover. Kira, that one and this one, both so different but still so much the same. Her Kira had so much to offer; maybe this one did too.

“You,” she breathed, lifting her hips to meet the Intendant’s strokes. “I just want you.”

The Intendant stilled her hand at that, fingers hovering, the ghost of a warning. “Is that so?” she asked, voice rising, mistrust coupled with the ego-driven need to believe.

Dax pressed her lips in a supplicant kiss to the breast pillowing her head. “Is it really so hard to believe?” she asked, tongue flicking out to catch the nipple. “You’re an intoxicating woman. Beautiful, aggressive, powerful…”

“Powerful,” the Intendant echoed, latching on to the word like a mantra. “I am, aren’t I?”

She twirled the knife again, in time with the strokes of her other hand; Dax watched, made breathless by far more than the dance of steel. Then, without warning, the curve of the blade was pressed to the underside of her jaw, sharp and threatening. Dax moaned, hips hitching.

“You would do well to remember that,” the Intendant told her, as sharp and as pointed as the knife in her hand.

Dax didn’t flinch. “I do,” she said.

The Intendant chuckled to herself, a lunatic giggling at a private joke that no-one else could ever hope to understand. She pulled the knife away, set it down on a nearby table, and let her fingertips follow the curve of Dax’s jawline, featherlight touches that contrasted starkly with the pressure still potent between her legs. Dax stifled another groan, turning her face towards the Intendant’s breast.

“Do you really want me?”

She sounded so hopeful, it stole what little remained of Dax’s breath. She kissed her fingers, one by one as they passed her lips, then covered her other hand with one of her own.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I really do.”

“Then you shall have me,” the Intendant promised.

Still, though, she hesitated, not moving even as Dax shifted her hips, pressing down with both their palms. Desperation made her bold, and courage made her reckless. “Intendant…”

“Patience, my sweet.” She pulled her hand away, let it drift aimlessly back up Dax’s body, trailing the line of spots across her side and smiling when Dax shivered, hyper-sensitive and on edge. “All in good time.”

Dax whined. “But—”

“Hush now. You kept me waiting, after all. It seems only fair that I do the same to you.”

She eased herself off the couch, climbing to her feet with a grace that made the Emony in Dax flush with jealousy. It was just a moment, though, before the rest of her surged up again, blinding white heat casting shadow on everything else, even Joran. She ached. She hurt. She wanted.

“Intendant…”

“No.” The word was a command. “You’ll have your fill when I’m ready. Not before. Remember where you are, my dear, and who I am.”

Dax squirmed, frustrated and urgent. “What do I do until then?”

“Whatever you want,” the Intendant replied with a shrug. “But might I suggest you get some rest?” She smiled, flashing her teeth. “Replenish that infamous Trill stamina of yours.”

“I have plenty of that,” Dax insisted, a pleading whine. “I—”

“I’m sure you do,” the Intendant interrupted huskily. “But you’re going to need a lot more before I’m through with you.”

*

The chains were heavy around her neck.

She knelt, back stiff and knees sore, breath coming in ragged gasps. What better place for a prisoner than on her knees? Of that, at least, she approved.

Her neck wasn’t the only part of her held by chains, though they were heaviest there. Her arms ached, bound fast to the wall above her head, sharp metal digging into the delicate skin of her wrists. They would leave a mark, she thought, and let out a half-crazed laugh. She was beaten, brutalised, broken, and yet she was worried about a little mark? It was as hilarious as it was tragic.

She was stripped bare, naked and flayed, reduced to nothing but blood and bones, completely exposed. That was fair, she supposed; it was nothing less than she deserved for what she’d done, and when she bowed her head for what felt like the millionth time, it was in confession as much as submission. She had done terrible things, and now she awaited her penance, eyes and body laid open.

“Don’t let her fool you.”

The voice was her own, but just barely. It was colder, harsher, the unrepentant savagery of one who had learned too many times the price of being soft. Jadzia, she remembered, feeling the cold air pass through the hole in her chest.

She tried to raise her head, to look up and face the woman who had done this to her, but she didn’t have the strength. All she could do was stare down at the wet stone floor, and when she grew tired of that hateful sight, drag her eyes up over the battered contours of her body, bruises obscuring the spots on her legs and blood slick and hot between her thighs, old scars on her belly and new shallow cuts across her sides, up and up until she found the gaping chasm torn out between her ribs, the empty void where her heart used to be.

Penance, it seemed, was easier to come by than death.

“She’s not to be trusted,” Jadzia said, a low warning.

“But she’s such a pretty thing.” Familiar hands, slender and graceful, cupping her chin and guiding her head up, supporting her where she could not support herself. She tried to focus, but her vision was blurred and misty with tears and sweat; she recognised that voice, too, but couldn’t quite place it. “Are you sure she’s dangerous?”

“Oh, she’s dangerous.” She could just about see her now, the hazy red outline of silly little Jadzia shaking her head in disgust. “She would have killed me, if I’d let her. She would have cut out my heart and eaten it.” She laughed, cold and cruel. “She thinks she’s a Klingon.”

“That’s ridiculous. She’s about as Klingon as a Terran mole-rat.”

Jadzia laughed. “Let her have her delusions. They won’t do her any good where she’s going.”

“So did she?” There was curiosity in the voice, all tangled up in hope. “Cut out your heart?”

“Almost.” Jadzia’s smile was like ice, sharp and as bright as her eyes. “But I was too quick for her. I got hers first.” She bared her teeth, white stained by fresh blood.

Dax opened her mouth to speak, but Jadzia was too quick for her here as well. She lashed out, sharp and sudden, and Dax was too dazed to realise what was happening until the stars starting spinning past her field of vision, head snapping ruthlessly back, connecting with the wall and dizzying her even more. She was reeling too much to tell whether the blow came from a fist or a foot, or even from something else entirely, but she supposed it didn’t matter. A blow was a blow, and the pain was the same no matter where it came from. Dimly, she remembered that she liked pain, that pain was good. Pain, pleasure, penance…

Ironic that this pain came from Jadzia, she supposed. But then, of course, she was used to that breed of irony by now, self-inflicted suffering taken to a sordid new level. If she’d had any use of her throat, she would have laughed until the tears choked her.

But then, what good was laughter here, or tears? She had been stripped of more than just her clothes and half of her skin; she had been stripped of her dignity, her identity, everything that made her what she was. Everything but her name, and that was the one thing she didn’t want. It was a miracle they had let her keep the symbiont in her belly, though a part of her suspected they’d only shown her that small mercy because they were afraid she would die if they removed it. And death was far too tender a mercy for a creature like her.

“She made me everything I am,” Jadzia said, and Dax blinked back the blurry confusion and tried to focus on her again. It was easy to focus on Jadzia because she knew what she was supposed to look like; she knew the sight of her own face, even in reflection, and she recognised the sinister smile just as surely as if it were her own. “If you like what you see…” Another blow, a rock-solid fist tearing through the hole in her chest, laced with a pang of something that felt like bitterness. “…I promise you, I’m ten times the woman she is. You should forget her. Take me instead.”

Dax tried to protest, but she still couldn’t speak. She felt like her throat had been ripped out along with her chest, but she couldn’t look down to see it. Above her, Jadzia was pulling the other figure towards her, and as their lips met in a torrid kiss, she recognised the silhouette of Kira Nerys.

Of course it was Kira. She shook her head, delirious. Who else would it be? Who else would call her pretty when she looked like this? Who else would kneel in front of her her and touch her face so tenderly after everything she’d done? Who else would believe that she wasn’t so terrible, even when she was heartless and throatless and soulless, even with all the evidence in front of her? Nobody. Just Kira. Only Nerys.

But then, which Kira? The Kira she knew, or the Kira she didn’t? The Kira who had faith in her to overcome this thing that she’d become, or the Kira who encouraged her to embrace it? Or was it both? Surely that was it; surely it was both.

Now that she could see again, she realised that, yes, there were two silhouettes, two familiarly alien shapes wrapped around Jadzia’s tall body. Of course it was both of them. After all, what was Kira without Nerys, and what was Nerys without Kira?

She watched. It was all she could do, chained to the wall and turned inside out; it wasn’t much, but it was something, and in a place like this, something was everything. They had cut out her heart, torn out her throat, bound her hands and her neck, chained her to the wall like an animal waiting to be slaughtered, but they hadn’t taken her eyes, her vision. They hadn’t denied her the right to sight, and the sight of herself — another Jadzia, a better Jadzia — tangled up with two versions of Kira, kissing and touching and tangled up in gasps and whispers of passion, was almost more than she could bear. Hunger sharpened her teeth, but there was nothing she could do feed it; they may not have taken her eyes, but they had taken everything else. They had chained her up like a dog, helpless to their whims, and all she could do was watch and slaver.

“It’s sad,” one of the Kiras murmured; her eyes were warm as they looked down at Dax, warm and bright and beautiful. Nerys, she thought, and almost wept. “It’s not her fault she’s like this.”

Jadzia rolled her eyes. “She’s a killer,” she hissed.

“So am I,” the other Kira said, then gestured back at the first one, licking her lips. “And so is she. We’re all killers here. What makes that one so different?” She smiled, but there was a threat behind the expression, and her eyes were not nearly as pitying as the first Kira’s. “Is it because she looks like you?”

“She is me,” Jadzia corrected. “She doesn’t just look like me. We’re not sisters, we’re the same.” She lashed out again, and Dax tasted blood. “But she’s not as strong as me. She let him own her. Whatever has been done to her, she brought it on herself. She should have known better. She should have been stronger.” She looked at the first Kira, the pitying one. “She killed you too, you know. She took what she wanted from you, and then she killed you.”

The first Kira looked at Dax, head cocked to the side. “Did you?”

Dax wanted to speak, but she still couldn’t. Her lip was split, bleeding where Jadzia had struck her, and she spat blood and saliva as she nodded. Kira’s expression shifted, sorrow touched by disappointment, and Dax turned her face away, bowing her head and staring down at the wet stone, grey turned red and dark. It hurt less, watching her blood pool at her feet, than seeing the betrayal in Kira’s eyes.

She expected another blow, though she wasn’t sure who from, but it never came. Instead, she felt those same delicate fingertips curl under her jaw, brutally tender, tilting her face up just as they had before. Tears pricked behind her eyes, guilt turned salty with shame, and she tried to look away but Kira held her tight. She was good at that, Dax remembered, and choked on nostalgia. The warmth in her eyes was painful, cutting deeper than a blade, deeper even than the chains at her wrists; Dax supposed this was another kind of penance, another kind of punishment, force-fed forgiveness that she did not deserve. She opened her mouth, and a guttural little whimper escaped her.

“…sorry…”

“Don’t let her fool you,” Jadzia said again. Then, at last, came the blow she’d been expecting, a boot to her stomach, and Dax wondered if the symbiont felt it as she doubled over as best she could while still in chains. “She’s done far worse things than that.” Another ruthless kick, and Dax spewed blood and bile and broken apologies. “Haven’t you?”

“Yes,” she choked, once and twice and a thousand times. “Yes, yes, yes.”

“I don’t believe you,” the first Kira mused, pressing a chaste kiss to the bruises on Dax’s cheek. “I don’t believe she’s as dangerous as you want us to believe.”

Beside her, the other one laughed. “She’s too delicious to be dangerous,” she volunteered, leaning in to examine her. “Have you tasted those delectable spots?”

Jadzia growled, a low warning that was aimed far more at Dax than at the two Kiras. “She’d kill you both in a heartbeat if you let her loose,” she reminded them.

“Would you?” The second Kira sounded almost excited by the idea. “Would you kill us both? Cut out our hearts? Eat them right in front of us?”

Dax turned her face away, but she could not hide from the truth by hiding her eyes, and her body jerked and twitched in its bonds as she struggled to keep from nodding her condemnation. Jadzia laughed, shaking her head, and wrapped one arm around each of the two Kiras. There was a heat in her eyes, too, but it was not warm at all; it was dark and vicious, the curved edge of a blade sinking deep into the chasm of Dax’s chest. She was dangerous too, Dax knew, but the two Kiras didn’t seem to care about that.

Why didn’t they care? She wanted to scream with the unfairness of it. Jadzia had done this to her, after all. Jadzia had torn her inside-out and chained her up for all the world to see; Jadzia had torn her chest open, ripped out her heart and eaten it. Jadzia had done to her all the things she’d done to Kira, and yet she was walking about and bragging about it, laughing and rolling her eyes, calling it justice. Jadzia had made her this terrible thing, this pitiful creature; Jadzia had leashed her and chained her, made her a beast, a wild animal clawing and struggling against its restrains, a monster on display for all to see and flinch back from when it roared. She had made Dax what she was just as surely as Dax had shaped the little girl Jadzia had once been into the bloodthirsty killer she was now. Why didn’t anyone care about that?

The injustice burned like rage, and she tugged at the chains binding her wrists. A howl escaped her, rending its way free from deep inside her, and some fractured corner of her mind supposed that she must still have her throat after all if she could use it to make such an awful sound. She struggled, roaring and rattling her chains, loud and chaotic and violent, at least until what little strength she had withered and died, the howls guttering out into pitiful keening whimpers. She was frustrated, slick with so much more than blood, angry and aching, desperate. She wanted to kill, to maim, to destroy, to become completely the terrible thing that Jadzia had made her. She hungered; the chasm in her chest was ravenous, and it needed to be fed.

“I think we should let her loose,” said the first Kira, and Dax almost sobbed at the sympathy alight behind her eyes. “She’ll never redeem herself chained up like that.”

“Who needs redemption?” the other Kira laughed, smile full of poison. “I just want to have fun with her.”

“You trust too easily,” Jadzia muttered bitterly. “Both of you.”

Dax had to agree with that, but of course she couldn’t say so. Even if she could form words, how could she say it? How could she tell them that Jadzia was right? How could she tell them that she was every bit as dangerous as she said, and more besides? How could she look them in the eyes — Kira’s eyes, reflected twice — and beg them to keep her chained and broken, locked up tight where she was safe and couldn’t hurt anybody? How could she look at Kira, at her faithful Nerys, and tell her that all she wanted was to break free and feast on blood?

She couldn’t. Of course she couldn’t. So she didn’t. She just kept her mouth shut, watching and waiting with wide eyes and hopeless whimpers as they clustered around her and debated her fate.

Kira, the warm one, was crouching in front of her now, expression open and hopeful as she looked into her eyes. Dax shuddered at the contact of her fingertips, still so brutally tender against her face, fighting the urge to take them into her mouth, to bite down and feed. She closed her eyes, tried to block it all out, but even blind she could see the burned-in image of two Kiras wrapped around one Jadzia Dax, three bodies with three voices, saying three very different things. She wanted to end all three of them, but she wanted to end herself most of all.

When she opened her eyes again, she was surrounded on all sides.

Kira in front of her, warm and hopeful, fingertips trembling against the side of her face, so desperate to believe that there was still some shred of good in this pathetic little thing huddled before her. Kira beside her as well, standing above them both, hands on her hips, features cold and calculating, like Dax was nothing more than a toy, a plaything, a game to be played; she wanted to test her, to see how hard she could push before Dax pushed back and tore her to pieces. The idea excited her, Dax could tell, and felt an echoing thrill in her own blood.

But then there was Jadzia. Silly little Jadzia. Jadzia, who had been so confused, so worthless and small. Jadzia, the hopeless little girl that Dax had taken in and educated, who had learned how to be terrible too. Dax had taught her and trained her and turned her into something new, and now she stood over her, ready to see her burn for that. Jadzia, who hadn’t even been able to hold her own thoughts in her head just a short while ago ago, and now she held the key to Dax’s life in her hands. The injustice of it made Dax growl and hiss again, straining against the chains, biting down on her lip to keep from biting Kira’s fingers.

“She’s heartless,” Jadzia pointed out, and gestured to that endless canyon in her chest. “You can see that for yourself.”

“I don’t think so.” Kira, of course. The first one. The real one. Nerys, Nerys, Nerys. “I think she just needs to find a little faith.”

Dax tilted her face, leaning into her touches; it had been so long since she had felt anything kind or gentle, so long since she had known anything other than violence and hate. It had been so long since she’d been touched like this, and longer still since she’d wanted to be. She’d all but forgotten what it was like, how sweet and safe it felt to be cared for, to inspire such faith in someone so faithful. Kira’s touch was so gentle, so soft and light, and the contact sent tiny ripples of sensation all through Dax’s skin, awareness of how much pain she was in, how raw she felt, how badly she ached. She whimpered again, on the edge of a sob, and Kira let the tips of her fingers linger at the corners of her parched lips.

“Let her loose,” she urged, breathy and reverent, and Dax saw tears shining in those warm eyes. “By the Prophets, let her loose.”

The other Kira giggled her agreement, clapping her hands with childish glee at the thought of a shiny new gift all ready to be unwrapped. “You heard her,” she cried, hands wandering down to grip Jadzia by the hips, sharp teeth nibbling the line of spots at the side of her throat, wanton and wanting. “Let the pretty little thing loose. We’ll have so much fun with her, you’ll see.”

Jadzia sighed. “She’ll kill you,” she warned. “She did it before, and she’ll do it again. If I let her loose, she’ll kill you.”

“She can try,” the second Kira replied, and slid her tongue into Jadzia’s mouth.

Jadzia sighed, but did as she was told, pulling away with obvious reluctance to crouch down in front of her huddled victim. “You don’t deserve them,” she said, and Dax knew that she was right. “You don’t deserve either of them.”

Dax hissed her agreement, then sucked in her breath, the blood in her veins igniting as the chains loosened. She wondered, with the tiny fraction of sanity that was still hers, how there could be a pulse inside of her when there was no heart to drive it, how the blood could be so hot in her veins when there was nothing in her chest to regulate it. But then, what did she care about pulses or hearts that were already long gone? What did she care about her own blood when all she wanted was to drain theirs? She could taste the promise of freedom, sweet as a sugar cube on her tongue, so close but still so elusive, like the memory of something sweet and delicious, of eagerness and anticipation, of—

“There.”

The chains were off, thrown aside to a long-abandoned corner, and Dax peered up at the Kira who was holding out her hand.

“Nerys…”

For a long moment, that was all she could process, the name and the face that held it, beautiful Bajoran eyes that blinked and crinkled at the corners. Nerys, her Nerys, alight with faith in her like she always was, and for a time Dax could only stare and squint and blink in confusion, unable to make sense of her smile, a smile that didn’t promise violence.

She had been chained for so long, locked up in the prison of her own guilt and shame, heartless and hollowed out, bleeding and broken, trapped inside the hurt she’d inflicted and the chasm in her chest growing ever wider for every moment that the horror didn’t horrify her. She had been chained for so long, trapped and bound, that she almost couldn’t remember what came next.

Then it all came rushing back to her, and she bolted upright, teeth bared and senses suddenly hyper-alert. Of course. How could she have forgotten the best part?

She smiled. Disarming, unnerving, but with just enough sincerity that Kira leaned in a bit closer, expectant. Eager. Stupid. Her eyes were so bright, her smile so soft. How dare she be so beautiful? How dare she be so open, so honest? How dare she have so much faith?

“Thank you,” Dax murmured, because she remembered that was what came next, gratitude and supplication, all the things they’d expect.

“You’re welcome.” Kira leaned in, close enough that Dax could press her face to the crook of her neck, inhale the scent of her, of warmth and sweat and Bajor.

The scent ignited her senses, and the rest came as second nature. She pounced, as fast as lightning, and before any of them knew what was happening Kira was on her back and Dax was on top of her, blade sharp and shining in her hand, blood welling up between her fingers, honing the hunger. She didn’t waste time wondering where the knife had come from or how she’d got hold of it. What did that matter now? The only thing she cared about was using it, and that part she remembered all too well.

Kira didn’t have time to cry out. The curve of the blade dug in deep, serrations catching tight as Dax carved a jagged track across her throat, rough and ragged just like she was, just like Jadzia; there would be no clean cuts here, and no quick death, oh no. Dax relished the sight, the savage brutality, the blood thick and dark and red and not her own, enjoying the way it slid off the surface of the blade, that breathtaking blade, with its perfect curves and its sharp serrations. It was so much more beautiful than any Bajoran.

She could hear the other Kira gasp, fear mixed with just a hint of excitement, thrilled by this in spite of herself, and the angry “I told you so!” from Jadzia, desperate footfalls as she ran for her life. She could hear everything, suddenly hyper-aware of all her senses, but the only one she cared about was the one making her mouth water, the scent of blood filling her nostrils and the taste rich and raw on her tongue.

“Why?” Kira managed, a sickening gurgle that lodged in what was left of her throat.

Dax shrugged. Wasn’t it obvious?

“You gave me no choice,” she said, and lowered her head to feed.

*

She woke to the sound of her own voice.

“Not again,” she was whimpering, over and over again, voice muffled and lost to the press of warm flesh. “Not again, not again, not again.”

It took her a moment to come back to herself, to blink away the cobwebs of mnemonic hunger and piece together where she was. Terok Nor, or Deep Space Nine, curled up in a ball on the floor. Still, even that meagre clarity wasn’t enough to stop the nonsense pleas from spilling unchecked out of her, the words like the rest of her, trembling and shivering, as frightened and helpless as a child woken from a terrible nightmare.

She wasn’t alone. The body surrounding her was small and strong, and the arms wrapped around her were as achingly familiar as the voice that whispered soothing words in her ear.

“Kira,” she realised aloud, then sobbed with desperate relief as the last vestiges of the dream faded, bringing into bold relief the presence of the woman next to her, lithe and lean, all sinew and grace “Kira, oh, Kira…”

But no, that wasn’t right, was it? She knew the truth, even as it took her brain a moment or two to catch up with her reflexes. It wasn’t Kira, at least not beyond the surface. It wasn’t the Kira she wanted, her Nerys, and she realised the mistake a fraction of a second too late.

Those achingly familiar arms went stiff around her, rigid and unrepentant as chains, and Dax stifled another sob as she remembered the cut of metal against her neck and wrists, the bonds holding her down, keeping her safe from herself. Was she chained here, too? Was she locked up in the arms of this Kira who wasn’t hers? Her head ached as she tried to process it, thick and muddled, and she realised that she’d been crying.

“I told you.” Kira’s voice — no, the Intendant’s voice — was low and lethal. “Do not call me that.”

“I’m sorry.” Dax tried to sit up, but the Intendant tightened her grip, holding her down, hips and back pressed against the floor. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I was… I was dreaming…”

“I know you were.” Her voice was cold, but her arms softened just a little, and when she pressed her mouth against the shell of Dax’s ear, it was to whisper not to bite, quick flicks of her tongue where she had expected the sting of teeth. “Were you dreaming about me? Were you imagining all the sordid things I might let you do to me?”

“No.” Dax swallowed, sickened by the taste of truth, as rich as blood but harder to digest. “I dreamed I killed you.”

This time, it was the Intendant who sat up, delicate eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline. Her expression flickered, like she couldn’t decide whether to be angry or impressed. “That’s a very dangerous thing to admit,” she said after a moment, quiet and deadly. “I have a rebellion on my hands, you know. I can’t be too careful. I could have you executed for insurgent thoughts.”

“It’s not like that,” Dax insisted shakily. “I didn’t want… I mean… I don’t…”

She shook her head, not sure how to put it into words; to her relief, the Intendant seemed to understand, chuckling softly and pressing a condescending kiss to her cheek. “I know,” she soothed. “You’d never really try to overthrow me, would you?”

“I have no reason to,” Dax said, realising only after she’d said it that she’d probably cut a little too close to the real truth of it.

“Of course you don’t,” the Intendant agreed. “Who else would let you warm their bed like I do? Who else would indulge that delightful little temper of yours? Overthrow me, and you’d deprive yourself of the one person in all the galaxy who understands you.”

That cut close to home as well, and Dax hated how much of a struggle it was to try and steady herself. She should be used to it by now, she thought bitterly, both the dreams and the Intendant. She was sick and sordid, everything Dax hated, but she did understand. She knew violence, but far more important, she knew what it was to thrive on it, to crave it. She knew how it felt to be excited, aroused, enthralled by the idea of pain. She understood what Dax was feeling, the quickening of her pulse every time she slid the knife across her palm, the heat between her thighs when the Intendant marked her. She understood the deepest, darkest, most unforgivable parts of her. Not even Nerys understood that.

As for the dream itself… well, that just left her frustrated and angry with herself. There was no excuse for letting it affect her so profoundly, not after she’d had so many of them. They happened all the time now, every time she closed her eyes, every time she tried to clear her mind; sleep was synonymous with dreams now, and she should have expected it.

It wasn’t the dreams themselves that so unsettled her, though. It was the fear that followed, the child-like terror, the sweating and the shivering, and the fact that it only happened after she woke up. Where was that fear when she needed it? Where was the horror when she was ripping Kira’s throat open? Where was the sick taste in her mouth, the bile and the nausea, when she was actually eating her heart? Where was the fear when she was staring into the face of the thing she had become?

Inside the dreams, they didn’t feel like nightmares at all. They didn’t feel like horrors or terrors or anything of the sort. She remembered the bad dreams she’d endured night after night after she was first joined, the latent fears of seven lifetimes manifest in the only way they could, again and again when she let her guard down and let her subconscious rule. Those were proper nightmares, the kind that left her bathed in sweat and hoarse-voiced from screaming, the kind that still sent chills down her spine just to think of them. They were the kind of nightmares she could handle, because her mind had let her be afraid of them.

These weren’t like that. It was only when she woke that she found herself wanting to scream, and even then only for the moment or two before she came back to herself and remembered who she was. It was only for those few fleeting seconds, the groggy confusion of wakefulness, that reality crashed down and scared her; it was only then that she reacted the way she was supposed to, curled up on the floor, clinging to whatever meagre shred of self-identity she could find, feeling like a child faced with something awful. It was only for those fractured moments that she realised how terrible the dreams truly were, and how awful her deeds were inside of them, and even that realisation faded away before she could grasp it.

While she lived them, she felt exactly what her dream-self felt, the primal pleasure and the sweet sadism that filled her heart and her head, the sheer ruthless joy of slaughter and violence. She felt it as she lived it, and as she lived it, she relished it completely.

Waking from those dreams was torture in itself, feeling those lingering traces of satisfaction ebbing away, drowning as the shame and horror flooded in to replace it as she came back to herself, then feeling it dissolve as the world around her took form once more. It was bad enough to know that she was capable of even imagining such things, that her mind could process such dark and twisted desires at all, much less to actually enjoy herself when it did. Dax had always been a firm believer in the separate line between fantasy and reality, the healthy space for enjoying things recreationally that she would never even conceive of putting into practice in the real world. But this was different. This wasn’t a harmless fantasy, and even if it had been it was so far outside Dax’s comfort zone that such a thing in itself would be frightening enough.

Even that wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part, the truly sickening part, was that she knew — deeply and fundamentally, she knew — that these twisted dreams were so much more than the simple manifestation of latent perversions. There was nothing of her in the dreams; in them, she became Joran Belar as truly as he had become Joran Dax. It wasn’t a fantasy, but a fundamental truth, something deep within her, not simply an outlet for her feelings, but something she was truly capable of. The monster she became when she slept was not just some conjured phantasm, a dream-stalking demon trying to prey on her fears and validate her courage; it was a reflection of herself, of who she was, no different to the countless times she dreamed of Curzon’s lovers or Emony’s victories. The violence was in her now, just as they were, and it would be there for good; the dreams were just reminders.

Beside her, the Intendant tilted her face upwards, meeting her lips in a fleeting kiss that might have almost been sweet if she were anyone else. “So tell me,” she murmured, lips as warm as her body. “What could I possibly have done to make you want to kill me?”

“I don’t want to kill you,” Dax said again, and she realised as she said it that she was far more desperate to convince herself than she was to convince the Intendant, who seemed to think of this whole thing as some kind of joke. “I really don’t. It’s just… well, it’s been been such a long time since I had you in my bed…”

The Intendant laughed. “You’re the one in my bed,” she corrected. “Well, you’re on my floor, anyway. And you’re here at my leisure, lest you forget yourself again.”

“I won’t.” The promise was an empty one. “Intendant.”

Humming to herself, the Intendant let her hand drop from Dax’s jaw, cupping her neck and looking into her eyes; she looked thoughtful, but also suspicious. “What goes on inside that pretty head of yours, I wonder…” she mused. “You’re always such a mystery, my dear. You keep your cards so close to your chest. Now, don’t misunderstand me, it’s a delightful chest, and I do so enjoy its many splendours… but it can get rather tiring to try and read you when you close yourself off like this.” She shook her head. “And that temper of yours…”

Dax sighed. It felt strange, hearing those words from the Intendant’s tongue, so similar to what her Kira — her Nerys — always said, the way she got so frustrated and impatient when Dax refused to talk about whatever was on her mind in a given moment. Nerys was always so free with her thoughts, if not her loyalty; she spoke her mind, whether it was invited or not, and she expected the same from her friends. Apparently the same was true of the Intendant, but that didn’t make it any easier for Dax to be what either of them wanted.

The truth was, she simply wasn’t wired that way; it was painful enough to admit weakness inside her own head, much less to say it out loud. Curzon had been better at it, she knew, and Torias had been a veritable expert, but she wasn’t either of them, or any of the others. She was Jadzia Dax, and most of the time it was all she could do to keep from drowning in self-loathing at that very fact; even after three years, she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t deserve the symbiont inside of her, that it was worth more than she was, and that she was stunting its growth. She was unworthy, and if that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep her feelings bottled up inside, she didn’t know what was.

Maybe one day Nerys would understand that. From the look on her face, the Intendant would not, so Dax didn’t bother trying to explain it. She just sighed again, massaged her temples, and said, “I’m sorry, Intendant.”

Placated, at least for now, the Intendant squeezed her jaw. “I don’t know what to do with you, sometimes. I really don’t.”

That was much easier to deal with, and Dax summoned a mischievous grin. “I have a few suggestions,” she said.

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” the Intendant replied with another hearty laugh. “And perhaps, if you’re lucky, I’ll let you put a few of them into practice.”

Dax nodded, bowing her head with just the perfect amount of submission. “At your leisure, Intendant,” she said.

“Yes, you are.” The Intendant kissed her again, this time with approval, and Dax was nauseated to realise that she actually felt gratified by it. “But before we get onto more pleasurable matters, why don’t you tell me all about this dream of yours…”

“Why?” Dax blurted out before she could stop herself.

The Intendant’s eyes flashed. “Does it matter why?” she demanded. “Perhaps I’m bored. Perhaps I like a good story. Perhaps it should be reason enough that I asked you to do something.”

Dax closed her eyes, feeling her jaw tremble as she fought to swallow down the lingering taste of self-loathing. She knew what the Intendant was really asking — ‘tell me about all your dreams, tell me your darkest desires, tell me your most twisted fantasies, your most sordid imaginings, tell me all the terrible things you secretly want’ — but it was more than she could bear to even think of doing her bidding this time. It was more than she could bear to admit even just inside her head that any part of her might want the things she dreamed about, much less that that part grew bigger with each one.

“I can’t,” she whispered aloud, and though there was regret in the words, there was no apology.

The Intendant chuckled again. There was a richness to the sound, a familiar luxuriance, but it felt heavier than usual, weighted down with something Dax hadn’t heard from her before. It wasn’t quite sympathy but it wasn’t her usual seductive malice either; it was something else entirely, and Dax’s ribs contracted with sudden brutality as she recognised it. It sounded like Kira, like the real Kira, like Nerys. It sounded not like empathy but like understanding, and Dax felt a pang of pain squeeze around her heart so tight that she could barely breathe.

She felt her jaw clench and tremble. She couldn’t bear to see Kira’s face looking back at her right now, couldn’t bear to see those eyes she knew so well burning with something that she didn’t recognise, couldn’t bear to let herself hear the understanding in her voice and imagine it meant something else. She couldn’t bear to see her, to hear her, to be with her at all. She couldn’t bear it, and she tried to turn away, but this was the Intendant’s world and the Intendant wouldn’t let her. She gripped her by the jaw once more, holding her in place and forcing her to meet those strange-burning eyes, to look deep into them and see that she was and was not Kira.

“Why not?” she asked, and there was that understanding, that weighted depth, all those things Dax couldn’t bear. “Angry, passionate, beautiful Jadzia. My sweet, stubborn Trill. What are you so afraid of?”

Dax buried her face in the crook of her neck, frightened and ashamed, wishing she could believe that this twisted woman really was Kira, wishing she could take some comfort in the words that tore themselves free from her throat, from the words that defined her, the truth that left her shaking and scared after dreams of things that didn’t scare her at all. With everything she had in her, she wished that somehow, some way, the Kira she knew was listening and could hear her.

“Me,” she confessed, lost and lonely. “I’m afraid of me.”

Chapter Text

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Dax bared her teeth, let them scrape lightly across the Intendant’s collarbone, and smiled when she shivered. She hated how easy it was, how quickly she fell into the abyss, how little resistance she put up when those terrible things rose up to claim her, how readily and deliberately the Intendant brought them out in her. Was it any wonder she was dancing so close to the edge, she thought, when the one person who had faith in her had suddenly become the one pushing her closer?

“You don’t understand,” she said, willing her hands to stay steady as she wrung them in her lap. “This isn’t one of your kinky sex games.”

She closed her eyes, struggling to ignore the heat that sparked unwittingly in her groin; she was suddenly acutely aware of the bruises on her wrists, her thighs, her throat, of the cuts and scratches along her ribs, of the dried blood on her hands, of the countless brands of violence painting nearly every inch of her skin a different colour… and even more aware of how good they felt.

“That’s a pity,” the Intendant said, seeming to feel the heat rising in her. “It would make a glorious one, don’t you think? You and me and those delicious dark dreams of yours…”

“Don’t.” Dax hated that the idea didn’t make her feel nauseous. “It’s not a game, and it’s not a joke. It’s… I’m dangerous.”

The Intendant swung to her feet, restless and impatient, throwing her hands up in disgust and leaving Dax exposed and naked on an unfamiliar floor. “Poor sweet Jadzia,” she murmured, shaking her head as she crossed the room to retrieve her robe. “You have such delusions of grandeur, don’t you? Do you really think you’re the only soul on this station who’s ‘dangerous’? Do you really think you’re the only living creature who has a temper?” She laughed, shrugging into the robe with her trademark grace. “I’m far more dangerous than you could ever be, my dear, even in your dreams.”

Dax shook her head. “You don’t…”

“Yes, I do.” Her voice was hard, stoic and solid in all the places her Kira’s would be soft and tender. “I’m more dangerous than you can imagine, my poor deluded Trill, and you don’t see me whimpering about it.” Her eyes flashed, though whether in promise or warning, Dax could not say. “Quite the contrary, in fact.”

Dax swallowed hard, forcing herself to take a few deeps breath, to remember where she was and who she was talking to, to remember that the Intendant really was as dangerous as she said she was. It was a different kind of danger, of course, but it was certainly real enough, and Dax had no doubt that she had every intention of making good on her threats to send her off to work with the Terran slaves if she kept forgetting her place. She needed to remember why she was here, who she was supposed to be.

Jadzia, she thought, grounding herself, and bit a little more blood from her lip.

“I’m sorry,” she said out loud. “You’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t dangerous. I know you are, and I know what you’re capable of. I do. It’s just… I was out there for so long, alone… and I…”

“Yes, yes.” The Intendant waved a dismissive hand. “I know. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in such delectable company as mine.” She smiled again, taking a moment to admire herself in a full-length mirror on the other side of the room. “I can’t say I blame you, I suppose. I intimidate myself sometimes too.” She turned back to Dax, hunger radiating out from every inch of her. “And you are so utterly adorable when you get flustered and short-tempered like that…”

She shook her head, rearranging the robe about her shoulders so that it fell open to expose the swell of her breasts. Dax’s mouth went dry, but she refused to whimper. “Thank you, Intendant.”

The Intendant laughed again, stepping closer. “Honestly, my dear, when you look at me that way, sometimes I think I’d forgive you almost anything.”

That was comforting, though Dax had enough sense left not to say so out loud. She just said, “You’re too kind to me,” and gazed shyly down at the carpet.

“I know I am,” the Intendant breezed. “It’s a particular fault of mine, you see… I’m too kind. Too generous. I allowed too many liberties to those ungrateful Terrans… and, well, you can see how they repaid me.” She sighed, heavy and exaggerated. “You’d never think of doing what they did, I know, but it still wounds me to think of that traitor Benjamin Sisko and his little friends making a mockery of me.”

Dax cut a quick glance at her, and was startled to see the sincerity in her eyes. She truly did believe what she was saying, that the rebellion had come about because she’d been too accommodating to her former slaves, because she’d treated them too well. Dax recognised the fire in her eyes, the intensity and the passion; she’d seen it in her Kira more times than she could count. Righteousness. Righteousness and indignation, the hurt of someone who had offered kindness and been betrayed. It made her feel ill.

Oblivious to her discomfort, the Intendant pressed on. “You see, my dear, there’s nothing to fear in taking a firm hand when necessary. I know it must seem loathsome to a sweet little thing like you… but believe me, you’ll regret it far more if you don’t.”

Dax wanted to point out that cold-blooded slaughter was rather a huge step up from ‘taking a firm hand’, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Truth be told, she was somewhat afraid of what she would see if she held the difference up for inspection. Dax already felt dirty and twisted just by being here at all, by letting the Intendant manipulate and seduce her, by letting her coax out the anger and the heat and the want, by letting her blur the lines between pleasure and pain, wrong and right, forcing her to question everything she knew and everything she was. She already felt twisted and sordid; realising just how dangerous the Intendant truly was would only make it worse, and Dax didn’t have the strength to deal with that just yet.

The Intendant, of course, was still talking, happily content to bask in the sound of her own voice. “If I hadn’t been so weak-willed, I wouldn’t have a rebellion on my hands now.” She sounded so weary, so long-suffering; had she been anyone else, Dax would have almost felt sorry for her. “I wouldn’t have Benjamin Sisko slinking around and hiding in those damned Badlands, safely out of our sensors’ reach, laughing at me while he and his little band of traitors plan their next assault. I wouldn’t have to worry about any of that, if I’d just shown a little less mercy… if I’d just been a little less kind.”

Dax didn’t know what to say. She thought of the rebels she’d met, of Sisko and Jadzia, holed up in some backwater corner of the Badlands, lying low and biding their time, isolated and hidden away. She thought of how lonely Jadzia had seemed, how cut off from anyone who could understand what she was going through, cut off from the galaxy she’d once explored so freely. It was one thing being exiled from Trill, Dax knew, but another thing entirely to be forced into hiding. From what little she’d inferred during her time here, Jadzia wasn’t the kind to stay in one place for too long; she was far too much of a mercenary to enjoy a life of sitting still, of biding her time and waiting for the action to come to her. She needed to be out in the depths of space, not holed up with a bunch of people she didn’t care about and couldn’t trust even when she thought she was going insane.

Dax’s cover story was one that made sense for this universe’s Jadzia; a few months of self-imposed isolation, wandering the far reaches of the galaxy in search of adventure and excitement. Even solitude was more appealing than cowering and crawling in some backwards corner of the galaxy, to any incarnation of the Dax symbiont. Dax herself had faith enough in Jadzia’s moral compass to believe that she was at least somewhat invested, if not in the rebellion itself, at least in Sisko, no matter how much she argued to the contrary, but that didn’t stop her heart from aching to think of the freedom she’d so grudgingly given up to be a part of his little traitor’s band.

It unnerved her, sitting here next to the very person her other self was fighting against, looking at her face and listening to her side of the story, seeing the betrayal reshape her features as she wondered what she might have done differently. ‘Old wounds cut deep’; wasn’t that what the Intendant herself had said, speaking so coldly about Jadzia’s exile from Trill? It seemed that the words were just as relevant to her as well. Regret was a painful thing; Dax knew that all too well, and it stung far deeper than she expected to watch the echoes of it shadowing Kira’s eyes, even if this was a Kira who deserved every ounce of it.

“You did the best you could,” she mustered at last, and hoped that the words would satisfy in lieu of any real sympathy.

They did, apparently. “I know,” the Intendant said with a weary sigh. “I know. I did what was necessary, what was expected of me. I did everything I could under trying circumstances. Nobody knows that better than I do.” Her face lit up, lips curved into a half-smile. “But you see, my sweet Jadzia, that’s precisely why a temper as spectacular as yours shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. You have the most delicious violence inside you. Why are you so reluctant to accept it for the gift it is?” Her voice was rising with her passion, like Kira’s sometimes did. “Don’t sit around waiting for some cold-hearted traitor to stab you in the back with your own misplaced compassion. Your temper is a beautiful thing, my dear. You should cherish it. Harness it. Use it.”

She crossed to the bed, sitting down on the edge and playing idly with the corner of the sheet, head tilted in a wordless invitation for Dax to join her. Not wanting to antagonise her further, Dax did as she was bid, standing on shaky legs and crossing the short distance to sit down at her side. She tried to keep a little distance between them, but the Intendant was relentless, closing the space as if it were nothing, and dropping her head down onto Dax’s shoulder, uninvited.

“And what would I use it for?” Dax asked, sullen. “I’m not like you. I don’t have a whole station full of Terran slaves to keep down at heel.”

The word ‘slaves’ tasted bitter on her tongue, unpleasant, but she forced herself to say it, forced herself to swallow that taste, to commit it to memory and know that she was still capable of feeling bad about it.

“No, I suppose you don’t,” the Intendant conceded after a moment; she raised her head, studying Dax with a strange kind of sobriety, a seriousness that seemed strange on her. “But you could have.”

“What do you mean?” Dax asked. She suspected she already knew the answer, and it turned her stomach.

“Do you really think I can trust that idiot Garak?” She laughed, a little too loudly, just skirting madness. “He’s tried to have me killed more times than I can count. And whatever high hopes I might’ve once held for Benjamin Sisko… well, you know as well as I do how that turned out.” She heaved another sigh, and it was by pure instinct that Dax ducked her head to kiss the exposed ridge of her collarbone. “No. There are vipers and demons everywhere, I’m afraid. I’m surrounded on all sides by people who want my job or my head… or both, in Garak’s case. The more power you have, I’m afraid, the more knives are pointed at your back.” She allowed herself a brief moment of seemingly genuine affection, trailing her fingers through Dax’s hair and brushing her lips over her cheek. “At least you keep yours where I can see it.”

Dax took a steadying breath, tried not to think of that knife and where she wanted to put it. “Intendant, I…”

“Yes, yes. I know all your excuses. You love your precious ship too much. You don’t like being tied to one place for too long. You’re afraid of having your heart broken again, assuming you ever had one to begin with. I’ve heard them all a thousand times.” She exhaled, a sorrowful little sound that made Dax’s chest go tight. “I suppose I’d just rather hoped that this latest jaunt of yours might have left you tired of all that pointless travelling. You’ll have to settle down some time, my poor homesick Jadzia. Why not at my side?”

Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Dax wrapped the sheet around herself; if she was honest, it was far more to cover the cuts and bruises than it was to protect her modesty, but the Intendant barked a laugh at the sight all the same. Dax tried not to think too hard, tried not to wonder what she must look like, how vulnerable, blue and purple and red, a mosaic of pain and hurt. Did Jadzia let the Intendant do this to her, or was this new for them both? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“It’s a lot to think about,” she said guardedly, occupying her hands with the sheet to keep from fumbling for Jadzia’s knife.

“I’m sure it is,” the Intendant agreed. “Take all the time you want to think about it. I know how you Trills enjoy your thinking.” Her smile turned predatory. “Besides… I’m sure you’ll find a way to keep me busy while I wait for your answer.”

Dax tried to hide her grimace. Her body pulsed temptingly at the obvious overtones, as eager now as it ever was, but the rest of her was still too raw to even think of it. Part of her just wanted to sleep, but she knew all too well where that would take her, and the exhaustion bled into the discomfort until all that was left was an overwhelming need to hide.

She couldn’t hide, though. She couldn’t hide, and she couldn’t sleep; all she could do was sit there and wait for the Intendant to be done with her, to wait until she’d exhausted herself as thoroughly as she’d already exhausted Dax. Briefly, she thought about just lying back and letting the Intendant take her anyway, to do whatever it took if only she’d occupy her mouth with something other than talking. She was tired and in pain, but she could spread her legs easily enough, and there was always room for a little more hurt in a soul as dark as hers.

It was tempting, yes, but ultimately pointless; in the end, she’d just be prolonging the inevitable. She could only put off the truth for so long, and the longer she pushed it aside, the harder it would be when she finally needed to confront it. She was here for a reason, and pleasing the Intendant a hundred times, or even a thousand, wasn’t going to get her any closer to what she needed.

She took a deep, steadying breath. The Intendant, characteristically misinterpreting, let her hand slide under the folds of the sheet, warm against Dax’s skin. Dax swallowed, felt her body tense, but did not try to push her away. Let her do what she wanted, she thought; it would be harder for her to lose her temper if she was otherwise occupied.

“Actually…” she heard herself mumbling, voice pitchy and tremulous as the Intendant worked her way up her thigh. “…actually, there is something you could do for me.”

The Intendant stiffened at that, fingers turning to steel where they caressed, and expression turning instantly to something angry and wounded. “You do want something from me,” she said flatly; it was an observation, not a question. “That’s why you’re here.”

“I…”

Dax felt like she was on the edge of a precipice, a rocky cliff face with the ground crumbling to dust beneath her feet. A single step in any direction could make the situation worse, but standing still would surely see her thrown over the edge; she had to say exactly the right thing, play her hand exactly the right way, or she would lose in an instant any chance she might have at getting what she needed— no, what Jadzia needed.

“Tell me,” the Intendant snarled, pulling her hand back and raising it to Dax’s face, the threat of a slap. “And tell me the truth.”

“I didn’t say that,” Dax managed after a moment’s deliberation, praying she’d called this right. “I could get what I want myself, and I will if you don’t help me.” It wasn’t true, and she had only her experience at the tongo table to convince the Intendant that her hand was a good one. “But you’re asking a lot from me, and I would consider it a… personal favour… if you’d make things a little easier for me while I think it over.”

The Intendant stared at her, eyes narrowed, as though trying to figure out whether or not to believe her. That it was even a debate in her mind at all was in itself pretty astonishing, and Dax had to fight with everything she had in her to keep from rolling her eyes. Apparently, Jadzia’s tales of the Intendant’s narcissism weren’t the least bit exaggerated; the woman would probably believe that the depths of space were full of breathable air if it was said in a sufficiently supplicant tone.

“All right,” she said at last, confirming that theory, though the calculating edge to her voice told Dax to tread with caution. “Tell me what you want. If I have a mind to help, I will. But if I do help…” She smiled, cool and sinister, and so unlike Kira that Dax almost forgot they shared a face. “If I do, then I expect you to repay me in kind. I expect you to tell me all about that delicious violence inside of you… all your dark dreams, all your sordid desires, all those secret little things that make you so afraid of yourself. All the perverse corners of your heart that nobody else will ever understand.” She leaned in, teeth sharp against Dax’s split lip. “No details spared. If I give you what you want, you give me what I want. And I want everything.”

Dax’s mouth went dry. Her mind raced, a blur of Joran, his hate and his fury and his anger, all the hours she’d spent locked up safely inside the holosuites on Deep Space Nine, hiding and making sure that the only people she hurt were made of refracted light and replicated matter, that nobody else would suffer at his hands — her hands — their hands. She remembered the dreams, all of them and all at once, the sweet taste of flesh in her mouth, the bloodlust and the rage, the fleeting fear when she awoke, supplanted almost instantly by the memory of heat and hunger and want.

The Intendant hummed against her mouth, and Dax thought of last night’s sex too, of the way this vicious shadow of Kira had relished the violence in her, taken advantage of her bloodlust and masochism, the way that Dax herself had embraced the pain, the simplicity and the sweetness as the Intendant cut into her with Jadzia’s knife. She remembered the way she’d begged for more, whimpering into the Intendant’s mouth, keening pleas lost to the back of her throat. She thought of all the things she was so afraid of becoming, all the things she’d become already, and she knew that the Intendant would nurture those things in her, that she would feed them until they grew too big to ignore, too big to resist, too big to fight.

It was too much, she thought, terrified. The price was too high.

But then, inevitably, she thought of Jadzia. Not the twisted creature she’d warped in her dream, or the traitor she’d hated so briefly when she’d learned about her exile. She thought of the real one, the one who was lost and afraid, alone even as she surrounded herself with friends and lovers and whoever else. The Jadzia who could never go home, who had put her sanity and her life into the hands of a stranger who bore her face and made hollow claims to understand how she felt. The Jadzia who still didn’t know who Joran was, who would have to learn the hard way if she wanted to survive him. The Jadzia who had given her the blade, that deadly serrated blade, those jagged edges that could slit a throat or a palm. The Jadzia who had hated so much to drop her own responsibilities onto someone else’s shoulders, who wanted nothing more than to be herself again. Jadzia…

Dax had crossed universes for that Jadzia. She had gone against her Starfleet training, against Kira’s advice, even against her own better judgement, and all because she couldn’t allow another Dax to fall prey to Joran’s influence. She had already debased herself with this tyrannical narcissist, so what was one more dirty deed? Even if she lost herself here, even if the Intendant drowned her in Joran and his violence, wouldn’t it be enough to know that another Jadzia might be spared?

She didn’t know. How could anyone know for sure if something was worth that? Maybe she would never know. But even if it wasn’t, she still had to try.

“Benzocyatizine,” she said, spitting the word out as quickly as she could, before she had a chance to reconsider and second-guess herself. “I need benzocyatizine. From Trill. As much as you can get.”

For a long moment, the Intendant simply looked at her, mild puzzlement undercutting her usual calculated scrutiny, as though she couldn’t quite make sense of what she was hearing. Dax wondered if she had any idea what she was being asked, if she knew what benzocyatizine was or what it was used for. It would be easy enough to find out, if she was really curious, but she wouldn’t put it past someone of the Intendant’s interrogative prowess to test her by feigning ignorance even if she did know. Not that it really mattered if she did or not; Dax didn’t care what she thought about the request, so long as she did something about it.

“I see,” the Intendant mused after a short beat. “And how, exactly, do you plan on getting it if I don’t help you? From what I know of your countrymen, reputation is everything, and I don’t imagine there are many respectable Trills out there who would be willing to put their precious reputation on the line to send out medical supplies to known exiles.” Dax recoiled at the slight, hissing not because she found it particularly offensive, but because she knew it was expected of her, and the Intendant rewarded her with another sly smile. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter, does it? Even if you do have some other source hidden away somewhere, you’d never reveal it to me, would you? You’re far too clever for that…” She shook her head, playfully disappointed and grudgingly proud. “More’s the pity.”

Dax bit her tongue to keep from forgetting her place again, or at least from losing track of the role she was meant to be playing. She repositioned herself awkwardly on the bed, shifting uncomfortably, if only to give her body something to do. She didn’t say anything, painfully aware of the Intendant’s hawk-like stare; one wrong move could change her mind, for good or for ill, and if she thought for even just a second that she really was Dax’s only hope (and she would know it beyond all doubt if she just had the sense to look a little closer and see the tremors in her hands), then she would raise the stakes even higher than they already were. Dax could not afford that, and so she bit her lip and held her tongue, did everything she could to keep her body active, to keep those telltale tremors from becoming too obvious, holding herself in check and waiting for the Intendant to make the decision by herself.

She did eventually, albeit with obvious reluctance, and Dax was desperately trying to mask her relief almost before she got the words out.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she muttered at last, expression hard. “But understand that I’m not making any promises. You know how flighty those Trills can be.”

Dax definitely did know that, though she had the sense not to say so. She just bowed her head again, because that was the mark of supplication the Intendant seemed to like best.

“Thank you,” she breathed, then forced her voice to lower to a sultry purr, not too far from the kind that the Intendant herself used so often and so freely. “Like I said, I could get what I need myself. But if you were able to acquire it for me… well, then I’d owe you, wouldn’t I?”

“You would indeed.”

Though she said it standoffishly, the gleam in her eyes was obvious, and Dax could tell that she was counting the opportunities. There was a good deal of Ferengi business sense in her, she thought, in addition to the obvious militant resolve that marked her as Bajoran and that unsettling edge of Cardassian ruthlessness. She hoped she wouldn’t have to stick around long enough to find out if she could add ‘Klingon’ to that list too; an unexpected sense of honour would be the last thing she needed.

“It’ll probably take a while,” the Intendant went on, clearly aware of how desperately Dax wanted to be free from this place. “Days, at least, and that’s assuming your friendly neighbourhood Trills are even the least bit cooperative. I hope you weren’t planning on leaving any time soon…”

The challenge was obvious, and Dax forced down the disappointment with a considerable force of will. She’d known better than to expect things to be simple, really, and it would have been nothing short of stupid to assume that she would be safely on her way back to the Badlands in a few short hours, but she’d hoped for a speedy turnover just the same.

She didn’t want to stay here, not with creatures like the Intendant circling and sniffing her, just looking for fresh weaknesses to expose. Every minute she stayed was a minute she risked blowing her cover, and she wasn’t the only one who would be in trouble if that happened; Sisko and his rebellion would be at risk too, to say nothing of Jadzia. It was a lot to carry on her shoulders, and Dax was exhausted just thinking of the countless things that could go wrong.

But, of course, she couldn’t let the Intendant see any of that. She would notice in a second, sense the reticence in her, and know that she had an ulterior motive. It was one thing to want to move on, Dax knew, but another thing entirely to want to move on quickly, and she didn’t trust herself to harness the tact needed to keep from arousing suspicion. The Intendant was watching her, keen-eyed and intent, like she knew she’d catch a glimpse of something if she stared for long enough, and Dax had no intention of making it that easy for her.

So, making use of all those late-night tongo games, she set her face and shrugged, rolling her shoulders like she had all the time in the world. “I’ve only just arrived,” she said out loud, silently relieved by how steady her voice sounded. “Why would I want to leave?”

“Good answer.” The Intendant rumbled her approval, low and deep. “I couldn’t bear to lose you again so soon.”

That was a lie, Dax knew; she’d spent enough time with Ferengi hustlers to recognise false praise and shameless flattery. The Intendant knew how to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t ashamed to do whatever it took; in this case, what she wanted was Dax’s compliance. Oh, she had no doubt that she really did want her to stay in sight and in reach, and she flattered herself that she really did want her in her bed too, but she suspected that was more a question of convenience than anything else; she knew better than to think the Intendant truly cherished her talents in that department, at least no more than anyone else’s. She just wanted Dax, like everyone who crossed her path, under her thumb.

Dax willed herself to get back to business, to think and talk like a mercenary, like someone who was used to long layovers in places like this, who was used to getting her hands dirty with people like the Intendant for days or weeks at a time without so much as a second thought, someone who could just take a sonic shower and wash away the illicit deeds.

“I’ll need quarters,” she said, clipped and sober.

The Intendant burst out laughing. “I wouldn’t dream of it!” she cried, as though she couldn’t imagine a worse insult to either of them. “No, no, no. You’ll stay here with me. I want you close.”

That was very dangerous, and Dax couldn’t quite keep the alarm from touching her features. “You wouldn’t want me to get underfoot,” she managed.

“Oh, don’t I?” She laughed again, colder this time, and more calculating. “My sweet, innocent Jadzia… if there’s one thing you must have learned about me by now, it’s that ‘underfoot’ is exactly where I want you.”

Dax winced. She didn’t like the sound of that one bit. “Intendant…” she floundered, feeling her freedom slipping away and knowing she was utterly helpless to stop it. “Intendant, I really don’t think…”

“No, you don’t.” The Intendant ran her fingertips along her jawline, up to her temple, tracing the pattern of spots as they faded out and disappeared towards her brow. “You’ve never been one for thinking, my dear. That’s one of the many, many reasons why I like you.”

There really wasn’t much Dax could say to argue with that, and so she didn’t try. She just winced again, feigning tiredness, and sank back against the cool sheets. The pillow was warm beneath her head, and her body ached as she stretched out, the pleasant pain counterbalanced by the red haze in her head.

Dax had never been one to turn away from a shared bed if it was offered, but sharing quarters was a different thing entirely; she enjoyed her privacy, the peace and the tranquillity of solitude, and the security of having a quiet place where nobody could see her doubts or her fears. She was a social butterfly by nature, and she could happily waste her nights with Quark and his Ferengi friends, playing tongo and drinking, but once she was home, she was alone, and she liked it that way.

Being a joined Trill naturally meant being introspective. With seven lifetimes — no, eight lifetimes — of experience and countless memories rattling around inside her head, it was crucial to find some time to switch off and filter through them all, to wade through the depths of seven dead hosts and embrace the one who still lived. It had taken a very long time for Dax to strike the perfect balance, to enjoy all the gifts that Curzon and the others had to offer while also taking the time to indulge the young woman who had taken them inside herself, to cast off the warmth and comfort of their wisdom and become that silly little girl again. She knew it was just as important to focus in on herself and tune out the others, to remember who she was and how she had become this complex amalgamation of thoughts and feelings; without self-awareness, all those memories would be little more than a jumble, chaotic and discordant, and she’d lose herself completely.

Peace and quiet were fundamental for that. Dax needed time and quiet to think, to reflect and remember, and she had learned that it simply didn’t happen when she was in the company of others; it was too easy to hide behind Curzon’s charisma or Torias’s confidence, to smile like Audrid or talk like Lela, to wrap herself up in their habits and their voices, to become all the things that she alone could never truly be. It was easy to be Dax, but it was only when she was alone that she could force herself to remember the silly little girl that was Jadzia.

It had become even harder since Joran. He wasn’t like Curzon or the others; he didn’t understand the importance of letting the host retreat into their own memories once in a while. At the very least, he didn’t understand what it meant to respect each of a symbiont’s hosts equally. Joran wanted what was best for himself: his needs, his desires, his violence. He had no time for Lela’s patience or Emony’s ambition or Curzon’s exuberance, not when there was pain to inflict and suffering to enjoy. Since he had resurfaced inside her, Dax hadn’t been able to shut him up. Even when she was focusing inward, trying to connect with herself — with Jadzia — he refused to be quieted. She hadn’t been able to silence his sordid feelings, his dangerous thoughts, the violence or the anger inside of him; they’d become parts of Jadzia too, or at least it felt that way, because even when she was completely alone (especially when she was completely alone), all she could feel was Joran.

Curzon and the others understood the fundamental need for quiet and solitude, and knew when to retreat, but Joran never did. He stayed, even when they were silent, and that left her with nothing to fight him with. She was alone, without their influence, just a frightened little girl and the crazed psychopath that insisted he was a part of her. That was why she’d spent so much time in the holosuite, hiding behind imaginary warriors, indulging in the kind of violence that was acceptable, that did not hurt anyone. She had no choice; her quiet meditation always turned to bloodshed and pain, to violence and depravity, even when she tried to ignore it. She was weak when she was alone, and he used that against her, burrowing deeper into her identity every time she tried to connect with it. She couldn’t silence him; even alone, she couldn’t silence him. How much worse would it be now if she didn’t have that solitude? How much worse when she was in constant company with someone who thought and felt and behaved so much like him?

The thought was so frightening, so overwhelming, that she almost completely forgot the added risk of blowing her cover if she stayed in close quarters with the Intendant. It was a concern, yes, but next to the weight of Joran’s influence it was a pretty minor one, and there was only room in her head for one paralysing fear at a time. Ultimately, the Intendant either would or would not see through her; there wasn’t much she could do about that except hope she had the poker face to pull it off. But if Dax couldn’t find a place to be alone with her thoughts, it didn’t matter either way. If she couldn’t find a place to be alone and deal with his influence without indulging it any more than she had to, exposing the rebels would be the least of her problems.

The Intendant was so much like Joran, and she had the same way of seducing Dax as well, of bringing out the things that he coaxed in her, of encouraging the terrible feelings that weren’t hers at all. The last thing in the world Dax needed was to spend every waking moment in company with a woman like that, the aggressive and forceful woman who saw a playmate in her, who thought bloodlust was a toy, who tugged at the places inside her where Joran lay waiting, who pretended to understand what violence was, who told her again and again to indulge it, to indulge everything, to indulge all those awful feelings…

She shook her head, fisting the sheets, and the Intendant raised a curious eyebrow.

“I’ll need some space,” Dax heard herself blurt out, the fear making her reckless.

The Intendant’s eyes narrowed; she looked almost like she wanted to laugh, but found the request too odious to actually do so.

“You’ll have it,” she said. “I still have a station to run, in case it slipped your hollow little mind. I have a horde of Terran workers under my command, and Sector Command breathing down my neck for results… not to mention insurgent would-be rebels looking to slip a knife in my back if I dare to turn it for a second.” She regarded Dax with a measure of disdain, and Dax found that she almost preferred it to the unabashed appreciation. “As tempting as it may be to while away my days in your delightful company, my dear, I do in fact have other obligations to attend to. You’ll get your precious privacy, have no fear.”

Dax flushed, trying not to think about how obvious that was, and what it said about her that she’d failed to think about it; she’d barely been here five minutes, and she was already getting sloppy. Another few days, and who was to say what state she’d be in?

“Of course,” she said, smoothing the discomfort from her features, playing the loyal servant that she knew the Intendant wanted out of her. “And you know you can call on me if you need any help keeping your workers in line.”

In truth, she said it as much for the Terrans’ own benefit as for the Intendant’s; she didn’t need Julian’s first-hand experience of the workforce in this place to know all about the harsh conditions, and she welcomed the chance, while she was here, to help keep them safe from the Intendant’s wrath.

The Intendant, somewhat perplexed, quirked a curious brow. “Aren’t you a little soft-hearted for that?” she asked.

Dax shrugged. She reached for Jadzia’s knife, gripping it by the handle this time, and running her fingertip along the tip, conscious of the Intendant’s lusty stare. “Just because I like to keep a handle on my temper doesn’t mean I don’t have other methods available to me.” She bared her teeth, leering. “I can be quite the disciplinarian, as I’m sure you know.”

“Oh, I certainly do,” the Intendant agreed readily, eyes darting from the blade to Dax’s mouth and back again.

She didn’t say anything further, neither accepting nor rejecting Dax’s offer. Her mind seemed to wander, distracted by the sight before her eyes, watching raptly as Dax toyed with the knife. Feeling exposed, Dax let the blade draw a bead of blood from her fingertip, just one, and shivered as the Intendant leaned in to taste it, lips dancing over the point of the knife.

“Intendant…” Dax breathed, shocked by how husky she sounded.

The Intendant chuckled, drawing back to look up at her. “You’re free to come and go as you please,” she said, as though the interlude had never happened; Dax could still feel the ghost of her lips, though, and it made it hard to focus on the words.

“Thank you, Intendant,” she managed.

“My generosity knows no bounds, I know. Now, you’re welcome to enjoy the facilities, though we both know you’ve never needed an invitation to do that…” She trailed off, the pause weighted with meaning, as though expecting an argument; when Dax didn’t say anything, she shrugged and pressed on. “But keep those pretty hands to yourself this time. I was willing to turn a blind eye and indulge your little indiscretions when you were coming by all the time and bringing me the spoils of your adventures, but it’s been far too long, and my cargo hold is notably empty.” Her smile turned cool. “This trip, you’re mine. Exclusively.”

It was obvious by the way she said it that the embargo was supposed to be the worst kind of insult, that she was making some kind of a point by invoking such a restriction. Honestly, from what little time she had spent with her counterpart, Dax wasn’t exactly surprised. She had her own appetites, and plenty of them, but she rather suspected that Jadzia’s would put them to shame. Clearly, this was a side of her that the Intendant was intimately acquainted with, much to her dissatisfaction.

Dax suspected it would be instant suicide not to at least acknowledge the slight, and so she scowled and huffed like it was a terrible indignity, carefully masking the fact that she’d had no intention of indulging in any more of the local fare than she already had.

“You never did take kindly to sharing,” she remarked, loading her voice with aggravation, then shrugged. “Fine. If that’s how you want it, I’ll behave myself. This time, anyway.”

The Intendant gave her shoulder a condescending pat, eyes on Jadzia’s knife. “It’s really quite adorable that you think I was giving you a choice in the matter,” she chuckled. “I was giving you a command, my sweet, not making a casual suggestion.”

Dax rolled her eyes. “Yes, Intendant. Of course, Intendant. I’m sorry, Intendant.”

“Be careful with that tone. It could get you in trouble.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Dax set the blade aside, pulled the Intendant in for a kiss. “As you know.”

The Intendant took a moment to savour the taste of her tongue, then pulled back. “I forgot how insatiable you are,” she said. “Is it really you, I wonder, or that little creature inside you?”

Dax definitely did not want to think about that. “Does it matter?” she asked.

“I suppose not.” She stretched, rising to her feet with obvious reluctance. “Unfortunately, however, your appetites will have to wait. I have a station to run.” Her eyes flashed, playful but deadly, raking over the contours of Dax’s body, the blue-and-purple mottling of blood and bruises, stopping only when they reached the wet heat between her thighs. “Now, then. No cheating while I’m away, my dear. You’re mine exclusively, if you recall, and that means you don’t get to enjoy yourself in my absence. And don’t think for a second that I won’t know if you do.”

Dax bit down on the inside of her cheek, swallowing back the rising urge to strike her, to show her that she wasn’t as in control as she thought she was. “Yes, Intendant,” she mustered instead, through gritted teeth.

“Good girl.” Dax ignored the patronising endearment. “Now, if you need me, I’ll be in Ore Processing, dealing with the ingrates.” Dax opened her mouth, but the Intendant silenced her with a dismissive wave. “Yes, all right. I’ll look into your little Trill problem as well. You have my word.”

Dax wasn’t entirely convinced that the Intendant’s word was worth anything, but it was all she had, so she took it with as much grace as she had left in her. Closing her eyes for just long enough to ground herself, she channelled what she knew of this universe’s Jadzia, handling the offer the way she thought she would.

“Thank you,” she said again, brushing her fingertips across the side of the Intendant’s hip, circling inwards. “I really… really… appreciate it.”

“Yes, yes,” the Intendant muttered, but allowed her to continue her ministrations for the time being. “There will be time enough this evening for you to show me exactly how much you appreciate me. And, as we both know, I always collect on my debts.”

There was a flash of warning in her eye as she said that, the unspoken implication that she planned to collect more than just flesh this time. Dax shuddered at the sight, reminded again of just how similar this woman was to the sadomasochist inside her head; this place was just as dark and disturbed as Joran was, she decided again, and vowed once more not to stay here for a second longer than she absolutely had to.

“I know.” She pulled the back sheet around herself with her free hand, desperately hoping that her discomfort wasn’t too obvious. “I’m here to serve you.”

“Yes, you are.”

Content with that, the Intendant swatted her hand away, crossing the room to her oversized closet. She hummed thoughtfully as it slid open, a soft and melodic sound, and Dax tried not to stare too brazenly at the array of outfits that revealed themselves; they wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Quark’s more pleasurable holosuite programs, she noted, and struggled to wipe the smile off her face before the Intendant noticed.

She needn’t have bothered, of course; the Intendant was characteristically preoccupied by herself. She rummaged through the fallout, oblivious to everything around her, and reemerged after what seemed like a lifetime with a pair of seemingly identical outfits, one in silver and one in black. She turned to Dax, expectant, holding them up to her bosom.

“Well?”

Dax blinked stupidly. “Well what?”

“Well, what do you think, my dear?”

“What do I think of what?”

The Intendant rolled her eyes, disgusted and impatient. “Why, which one of these outfits is more likely to inspire those lazy good-for-nothing Terrans, of course! It’s so hard to find good fashion advice, and Garak wouldn’t know a commanding ensemble if one fell out of the heavens and landed on his head.”

Dax had to stifle a snort at that, thinking of the Garak she knew and how offended he would be by such a suggestion. “I’m sure he wouldn’t…” she said, biting her lip for the first time with something other than violence.

The Intendant, of course, was still occupied with her precious outfits; she looked Dax up and down as though she was still wearing Jadzia’s mercenary attire, as though she was wearing anything at all. “Now, to be perfectly blunt with you, I can’t say that ‘mercenary chic’ is really to my taste. But I can’t deny you wear the style well, and in lieu of any other opinions, I suppose yours will do. So—” She held up the outfits again. “—which do you prefer?”

Dax blinked, inexplicably wishing that her Garak was here, and not just because his reaction to all of this would be utterly hilarious. Frankly, neither outfit looked particularly intimidating, and had she been a Terran slave with thoughts of rebellion, they certainly wouldn’t have inspired her to get back to work. Well, not on processing ore, anyway; other kinds of ‘work’, maybe, but she suspected that wasn’t what the Intendant had in mind just now. She tried not to stare, cleared her throat to buy herself a little more time, and tried to think of the most tactful way to say ‘neither of them’.

“Well?” the Intendant demanded, lacking the patience to indulge Dax’s inner fashion guru. “I don’t have all day, you know.”

Helpless, Dax shrugged. “The black. I think. Maybe. It, uh…” She floundered for a justification, as much for her own benefit as for the Intendant’s. What would Jadzia say?, she wondered, then remembered. “It brings out your eyes.”

The Intendant smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?” She tossed the other aside, preening in front of the full-length mirror. “Yes. An excellent choice, my dear. Excellent.”

She dressed quickly, eagerly, with all the excitement of a child impatient to see what she looked like in a new party dress. Dax watched without a word, feeling awkward and uncomfortable, pulling the bedsheets tightly around herself; it felt strangely intimate to sit there and stare, studying the way she moved, the way she lit up at the sight of herself, the irrepressible glee on her face as her reflection beamed back at her, the enthusiasm as she twirled, so much more for her own pleasure than for Dax’s.

It felt uncomfortable, like an invasion of privacy, and her skin felt tight and itchy. She knew that was utterly ridiculous to feel that way, to be affected at all; after everything they’d done, and with the promise of so much more yet to come, it was absurd to think that something as innocuous as this would cause any kind of discomfort in either one of them. Dax still wore the marks of what she’d let the Intendant do to her, and she wouldn’t think twice about allowing her to do it again and again and again… and yet, for the first time in a very, very long time, Dax found herself looking at Kira Nerys, and feeling illicit.

“You look lovely,” she managed when the Intendant had finished admiring herself, and turned expectantly back for another round of compliment. “You look… breathtaking, actually.”

It was true. She looked sordid, too, more like a dominatrix than the overseer of a space station, but she was still Kira, and Kira could wear anything and make it look breathtaking.

“I know I do.” The Intendant smiled down at her like a benevolent monarch. “You’re blushing, my dear.”

She was, she realised, and silently cursed herself. After everything that had happened between them, how could she not know better by now? The Intendant was not Kira; she was not Nerys. There was no reason for her to be responding that way, for the heat to be rising inside her again, for the sheets to suddenly feel tight and abrasive against her skin. She was sated; more than sated, she was exhausted. But maybe it really was the slug inside of her that was insatiable; maybe it really was Joran who wanted and ached and lusted.

But then, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? It would be too easy to blame Joran, just as she blamed him for everything else, to pin her reactions on him. This wasn’t like the violence, though, and it wasn’t like the anger. This wasn’t the kind of feeling that frightened her, someone else’s passions twisting her own, trying to make her into something new; this was something fundamentally different. This was already in her. Oh, she could blame Joran for the way she enjoyed pain, the way she wanted to inflict it, the way she let the Intendant play with her… but the way she looked at her? The way she blushed to imagine her Nerys dressed in that outfit? The way she meant it when she said ‘breathtaking’? That was no more Joran than her love of Klingon opera.

It was her. She didn’t want to admit it, and it was hard enough at the best of times to pick apart the thoughts that were hers and the thoughts that were his. But this was simple. This was simple even back when it all began, when she was embarrassed and giddy, trying to cast out dreams and fantasies about Major Kira, when she was newly joined and clinging to the one thing she couldn’t have. It was simple then, and it was simple now, and she couldn’t deny it just because she wanted to. She couldn’t deny the heat or the blush or any of the rest of it, couldn’t pretend she wasn’t feeling it. She could only accept it, just as she had with Nerys.

The Intendant’s voice cut through her thoughts, as saccharine as ever. “Will you wait for me, dear Jadzia?”

“Of course.” The response came reflexively, and so too did the way she bowed her head.

“Good.” She was smiling, Dax knew, but there was a softness to her tone that didn’t mesh with her usual possessiveness. “My dear Jadzia. My sweet, lovely Trill. You really are mine, aren’t you?”

Dax closed her eyes, and thought of Kira. She remembered eyes that burned and a smile that wrapped itself around her heart, honesty and integrity, friendship and beauty that stole her breath. She remembered the name, Nerys, the first time she’d said it, how precious it had felt. She remembered the scent of her hair, freshly washed, remembered thinking how much of a luxury it must be for someone who had spent her whole life underground. She remembered the soft fabric of her uniform, the rough callouses on her hands, the rhythm of her laugh. She remembered the runabout, too, cramped but filled with hope, whispered confessions and promises of a day when things would be better, when they would both be healed and whole again.

She thought of the Intendant, then, of slender fingers gripping a borrowed blade, of the way she’d taken it to Dax’s skin, an artist with a paintbrush, how readily Dax had played the blank canvas for her masterpiece. She thought of thin lines scored along her ribs, dark blood on pale skin, and of purple bruises further down. She thought of pain and pleasure, of blood and sweat and sex. She thought of Joran, of how he enjoyed it and how he made Dax enjoy it too. She thought of the two of them, Joran and the Intendant, of how alike they were, of how easily they broke her, taking her apart and turning her into something twisted, something that belonged to them. Joran was the Intendant’s, she supposed, just as much as Dax was Kira’s. She wondered if that made her doubly doomed.

There was no way of knowing. If she was doomed, time would make that clear enough. For now, she could only hold on to what she did know, to here and now and what little piece of herself was still her own, to who she was and what she felt. She knew that, at least. If nothing else, she knew what she felt.

“Yes,” she whispered, without hesitation. “I really am yours.”

Chapter Text

She had the rest of the day to herself.

Well, for the most part, anyway. A few hours after the Intendant left, and without any forewarning, a young Cardassian showed up, waving around a primitive-looking device that could just about pass for a dermal regenerator, and Dax found herself arguing for an inordinate amount of time over whether or not her injuries really needed mending. She tried to wave the gesture away — in part because she didn’t want to be a bother, but mostly because she found the pain something of a comfort — but the twitchy young man insisted that he was there on the Intendant’s orders, and he valued his life too highly to think of disobeying her.

By his own admission, he had little in the way of actual experience. There probably wasn’t much call for it in a place like this, Dax supposed sadly; if a Terran worker got hurt badly enough to need medical attention, she supposed the Intendant would sooner just let them die and be done with it. Still, he assured her that he would do his best to repair at least some of the self-inflicted damage to her hands and the Intendant-inflicted damage to other places.

Truthfully, the last thing in the world Dax wanted was an incentive to fall back into the same hole of self-destruction. A fresh canvas of smooth pale skin to desecrate was too tempting to pass up in her present state, and given the choice she would sooner suffer the pain as it was and let that suffice than open up the same wounds all over again just because she could.

She thought about saying as much, but the poor boy seemed so genuinely frightened of what might happen if she sent him away without letting him do his duty that she felt she had no choice but to submit. No doubt that was part of the Intendant’s plan anyway, to get her all cleaned up and healthy just so that they could repeat the process again the next time she was pinned to the bed. Dax should have been outraged at the gall of it, but the young man looked anxious enough — a strange look on a Cardassian, to be sure — and she didn’t want to make his life any more difficult than it already was. So, instead, she stripped down with a grudging sigh, and let him do his job at least mostly unhindered.

It spoke volumes about her position here, she thought when he finally left her alone; she was healed, but in truth she felt worse than she had when she was broken and bleeding. She felt naked without the wounds to cover her, exposed to look down at spots and smooth skin that didn’t really feel like it belonged to her any more.

Still, for all it said about her — her worth, her so-called value in this hopeless place — it said a whole lot more about the Intendant. She hadn’t been speaking ironically, it seemed, when she’d claimed on Dax as her personal property; apparently, Dax didn’t even have the right to her own body any more. She didn’t even have the right to keep her own injuries. It didn’t matter if she wanted them healed or not; it didn’t matter what she wanted at all. The only thing that that mattered was what the Intendant wanted, and if the Intendant wanted to come back to her quarters at the end of the day and find her precious little Trill in perfect health and utterly unblemished, then that was what would happen.

She was an ornament, she realised numbly. Nothing more than a damned ornament, a decoration trussed up to match the curtains and the carpet.

It frustrated her, left her feeling impotent; she couldn’t even take the knife to her hands again, for fear that the Intendant would see the damage when she returned and take vengeance on the boy for not doing his job right. She felt like an animal, caged and stripped of its claws and teeth, but she refused to let herself feel helpless as well. She was here by her own choice, she reminded herself over and over again. She was here of her own volition. She was here because she wanted to be here, because she had chosen to come here. The Intendant hadn’t brought her here; Dax had shown up on her own. All the Intendant had done was welcome her, and they both knew knew that she wouldn’t try to stop her if she chose to leave. At least in theory, she was free.

In practice, of course, it wasn’t quite so simple. Dax had spent the best part of the last couple of weeks struggling with her own sense of identity, feeling trapped in her own mind; she felt like a puppet most of the times, like Jadzia’s body and Dax’s memories were little more than a vessel for Joran’s sordid influence. She had spent so long trying to resist the things that came as second nature in this place, and she couldn’t cast aside the feeling that being here was just reinforcing all of that, making it a thousand times harder to fight down.

The Intendant, she knew, would take Joran over Jadzia in a heartbeat. Everywhere she turned, every breath she took, there was a fresh new reason to give in, to surrender to the violence she had struggled so hard and so unsuccessfully to suppress, to yield to the darkness inside her, and she knew that it would only get worse the longer she stayed in this place. She could hardly stave off Joran when it was just him; what chance did she have of fighting off the two of them together?

She paced the Intendant’s quarters for a couple of hours, restless and edgy, like a beast searching for an outlet for too much pent-up energy. If only it was just energy she had to vent, she thought bitterly, and tried to calm her mind by counting out the steps from one side of the room to the other. Over and over, pass after pass, step step turn, step step turn, relentless, until she was so dizzy that she had to stop and sit down on the floor with her head between her knees.

After a while, in lieu of anything else to do, she forced herself to get dressed again. The movements were automatic, fingers fumbling with Jadzia’s clothing, awkward and numb. When she was done, and at least partly respectable again, she crossed to the Intendant’s full-length mirror and spent an impossibly long time studying her reflection, trying to make sense of the face that stared back at her.

It was hers, there was no doubt about that. Well, it was Jadzia’s at least, but a Jadzia who looked ill and wan, face pale and features lined with strain. She looked much older than Jadzia’s thirty years, but still so very young next to Dax’s three hundred and fifty, worn out and aged but frightened and childish. She didn’t look like herself, but she didn’t really look much like the Jadzia of this universe either. She looked like something in the middle, a strange new version of Jadzia Dax, like a shadow flitting between her world and this one. She knew the face, but she could not recognise the soul.

It would drive her to madness, she knew, if she kept staring into the abyss like that. Not Joran’s madness, the deranged psychopathy that had plagued him all his life and had come back now to plague his successor, but a different kind of madness entirely, the kind that tapped on the edges of her mind every time she let herself stop and think about who she really was. When she looked into that mirror, she saw two Jadzias, seven Daxes, and one Joran. She saw countless memories, friends and families, loved ones and enemies; she saw Dax, an ever-expanding universe of experience and she didn’t know where she fit in all of that. The scale was so vast, so impossible, she couldn’t find herself in it at all.

The feeling frightened her, almost as much as the violence, so she dragged herself away from the mirror and crossed to the other side of the room. She picked up the knife, threaded it through her fingers like she’d seen the Intendant do, tried to lose herself into the patterns of light as they played off the blade. It worked, if only for a short while, and then she found herself suddenly having to slip the weapon back into its sheath as she caught herself thinking of how those patterns would look carved into pale skin, blood hot and wet against cold dark spots.

No, she reminded herself. None of that. Not now.

She needed a distraction, she decided. Joran was quiet, at least by his usual standards, but his influence still lingered like it always did, itching underneath her skin and making her hands shake. She needed to do something, something more productive than pacing and staring at a reflection she didn’t recognise, something more productive than imagining a blade against her palm or bruises on her thighs.

That was how she found herself at Quark’s.

Well, the bar anyway. It was nothing like the Quark’s she knew, and calling it that made her feel hollow and anxious, nostalgia gnawing at her guts. She remembered Kira’s mission report from her time here; she had mentioned Quark only in passing, how different he was to the Quark they knew in so many ways, and how similar in so many more. She’d talked about his death too, and the nostalgia in Dax’s stomach was replaced by a sudden chill at the base of her spine as she stood there at the entrance of the place she knew and loved, with the ghost of a well-meaning Ferengi hovering over her shoulder.

The whole establishment felt different, and not just because it lacked its namesake’s insincere sincerity smiling at her from behind the bar. The ambiance was darker, duller, and though the bar was far from empty, it felt almost abandoned. It wasn’t exactly full, either, but the patrons didn’t seem especially pleased to be there. Dax could make out a few Cardassians, a group of Bajorans, even the occasional Klingon or two, but they were all all hunched moodily over their drinks, heads bowed, like they were worried that someone would haul them away if they dared to make eye-contact with anyone else.

Nobody looked happy at all; it was almost as though nobody in this wretched place dared to even imagine enjoying themselves, and Dax tried not to think too hard of how accurately it reflected what she’d seen of Terok Nor thus far. This was not the Deep Space Nine she knew and loved, and she was suddenly very grateful that her time here would not be permanent.

She swaggered up to the bar, channelling all the mercenary charm she would expect of her counterpart, and flashed the barkeep her most dazzling smile. He was a Ferengi, but not Quark or any of his less-than-reputable tongo buddies, and she didn’t immediately recognise him; possibly she did know him back in her universe — a waiter, perhaps, or a friend of Rom’s — but if she did, it was vague enough that she couldn’t place the name, and the gravel in his voice was definitely unfamiliar as he gave her a cursory glance and asked what she wanted to drink.

It was only after she’d ordered a bloodwine that she realised she didn’t have any currency to pay with. Did they even use latinum in this universe? Could she gamble away her bar tab at the tongo table like she did so often in Quark’s? Kira and Julian had conveniently neglected to mention anything like that in their reports; Dax supposed they’d had no opportunity to find out and no reason to ask. Still, that didn’t help her now, and as the bartender grunted his acknowledgement and turned away to prepare her drink, she found herself floundering desperately for a way out of this.

When he turned back, drink in hand, it was by pure instinct that Dax blurted out, “Put it on the Intendant’s tab.”

For a moment, he just stared at her as though she was completely insane. And maybe she was — at this point, she was running on pure blithe stupidity — but it was about the only thing she could think of that wouldn’t blow her cover for certain. At the very least, she could hope and pray that the Ferengi was too scared of the Intendant, like everyone else on the station seemed to be, to question the use of her name.

As luck would have it, the gamble paid off, and in the end he just huffed and turned back to the bar, muttering ominously under his breath.

“It’s your funeral…” she heard him grumble as he went. “Then again, if you’re really that desperate for a drink, maybe the grave’s the best place for you…”

She paid no mind to the words, and even less to the warning in his tone. She’d never known a Ferengi who would turn down a profit for any reason, and this one was no exception. If she had learned anything from Quark, it was that, so why should he let it bother him if Dax suffered for it? Besides, she had her drink, and for the time being that was all she cared about.

The trouble, of course, was that she was still Dax, and Daxes as a rule were seldom content to settle with one drink.

Naturally, then, one turned to two, then a third and a fourth, until at last she just gave up on asking for individual drinks and told the harried Ferengi to just leave the damn bottle. By the time she remembered her promise to be waiting for the Intendant in her quarters, she was halfway down the damn thing, and by that point it was all she could do to remember how the hell to get back to the habitat ring at all.

(She did, however, remember to sneak the remainder of the bottle out with her.)

She had made the journey from Quark’s to her quarters — and even to Kira’s — a thousand times on Deep Space Nine, and in far worse states of inebriation, but this Terok Nor felt so different, so much darker and murkier, that everything felt out of place and off-balance; it would have been challenging enough to find her way back, she was sure, even if she was completely sober. As she was, drunk and confused and hopelessly lost, every step became an obstacle course, the ground swaying and wobbling precariously beneath her feet, and the corridors swerved every time she tried to squint down them.

In that state, the last thing she expected was to run into Garak again.

He didn’t seem nearly as stunned as she was when they stumbled into each other in the middle of an otherwise empty corridor; in fact, if the bemused look on his face was anything to judge by, he was rather more surprised that it hadn’t happened a dozen times already. She squinted, struggling to make out the ridges and scales of his features to try and gauge his expression, but he was even more slippery than usual and his face refused to stay still long enough for her to focus.

“Well, well, well…” he chided, derision heavy in his voice as he helped her to regain her balance and took in her condition (which, in his defence, she hadn’t really made much of an effort to hide). “I see you wasted no time. How many Klingons did you have to sleep with this time to get your bill paid off?”

Dax rolled her eyes. The corridor spun, and she glared at it. “None,” she said loftily. “Just one Bajoran.”

He actually took a step back at that, staring at her in much the same way the Ferengi bartender had, as though she’d completely lost what little remained of her mind. Dax met his gaze without flinching, expression as close to even as she could manage just then as she waited for him to stop gaping and recover himself. He did at last, but not without some effort, and the part of Dax that wasn’t second-guessing every decision she’d made since she’d docked here felt a little bit smug to see him so reduced.

“Using her name to get out of paying for your drinks?” he managed at last, practically choking on the words. “You’re even more suicidal than usual…”

Dax supposed she should have probably conceded that point, just shrugged and accepted it, then turned around and walked away. It would have been the smart thing to do, the sensible thing, and it certainly would have been the safest thing… but, of course, the intoxication had loosened her tongue and squared her shoulders, made her stubborn and aggressive. Just like it always did to Curzon, bloodwine made her bold, and boldness made her reckless.

She glared, meeting his disbelieving derision with a ferocity that told him in no uncertain terms that he had no place telling her what to do or how to behave. He was just an underling here, she reminded him with her eyes, channelling his employer as best she could; the Intendant could pull the carpet out from under him any time she chose, and he would do well to remember that.

“Why?” she demanded, a little too loudly even in the deserted corridor. “She expects a lot of me. Why shouldn’t I get something from her in return?”

“You do,” Garak reminded her acidly. “You get her mercy. Trust me when I say that should be more than enough.”

Something in the way he said it sent a chill down Dax’s spine. Though his voice held the same disarming lightness that she recognised in her universe’s Garak — plain, simple Garak the tailor — there was something razor-sharp to the way this one spoke. He wanted to do more with his voice than just disarm; he wanted to riposte.

The Garak of Deep Space Nine liked to challenge his companions, to keep them on their toes, alert and aware, awake to the possibility that nothing was ever exactly what it seemed to be; he was potentially dangerous, yes, but in his manner at least he was strictly playful. This Garak, the Garak of Terok Nor, was completely different, and though he spoke with the same amicability that the other Garak used so well, he had sharpened it to a point, and there was nothing playful in it now. Where the other Garak was mostly content to spar with blunted tips or wooden swords, this one used every word as a keen blade wielded with the intent to cut.

Dax didn’t want him to see how much he’d unsettled her, though, and so she straightened her back and fixed him with a cool, careless look. “What I get from the Intendant is none of your business,” she informed him flatly. “And it’s not your place to tell me what is and is not ‘enough’.”

He quirked a brow. “No,” he murmured, almost to himself. “I suppose it’s not.” Though his tone was just as even as Dax’s, he was starting to look a little guarded, like a rat sensing a trap, and as he spoke his expression turned cold, making him seem even more reptilian than usual. “We both know she’ll do what she wants anyway. And far be it from me to deprive her of another new chew toy…”

Dax rolled her eyes again, then reeled as the corridor repaid her with another sickening lurch. Garak huffed a weary-sounding sigh, and reached out to help steady her again. She tried to hiss at him for that, to tell him that he was stepping beyond his rank — not out of any genuine offence, but because it felt like something Jadzia would do if she was ever stupid enough to be caught in this condition — but it was almost more than she could do just to muster a scowl.

So, instead, she settled for shoving him roughly away; naturally, without his support, she wobbled, unsteady and dizzy, and she was sure that she could feel the station spinning slowly beneath her feet. It made her queasy, and she would have doubled over if she wasn’t so damn stubborn, but at least when she swayed and lurched and groaned, she was doing it under her own power and not his.

“I suppose you need some help getting back to your quarters?” Garak grumbled, sounding overburdened and irritable.

Dax tried to glare, but she imagined it probably looked more like a headache-induced squint. “No,” she said sullenly, then promptly gave up the pathetic feint at self-support and fell back against the bulkhead. “I need some help getting back to her quarters.”

Garak sighed again and rolled his eyes. “Of course you do…”

Still, for all his hot air and aggression, he was chivalrous enough as he escorted her through the twisting corridors, and his hands were surprisingly gentle as they helped her to stay upright. Dax had no doubt that his uncharacteristic thoughtfulness was the product of fear more than compassion, that he was just afraid of what the Intendant would do to him if he let her precious property get damaged without her permission (or at least without her active participation, Dax thought, and choked on a bitter laugh), but she didn’t particularly care. If she was going to be trapped under the Intendant’s heel for as long as she was here, the least she could do was benefit a little from being in bed with the boss.

They stopped outside the now-familiar door, the Alliance emblem bright and garish against the standard-issue surface, and Garak paused to give her a dubious once-over before letting her go.

“I assume you’ll remember where it is this time?” he said, and though his tone was light and airy there was a sobriety behind his eyes that set off a warning klaxon in Dax’s head.

“I’m sure I will,” she replied, trying to keep her voice steady. “I appreciate the help.”

He didn’t say anything straight away, but he made no move to leave, either, and she could tell by the look on his face that he was thinking very deeply, debating whether or not he could get away with pushing her a little more. Dax’s head swam as she stared back at him, trying to give him a taste of his own medicine, to unsettle him as thoroughly as he was unsettling her with those piercing eyes and those silly Cardassian neck ridges of his.

Naturally, she didn’t have much effect on him. A drunk Trill wasn’t especially intimidating at the best of times, and she supposed that squaring off against a Cardassian only made her look even more preposterous. Still, though, when he opened his mouth to speak a few moments later all the feigned lightness was gone from his tone.

“You might want to think about getting back on that ship of yours sooner rather than later,” he remarked, the words dripping malice. For a moment, Dax wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, but then he leaned in close, lowering his voice to a whisper, and there was no mistaking the implication in what came next. “I’m sure you’re positively dying to get back to where you came from…”

Dax felt her blood run cold, but refused to rise to the bait. “What are you talking about?” she demanded hotly, floundering for some measure of self-control.

He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant, could he? He couldn’t know. She was a little drunk and she was hearing things that weren’t there. She was imagining insight where there was only an antagonistic Cardassian trying to make her uncomfortable. The Garak she knew might have sight beyond sight when it came to weeding out people’s secrets, but there was no reason to assume this one was the same. Surely he didn’t… surely he hadn’t…

“Come now.” He snorted, a grating and nasty sound. “You can’t possibly believe you’re fooling anyone with this little charade of yours.”

…of course he had.

Panic gripped Dax by the throat; she struggled to think, but the fog around her brain was heavier than the urgency of the moment, and she silently cursed the bloodwine swimming inside her. When she tried to challenge him again, to insist that she didn’t know what he was talking about, to pretend that he was the one who had it all wrong, all she managed was a sickly-sounding, “You’ll have to be more specific…”

“Do you really want me to say it?” he shot back, folding his arms and leaning coolly against the nearest bulkhead. “Here, out in the open? Walls have ears, you know.”

That was a valid point, and Dax loathed him for it. Still, she had to know. She had to know what he knew. Did he know that Jadzia was part of Sisko’s little rebellion? Did he know that she wasn’t her? Could he possibly know both? No, that was impossible; not even the Garak of Deep Space Nine was that perceptive, and who the hell was this low-life little minion anyway? He couldn’t even assassinate his own Intendant! He couldn’t possibly have the resources or the insight to see through either of her disguises, much less both.

“They’re not the only ones, apparently,” she muttered, rising to the bait.

It was as good as a confession, she knew, but the realisation hit far too late for her to take the words back, and the leering grin on Garak’s face told her that he knew it too. He’d heard the admission as surely as if she’d spoken the words themselves, and any spark of doubt she might have been able to kindle in him had she been in her right mind was completely extinguished now.

By not thinking clearly or quickly enough, she had practically put herself in chains, condemned herself to work as a slave and condemned Jadzia to suffer alone, the one thing she was here to prevent. She was doomed, damned, screwed over by a slip of the tongue and too much bloodwine. There was no reason for Garak to keep this precious little tidbit to himself, she knew that perfectly well; there was no reason for him to protect her or Jadzia, and whatever he knew, when the Intendant found out they were both as good as dead.

“I could tell her, you know,” Garak murmured, sensing her distress. The words were casual, conversational, but he was watching her with the cruel malice of a beast toying with its prey before biting its head off. This was all a big game to him, she realised, and felt sick from more than just the alcohol. “You know all too well, I’m sure, what happened the last time…”

There it was, the confirmation she’d simultaneously wanted and dreaded. He knew exactly who she was, and where she’d come from. Whether he knew about the real Jadzia’s dubious alliances, she had no way of knowing, but that wasn’t her concern now. She had more important things to worry about, namely saving her own skin.

“I’ve heard tell,” she said, as calmly as she could.

“Oh, I’m sure you have,” he replied. “But do you know how heartbroken she was? How betrayed?”

Dax tried to keep a straight face. “I can imagine.”

“No, I’m afraid you can’t.” His expression was very severe, as close to angry as she’d ever seen on him. “From what I understand of your people, imagination is something that’s sorely lacking over there.”

Dax opened her mouth to tell him that that wasn’t true, that she had more imagination than he’d probably ever seen in his life, but she was already dangerously close to screwing up everything she’d worked for in coming here, and she didn’t want to risk antagonising him any further. She huffed a little, letting him see that he had offended her, but bit her tongue to keep from arguing.

Garak’s expression had softened a little, aggression melting into contemplation. “What do you think she would do to you if she found out?” he asked, still keeping that same conversational tone.

“No worse than she’d do to you for letting it slip by unnoticed.” The words were out of her mouth before she had a chance to figure out if they were smart or not. “You’re the one who let me onto the station, remember?”

“Touché,” he conceded with a loud laugh. “I value my own life a little more highly than yours, much as it pains me to admit.” He shook his head, amused. “Besides, we both know the little tyrant could stand to suffer a little humiliation once in a while… and who am I to stand in the way of a good pantomime?” He spread his arms wide in a flourishing gesture, and Dax weaved unsteadily in a vain attempt at dodging it. “Perhaps you have a little more imagination than I give you credit for.”

“Damn right I do,” Dax muttered, the bloodwine bolstering her once more. “And for your sake, you’d better keep yours active too.”

Garak laughed again, then quickly sobered, and Dax found herself wishing that she could do the same so easily. “Alas,” he cried. “Once again, it seems that my weakness for self-preservation will be my undoing.”

He sighed, though there was a definite note of relief in the sound; Dax could tell that he hadn’t exactly relished the idea of alerting the Intendant to another potential betrayal, even before he’d realised his own neck was on the line too. Dax kept her features as expressionless as she could, biting her tongue to keep from speaking out of turn, forcing him to say the words aloud, to make his alliance clear before she dared say anything more.

“Very well,” he went on, at long last. “A stalemate.”

Dax snorted. “You keep my secrets, and you get to keep your skin. Sounds fair to me.”

He laughed, bitter and humourless. “Well, now, I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “I hate to disappoint your idealism, my dear, but there is no room for ‘fair’ here on Terok Nor.”

That was true enough, and Dax knew it. Still, though, she wasn’t about to underestimate him, or the knowledge he now held over her head. Even in her own universe, Elim Garak was hardly the most trustworthy soul in the galaxy, and the stakes were a thousand times higher here than they ever were back there. Deep Space Nine was a Bajoran station manned by Starfleet officers; Garak was the station’s only Cardassian resident, and he knew as well as anyone else that whatever ulterior motives he might have were well and truly diluted by his position. The only thing Dax needed to worry about when dealing with that Garak was a poorly-hemmed nightgown, and frankly, there were worse things.

This Garak, however, was a different story entirely. Terok Nor was a Cardassian station here, as much so as Deep Space Nine had ever been during the Bajoran occupation. Here, Garak was among his friends, and though his many attempts against the Intendant’s life had apparently amounted to nothing, Dax knew perfectly well that it didn’t make him any less of a threat, especially not to someone like her. She was the one in a precarious position here, the stranger in a strange land with no ties to anyone, armed and protected by only her own wits and charisma… and, right now, touched as she was by bloodwine, she couldn’t deny having a marked deficit of both.

Taking a calculated risk, she let him see just a hint of her dubiousness. Not enough that he might suspect she had more to hide than he was seeing, or at least she hoped not, but just enough to let him know she realised and respected the very real danger in what he was saying, and that she understood perfectly well how much she was depending on his honesty and integrity. It probably wouldn’t help her any — if he had a mind to betray her, he would do so no matter what she said or how she treated him — but it might stroke his ego, and with any luck that would endear him to her enough to still his tongue if he was still in two minds about it.

“Thank you,” she slurred, then caught herself and quickly covered. “For making sure I got back safely. I’m sure the Intendant will appreciate the gesture.”

“She’ll appreciate that I didn’t take advantage of your lowered inhibitions, I suppose,” he threw back with a calloused smirk. “We both know how upset she gets when someone manhandles her property before she has a chance to do it herself.”

There was that word again, property, and Dax felt her stomach turn. “Yes, we do,” she mumbled, utterly failing to mask her her discomfort.

He smiled, but didn’t comment; instead, he just gave her an exaggerated mock-bow and raised a pointed eyebrow as he straightened. “A word of advice, before I go…” he offered lightly.

“If you must,” Dax grumbled, leaning against the door controls.

Garak smiled, sweet enough to further sour Dax’s fragile stomach. “The next time you decide to use her name to get free drinks, I’d strongly recommend asking her permission first.” He shot a lingering look at the bottle still in her hand, then added quite pointedly, “Her Majesty’s name is not to be taken in vain, as you should know. I wouldn’t like to be you when she gets back…”

It was a fair point, she supposed, and far less of a cut than she would have expected from him. Maybe he didn’t think an inebriated opponent was one worth trying to defeat, or maybe he was just sympathetic enough to take pity on someone who was as clearly out of their element as Dax was. Most likely, she supposed he just wanted to keep a safe distance and watch as she backed herself into a corner. What better way to enjoy the show than safely out of reach of the Intendant’s wrath?

Besides, why should he care what happened to her, good or bad? He had no interest in her. Why would he? Even the real Jadzia was practically a stranger to him, and this Dax must be even more so. She couldn’t exactly blame him for wanting to keep his head down when the inevitable chaos unfolded. Dax meant nothing to him, and the Intendant meant even less. Whatever happened, he stood to gain a great deal more by standing idle than by doing anything to either of them.

Well, let him do that, if he wanted. So long as he stayed out of her way — and, rather more importantly, out of the Intendant’s way — Dax didn’t really care what he did, or why. She acknowledged his so-called advice, such as it was, a thinly-veiled cut, with a nod and a wave, then counted out the seconds as he slunk off down the corridor. She waited, counting out a few more to steady her breathing, then slammed the door release controls with a shaking hand.

The full force of the bloodwine hit as the doors slid closed behind her, bringing with it the full force of Garak’s words, and she sank helplessly to the floor, pulling her knees up to her chest and clutching the bottle with both hands in a futile attempt to keep it — or herself — from spilling over.

She was angry, frustrated with herself so much more than with Garak. Even back in the universe she knew and loved, Garak was smarter than the average stooge, quick to learn and quicker to deduce; if she herself had been the one replaced and Jadzia left to wander Deep Space Nine, it wouldn’t surprise her at all to come back and learn that he had been among the first to figure it out. They didn’t spend very much time in each other’s company, that was true, but he was unfathomably perceptive. The rational corner of her mind, or what was left of it, knew that it made perfect sense that he would to see through her in this universe just as well. She knew that, but knowing it didn’t make it less of a bitter pill to swallow, and combined with the lingering aftertaste of too much bloodwine, that bitterness increased and increased until she could barely swallow it at all.

So, instead, she raised the bottle to her lips and gulped some more bloodwine. It didn’t taste any better, but she welcomed the fuzziness in her head that blocked out the rest.

The room was spinning now, but she didn’t care about that. She didn’t need the disorientation or dizziness to tell her that she’d had too much to drink; that much, she knew by herself. And yet, though she knew that she would regret it — and most of her already was — still, all she could think of was draining that bottle dry and crawling back to the bar to get it filled again, and then again, until she blacked out completely.

She had never blacked out from drinking in her life; truth be told, before she was joined, the young Jadzia never been much for drinking at all. Oh, she’d taken the odd mouthful of this or that on special occasions — in particular, her graduation from Starfleet Academy and the day she learned that she’d been chosen for joining — but those events were few and far between, and on the whole she’d always been too controlled to risk losing her inhibitions.

Then, of course, she’d been joined to Dax, and suddenly she was filled to overflowing with Torias’s freedom and Curzon’s love of all things sinful. He’d been a great drinker, of liquor in general and bloodwine in particular, and the repressed young Jadzia had taken to that particular habit as readily as any of his others. Truth be told, it had gotten her into only slightly more trouble than his equally passionate appreciation of pretty young women and razor-sharp Klingon weaponry.

More than anything, she wanted to indulge his appetites now. She could feel the fiery old man trampling around inside her head now, just as she had when she was first joined, hollering at the top of his lungs for more bloodwine, more action, more excitement. As usual he wanted more of everything, and as usual he didn’t stop to think that maybe the shy little girl he’d supervised through her initiate training did not share his unfathomably high constitution.

Curzon had spent his whole life building up an incredible tolerance to all things Klingon, and that included their head-spinning taste for bloodwine. He could drink a room full of hardened warriors under the table, and he often did… but Jadzia had only his memories, and as fun and educational as they often were, they didn’t help her where it mattered. For all that she felt like the gruff old man sometimes, her body was still young and unaccustomed to liquor in any quantity. Over the last couple of years, she had learned to hold her bloodwine a little better; she was tougher by now than most of her Starfleet compatriots, at least, but she still had a long way to go before she could even think of matching Curzon drink for drink. One day, maybe, but not today. And definitely not here.

It was so damn typical, she thought bitterly, closing her eyes in a futile attempt at blocking out his influence, and with it the spinning of the room. It was typical of Curzon in particular, but it was also typical of Dax hosts in general. They were supposed to be dead, weren’t they? They were supposed to be dead and buried and stuck in the past where they belonged. She was supposed to have their memories and their experiences, little flickering traces of their personalities, but that was all. She was supposed to have the good things, the things that helped the symbiont to grow and evolve and become a better creature, the things that fed the host with an arsenal of ways to better herself too, the things that deserved to live on and continue through life after life. She was supposed to be a link in the chain, a single atom in a much larger entity, but she was still supposed to be herself. Jadzia was supposed to be in charge, wasn’t she? Not Curzon. Not—

Not me, you mean.

Dax trembled. “No,” she said out loud, though she knew that no-one was there. “Not you, either. Definitely not you.”

Somewhere in a quiet corner of her mind, not too far from where Curzon was still shouting for more bloodwine, Joran laughed. He didn’t say anything, but of course he didn’t need to. Curzon was loud and brash; he didn’t give advice or make suggestions or offer counsel. He screamed and shouted and kicked and stomped and did whatever the hell it took to make himself heard. If he wanted Dax to drink bloodwine, he would stampede around inside her head until she was utterly convinced that it was what she wanted too. If he wanted to stay up all night playing tongo, and to hell with the shift that started at oh-six-hundred hours, then he would make such a racket about it that Dax gave up because she knew she would never get to sleep anyway. Curzon didn’t ask for anything; he demanded it, like a child throwing a temper-tantrum, so loud and so arrogant that nobody, even Dax, could possibly argue with him.

Joran wasn’t like that. He wasn’t loud or arrogant, and he didn’t demand. He was clever and subtle, insidious in a way that past hosts weren’t supposed to be, and he drove Dax to the point of madness even when she was completely sober. He never raised his voice, never stomped around or kicked up a fuss. He never needed to. He wheedled his way into her thoughts, into her mind and her body, manifested in her dreams and her desires, forced himself into all the parts of her she’d thought were uniquely hers, and he did it all without the least resistance.

For all his volume and excess, there were parts of Jadzia that even Curzon made a point of leaving alone. He never invaded her dreams without permission, never intruded on her private feelings unless she let herself think about him, and he never tried to twist her desires into anything more or less than what she wanted them to be. It was easy for Dax to blame him sometimes for the way that she noticed certain things — the subtle curves of a shapely young ensign or the rocky muscles of a hardened security officer, and no doubt he was to blame for her sudden inexplicable attraction to Klingon forehead ridges — but they still felt fundamentally natural. He might have shaped her, yes, but the parts of her he influenced still felt organic, inherent. It felt like her. For all that it had his mark on it, she still felt like her. Like Dax. Not like…

…not like me.

“Not like you.”

Dax choked down another mouthful of bloodwine. Her tongue felt thick and heavy, too big for her mouth, and the bitter aftertaste of the liquor mixed unpleasantly with the memory of Garak’s conversation. She closed her eyes against it, willing herself not to think too hard. Not about Garak, and definitely not about Joran. Not about the way he frightened her, the way he possessed her, the way he twisted everything she was. Not about the way he… the way he…

The way I excite you? Even his voice sounded like a smile. The way I seduce you?

“No,” she forced out, clenching her teeth, though she knew as well as he did that denying it wouldn’t make it any less true. “Not that. Not that.”

The fact was, that was exactly what he did. Joran didn’t need to shout or kick or do any of the things that Curzon did. He didn’t need to do anything more than whisper, to plant a thought or an idea or an image in her head, and Dax herself would do the rest. It wasn’t like Curzon at all; Curzon was hard to argue with, impossible sometimes, but at least Dax could argue if she wanted to. Benjamin told her often that he’d felt the same way about the old man, that he went along with him most of the time simply because it was too much trouble to try and argue with him. He was persuasive to a fault, but that was all he was: an arrogant cocky bastard with a big mouth. It was painfully frustrating sometimes, and all the more so after he talked her into drinking her weight in bloodwine and still spurring her on to take some more, but it wasn’t bad. He was an incorrigible rogue, but he would never hurt anyone.

What Joran did was worse than simply ‘bad’. What he did was invasive and wholly destructive. He slipped softly between the cracks of Dax’s self-awareness, and ever so gently made her think like him. He didn’t encourage, didn’t persuade, didn’t talk her into doing anything. He just was, and he made Dax believe that she was too. Where Curzon made her act, Joran made her feel. His violence pulsed through her veins; he injected it into her, filling her blood with things she didn’t want, shooting her full of hate and rage and driving her heart with it. He didn’t ask her permission, he just did it. He reshaped her from the inside out, twisting her into something else, whether she wanted him to or not, and when she finally fought him off, scratching and clawing at his presence with all the violence that he himself had put into her, he simply slipped into the shadows with a shrug and quietly waited for her to start dreaming.

Joran didn’t play fair. Curzon, for all his whining and all his arrogance and all his selfishness, played fair. If Dax really wanted to push away that inadvisable ‘one last cup’ of bloodwine, Curzon would complain but he would not force her hand. If she really insisted on sleeping through a late-night tongo match, he would roll his eyes but he would ultimately respect the decision and accept it as her right. He was a proper host, powerful and opinionated, filled with strength and personality, just like Torias and Emony and Audrid and all the others before him. His was exactly the kind of influence that Jadzia wanted to provide for Dax’s next host, whoever that may be, an influence that was worldly and experienced, a little headstrong but wise beyond words. Joran wasn’t a good host at all, and he didn’t behave the way that Curzon or any of the others behaved; one way or another, he would get what he wanted, whether Dax wanted it too or not, and if what he wanted was blood on Dax’s hands, then he wouldn’t let either of them rest until they were both soaked with it.

How could she be expected to overcome that? How could she be expected to fight when he refused to let her?

Feeling suddenly helpless, she leaned back against the wall, letting the solid contact steady her mind, grounding her and keeping her focused. She thought about her counterpart, the Jadzia of this universe, huddled underground in the Badlands, keeping company with a Benjamin Sisko who didn’t really care about what she was going through, warming his bed solely because it was better than being alone, exiled from her home for want of a dead lover. She wondered how she was doing, whether her hallucinations had worsened in the time since she’d left her. When she herself went through them, Benjamin and Julian had been so quick to drop everything to get her the help she needed, whisking her away to Trill almost before it had even hit home that she was in any real danger; she hadn’t had time to wonder what might have happened to her if they hadn’t been so fast to act, hadn’t stopped to think about what her fate would have been. What would happen to Jadzia, she wondered now, if she didn’t get out of this place soon enough? What would happen to her if she didn’t get out of here at all?

She had to trust in Garak’s promise to keep her secrets. She had to trust in the Intendant to be too wrapped up in her own ego to notice that the Jadzia Dax she had marked so thoroughly wasn’t the one she thought she knew. She had to trust in Joran to remember that he wasn’t Dax’s host any more, that he had no right to try and reshape Jadzia into something she didn’t want to be. She had to trust in a lot of things, and a lot of people, and it was so much harder when the one person she knew she could not trust was herself.

The hours passed in a haze of dizziness and borderline delirium, self-doubt closing in around her, chased away by occasional swigs from the slowly-diminishing bottle. The room spun, and her thoughts spun with it, bloodwine churning in her stomach and violence thrumming through her veins. It was easier to resist Joran like this, she realised, because her limbs didn’t have the strength to be destructive. They were loose and light, just like her head, and it was the closest thing to truly relaxed she’d felt in a very long time.

It was all she could do, really, just to hold herself together, to sit on the floor, head between her knees, trying to breathe as the floors tilted and the ceiling swerved. Whatever violent impulses were still alight in her, it didn’t really matter just then, because it was too much effort even just to raise her hand. What would she do with Jadzia’s knife now, anyway, even if her fumbling fingers could wrap around it? She couldn’t see straight, couldn’t keep her hands steady, couldn’t hold on to anything. And what if she tried to punch the bulkhead instead? She doubted she’d be able to hit it; like everything else, its surface tilted and bent impossibly before her swimming vision. What could the great Joran do with that? She laughed, wild and half-crazed. He could fill her up with all the anger in the world, all the hate and rage and fury in his dark and broken soul, but what good would it do him when she was too damn wasted to do anything about it?

She could still seethe, though, still drown in the sentiment and sensation, and that she did. Joran still held some power over her, diluted as it was, and he could still hold her down even if he couldn’t do anything to her. She still felt like him, still raged and hated like he did, still suffocated under the tide of his influence, but it was a comfort to know that at least her body was safe when she was like this.

By the time the Intendant returned, Dax was too drunk to notice.

She was sitting right by the doors when they opened, but she didn’t hear them, or the telltale authority of heavy boots on the plush carpet that marked the Intendant’s entrance. She couldn’t hear much of anything, really, even if she’d had the awareness to piece the sounds together; the roaring of her heartbeat in her ears and the threat of a queasy headache pounding behind her eyes overpowered everything else, and it was only when she felt slender fingers slip effortlessly under the fabric of her shirt, cupping her breast and squeezing, that she realised she wasn’t alone any more.

“…oh,” she heard herself mumbling, the sound coming out thick and unintelligible.

The Intendant chuckled, and Dax felt her grip tighten possessively around her breast. She was close, almost suffocatingly, and her body was urgent and hot as she pressed against her. Dax vaguely remembered the outfit she’d picked out for her this morning, but the fabric felt very different against her bare arms than it had looked from a safe distance. She whimpered as she felt a puff of warm air against the side of her face, another chuckle, or else a hungry little gasp, then lips claiming her own. She surrendered reflexively, opening to her more by instinct than invitation, and then the Intendant was licking the roof of her mouth, tongue warm and rough, claiming and owning and—

Oh. Oh, yes. Oh, this. Oh.

She moaned, loud enough to surprise them both, and then her mouth was empty and the warmth surrounding her was gone.

From a vague distance — a few centimetres, a mile, who could tell? — she heard a satisfied hum, the low purr of approval that she had come to recognise as the Intendant, solely her, without so much as a trace of Nerys, and then the bottle was prised out of her numb hands.

“You’ve been drinking.”

Dax managed an affirmation, an apologetic little half-whimper that must have made very little sense. Still, though, it seemed to be enough to satisfy the Intendant, who laughed and shook her head. At least, Dax hoped she was shaking her head; if not, the room was spinning even more violently than she’d first thought.

“What am I going to do with you?” the Intendant husked.

Dax took a deep breath. She could feel the bloodwine swimming inside her, the queasy fog in her head and the roaring of her pulse. She thought about lurching forward, taking back her precious bottle and finishing it before the Intendant finished her. She thought about it, but what would be the point? She’d probably just flop forward and pass out if she tried to move anyway.

Idly, she wondered if that was why the Klingons drank it so much. The lingering revenant on her tongue tasted of glory and victory, of heat and passion, and it was only when she flicked it out to lick her lips that she found herself wondering if it was really the bloodwine that tasted like that, or if it was the Intendant. Did Nerys taste like this too? Did she taste like honour? Like passion? Like—

Don’t be stupid, she thought. It’s just the bloodwine, that’s all. Curzon could tell you that.

She wondered too, whether perhaps some part of Curzon had been touched by Joran after all, if perhaps Joran had held some sway over the way he’d been drawn to the violence of the Klingons, their customs and their honour-tasting liquor. She wondered if that was why he drank so much and fought so hard and loved so furiously. She wondered… she wondered… oh, she wondered a lot of things. About Curzon, about Joran, and about herself as well.

But all the wondering in the world wouldn’t answer the Intendant’s question, and she could feel the impatience as potent as venom as sharp teeth nipped not-so-playfully at the base of her throat.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, because she couldn’t think of anything else. The air was thick, but so was the taste in her mouth. “What do you want to do with me?”

The Intendant leaned in a little further, seduction laced with threat as she bared her teeth. “You’re going to regret asking that question,” she purred, licking her lips.

Dax felt her head tilt back, skin on fire with sensation. “I hope so,” she whispered, and replaced the taste of honour with the taste of power.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t the question she regretted.

Truth be told, for a long while she was too far gone to regret anything. The Intendant was far from gentle with her, but that was nothing new, and Dax’s body was lighter than usual, unburdened by the bloodwine. She was allowed to finish the bottle, no doubt mostly because the Intendant enjoyed the sight, licking her lips as Dax drained the dregs in a single long swallow, then yanking the empty bottle from her hands and throwing it against the wall.

It was all business after that, and Dax was grateful for the hum in her veins, bloodwine burning and clouding her head, making it bearable when the Intendant left her mark, branding with her teeth and twisting with the blade of that damned knife, opening up the same shallow cuts that were repaired and healed just a few hours ago. The tracks of blood excited her, made her wet, and when the Intendant drove those slender fingers deep inside her, three at once, ruthless and forceful and without warning, Dax barely even felt it at all.

Neither of them were in a hurry, but the whole thing passed by like a flash to Dax. She recalled vague flashes of half-felt sensation, coming back to herself every now and then to whimper at the impossibility of where she was, to remember Nerys but see nothing of her in the face looming above her. She just about knew what was happening but her dizzy brain struggled to piece it together, who she was or where or why. Was she Jadzia or Dax, or was this all Joran? All she knew was that she felt, and not all of it was pleasant.

If she found a climax in the midst of all that chaos, she didn’t remember it at all, and if she offered anything in return, she wasn’t sure what. Her hands were numb, and her tongue was heavy in her mouth; if any part of her was still functional, it was outside of her control. Dimly, she heard her own voice crying out, dull and discordant snatches or sounds or words, but she had no idea at all what she was saying.

The Intendant, ever perceptive, was rather more aware of what was going on around her, and she wasn’t so quick to forget once it was over. She was always attentive to detail, it seemed, and even in her inebriated state Dax knew better than to underestimate her. As soon as they were done, she propped herself up on one elbow, keeping the other hand pressed firmly between Dax’s thighs, fingers still buried deep, and gave her such a cold look that the severity of it pierced even the heavy fog of bloodwine.

“And who, pray tell, is ‘Joran’?”

Dax felt herself blanch. She turned her face away and pressed it to the bed, letting out a pathetic little whimper that she prayed wouldn’t make it past the pillow. “What?” she managed, weak and muffled.

“You heard me.” She could hear the smile in the Intendant’s voice, a predatory sneer that threatened pleasure as well as pain if Dax had the good sense to play along with this. “Whoever he is, if all that moaning is anything to go by, you’re quite taken with him. And, well, a girl gets jealous, you know.”

Dax tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry; her tongue was thick with bloodwine and Bajoran heat, overwhelmed and virtually unusable. Maybe she had reciprocated the Intendant’s advances after all, she mused, and tried not to gag at the cloying taste, slick and sharp and potent.

Was it true? She knew better than to question anything the Intendant had said, knew better than to wonder when the truth was right there in front of her. How else would the Intendant know Joran’s name if not from Dax’s own lips? But had she really moaned it in the throes of passion? Had she really called out ‘Joran’ in the moment of climax? Had she found a climax at all? Or had the Intendant simply misinterpreted, reading pleasure where there was only pain? Had she been calling his name or cursing it? She couldn’t remember.

“I don’t…” She made another attempt at swallowing, but found that she felt too sick to even try. “I…”

“Oh, you can do better than that,” the Intendant husked, and when she flexed her fingers inside Dax they felt like solid steel. Dax whimpered, clenching tight around them, and the Intendant hissed her dissatisfaction. “You know perfectly well that I don’t take kindly to hearing my lovers calling other people’s names in my bed. Or anywhere else, for that matter, but let’s focus on the matter at hand for now, shall we?” She flexed again, harder. “Who is Joran?”

Dax groaned, and tried to flinch away, but the Intendant held her in place as much by the weight of her glare as by the strength of her hand. “It’s not what you think,” she mumbled at last, when she realised that escape was not an option. “He… it’s not… he’s not ‘another person’, exactly.”

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘exactly’?” the Intendant demanded, without so much as a breath of irony.

The look on her face was terrifying, hate blazing like liquid fire behind her eyes, so much like Nerys when she got some righteous cause in her head, and Dax found that far more intimidating than the knife that lay discarded at her side or the fingers that threatened danger of a much sharper kind between her legs. It was deeply upsetting to see so much malice in Kira’s eyes, so much violence lurking beneath the surface, the promise of terrible things if Dax didn’t play just so. She looked so much like her… but oh, she looked so much like him

She shuddered, turning away before she could lose what little control she still held over her gag reflex.

Under normal circumstances, she supposed it wouldn’t be the most complicated of conversations. The Intendant must know something of Trill culture and how it worked, of the symbiont in her belly and what it meant; after all, she knew enough to understand precisely how deep a cut it was for a Trill to be exiled, and the joining process itself was far less personal than that. She must have some idea of how it worked, at least on a rudimentary level, and Dax herself had explained the concept more than enough times through her various lives that it shouldn’t be too hard to sit up and talk it through. Jealous or not, not even the Intendant could be offended by a long-dead sociopath. At least, Dax really hoped not.

Frustration bubbled up inside her, supplanting the headiness and the nausea for a few precious moments, though no doubt bolstered by the bloodwine in much the same way. In any other situation, she could make her understand a little deeper than the basics of ‘he’s me’; she could make her see just how thoroughly Joran was responsible for what she was, for the terrible thing she’d become, for all the anger and the violence and those twisted desires that the Intendant found so deliciously enticing. She could, she knew, and if she’d been the least bit sober, she would have done all of that without a second thought.

But she wasn’t sober, not at all, and her head was as much a mess as the sheets tangled up around her body. She could barely see straight, much less think straight, and the Intendant’s piercing stare and pulsing fingers really weren’t helping to clear either of those things. It was hard enough to explain when she wasn’t fighting just to keep the bottle down, hard enough to talk someone through all of this when they weren’t as sordid and perverse as Joran himself. She could feel his influence even now, skittering under her skin like a colony of insects, as deadly to a joined Trill as anything on Bajor’s moons, but it was more than she could do to put that feeling into words. It was more than she could do to put anything at all into words, and she wished that she could just say that instead — ‘I can’t talk, I can’t explain, I can’t do anything’ — but she was afraid of the fire she saw in the Intendant’s eyes, afraid of being burned, afraid of dying choked by smoke and the taste of Bajor and bloodwine.

“Can we discuss this later?” she begged, then immediately had to bite down on a cry as the Intendant pulled roughly out of her, leaving her feeling bruised and empty. “I’m… I mean… well, I’m a little bit…”

“You’re thoroughly drunk,” the Intendant finished for her, shaking her head as she licked her fingers clean. “That’s not an excuse. I asked a question, and I expect an answer.”

Dax groaned. Without the Intendant holding her in place, she was free to scramble back a little and put some distance between them. Not as much as she would have liked, of course, and the distance certainly wouldn’t help the explanation, but she desperately needed some space to catch her breath, and she took it gratefully. She could feel those fire-cold eyes on her as she repositioned herself on the other side of the bed, curling in on herself and trying to breathe.

She supposed she must look very tiny all of a sudden, eyes half-closed and chin resting on the points of her knees as she tried to think through the haze of liquor and the dull ache that her body was just starting to recognise again. The pain felt good, like it always did since Joran taught her to enjoy it, and she indulged in a moment or two just to take it in and let it steady her.

The Intendant didn’t try to interrupt the moment, but Dax could feel the impatience radiating out from her, and she knew better than to keep her waiting for too long. If she knew what was good for her — and right then, she wasn’t sure she did — she would take only as long as she needed, just long enough to carve a word or two out of the nonsense within, to give some voice to the unfettered chaos in her head. Just long enough to figure out a way to explain the living torment that was Joran Belar without inviting the Intendant to want more of him…

…because that was exactly what she was afraid of.

If Jadzia was here in her place, Dax knew this would be a completely different story. Jadzia was defensive to a fault, even beyond Dax’s own levels, though she supposed that was understandable. This was a very different universe, and it was based on her own experiences that Jadzia was so afraid of being judged or dismissed by her would-be friends. Those people, Sisko and the others, they didn’t understand what it was to be a Trill, much less to be joined, and they didn’t want to either; there was no room for alien anatomy in the midst of a rebellion, after all. Dax remembered the look on Jadzia’s face, suspicion and doubt turning her spots dark and her skin pale when she told her that she understood, the caution giving way to unabashed astonishment when she realised it was true. Dax’s heart ached to remember it, to wonder what it must be like to be so untrusting, to live in a world where it made more sense to hide than to care.

She herself was hardly the most forthcoming person in the universe, but at least she could look inside and see that the flaw was her own. She was guarded and hyper-defensive because she hated herself, because even now she couldn’t look into the mirror and not see a thousand useless things, a little girl who wasn’t good enough or a psychopathic killer that wanted to devour everything around him. She kept everything bottled up because she was afraid of weakness, because even now she wanted nothing more than to just be good enough. She put the weight on herself, and she had nobody else to blame when it all became too heavy.

Jadzia wasn’t so fortunate. She didn’t hide because she was scared of exposing herself; she hid because she had to, because nobody understood and nobody wanted to. If Dax opened up, she had a queue of friends a mile long who would listen. Jadzia did not. She hid because hiding was all she knew, whether she was truly afraid or not, because it was the safest option, and sometimes the only one. She hid because any amount of weakness in a universe like this was as good as death. For someone like Jadzia, even exile wasn’t as high a price as letting herself be exposed. She hid because she couldn’t afford not to.

Dax could. She could afford to choose her battles, and that was why she didn’t. She hid because it was easier, because in the end she knew it didn’t matter. She hid when she was embarrassed, when she was lost or felt small, when the idea of seeing herself was too much to bear. She hid for any one of a thousand reasons, some good and some bad. Right now, she hid because she was afraid.

She was afraid of Joran; he was inside her, a part of her, and given half a chance he would overpower her completely. She was afraid of his memories, afraid of his personality, afraid of everything he was and everything he wanted her to become. She was afraid, more than anything, of the way she couldn’t quite tell the two of them apart any more, the way she felt so connected to him, the rage and the violence and all of those terrible things that haunted her dreams. She was afraid of the taste of blood, the swell of bruises, the shattering of bone. She was afraid because with every passing moment she enjoyed it more and more.

And that was why she was afraid of the Intendant too. She wasn’t afraid of what would she might do to her; Joran had taken care of that. Nothing the Intendant did could hurt her; even when she tried, Dax was the one begging her to do it. No, she was afraid of the Intendant because she wasn’t frightened by her. She wasn’t the least bit affected by any of the twisted and sordid things that the Intendant did to her; the pain turned to pleasure and the pleasure wasn’t quite so sweet without the pain. That was what terrified her. The Intendant enticed her, thrilled her; she was as intoxicating as bloodwine to that place deep inside of Dax that was used to nothing more than innocent daydreams and illicit feelings. It was seductive, the way that the Intendant connected with all the places that Joran held in his sway, the way they connected with each other, and the part of her that was just Jadzia was very, very afraid.

The Intendant was so much like Joran. She shared his inner violence, his bloodlust. She shared all of those twisted desires, the hunger and the want, and she brought out the very worst of them in Dax. While Dax spent every waking moment fighting with every ounce of strength she had to keep from giving in to the part of herself that wanted to hurt — to hurt others, to hurt herself, to hurt anything that breathed — the Intendant was coaxing those same things out of her, honing them with ruthless efficiency. She took everything that Joran was, everything he wanted Dax to be, and turned it into something acceptable. No, worse, she turned it into something good.

When Joran made Dax clutch the knife by its blade, suck in her breath and hiss at the sweet bite of pain, delight in the thin red rivers carving paths through her palm, she felt sick and alive. When he made her pound the walls until her knuckles were swollen and bruised, she felt humiliated and invigorated. When he shaped her dreams into twisted visions of violence, she woke bathed in cold sweat and slick heat. The only comfort she drew from any of it was in knowing that even when it made her feel alive it also made her feel dirty, that even when it made her feel good it also made her feel wrong. It was the one tiny shred of herself that she had left to cling to, and the damned Intendant took that and cast it aside like it was nothing. She didn’t just indulge Joran’s violence; she relished it, and she made Dax relish it too.

How was Dax supposed to explain all of that? How was she supposed to look the Intendant in the eye and tell her how frightened she was of all the violence that she took such pleasure in? How was she supposed to explain that it wasn’t really her, that everything the Intendant loved so much was really Joran, that she hated it even as it thrilled her? How was she supposed to look up and beg for her to stop abusing all those things that so excited them both?

“Jadzia.”

The Intendant didn’t often call her by her name, but when she did it was always with an underlying threat, like even her identity was something she could strip away from her, just as quickly and easily as anything else. Dax found herself flinching at the sound of it, in a way she never had before. Already, this universe was branding its mark on her; she wasn’t one of them, but she was starting to understand why they behaved the way they did, what had made them this way. She thought again of Jadzia, of how quickly and readily she had shrugged off the strangeness when Dax had called her by her name. Did the Intendant talk to her like this too? Did she use her name like a weapon, a lash held up high, just waiting for the perfect moment to strike?

She imagined Jadzia curled up like this, cringing at the edge of the Intendant’s bed, recoiling at the sound of her name. It cut deep, but it gave her strength too, bolstered her with determination never to let either one of them bow to this woman again.

With some effort, she sat up, reeling as the room lurched and swerved all over again. “Did you have any luck finding my benzocyatizine?” she asked, speech slurred almost beyond recognition.

The Intendant narrowed her eyes, but Dax ignored the warning that flashed behind them. “Didn’t those Trill socialites ever teach you not to answer a question with a question?”

“It’s…” Dax started, then paused to clear her throat, shaking the liquor from her voice. Her tongue was still too thick to make any sense, her head too cloudy to try and make it, but she did the best she could. “It’s relevant.”

With an irritated huff, the Intendant inched closer; what little personal space Dax had gleaned for herself was gone in a heartbeat, shattered like everything else in this place, bowing to the Intendant’s iron will.

“All right,” she said, making it clear by her tone that she was only humouring her because she wanted to, not because Dax had asked her to. “Because you are apparently incapable of remembering your place without it… yes, your precious benzocyatizine is on its way. I’m informed it should arrive within three days at the most. That is, assuming those worthless Trill smugglers don’t double-cross me…” Her features hardened. “But then, you know your countrymen at least as well as I do, and you know how little their word is worth. So I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.”

“They’ll deliver,” Dax insisted hazily, blithely optimistic.

The Intendant ignored her, closing what little space remained between them. “Now…” she pressed, taking Dax roughly by the shoulder and shaking her. “Relevant or not, it’s your turn to answer my question.”

Dax winced. Not for the first time, she desperately wished she’d thought twice before over-indulging in bloodwine and fogging up what little still remained of her senses. She really could have used them now, her own or one of the others’. Tobin’s ingenuity, Lela’s stoicism, Emony’s ambition, even Audrid’s misguided optimism. Any of them, even Jadzia’s wishful thinking. But of course, they’d all abandoned her the second she’d picked up that damned bottle. Even Curzon had disappeared, it seemed, not that it should have surprised her; if he couldn’t even volunteer a fragment of his own endurance to a problem that was his fault in the first place, what chance did she have of convincing him or the others to help her now that it had taken hold?

None, she decided, and braced herself to wade in on her own.

“Joran,” she mumbled, testing the shape of his name in her mouth, pleased when she didn’t tremble. “It… that is, he… well, he’s me. Sort of, anyway. You know how it works, being joined…”

“Yes, yes,” the Intendant snapped, sharp and impatient. “You’ve told me all about it, countless times. In fact, sometimes I’m certain that you made up the whole thing just as an excuse to listen to the sound of your own voice.” She leaned in, flicking her tongue lazily over the spots at Dax’s throat, relishing the way she shivered. “Not that I mind, of course. I could listen to you talk about yourself for days and days, and never get bored. You get so adorably animated…” She smiled against Dax’s jaw, scraping lightly with her teeth. Dax closed her eyes, but the bloodwine made her feel like she was falling, so she opened them again and braced against the Intendant’s hips. “It really is quite endearing.”

“You always did have a taste for narcissism,” Dax replied, proud of how steady the quip sounded, and the Intendant rewarded her with another bite, this one less gentle. Dax took a deep breath, struggled to think. “But then, that means you know. You understand what it’s like. Joran is… he’s my… I mean, her… that is… the symbiont’s…” She floundered clumsily; Dax didn’t struggle with pronouns as a rule, but even Curzon had to admit that they became a thousand times more complicated once he’d gotten a few drinks inside him. “He was one of Dax’s past hosts.”

The Intendant chuckled at her awkwardness. “That’s all?”

Dax huffed her indignation. It sounded so simple when she put it like that, so calloused and dismissive. She wanted to reach out and strangle her, to choke the life out of her and watch with a smile as her fingers left deep marks on the perfect skin of her throat, wanted to leave her mark just as the Intendant had left her own, so that all of Terok Nor could see and know who brought down their glorious leader. The urge was almost overpowering, a cataclysm of urgency inside her head, and before she even realised she was doing it she had reached for Jadzia’s knife, gripping it by the handle for once, and struggling desperately to find enough willpower to put the damn thing down.

“That’s all,” she affirmed, fingers trembling around the knife.

Slowly, carefully, the Intendant prised the weapon out of her hand. She held it by the flat of the blade, balanced delicately between her fingers, and Dax tried not to think about how easy it would be to dislodge it; just a degree or two in either direction would turn the sheets red with fresh blood, and then where would the Intendant be? Dax’s mouth went dry at the thought, so excruciatingly tempting, and she he bit her tongue to keep from acting on it. The pain grounded her, and she steadied herself against it, watching through half-lidded eyes as the Intendant studied her reflection in the gleaming metal.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked, tearing her attention away from her own eyes for a moment to meet Dax’s. In her characteristically calculating way, she looked almost thoughtful. “You’re such a strange species, you Trills. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that ridiculous obsession you have with those parasites.”

“Symbionts,” Dax corrected angrily. “They’re not parasites, they’re symbionts.”

“Is there a difference?” the Intendant asked, shrugging as though it wasn’t worth her time to even try and understand. “They’re both disgusting creatures. Frankly, that’s all I need to know.”

Though she knew this could only be a deliberate attempt to antagonise her, Dax couldn’t help rising to it just the same. No doubt the Intendant knew that she would, and the smile on her face as Dax glared at her was entirely too smug. She was being baited, and she hated it, but even as she did she couldn’t bring herself to be quiet. It was taking everything she had to keep from carving up both of their hands with Jadzia’s knife, to keep from losing Curzon’s damn bloodwine all over the sheets, to keep from giving in to the hate in her head. With all that going on at the same time, was it any wonder that she didn’t have any strength left to take the high ground?

“There’s nothing disgusting about the symbionts,” she growled out, voice like gravel. “They’re noble and intelligent creatures, and it’s an honour to be chosen for joining. It’s…” She trailed off, shaking her head, frustrated and foggy as it was. “Forget it. You’ll never understand. I don’t even know why I’m even trying to explain it to you.”

“Neither do I,” the Intendant replied smartly. “Not when there are so many more interesting things you could explain to me…”

Dax groaned. Her head felt heavy, but her body felt impossibly light. Again, her hands itched for the want of the knife, and her mouth watered at the sight of it dangling so tantalisingly between the Intendant’s fingers. More than anything else in the world just then, she wanted to reach out and take it, to feel the sharpened curve against her palm and press the perfect tip to the Intendant’s throat, to bask in blood and pain and fear, to drown in the violence of it all. For a moment it was all she could think of, and she balled her fists in a desperate attempt to keep holding the urge at bay, letting her hands lower to grip the sheets, breathing through her mouth in tortured gasps.

It must have been obvious, how close she was to losing control, because the Intendant naturally took advantage of her descent into weakness. She smiled, effortlessly flipping the knife to her other hand, and trailed it over Dax’s exposed skin. Because she was nothing if not an expert in her sadism, she never let the blade actually make contact, holding it just close enough for Dax to feel its presence even with her eyes closed, just enough to send tremors of anticipation shuddering through her as the point hovered less than a hair’s breadth above the spots at her temple, her jaw, the line of her throat, her shoulder, her clavicle, her breasts…

“Is it Joran who makes you like this, I wonder…” the Intendant mused. Dax flinched sharply at the question, and the Intendant rewarded her by letting the tip of the knife make just the tiniest ghost of contact with her searing skin; not enough to draw blood, of course, but Dax could hardly stand the threat of it. “Is he the one who brings out all of that glorious violence in you?”

“It’s not glorious,” Dax insisted. For a painful moment, all she could think of was Curzon. Curzon with his bloodwine, Curzon with his women, Curzon with his damned Klingons. It was Curzon who shaped her tongue now, and Curzon who dragged the words from her throat. “There’s no honour in it.”

“Who said anything about honour?” the Intendant demanded, laughing like she’d never heard such a preposterous idea in her life. “All I care about is pleasure.”

As if to emphasise the point, she let the knife trail just a little closer, circling the hyper-sensitive skin around Dax’s nipple and just barely skimming the surface, a delicate half-touch that made her tremble even harder. It was as much with fear as arousal this time, the sheen of cold sweat dousing the slick heat, and she wanted nothing more than to flinch away, to crawl to the other side of the bed, to hide from all this. But of course she couldn’t do that; hadn’t she already tried to hide from her problems in a bottle of bloodwine? And where had that got her, besides nauseous and confused?

The Intendant was relentless, though, and it was too much. Too much sensation, the promise of pain and the promise of pleasure, and Dax hated that she didn’t know which one she ached for more. She tried so hard to remember that it was wrong, that the two were not the same, that there was nothing pleasurable in pain, that there never was and never could be, but the truth slipped between her fingers like the blade dancing between the Intendant’s.

Curzon was right; she knew that now. There was no honour in this, but she couldn’t do anything about it now. She couldn’t, though she wanted to, because for all that her mind was screaming at her to resist, her body was saying another thing entirely. Her mind rebelled, but that didn’t stop her fists from gripping the sheets so tight she almost stripped them from the bed, and it didn’t stop the want from slicking her thighs. When she shivered, it wasn’t because she was sickened, and when her flesh prickled and became over-sensitised, it certainly wasn’t with discomfort. It didn’t matter how wrong it was; all she felt was need.

“Stop it,” she hissed, because that was the only fight she had left inside her, a rough-voiced plea forced out through clenched teeth without the least bit of sincerity. “Stop encouraging him… me… this.”

The Intendant hummed her acknowledgement, but she didn’t stop. Of course she didn’t stop. Why would she? This was exactly what she wanted. And she knew that it was exactly what Dax wanted too.

“I think I understand now,” she murmured, almost to herself, and pounced.

The next thing Dax knew, she was on her back, knuckles white as she flailed for purchase with one hand and bit down on the other to keep from crying out. The Intendant was crouched above her, knees spread out on either side of her ribs, wet heat pressing down against her stomach, a disorienting distraction as the blade danced down between her breasts.

Dax’s mind was a maelstrom, made fuzzy by so much more than bloodwine this time, and she could barely think through the deafening cavalcade of voices screaming in mixed messages and contradictory responses, “no, no, no…” in one moment and “more, please, more…” in the next, Jadzia sobbing as she breathed in and Joran whispering as he breathed out, until she didn’t know where either of them began any more. Where was Dax in all this? What did the symbiont want?

“Poor Jadzia,” the Intendant purred, the name like a phaser-blast between the eyes. “Poor sweet Jadzia. How confusing it must be, to hate the thing you love.”

“I don’t…” Dax gritted out against the side of her fist.

“You don’t love it?” The Intendant’s voice was a husky drawl, tempting and terrifying. “Or you don’t hate it?”

“I don’t…”

But she couldn’t finish. The truth was, she did both; she did love it, and she did hate it, and just thinking about it just made her head ache even more than it already was. She felt disoriented and deeply melancholy, and her head was starting to throb with a queasy headache that promised far worse to come. She wanted to drown it all out, the sour stomach and the clouded thoughts, the liquor-induced discomfort and the way the Intendant was making her relish even that. More than anything, she wanted to end it all, to shove the Intendant off and away from her, to roll over and nurse her pulsing body and her pounding head, to just close her eyes and shut all of this out.

But then, of course, what good would that do? She couldn’t hide from this place, from the ravages of the bloodwine or the ravages of the Intendant. She couldn’t hide, so why even try?

This place was worse than any nightmare, she thought dully. It was worse than even the darkest of her dark dreams. At least dreams brought with them the promise of waking. When she was awake, she could hide from the dreams, and they could not touch her, but out here she was helpless and there was nowhere to hide. The Intendant wanted to know all about her damned dreams, imagining them to be some treasure trove of twistedness… but what could Dax tell her, except that this was worse?

It was worse because it was real, and worse even than that because the Intendant looked so much like Kira. Even now, Dax tried to ignore that fact as best she could, tried to keep from thinking of how easily she had fallen into bed with this woman who shared Kira’s face, how it had nothing to do with her mission or Jadzia or anything else. She knew that the Intendant was not Nerys, and she didn’t try to convince herself that she was… but oh, how much easier this all was when her body shared the same curves, the same sinew, the same lines and angles. She tried so hard to ignore all of that, to push it aside and think of the Intendant as someone else, someone completely separate from Kira Nerys, but it was difficult, and so much more so when the Intendant encouraged all those things that Dax’s Kira told her that she would overcome.

In one moment she could hear Kira telling her it would be all right, that she would move past this, that if she herself could do it, anyone could. And then in the very next heartbeat, there was the Intendant, not just real but present too, hovering over her with her hands on her body and her hips bearing down in all the right — wrong — right places, telling her exactly the opposite, telling her again and again that indulging the violence inside of her was good, that it was thrilling and exciting and wonderful. She reinforced everything that Joran wanted her to believe, everything he forced into her, and how could Dax cling to half-faded memories of a dim and distant Kira when this one was here and real and now? How could hope to resist when all she could hear, from within and without, were beautiful voices urging her to give in?

“Jadzia.”

The name stung again, and Dax reflexively turned her face away from the sound of it, wincing as the edge of the knife’s blade broke the skin. “Please,” she whispered, though even she didn’t know what she was asking for.

The Intendant smiled. So sweet, so tempting. So beautiful. “You really are quite exquisite when you get angry, my dear. Why deny yourself?”

“Because it’s not me,” Dax insisted, pulling her fist out of her mouth and wrapping it around the Intendant’s hand where she held the knife to her breast. “It’s him.”

“But you are him,” the Intendant pointed out. She sounded almost academic, and the tone of her voice felt very out of place against such an intimate backdrop. “Or, well… I suppose, technically speaking, he’s you. But then, isn’t it all really the same thing?”

“No,” Dax argued, but her voice was weak and shaky, and she doubted the Intendant would be convinced. “It’s not the same. We’re not the same. It’s not… he’s not… I’m not…”

“Oh, but you are,” the Intendant urged eagerly. “I still have cuts and bruises from that delicious temper of yours.” Her eyes were lidded now, heavy with arousal. “I could have gotten them healed, you know, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel them while I was on duty, to think of you while I taught those lazy Terrans a lesson about hard work. Can you imagine how exciting that was? Feeling your mark on me as I handed out execution sentences… feeling the throbbing under my clothes and remembering how delicious you looked on your back… or, better yet, on your knees…” She licked her lips, shivering with delight. “Do you have any idea how many times I thought about summoning you and making you take me right there in front of all those ungrateful slaves?”

Dax whimpered, squeezing her eyes shut. The idea sickened her, coating her tongue with something so much more unpleasant than the stale aftertaste of bloodwine, but far worse than that, it sent a jolt of desire between her legs too. She wanted to be sick, to give up the fight against the bloodwine and show the Intendant exactly how she felt, to make the point so violently that neither of them could possibly deny it, but at the same time the rest of her body was igniting, hot and slick where the Intendant was pressing down against her and head spinning with something that definitely wasn’t nausea. She felt so sick, so horrified… but oh, she was so wet too…

She hated it. She hated it so much.

But of course, that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? Hate led to rage and rage led to violence, and then she was right back where she started, so angry and so filled with bloodlust. Before she even knew what was happening, she had turned the knife right back on the Intendant, fingers locked together like iron, squeezing the Intendant’s until she had no choice but to yield, and they both moaned in unison as the sharpened tip traced a deliberate path over that perfect Bajoran jaw.

“That’s it…” the Intendant coaxed, driving her hips down on top of Dax’s, igniting the want and the fury in near-equal measure. “Indulge me. Indulge yourself.”

“No.” It was a half-hearted protestation, and not much of one. Dax squeezed her eyes shut, trying desperately to block it all out. “I don’t want this. I don’t want any of this.”

“But you do.” It didn’t help at all; being blind to the sight of Kira’s face hovering above her did nothing to shield her from the sound of her voice, the low husk and the breathy promise, and it definitely didn’t shield her from the physicality, strong hips grinding down against her own. “Do you really think I can’t feel how desperately you want it?”

Dax sat up, or tried to, sinking her teeth deep into the Intendant’s shoulder and filling her mouth with the taste of flesh. “Shut up.”

“Why?” the Intendant asked with a mocking laugh. “It won’t change anything, will it? It won’t stop you from wanting.”

The knife trembled under Dax’s fingers. Suddenly, she was shaking, and the blade was shaking with her, just grazing the skin at the Intendant’s jaw. She tried to let go, to drop it, but with staggering speed the Intendant brought up her other hand, covering Dax’s and her own, and holding the knife firmly in place. Dax willed herself to stop, to pull free, to push the Intendant away, to end this now, but the sensation was bigger than she was, and that traitorous arousal just surged even higher as the blade broke the skin.

Rocking her hips, the Intendant leaned down, breath hot against the side of Dax’s head. “You should blame the liquor,” she husked. “It’d be a better excuse than ‘the voices in my head made me do it’.”

Dax turned her face away, unable to keep watching as the knife slipped a little deeper, biting her tongue to keep from licking at the bead of blood. “I don’t need an excuse.”

“Oh, I agree.” She licked lazily at the spots beneath Dax’s ear. “I don’t know why you’re so uptight about it at all.”

“I’m not…” Dax started, but the words died in her throat, drowned by the revenant tastes of blood and bloodwine. “This isn’t… I’m not uptight. I’m just… I…”

“Oh, but you are.” There was a deliberate softness to the Intendant’s voice now, like she wasn’t just coaxing the reactions from Dax’s body, but from her mind as well, like she knew exactly the effect she was having, and exactly how hard Dax was fighting to keep it from overpowering her. “You’re incredibly uptight, my dear. And it really is such a tragic shame. I wish you could see how radiant you are when you lose control. You are beautiful, Jadzia. Your anger makes you so beautiful.”

“Stop,” Dax whimpered, flinching away from those words whispered on lips so like Kira’s but so painfully different. “Stop saying that. Stop…”

“Why should I?” The curiosity was genuine, and that just made it hurt even more. “It’s the truth. You’re so deliciously violent, so unrestrained. Not even that traitor Benjamin Sisko was half as wild as you are… and believe me, that’s really saying something.”

Dax choked on a sob, then choked again as the Intendant’s shifting hips drew a stifled groan from the back of her mouth. With all the strength she had left, which wasn’t very much, she yanked the knife away from them both and hurled it across the room as hard as she could. It hit the far bulkhead with an echoing clang, failing to find purchase there and clattering noisily to the floor, both sounds smothered almost instantly by the Intendant’s laughter.

“There’s no shame in this, Jadzia,” she murmured, and Dax groaned again, louder, as her body agreed. “You have so much fury inside you, so much anger, so much of that radiant violence. Frankly, I still don’t understand why you’re so hesitant to let yourself enjoy it. We’re both consenting adults, are we not? Why are you so ashamed of something that can bring us both so much pleasure?”

“Because it doesn’t!” Dax cried, willing her body to remember that, to remember who it belonged to, to remember the difference between pleasure and pain, right and wrong, Kira and the Intendant. “It doesn’t!”

“You can say it all you want,” the Intendant said with another breathy laugh. “But that won’t make it true.”

To punctuate her point, she took Dax’s wrists in her hands, circling them easily with those long slender fingers, and raising them inch by inch between their bodies. Dax bit down on her lip to keep from crying out again, then gagged on a gasp as the Intendant brought Dax’s hands up to wrap tight around her throat, a stranglehold of her own making with Dax’s fingers as the unwitting noose.

Dax tried to resist, to pull back, to ignore the thrall of pulsing warm flesh beneath her fingers, a yielding body willing to let her take it, of eagerness and readiness and breath stuttering through the spaces in her grip. She tried to pull away, but the Intendant held her fast, and that in turn meant that Dax had no choice but to hold her fast as well. She closed her eyes against the unwanted contact, the Intendant’s skin all too familiar as it bent to her grasp, to both of them, open and trusting and so enticingly vulnerable.

Just like the rest of it, her body reeled on the brink of two violently conflicted emotions, disgust in one second and excitement in the next, the power and the potency of the moment, strength coursing through her veins, the Intendant’s throat so open and exposed beneath her clenching fingers. She wanted to draw back, to pull away, hating where this was going, but the Intendant held her in place, her fingers as strong as iron as they pressed down on Dax’s own and forced her grip to tighten until she was sure it must be unbearable.

“Pleasure,” the Intendant whispered, the word choked and raw as she forced it out through the gaps left by Dax’s fingers. “Tell me you don’t feel it, Jadzia.”

“I don’t…” Dax choked. “I don’t… I…”

But she did. With every breath and in every nerve, she did feel it. The Intendant had taken care of that. The heat between her thighs was almost maddening, the pressure from the Intendant’s hips coupling with Joran’s frenzied desire to bring out an urgency in her that was almost primal. Whether she was willing to accept it or not, it was there, and it would not be banished. Pleasure, just like the Intendant said, and she hated that she was right, hated that it was there, hated that she wasn’t strong enough to ignore it. She hated all of this, but she wanted it too, and she could try to deny it all she wanted, but the Intendant was right about that too: she did want this, and no matter how desperately she tried to resist, the truth was that it did bring her pleasure.

Pleasure. The kind of pleasure that was still an alien concept to the young Jadzia, the kind that the old man Curzon used to know four or five times a night, the kind that Torias had known a great many times but only truly understood with Nilani, the kind that Emony would enjoy every now and then (by her own hand or someone else’s; it was all the same to her) but never really connected with. So many different Daxes, so many different kinds of pleasure, but all of their combined experience amounted to nothing when faced with this. Oh, Curzon liked it rough sometimes, and Emony understood the thrill of experimentation too, but that was nothing like this.

This wasn’t some kind of experiment, and there was no safe word here. The danger was very real, violence threatening to spill over into something worse, closer and closer with every passing second, and Dax didn’t know how to deal with it. Sexual violence was one thing, but this was something else entirely; this violence was inside of her, and the twisted creature here was Dax herself. The Intendant might think she was playing a game, pushing to see how much Dax could take, but if she pushed too far, she would be the one broken and bloodied.

Maybe the plan was the Intendant’s, but the execution was all Dax. The violence wasn’t something done to her; she was the one doing it. The hands locked around the Intendant’s throat were her own, and she was the one pressing down now; the intent was real, and it was all her own. It was raw and it was visceral, and Dax was so very frightened.

But, oh, it felt so good, didn’t it? Even as she flinched away from it, she pulled it closer, fingers tightening and breath coming in needy little gasps. The heat, the tension, the pressure and the friction from the Intendant’s hips, the Intendant herself so much more urgent now that her breathing was so restricted, sensation heightened for them both. The look on her face as she gasped and choked for breath, flushed and hot and lovely. The way she looked like Kira, the way her face reflected all those terrible (wonderful) dreams, the way that Dax could almost remember, if she closed her eyes, just how good her heart tasted; the memory struck hard, but not even that was enough to make her resist now, and where just a moment ago she had wanted to be sick, now all she wanted was more.

It felt so good, even as it felt so terrible. She wanted to hate it, wanted so desperately to remember that it was wrong, but it felt so good.

The Intendant smiled, a benevolent god looking down on a foolish mortal, and the strain etched on her face was almost more effective than the grinding of her hips. She could barely breathe, Dax could see, so close to asphyxiation at her hands, and the sight just drove her even closer to the edge. Almost against her will, she bucked upwards, finding friction in the press of the Intendant’s hips and writhing pathetically against it. She felt like she was on fire, desperate and overheated, so turned on that she couldn’t think and so drunk that she couldn’t see; she felt illicit too, and dirty, but it was more than she could do to hold herself still.

A low sound hummed in her ear, approval mixed with pain, and Dax recognised the lust in the Intendant’s voice, a shallow echo of her own. She cried out again, a pleading whimper that somehow managed to sound even more strangled than the Intendant, who actually was being strangled. Salt stung in her mouth, the taste of tears so much more bitter than bloodwine, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop the tears and she couldn’t stop the slick slide between their bodies, just as wet and no less bitter. She was too close now. She could feel it. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she fought, she could not stop it.

“Admit it,” the Intendant said again, forcing the words out with obvious effort. “My sweet Trill… my sweet Jadzia… admit that this brings you pleasure.” Her breath was a rattling hiss, and yet Dax heard every word with all the clarity of an alert klaxon.

“No…”

It was practically a plea, but a futile one. Even as she said the words, her body betrayed her; she felt her fingers go tight again around the Intendant’s throat, physical strength rising unwittingly with the heat at her centre, stoked higher still as the Intendant lifted her hips, taking back the friction that Dax needed so badly. In spite of herself, Dax whined at the loss of contact, bucking with more urgency, desperate beyond measure. She couldn’t think, could barely breathe; all she could do was feel, and all she could feel was everything she’d tried so hard not to.

“Oh, yes,” the Intendant coaxed. “You do feel it. You can deny it all you want, but we both know the truth. This brings you pleasure. Having me like this, helpless and choking, suffering under your hands… you feel powerful. You feel excited. You feel good.”

“I don’t.” The words were a sob. “I won’t. There’s nothing good in this. There’s nothing good in… in…”

She trailed off, fingers flexing around the Intendant’s neck, and even as she said the words she knew that they weren’t true. It did feel good. The spasms as the Intendant fought for breath, throat pulsing against her fingers, the choked roughness of her voice when she spoke to her, the urgency and desperation and need, so close to the end, so close to the edge, so close, so close, so close

“Stop denying yourself.” Her voice was little more than a rasp, and another bolt of white-hot desire struck Dax between the legs as she realised once again that she was responsible for that. “Just admit it. You enjoy this.”

Dax closed her eyes, but it didn’t help. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I…”

“But you still do,” the Intendant pressed. “Don’t you?”

She slid a hand down between them, driving her fingers in deep and hard, but Dax was too far gone to even notice. The sight of her face — Kira’s face — sweat-soaked and turning red as she fought for air, the raw intimacy of it, the pulse of every choking gasp as veins throbbed under her fingertips… it was more than she could take.

The sensation alone was more effective than all the rest combined, more effective than the sudden pain-touched pleasure as those slender fingers thrust into her without remorse, more effective than the slick slide and the blissful friction, the pressure of the Intendant’s hips as she brought them back down, the bucking of her own as she rose to meet them. It was more effective than anything she’d ever known, anything she’d ever experienced in eight lifetimes, the pain and the strain on her face, and the knowledge that it was by her hand, that she was the one causing it, that it was all her doing. She was the reason the Intendant couldn’t breathe; she was the reason she was gasping and choking and dying. She was responsible. Her. Dax.

The realisation struck her harder and deeper than even the Intendant’s fingers, and a terrible scream tore from deep inside her as she came, squeezing the Intendant’s neck until she was sure it would be crushed.

There it was, she thought. There was the answer, and she certainly couldn’t deny it now. How could she look the Intendant in the eye and tell her that she didn’t take any pleasure in this when she was still shaking with all the evidence to the contrary? How could she convince her that she didn’t feel good, when her body was still tightening and spasming around her fingers, when she was still shuddering and sobbing out her climax? How could she sell the lie when the truth was right there for both of them to see?

Her body had betrayed her, and there wasn’t enough left of her mind to try and fight it.

The Intendant leaned down as Dax’s hands fell limply from her throat. “Pleasure,” she whispered again, still breathless. She moved in to steal an open-mouthed kiss, and this time Dax didn’t even try to resist when her body surged up to welcome it. “Feel it, Jadzia…”

“Yes…” she panted, wretched and broken. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

By the time she got her breath back, the Intendant had already caught hers.

It hardly seemed fair, Dax thought, that she could breathe so freely and easily despite the fingerprints turning to bruises about her neck, while Dax herself was still struggling to keep from blacking out as the ceiling spun above her and her stomach threatened to turn itself inside-out. Still, as quickly as she seemed to have recuperated, there was still a definite hoarseness to the Intendant’s voice when she spoke, and Dax took more vindication than she cared to admit from the way she coughed and spluttered a little before she could get the words out.

“Don’t you feel better now?” she rasped. “Admitting that you enjoyed it? Admitting that it brought you pleasure to indulge that twisted little temper of yours?”

The ceiling seemed to mock her, tilting dizzyingly as she scowled up at it, so Dax closed her eyes and tried to swallow. “No,” she forced out, even as her body hummed its disagreement, pulsing pleasantly under the Intendant’s. “I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel… I feel…”

She felt sick, but of course she couldn’t say that. The Intendant would just blame the bloodwine for that, and at least in part she’d probably be right. Dax was finding it hard enough right now to pick apart what she was truly feeling and what was being forced on her by the liquor, or by Joran, or even by both of them. What had she been thinking, imagining that lowered inhibitions would help her at all? It was the last thing she needed, and now with the last vestiges of strength gone from her, her body was quick to remind her that she had a lot more than just Joran to hold down.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell me how thoroughly wretched you feel,” the Intendant said, cutting her off somewhat generously. “But you can’t deny that it was freeing… invigorating… intoxicating, even.”

“No,” Dax said again, only fractionally less tremulous. “It wasn’t, and you… you shouldn’t have done that.” She swallowed again, this time with unease, well aware of the danger she faced in challenging the Intendant at all, even in something like this. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.”

Thankfully, the Intendant seemed rather more amused than offended, though when she barked out a laugh there was a sudden roughness to the sound that had nothing to do with the damage Dax had done. “I didn’t make you do anything,” she said when she had composed herself. “That reaction was all yours, my dear.”

Dax groaned. She didn’t want to acknowledge the truth in that, didn’t want to accept that the Intendant was right all along. She could still feel it now, all too vividly, the need and the want and the desire, every nerve alight with urgency, and how much more powerfully she’d felt the rush of pleasure as she—

No.

She couldn’t think about that, couldn’t admit that it was the Intendant’s pain that had pushed her over the edge, couldn’t accept that she was right, that the strain and the suffering and the sweat, the veins pulsing desperately under her vicelike fingers, the rush of power and adrenaline, that all of that had pulled the climax from her. She couldn’t admit that inflicting all that pain really had given her all the pleasure the Intendant had promised — threatened — promised.

She couldn’t think about it. She couldn’t.

“Jadzia.”

“Don’t.” It was a plea, not because she lacked the strength to make it anything more, though that was just as true, but because she had learned by now that the Intendant was more reciprocal to desperation than demand. “Please, Intendant. I don’t… I don’t want to.”

The Intendant sighed, deep and heavy and still a little bit raw. “Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug. “But I still think it’s a terrible waste.”

Dax tried to steady her breathing as the Intendant rolled away. Her body was churning, satisfaction mingled with shame to create a heady and entirely unpleasant sensation, and that combined with queasy headache from the bloodwine to make her feel ill. She wanted to close her eyes, to shut out the swerving of the ceiling and the throbbing of her body, but she didn’t want to risk falling asleep and dreaming. Not now. After what they’d just done, she was more frightened than ever of the phantasms that visited her when she slept, and before she even realised she was doing it she found her face pressed against the Intendant’s shoulder, inexplicably seeking some kind of sordid comfort.

“Well, well,” the Intendant murmured, seemingly as surprised by the gesture as Dax herself was. “I have to admit, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the ‘cuddling’ type…”

“I’m not,” Dax protested, though she didn’t raise her head. “And especially not with you.”

“Careful,” the Intendant warned, a surprisingly forgiving gesture. “You’re still beneath me, even if you’re not under me any more.”

“I’m sorry,” Dax mumbled, because even if she didn’t have the strength to remember who she was, she still knew who Jadzia was, and Jadzia needed her. “I’m sorry, Intendant, I…”

The Intendant’s body shook as she chuckled. “I know,” she said. “I imagine you’re not thinking very clearly at all, are you? Exactly how much did you have to drink?”

“Too much.” She pressed her nose to the Intendant’s skin, breathing in the scent of sweat and blood and sex, of power and control, of so many things that were not Kira. “Not enough.”

“That sounds like the perfect amount,” the Intendant replied lightly. She tilted Dax’s head up, warm lips just touching her own. “I suppose you’re too high and mighty to get some sleep now, aren’t you?” Dax didn’t bother to reply, though she suspected her expression probably said it all. “Ah, yes, your bad dreams. Or good ones, I suppose, depending on how you look at it…”

“I don’t want to look at it,” Dax snapped.

“I’m sure you don’t.” The Intendant rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to do anything, do you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dax muttered, and instantly regretted it.

The Intendant struck her smartly, quick but not particularly hard, a lash across the face that Dax barely felt at all. “I warned you about that,” she said simply, by way of explanation.

“You did,” Dax agreed, and didn’t add that she wished the blow had been harder.

The Intendant studied her for a moment, perhaps seeing all of that, then shrugged and pressed on. “Far be it from me to keep you from your self-destruction, my dear,” she said, “but I can’t help noticing that you’re really just making yourself miserable by trying to deny this inner violence of yours.”

Dax recoiled. “That’s because—”

“Quiet!” Though it was barely above a whisper, it had the desired effect, and Dax shut her mouth as quickly as she’d opened it. “Look at you. Cowering and whimpering and hiding from yourself, so frightened of that beautiful temper. You won’t let yourself take pleasure in it. You won’t let me take pleasure in it. You won’t use it to your advantage by taking a place at my side. And now you won’t even yourself dream about it.” She laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound. “You can ignore it all you like, my sweet, but it seems quite clear to me that it’s going to find you one way or another. So why not just stop this needless resistance and embrace it?”

“Because I’m not like you.” She took another deep breath, slow and soothing, clinging to the fundamental truth of the words. “And I’m not like him.”

The Intendant snorted, but she didn’t laugh again. “So you keep saying. And the tragedy is, I think you actually believe it.” She shook her head, pulling away and cupping Dax’s chin, leaning in to study her. “Well, I hate to break it to you my dear, but claiming to be on a higher plane of existence than the rest of us doesn’t mean that you really are. You can spout your silly little Trill philosophies at me until we both die of boredom, but it won’t change the fact that inflicting pain gets you off, or that hurting me brought you more pleasure than you’ve felt in years. And you can blame it all you want on some other nobody who had your precious parasite a million years ago, but blaming him won’t stop it happening to you, will it?”

She flicked her tongue over Dax’s cheek, just below her eye. Without thinking, Dax reached out, catching her by the back of her head and pulling her in for another kiss, deep and dizzying.

The Intendant was delighted, amused by the initiative. “You see?” she cooed, licking the words into the roof of Dax’s mouth. “The sooner you accept it, my dear, the sooner we can start having some real fun. So why don’t you do us both a favour and stop acting like all of this is somehow beneath you, when the truth is that you’re just as dirty as the rest of us.”

Dax didn’t answer. What could she say? She hated that the Intendant had grasped it so easily, hated that she could pick apart all of Dax’s defence mechanisms as though they didn’t exist, hated that it all came so damn easily to her, and to everyone else in this forsaken universe. Everything was so twisted here, and everyone was so gorged on violence, even the good guys, that they’d forgotten anything else. Joran would probably find a good home at the Intendant’s side, she thought sadly, and wished she had it in her to feel repulsed.

She supposed she should have anticipated that the Intendant would not be content with her silence, that she would push her to say something even if she couldn’t get her to respond the way she wanted. She should have seen it coming, and yet it still took her somewhat by surprise when she propped herself upright, gazing down at Dax with half-lidded expectation and just the faintest hint of affection.

“So tell me,” she said, and Dax was sure she heard something almost like sympathy behind the rustiness of her voice. “Is this why you need all that benzocyatizine?”

The panic gripped Dax by the throat, as fiercely as she had held the Intendant by hers just a few moments ago, leaving her feeling trapped and helpless. She couldn’t tell the Intendant the truth, of course; that would put Jadzia and her rebel friends in jeopardy, to say nothing of Dax herself. Garak had been right when he’d warned her about that. It would have been dangerous enough if she had confessed the truth as soon as she’d docked, but to leave it this long was suicide. The Intendant was a very proud woman, and if she thought someone had made a fool of her she would punish them far more for that than for any perceived rebellion. No, the lie was safer than the truth, if only marginally, though her blood ran cold to think of what the Intendant would do with her now.

“Yes,” she said at last, hesitant and self-conscious even though she’d thought it through. “Yes, that’s why. I need it to stabilise my… that is…” She stumbled clumsily over the poorly-fabricated explanation, and silently prayed that the Intendant would read it as simply the bi-product of too much alcohol, rather than the hopeless floundering that it really was. “Look, I just need it, okay?”

“No, you don’t.” The Intendant sounded almost disappointed, frustrated that even after so much so-called progress Dax was still trying to delude herself, and the condescending smile fell from her lips as she caressed the side of Dax’s face. “You don’t need it at all, darling. You just want it. You’re scared of your little demons and you want to drug them into submission.”

Even drunk as she was, Dax recognised the time to be submissive, and she bowed her head, turning her face towards the Intendant’s palm. “Something like that,” she admitted with exaggerated softness, then looked up with what she prayed was a hopeful look. “Are you going to keep it from me now?”

The Intendant stared at her, seemingly genuinely perplexed. “Now, why would I do that?” She shook her head. “You’re welcome to do as you like, my dear. It makes no difference to me. Besides, we both know you’d find a way to hijack that shipment as soon as it came in, with or without my blessing, and we can’t have that, can we? Think of what the workers would say…”

Dax actually laughed at that. Not a polite, good-natured chuckle, the weak-willed half-laugh of someone desperately trying to sound respectful when all they wanted to do was rip their companion’s head off, but a loud and uncontrolled explosion of hysterical-sounding laughter that almost choked her. The notion was more tragic than funny, the idea that the Intendant cared more about what her slaves thought of her than whether they survived a day’s work, but delirium had well and truly set in with Dax by now, and she laughed until she couldn’t breathe.

“Are you done?” the Intendant snapped when she gagged on her own saliva and spluttered into silence.

“I’m sorry…” Dax managed, flushed and coughing.

“You will be, if you keep this up,” the Intendant said viciously. “But since you’re clearly inebriated beyond the least bit of sense, I shall let it slide this time.” Still, her fingers dug in deep where they still held the side of Dax’s face, tight but not quite painful. “I don’t know why it amuses you so much that I’d have the basic decency to keep my word. What good would it do me to withhold a cargo I can’t use? And besides…” Her smile turned cold for a moment, and her grip tightened even more. “I intend to collect my payment, so why wouldn’t I supply the goods you’re paying for? I may be ruthless, my dear, but even I play fair.”

Dax had almost forgotten about that, the hurriedly dismissed promise she’d made in the hope of acquiring the drug that her counterpart so desperately needed. She’d been uncomfortable at the time, but in light of what they’d just done and the Intendant’s steadfast determination to twist her into something she didn’t want to be, it felt all the more worrisome. Even the most harmless information could be deadly in the wrong hands, and Dax’s secrets didn’t feel harmless even inside her own head.

“Payment on delivery,” she said, sighing, and forced herself to remember that they had a few days before she needed to worry about it, that there were more immediate problems and this one, at least, could be shunted to the side.

“Well, of course,” the Intendant replied, offended that Dax would feel the need to point that out, apparently not realising that she’d said it far more for her own benefit. “That goes without saying. I’m not a complete monster, you know.”

Dax shifted, feeling the ache between her legs and trying not to stare at the bruises forming on either side of the Intendant’s throat. “That’s debatable,” she muttered before she had a chance to stop herself.

“Be careful with those accusations.” It was a warning. “My fondness for you will only get you so far if you keep that up.”

Dax rolled her eyes, then closed them, not bothering to apologise even as she knew the silence would make the Intendant even more annoyed with her. Part of her realised she should be wary, that the Intendant was no doubt speaking the truth when she warned of her waning patience, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to care. She felt too worn out, sickly and drained, and the pounding in her head was bordering on unbearable. Why couldn’t the Intendant just leave her alone until Jadzia’s medicine arrived? Why couldn’t she just let her rest in peace?

“You’re drunk,” the Intendant observed, somewhat unnecessarily. “And you’re insufferable when you’re drunk. So might I suggest, before you do something you’ll regret, that you sleep it off?”

“You can suggest it all you want,” Dax grumbled sullenly.

“I can make it an order instead, if you prefer.” There was an edge to her voice. “By the Prophets, I’d forgotten how masochistically stubborn you can be.”

The exclamation struck a sharp chord in Dax’s chest, resonating with the part of her heart that still clung to the Kira she knew. More often than either of them could count, Dax’s antics had caused her to throw up her hands and cry out to the Prophets just like that, and hearing those same words on this Kira’s lips now sent a jolt of familiarity through her, a sting of melancholy that hurt deeper than any shallow cuts or bone-deep bruises.

“I didn’t know you believe in the Prophets…” she heard herself mumble, and swiftly regretted it as the Intendant shot her a look that could cut through glass.

“What I believe in is none of your business,” she said. “And trying to distract me from your inexcusable inebriation isn’t going to work either, so you might as well save your breath. I’m not going to waste my precious off-duty hours listening to you complain about how miserable you feel and how you’re never going to drink again, until the next time you do and we go through the whole ridiculous charade all over again. You’d think you would have learned your lesson after the last time, but apparently you Trills aren’t fast learners…”

“The last time?” Dax echoed automatically.

The Intendant made a dissatisfied noise in her throat; it sounded ragged and painful, still hollow with the bruises around her neck, and Dax tried to ignore the buzz of self-satisfaction that hit her square in the gut.

“I’m not surprised you don’t remember,” she remarked coolly. “In fact, I’d be more surprised if you did. Suffice it to say, if I’d thought for one moment you’d go back to that bar, I never would’ve let you dock your silly little ship here in the first place.”

Even as she knew it was Jadzia’s behaviour and not her own, Dax still felt a shameful flush colour her skin. “I’m… sorry?”

“You should be,” the Intendant said. “If you must insist on feeling ashamed of yourself, by all means be ashamed of that.”

Not for the first time, Dax was struck by how much she sounded like Kira. Her Kira, the Kira who would throw up her hands and cry out to the Prophets every time Dax did or said something stupid, the Kira who understood why she hated the violence inside of her, the Kira who had lived that same violence and come out the other side, the Kira who had felt the same way. Her Kira, capable of all the terrible things that this Kira did but without any of her relish. She missed her, she realised, and the melancholy deepened.

She willed herself to block it out, to banish that Kira from her mind entirely, but then the Intendant pressed a gentle palm against her cheek, and it fit just like Kira’s would, just like Kira’s did, on those rare occasions when Dax was the one who needed solace and Kira was the one who could provide it, when their typical roles were reversed if only for a moment or two. It hurt all over again, and she let her eyes drift closed, lids fluttering with painful nostalgia.

“I’m not tired,” she insisted, clinging wilfully to her trademark stubbornness, using it to drive away her illicit memories. “And I’m not so drunk that I need to sleep it off. I’m perfectly fine, thank you.”

“Of course you are,” the Intendant patronised. “But be that as it may, you’re in my bed, in my quarters, on my station, and you will do as I say.”

Though she knew it was hopeless, Dax struggled to fight back. She couldn’t fight anything else, couldn’t fight who she was or how she felt, couldn’t fight the pleasure that rose in her as she screamed out her pleasure through the Intendant’s pain, couldn’t fight the rush of adrenaline and desire, the heat between her thighs as she felt the breath choking and rattling beneath her fingers. She couldn’t fight any of that, couldn’t fight the things that frightened her… but even if it killed her, she would fight the need for sleep.

“No.” The word came out like a whimper, so she braced herself against the sheets and tried again. “I don’t need…”

“Quiet.” It was a command, soft and sweet but unmistakeable just the same. “Sobriety now. Whining later.”

Dax gritted her teeth, jaw clenched until it hurt. “No.”

Leaning over her, the Intendant breathed an almost-tender sigh. Dax imagined that the honest affection in the sound belonged to her Kira, imagined that the gentle palm against her cheek was Kira’s as well, and that the warm the body still pressed against her was hers. She imagined that it was Kira holding her close, Kira telling her to rest, Kira insisting that she sleep off the bloodwine before she made a fool out of herself, Kira promising to protect her from those terrible dreams. Kira…

“No,” she said again, but her resolve was cracking almost as sharply as her voice.

She could fight the Intendant, could fight authority and command and the order to rest, but she could not fight Kira. She’d never been able to fight Kira. Even now, even knowing as she did how much rested on her being able to fight something, she felt herself slipping, felt the world drifting and faltering around her. She tried to sit up and look the Intendant in the eye, to see beyond all doubt that she was not Kira, to see the evil of this place etched on her familiar features, but the room tilted so hard that she couldn’t see anything at all.

Dimly, she remembered a shuttle accident. Flashes of broken bones, of blood and pain and fear, but they were gone almost before they could manifest, supplanted by a swirling starscape, motion sickness and the lurching of imminent doom, the surface of a planet rushing up to meet her. Spinning, swerving, slipping, discordant and dizzy, and was it any wonder she couldn’t see anything?

“No…”

There was no fight left in the word, or in the rest of her. Her eyes were already rolling back, vision blurring and turning dark, giving in, and all the fighting in the world couldn’t stop it from happening. She was doomed, falling, losing consciousness and losing herself, and all she could think of as her muscles went slack was that at least she’d tried. For as long as she could, she had fought. She had struggled and resisted, and she had fought with everything she had. If nothing else, surely Kira would respect her for that. Surely she would… surely…

Above her, around her, all over her, the Intendant vibrated with laughter, sharp lines and soft edges, threats and promises and ‘goodnight, my sweet Trill’ , a threat and a promise, beauty and danger, Bajor and Terok Nor.

Kira, Dax thought and wished that she was.

*

The sand was made of bones.

Bleached and abandoned, turned to dust under the blazing sun, it was still sharp enough to cut, and it did so without mercy. The horizon was pale and featureless, coloured only by the trail of bloody footprints that mapped out Dax’s serpentine path, countless miles spread out like lifetimes behind her.

Not all of them, though. So many, yes, but not all. Countless lifetimes come and gone, dead and buried, their bones all turned to sand… countless lives lost and mourned and forgotten, but not him. Never him. It didn’t matter how hard she tried or how far she walked, he wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t join the others in the sand, wouldn’t turn to dust and blood and ground-up bones under her feet, wouldn’t become a memory lost to time and distance and forever. He wouldn’t leave. No matter where she went, he would always be there.

He walked beside her, but the jagged edges of the shifting sands didn’t cut his feet like they did hers. He made no footprints and cast no shadow; he left no evidence of his presence at all. In a hundred years, when future nobodies retraced the path of her journey, they wouldn’t know that he walked by her side, that he shared every step, that he went everywhere she did. They wouldn’t even know he had existed at all.

But she knew. He made sure of that, and no matter how hard she tried to block him out, he would not be silenced.

She had lost count of the hours, days, weeks, lifetimes that she’d spent out here. The horizons looked the same whichever way she turned; the only difference was the trail of footprints to mark where she had been. She was thankful for the blood on her feet, the burned-in scratches carved by bones turned to sand, still sharp no matter how fiercely the wind tried to blow them smooth. Even the dead had teeth, after all, and Dax suffered their bite again and again with every step she took.

“You’ll have to give up some time.” He said the same thing every time she took a step, every time the sand cut into her feet, every time she bit her lip to keep from crying out. “You know you can’t keep going forever.”

“I’ll keep going as long as it takes.” She said the same thing every time, too. “I’m not like you. I don’t need to give up. I won’t ever need to.”

“Maybe not,” he shrugged. “But you want to, don’t you?” She didn’t need to look at him to know what she would find, the anticipation on his face, the excitement lighting up like a signal fire, warning and celebration all at once. “All this time… no food, no water… nothing but this…” He gestured, taking in the vastness of the desert, the bones turned to sand, the footprints made of blood, the sweat beading on her brow. “You can taste it.”

She licked her lips, salt stinging in cracks that had long since bled dry, and sucked down an airless breath. “I don’t care,” she told him, parched and dizzy. “I won’t do what you want me to. I won’t be like you. I’d sooner let them take me.”

“And they will,” he reminded her. “You know they will. You’ve come too far and done too much, and you know they’ll catch up with you in the end.” He laughed, and she hated that he didn’t sound parched at all. “What do you expect will happen when they do? Do you really think they’ll show you mercy just because you’re sorry? Do you really think you deserve it?”

“I know I don’t,” she replied softly. “And I don’t want it.”

She braced herself and took another blood-soaked step forwards. He shook his head and followed.

Neither of them spoke for a very long time; the only sound to punctuate the silence was the occasional hiss choked out through gritted teeth as the pain in her feet intensified and the impatient cawing of carrion birds circling in the blood-red sky above. She didn’t expect him to leave her alone, and he didn’t, but he seemed content to shadow her quietly for a while and leave her to the ravening of her thoughts.

Maybe he thought it would be more effective if he didn’t keep talking. Maybe he thought she would give herself over to him if he just gave her some room. And maybe he was right; the self-doubt alone was crippling enough, to say nothing of the hunger gnawing in her belly and the thirst tearing at her throat. Experience would be the better teacher, he was right about that, and he let it do its job without any further help.

For her part, Dax was just grateful that he’d shut up for a second.

He held his tongue until she crested a particularly difficult sand dune, lost her footing, and fell awkwardly down the other side, coming to rest face-first in the sand. She tried not to think of all the dead that had made the dune as she pulled herself out and struggled to find her bearings again. Were these all the bones of people she had killed, or were some of them his? How could she tell, and would it matter even if she did? Hadn’t she told an old friend once that the sins of a past host would bear down on the shoulders of every host that came after? Weren’t his sins hers too, by default?

If she let herself dwell on that for more than a moment, though, she would taste the decay on her tongue, the slaughter and suffering, and she would be bent double before she knew what had hit her, losing what precious little she still had inside of her. She could not afford that any more, and so she refused to let herself wonder.

“How does it taste?” he asked when she righted herself, sensing the direction of her thoughts just as he always did.

Dax spat into the sand, closed her eyes and her mind. “Like dishonour,” she said.

For a moment, she glimpsed a hazy silhouette on the horizon, a familiar shape that felt like home. It was a only fraction of a second, though, and then it was gone, vanished almost before she had a chance to capture the memory of its face, its name, its identity. Curzon, she thought, the word echoing hollowly in her aching head, and for just one blissful second she smiled.

Joran waved a hand, dismissing the phantom entirely and wiping it from her thoughts as though it had never existed at all. “Dishonour,” he mocked. “What do you know of dishonour, little girl? You’ve killed and slaughtered just like me, and worse besides.” He shook his head, impressed and derisive in equal measure. “You know, not even I would kill my best friend.”

“Yes, you would,” she shot back, as evenly as she could when her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. “You’d kill all your friends if you had any. But you don’t. You never did, and now you never will.”

He conceded that with a chuckle, unaffected and unoffended. “Demonise me all you like,” he shrugged. “It won’t change the things you did.”

“I’m not trying to change them,” she said, and lurched back to her feet. She had a lot further to go yet, and she wasn’t getting anywhere by sitting still and letting him bait her. “I’m just trying to get out of this hellhole. You can come with me if you want. Or stay here and rot away until you’re as dead as they are. I don’t care. But either way, I’m leaving.”

And she did. The desert continued forever, she knew that now beyond all doubt, and so she would as well.

It wasn’t easy, but then she didn’t deserve anything easy. Joran was right about one thing: she could not justify the things she’d done by blaming him. His deeds were his, but hers were hers as well, and they both weighed just as heavily on the symbiont swimming in her stomach. She could feel it suffering within her, upset and angry, betrayed by the very people who were supposed to be its protectors; she wondered what it would say if it could talk, and whether it would be more angry at him for putting all those awful thoughts inside her head, or at her for turning those thoughts into action.

Her deeds were her own. This mess was hers too. He was here in presence only; he couldn’t be blamed for what her hands and teeth had done.

The sun was hot, and the sand was sharp at her feet. She thought about stopping, bending over and taking a look at the damage, seeing how badly the bones had cut her soles, but she laughed off the idea and refused to indulge it. What good would it do, after all? She was a thousand light-years away from the nearest field bandage, and a thousand more from the nearest pair of sturdy shoes. Even if her feet were torn to shreds, ripped apart by the last decaying vestiges of all the lives she’d taken, what could she do about it?

There was no help for her here, and even if there was, she didn’t deserve it. He was right about that: she didn’t deserve anything.

On the horizon, she saw a shadow. Not a figure this time, not a body or a soul. A shimmering surface, like a pool of water, enticing and inviting. She wondered if she was hallucinating, if she had been out here for too long, aimless and nameless and parched, lost to the delirious murmuring thrall of her own tortured thoughts and the memory of Bajoran screams. She had hallucinated so much, after all; how hard would it be to conjure a tempting vision of water, only to have it crumble to dust when she reached it?

“It would be fair,” he told her, as helpful as ever, reading her mind once more. “You don’t deserve water. Neither of us do.” He laughed, maniacal and hypnotic, and she let the rhythm of it pass through her like the endless beating of the sun above. “But then, I’m already dead, aren’t I? What do I care about things like water?”

Dax didn’t know, and she didn’t care. She didn’t even really care if she was hallucinating. So what if the pool turned to dust when she reached it? At least she would get there. She had something to strive for now, a goal to look towards; even if it amounted to nothing, Dax knew from repeated experience that there was a vast reserve of inner strength to be found in hope, and imaginary hope was better than no hope at all. Even if there was nothing to be found but dust and shattered dreams, then at least they would be fuel enough to drive her there in the first place.

There were worse things than chasing phantasms, she thought; until now, she hadn’t been chasing anything, struggling just to put one foot in front of the other, to keep marching through the pain in her feet, to keep moving past the clamour in her head. She was the one being chased, she knew, but she couldn’t remember who was chasing her; all she’d known for longer than she could remember was that she was guilty, and when they reached her at last she would be punished.

And so she stumbled onwards, pushing his words to the back of her mind like she did everything else he said. He wanted her to die out here, she knew; he wanted them both to die. He didn’t know how to feel guilty, how to feel shame or responsibility or any of the things that kept her separate from him. He didn’t hear the screams and the pleas of his victims every time the silence fell, and he didn’t care whose bones had made the sand beneath his feet. He didn’t care about anything; he was already dead, and all he wanted was for her to die too. What an achievement that would be! Anyone could kill a man sitting helplessly bound in a chair, but who else could claim to have killed from beyond the grave?

Dax wouldn’t let that happen. She wouldn’t have more blood on her hands, even if it would be her own this time. If he wanted her dead, he would have to do the task himself, and they both knew that wasn’t possible. A dead man could talk, and he did that loudly enough to wake the corpses in the sand beneath them, but for all his noise he couldn’t lift a phaser or a knife, or even his own fist. If she was going to die, it wouldn’t be by his hand, but by his mind. And, at least for now, hers was stronger.

Just like before, she lost track of time. It could have been hours before she reached the pool, or it could have been days; all she knew was that she’d made it and she was still alive, and for one breathtaking moment that was all she needed to know.

He had been whispering in her ear the whole time, telling her to give up, to roll over and let the carrion birds take her before her pursuers had the chance to, and it had been so tempting to listen to him, to give up and let go, to roll over and let death claim her, to hell with surviving and to hell with penance. But she didn’t. She didn’t, because she saw the pool in the distance growing ever closer, because she would not give him the satisfaction of watching her surrender… and because she had faith.

Then at long last, she reached it, falling to her knees and letting out a sob that was mostly dust. She had made it. She was alive, and she had made it. But the triumphant shout that cut through the heat-thick air was not hers, but his.

“Blood,” she whispered, crestfallen.

He smiled. “What did you expect?”

Dax didn’t have an answer to that. It made sense, she supposed; they were walking on the bones of the dead, breathing air choked with decay; everything in this place was dead and rotted, so why wouldn’t the water be the same?

It shouldn’t have sickened her like it did. She knew that. She had feasted on far worse than blood, fed on the flesh of her victims almost before they’d drawn their final breaths, ripped out their hearts and devoured them whole, dishonour spiced with shame. She could still remember how Kira’s tasted, bitter and sweet, so much like a betrayal, but so delicious. It had gone down easily enough, and here in this starved and wasted place she found her mouth watering at the memory. She had drank blood before, willingly and eagerly, so why was this suddenly so different?

“Because you feel guilty,” he said.

He made it sound so shameful, so silly. After all the pain she’d inflicted, the lives she’d taken and the blood she’d spilled, he made it sound as though the very worst part was that she felt bad about it. A part of her couldn’t help thinking he might be right about that; after all, where was that guilt when she was ripping Kira’s chest open, cracking her ribs between her fingers, tearing out her heart and swallowing it piece by piece? Where was the remorse when she was teaching Jadzia how to inflict pain, how to hurt and kill, how to become like her? Where was the shame and the sorrow when it mattered? What good was it now the deeds were all done?

Blood. It spread out as far as the horizon, wet and sticky and enticing. It was the only sustenance she had seen for as long as she’d been here, the only chance of salvation in this endless wasteland of death. Even without him standing beside her to remind her of the fact, she knew that it was her only hope, that drinking was the only way she would survive, and she hated it. An open wound carved into the ground beneath her feet, but it was not her doing this time. There was no guilt here, no shame, no remorse; there was nothing here at all, just blood, and all she had to do was drink it down.

But she couldn’t. Not now, not any more. She’d drank her fill of blood, eaten her fill of hearts and flesh. Though she was starved and dying, her stomach wouldn’t take any more. Blood was life, but in her hands it turned to death and destruction, just like the bones beneath her feet. It might be flowing free and full of promise now, but once she took it inside herself, it would turn to poison. It had happened before, life and hope turned to sickness and pain as she tried to swallow it, and she would not let it happen again here.

No more. She had to stop. She had to end it.

“Drink,” he said. “You know you have to.”

“No, I don’t.” She shut her eyes tight, tried to block out his voice, but of course he was inside her and she could no more quiet him with blindness than she could stop her heart from beating by wishing it dead. “I don’t have to do anything.”

“You’ll die if you don’t,” he reminded her, gleefully malicious. “Is that what you want? To die out here? With me?”

It was what he wanted, she knew, and that meant there was a part of her that wanted it too. For all that she tried to forget it, he was still a part of her, and his desires were hers as well. She couldn’t blame him for that, as much as she wanted to, but it helped to explain the unjustifiable darkness inside of her, the black hole growing wider and wider with every life she took, every heart she ate, every drop of blood she drank. It helped to know that the urge to die was his as well, triumph shrouded in surrender, even as there was still a tiny sliver of nobility, Curzon and the others, that wanted to die simply because it was better than killing.

“I’m not going to drink,” she told him. “I won’t.”

“But you want to…” he coaxed, in a voice that reminded her of someone she used to love. “Do you think I can’t see the way you’re trembling? Do you think I can’t feel how desperate you are? You’re thirsty, aren’t you?”

She was. That was the worst part. A part of her had felt relieved when she saw the lake was made of blood instead of water; it was the same part that had craved more of stuff almost as soon as she left the carnage all those lifetimes ago, three chests torn open and three hearts laid to waste, the same part that always wanted more, no matter how gorged she got. Killing wasn’t enough any more; that was a lesson she had learned well. It wasn’t enough simply to feed; she had to keep feeding. Once the appetite was awake in her, it would never be satisfied.

That was his legacy. That was what he had passed on to her. Where the others had given her great gifts — honour, exuberance, compassion, ambition, patience, diligence — he had given her this. Hunger, thirst, bloodlust. Endless and insatiable. He had given her death and decay and destruction, and was it any surprise that she’d lost so much precious time in this place, this desert of the dead with sand made from bones and lakes made from blood? Was it any wonder she was doomed to live out the rest of her life here, or else die right now, starved and thirsty? It was all he’d ever wanted, after all.

“The choice is yours,” he said. “Drink or die.”

*

“Oh, stop being so melodramatic.”

Dax blinked, regretting it instantly, and groaned as pain shot through her head, blinding and intense. For a long moment, she couldn’t remember where she was or what had happened. She remembered sand made of bones, water made of blood, death and hunger and thirst, but when she tried to focus her bleary eyes on her surroundings, she didn’t see any of those things. She saw walls, sheets, flashes of colours that didn’t seem to belong to anything in particular. She saw a bedroom she didn’t recognise, a ceiling that wasn’t hers, and—

Kira.

It all came flooding back to her. The mirror universe, Jadzia and her benzocyatizine, the Intendant and her countless perversions, more bloodwine than she had ever seen in her life. She was in bed, she realised, mouth tasting of stale liquor and the threat of acid and bile, and her head pounding so hard she was sure it would explode if she even thought of moving. The woman leaning over her, eyes shining with amusement and disgust, was not Kira, and the realisation slapped just a fragment of sense back into Dax’s foggy brain.

“What…?” she managed.

The Intendant huffed an impatient sigh. “It’s a hangover, dear… and a well-deserved one, at that. I’d hardly say you’re dying.”

“Did I say I was?” Dax asked hazily. She couldn’t remember. She could barely remember anything at all.

“Over and over,” the Intendant replied. “It got dull.”

“I…” Dax grimaced. Her head throbbed again as she closed her eyes, lending its support to the Intendant’s claim. “Sorry. Uh… I think… I think I was…”

“…dreaming,” the Intendant finished, rolling her eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m sure you were. You were out for long enough.”

As she spoke, Dax tried to sit up. Her head felt as though it were readying to split in half, and her stomach was sour and fragile, either one threatening to overpower her and neither offering to be the least bit kind about it. It wasn’t the first time she’d found herself in this state since being joined (no doubt it wouldn’t be the last, either, but she’d cross that bridge when she came to it), and she cursed Curzon’s name now just as she did the last time, and the time before that.

“You really are very good at that,” the Intendant remarked as Dax groaned and cradled her head.

“What?” she mumbled again.

“Blaming your former hosts for your own personal shortcomings,” the Intendant elucidated, and Dax let out another sickly moan as she realised that she must have uttered the curse out loud.

“I wasn’t blaming him,” she protested futilely. “Well, not exactly, anyway. I was just… it was… well, if he didn’t like bloodwine so damn much…”

“Oh, I’m sure you’d be a paragon of good behaviour,” the Intendant deadpanned. “Without him, without the other one, without this one or that one, you’d be a shining example of Trill society, wouldn’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Dax muttered.

“I would. If you had it your way, you’d never have any kind of fun. It’s this one’s fault that you have a bad temper, and that one’s fault that you drink too much, and another one’s fault that your dreams aren’t to your liking. Forgive the impertinence, my sweet, but didn’t you ask for this?”

Dax scowled, falling back onto the pillow and wishing the softness would smother her headache. “That’s not the point.”

“I think it’s exactly the point,” the Intendant pressed, taking a sadistic amount of pleasure in making Dax even more uncomfortable than she already was. “Now, I confess that I’m no expert in you Trills and your strange little ways… but unless I’m mistaken, don’t you host creatures put yourself through extensive and rigorous training for even just the slimmest chance of being joined to one of those parasites?” Dax nodded, not bothering to correct her for ‘parasite’, and the Intendant pressed on with gleeful malice. “And yet, for as long as I’ve known you, all you’ve ever done is complain about it.”

Dax covered her face with her hands, as much to block out the light from the ceiling as out of frustration. “It’s not that simple,” she explained wearily. “I can’t count how many times Curzon blamed Audrid for the way he used to coo over Jake—”

She cut herself off quickly, remembering where she was and how different this universe was to her own; even if there was a Jake Sisko out there somewhere, she rather doubted that her counterpart would have known him as a baby. Whatever relationship existed between this universe’s Jadzia Dax and Benjamin Sisko, she could tell quite readily that it had nothing to do with Curzon. The decades of affection that she shared with her Benjamin were notably absent when she looked at Jadzia, and for all their apparent enthusiasm in the bedroom, she could tell that very little of it lingered once they put their clothes back on.

“Anyway,” she coughed awkwardly. “My point is, it’s not just me. I’m not the only Trill to have disagreements with past hosts.”

“Maybe not,” the Intendant replied with a smile. “But you’re certainly the most dramatic one I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with.”

In hindsight, Dax supposed her indignant outburst of “I am not!” would have been rather more effective if it hadn’t been followed almost immediately by a queasy moan and a pitiful plea to the heavens to put her out of her alcohol-induced misery. As it was, she couldn’t even summon the strength to be offended when the Intendant barked a shrill and painful laugh, clapping her all too roughly on the shoulder, and shaking her head as though this was the most hilarious thing she’d ever seen.

“Of course you’re not.”

“I’m not,” Dax whined again. “I’m just a little…” She closed her eyes as her body reminded her of its discomfort, feeling the colour drain from her already sickly skin, and tried to swallow. “…unwell.”

“Unwell,” the Intendant echoed derisively. “You’re hung over, you silly little thing. Blame your precious parasite all you want, but don’t you dare try to pretend you didn’t bring it all on yourself.” She prised Dax’s hands away from her face and smiled cheerfully down at her, ignoring her whimpering protestations. “Now, now. Suck it up and take it like a man.”

“But I’m not a man,” Dax argued, then, when the Intendant shot her another wry look, “Well, not right now, anyway.”

The Intendant rolled her eyes, highly entertained and not afraid to show it. “What am I going to do with you?”

It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question, but Dax was too miserable to think of a compelling answer; she just moaned again and pressed her face into the pillow, willing it to smother her before she could suffer any further at the hands of Curzon and his over-indulgence.

“I suppose I could offer to fetch you some water,” the Intendant mused out loud, voice dripping with over-eager benevolence. “But that’s what slaves are for.”

“I can get it myself,” Dax insisted, and staggered dizzily to her feet to prove the point.

That, of course, was a grievous mistake. Her legs almost gave out under her weight, and turning her body upright only served to heighten the unpleasantness churning inside her. She bent double, clutching her head as the skull-splitting headache intensified, and breathed slowly through her nose to keep from retching as the roiling of her stomach followed suit. From where she sat, easy and comfortable on the bed, the Intendant was still laughing like this was the most fun she’d had in all her life; Dax was more than a little offended, but she was feeling so sorry for herself, so helpless and pathetic and hopelessly sick, that she couldn’t even muster the fortitude to glare.

“Are you sure?” the Intendant asked, in the most exaggeratedly saccharine voice Dax had ever heard. “You look a little… unwell.”

Dax growled, but forced herself to ignore her. She had bigger things to worry about than the Intendant’s cutting sense of humour, namely her precarious state of health. She took a couple of deep steadying breaths, willing her stomach to settle at the very least. The headache, she could handle, but she was fairly sure that she’d never be able to salvage any shred of dignity at all if she lost her last meal all over the Intendant’s pristine carpet. She would never hear the end of it if she let that happen, and that was reason enough to cling to what meagre self-control she still had left.

Maybe she’d never be able to control the violence, or the vicious temper that Joran had brought out in her. Maybe she’d never quite be able to keep the excitement at bay whenever the bloodlust rose up to claim her. Maybe she would be doomed to spend the rest of her life struggling against parts of herself that felt twisted and wrong. Maybe she’d never be able to fight the Intendant either, for as long as she looked like Kira and sounded like Kira and made her think of Kira. Maybe all of that was true. But even if it was, she was still Dax, and even if she couldn’t control anything else inside of her, she could damn well control this. And she would.

“I’m fine,” she said fiercely, talking to them both. “I’m just fine.”

“Suit yourself,” the Intendant shrugged; she still looked amused, though it was quickly fading in deference to worry over her precious carpet. “I was only trying to help.”

“Oh?” Dax snorted, not believing that for a second. “Well, I don’t need your help.”

She thought of Curzon, then, and of Joran. She thought of all the previous Dax hosts together, all trying their hardest to ‘help’, to make her into something new, something better, something more than who she was. She thought of herself as well, of Jadzia, that silly little girl who had fought so hard for all her life just to be taken seriously, who had worked her way through the initiate program not once but twice, wanting so badly to be joined, so desperate to make herself something more than the sum of her own foolish ambition.

What happened to that little girl?, she wondered. Where was that hopeful young initiate who had wanted to lend her voice to the legacy of a symbiont? Where was that determined young woman who would have given anything to prove her worth to those self-righteous bastards at the Symbiosis Commission, those self-righteous bastards who dared wash her out? Where was the Jadzia she used to be?

Gone, she knew. Gone, and replaced by a new Jadzia, a Jadzia who had taken the name ‘Dax’, a Jadzia who had accepted that she wouldn’t be her old self any more, who had signed her existence away to become part of something else, a Jadzia who had taken what those hosts had offered, who had let them shape her into that strange new thing. She missed that other Jadzia, the little girl, that brave and optimistic young woman, that intelligent soul who understood what it meant to be joined, who had read all the material a thousand times and knew the risk and the reward, the danger and the potential, who knew everything and imagined she knew even more than that.

She wasn’t supposed to handle this alone, she realised. She wasn’t supposed to turn down an offer of help. Not from the Intendant, and definitely not from her past hosts. Maybe getting flat-out drunk on someone else’s bar tab wasn’t Curzon’s brightest idea, but then, what did she expect? He was no more sure of how to deal with this situation than Jadzia was, but at least he was trying. At least he was doing something more than trying to block out the memories he didn’t like. He would never turn away from something just because it scared him. Not Curzon Dax, oh no. He’d get drunk, then he’d charge at it with everything he had inside him.

That was what Jadzia had to do as well. And maybe he really had been trying to help when he’d suggested she go to the bar and drink her own weight in bloodwine. How was he to know that what worked for him wouldn’t work for her? It was her place to know those things, wasn’t it? Hers, not his. Curzon didn’t know the little girl Jadzia; only she did. And she was the one who should have known better.

The Intendant was right about that, at least, and so was the Joran in her dreams, the Joran who told her to drink or die. She couldn’t ignore the violence inside of her forever; she couldn’t turn away from the hatred or the anger or any of those terrible things. She couldn’t hide for the rest of her life, not when the thing she was hiding from was inside her, not when it was a part of her. She couldn’t. And, far more than that, she was slowly coming to realise that she shouldn’t. It would drive her mad if she did. Worse, it would kill her. She had taken Joran into herself, had embraced his memories and his personality and everything else he’d brought with him. She had accepted all of that, and it was her responsibility to learn how to handle it.

Drink or die.

Well, she thought wryly. At least she had the ‘drinking’ part down.

Chapter Text

Where she expected to find a replicator, there was only a wall.

For a long moment, all she could do was stare blankly at the empty space, trying to figure out where the replicator could possibly have disappeared to. It took a ridiculously long time for her brain to catch up with her worn-down body and remember that this wasn’t the Deep Space Nine she was used to. This place was not her home, and this was a whole new Terok Nor, so why should she expect to find a replicator anywhere at all?

“What are you doing?” the Intendant demanded from across the room, still lounging lazily in bed; Dax ventured a glance at her, and found her brows knitted with derision. “Surely your brains aren’t that badly scrambled?”

“They’re not scrambled at all,” Dax huffed, but she braced her arms against the wall just the same, steadying to resist the flood of sensation in her head and in her guts. “They’re just a little… disoriented.” She took a few deep breaths to make sure that at least her stomach was under some kind of control, if not her pounding skull, then fixed the Intendant with a cynicism to match her own. “I’ll bet you’ve never had a hangover in your life.”

“Actually, I haven’t.” She sounded so damn proud of that; if she’d had the strength, Dax would have slapped her for it and not even bothered to feel guilty.

“I hate you,” she grumbled instead, perfectly aware of the fact that she was risking her life by voicing dissent.

“No, you don’t,” the Intendant said dryly. “If you did, I would have had you executed long before now.” She smiled, that regal benevolence that Dax loathed so much. “Don’t ever mistake envy for hatred, my sweet little Trill.”

Dax thought about that, or tried to, though her head spun and throbbed and made any kind of thinking difficult. The words were sharp, though, and managed to cut through just enough of the maelstrom inside her to ring out with something that sounded a little like truth.

Before Joran, Dax had never truly known hatred, and so it had been easy to throw out claims of it without really meaning them. ‘I hate you’, hurled furiously across a tongo table when Quark countered a great move with an even better one, or ‘I think Benjamin hates us’ muttered in a sullen aside to Chief O’Brien after they caught sight of particularly unpleasant duty roster.

It wasn’t so easy now. Hate wasn’t an idle threat or a mindless exaggeration any more; suddenly, it carried very real weight. It meant something, and that made it real. Suddenly, hate was exactly what it said it was: hate, dark and dangerous and not something to be thrown around lightly. Dax had almost let herself forget that, and it made her feel even more ill than the hangover to realise that she had needed the Intendant to remind her.

Before she even realised what was happening, she found herself pushing away from the wall and staring back at the Intendant, eyes narrowed as she fought to focus them. “That’s good advice…” she mumbled.

“I know it is,” the Intendant replied, not nearly as good-natured as she tried to sound. “And you needn’t look so shocked about it. I am capable of such things. Contrary to what you might like to believe, my dear, I don’t speak simply for my own benefit.”

“No.” Discomfort soured Dax’s temper. “You speak because you love the sound of your own voice.”

The Intendant laughed, as unoffended as she always was, no matter how crudely Dax talked to her. “Well, I suppose there’s that as well. I’m sure you’ll agree, it does have a certain seductive quality to it. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sound of your own voice as long as what you say is still worthwhile.” She smiled, and Dax allowed her eyes to lose focus just enough to imagine that it was sincere. “And even you can’t deny that I am that.”

“What?” Dax frowned, made dumb and slow by her hangover.

“Worthwhile,” the Intendant said patiently, and her smile turned to molten desire. “In every capacity.”

Dax winced, shame flushing her wan pallor. “Oh… uh…”

“Be careful how you answer,” the Intendant warned her, teasing but not without danger. “I’m a sensitive soul, as you well know. You might hurt my poor feelings.”

“I doubt that,” Dax shot back, unable to help herself. “You don’t have any.”

Still, she was careful, though it was far more for her own benefit than for the Intendant’s. She felt woefully unwell, the unpleasant effects of her hangover clashing noisily with the part of her psyche that suddenly wanted to step back and let herself think of Joran, for the first time, as Dax. She felt unsteady, and not just on her feet; she felt a little like she had turned a corner only to find herself staring down a dark alley, like she’d set a wild animal free only to have it turn back on her with sharp teeth and sharper claws, braced and ready to attack if she put so much as a foot out of place. She felt awful in every way, and the last thing she needed was to have to deal with the Intendant too.

For a long moment, she didn’t say anything at all. She knew it would serve her well to indulge the Intendant and her oversized ego, to stroke and flatter her in the vain hope that she would think again and offer to find her some water. Her throat was dry and her mouth tasted of stale bloodwine and half-dried blood, either one sickening enough at the best of times and even more so together, soaked up and swallowed down by the symbiont before the host body had a chance to even try and metabolise it.

That was another not-so-pleasant side-effect of being joined, she had learned (much to her peril), and one that they conveniently skipped over during initiate training. Until Curzon Dax, she supposed there wasn’t much of a need to warn potential hosts about the dangers of alcohol consumption with a symbiont inside you. Initiates were reserved and intelligent by nature, dedicated over-achievers with more important things on their minds than where to get their next drink; if it hadn’t been for Curzon and his taste for the stuff, Jadzia Dax would probably never have learned about that particular downfall. Frankly, sometimes she still wished that she hadn’t.

The Intendant was still looked at her, expectant, and Dax opted in the end for a coquettish half-shrug. “I suppose you are,” she said, though in truth she had all but forgotten the question.

“I’m glad you agree,” the Intendant smirked, sliding off the bed and crossing the room with her usual effortlessness. “Now, about that water…”

There was no mistaking that the gesture was a reward, another token for being a well-behaved little bedmate, but Dax was beyond caring. She was thirsty and she felt sick and her head was clearly siding with Joran in his efforts to kill her slowly and torturously, and at that point she would have done almost anything if only it would make her feel the least little bit better.

The Intendant moved with her usual grace and poise; Dax was simultaneously impressed and annoyed, envious and awestruck at the same time. Whatever she might think of the Intendant, she held herself in a way that commanded attention, and Dax was unwitting but entirely rapt as she watched her.

She stopped on the far side of the room, hovering thoughtfully over a device that looked embarrassingly like the replicator Dax had been looking for, though Dax sullenly decided that it wasn’t her fault she’d missed it. It was probably the most inappropriate placement for a replicator she had ever seen, and she didn’t bother to mask her moody scowl as the Intendant smiled and leaned in to demand a glass of water. She even talked to the replicators like they were servants at her heel, Dax noted, and tried to cover over her amusement with a pained grimace.

Taking her time and clearly relishing the power, the Intendant brought the water back to Dax’s side, expression hard as she handed it over. “I wouldn’t do this for just anyone, you know,” she told her.

Dax didn’t need to be familiar with this universe, or this Terok Nor, to know that she was telling the truth about that, and she bowed her head in acknowledgement. “Your generosity is most thoughtful, Intendant.”

“I know,” she said flatly. “And to be perfectly honest, my dear, you really don’t deserve it.”

Well, she couldn’t exactly argue with that, could she? And so she didn’t, turning her attention instead to the cool water, safe and delicious.

She forced herself to sip slowly, taking small little mouthfuls to settle her stomach instead of gulping it down in a single desperate swallow like her instincts wanted. She briefly thought about asking for a raktajino as well, remembering all too well how Curzon would swear by the strong Klingon coffee to get him through his near-daily hangovers, but a quick glance at the look on the Intendant’s face told her not to push her luck; it was enough of a gift that she’d been granted anything at all, and even a refill was more than she could hope for. Dax knew better by now than to try the Intendant’s patience, and all the more so when she was feeling uncharacteristically charitable, and so she kept her eyes carefully downcast as she drained the glass dry.

Though the water didn’t do much to ease the kick-drum pounding in her head, it at least went some way to countering the nausea, and by the time she’d finished, she was starting to feel a little more like herself. Well, a little less fragile, anyway, and the sly smile on the Intendant’s face as she watched her said that she could see the shift in her as well. From the look on her face, eager and wanton, she was already planning their next sordid little adventure, and Dax made a show of covering up the relief on her face as her insides stopped bubbling. For once, she suspected it would be safer to appear weak; after all, not even the Intendant could tear someone down if they’d already hit rock bottom.

When she was done with the water, Dax closed her eyes for a moment and leaned back against the wall, breathing deep and slow through her nose. The headache, it seemed, would not be chased away so easily, but that was a kind of suffering she could endure. Pain. Wasn’t that what she craved, after all? It wasn’t quite the line of blood carved out with a knife or bruises beaten against bone from punching the wall, but pain was pain, and she could use it. Joran had taught her how.

“Is that better?”

Dax squinted her eyes half-open, waiting for the Intendant’s face to blur into focus. “I’m fine,” she said, massaging her temples. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

“Believe me,” the Intendant chuckled, shaking her head at the implication, “I wasn’t worried.”

She rolled her shoulders in a lazy stretch, chuckling at the look on Dax’s face. A little concern was more than she should expect, Dax knew, and she supposed she should have known that. Who was she, after all, but the latest in a very long line of bed-warmers for the Intendant’s amusement? She’d got her a glass of water; what more did she want?

“Thank you,” she said, biting down on her tongue to try and make it sound sincere. “For the water.”

“You’re quite welcome, my dear.” The Intendant’s eyes flashed in a wordless invitation for Dax to go back to her side, but Dax’s legs were still shaky and weak and she didn’t trust herself to cross the room again. “I must say, you really are quite endearing when you’re suffering like this.”

That was typical, Dax thought moodily. It was just like her to take pleasure in pain, even something as stupidly standard as a hangover. Honestly, the only reason she didn’t bite off a scathing retaliation was because deep down inside she kind of felt the same way.

The memory came flooding back to her once more, and she felt sick all over again, picturing her hands around the Intendant’s throat, hearing her choking moans. Pleasure and pain, like they both said, and the glass fell to the floor as Dax’s hand clapped over her mouth.

“Don’t…” she managed, but the word was lost to the shattering of glass.

The Intendant rolled her eyes. “Now then…” she pressed, quirking a brow and pointedly ignoring Dax’s obvious discomfort. “If you think you can pull yourself together, I thought I might take you out on a little excursion.”

That got Dax’s attention, and put her on her guard as well. “A what?”

“Ah, yes.” The Intendant sighed. “I forgot, you get confused by words with more than one syllable.” Dax scowled her indignation, but plasma exploded behind her eyes and she had to give the expression up with a pitiful whimper. “An excursion, my dear. It means I was thinking that we could take a stroll.”

“A stroll,” Dax echoed, derision colouring the confusion. “A nice, cheerful, well-meaning stroll.”

“Precisely.” Her voice was sharp, though, low with warning. “Though I’d thank you not to take that tone with me. Don’t think I’m not above having you flogged just because you’re feeling fragile this morning.”

Dax rolled her eyes. That hurt even more than the scowl. “I’m sorry, Intendant,” she said, without even a cursory feint at sincerity.

“As well you should be,” the Intendant shot back, ignoring the sarcasm. “You forget, my dear sybarite, that I have your best interests at heart.”

“Of course you do,” Dax said, voice coarse. “And I’m sure it was ‘my best interests’ you had in mind last night, too, when you made me—”

“Enough!” It was more than a warning this time; it was an authority figure talking to a minion who had been treated far too leniently for far too long. Dax recognised the difference between a threat and a promise, and she quickly shut her mouth. “I don’t know what you did while you were all alone out there in the depths of space, but while you’re on my space station, you will show respect.”

Dax bit her lip. “Intendant…”

“Now,” she pressed on, speaking over her and silencing her quite thoroughly. “I’m sure you’ll agree that it would do you a world of good to get out of here and shake off the cobwebs… and frankly, my dear, I don’t trust you not to go straight back to that damnable bar the very instant I leave you alone.”

She smiled, but Dax could see the venom behind the expression, the promise of punishment never quite fading even as she slipped effortlessly back into her public persona. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and tried not to recoil.

“And where, exactly, do you plan on taking me for this ‘stroll’?” she asked, trying not to sound quite as dubious as she felt.

The Intendant spread her arms, a playful smile lifting her lips with feigned innocence. She was trying to play it casual, as though she hadn’t given the idea very much thought at all, but Dax knew her better than that by now; she was trying too hard to look like she didn’t care at all, and that meant she did care a great deal. It was dangerous, Dax’s instincts were screaming, and she swallowed down an unexpected shudder at the hungry look in the Intendant’s eyes.

“If you must know,” she answered after a long and drawn-out pause, “I thought we might take a trip down to the Ore Processing Centre.” The words were deceptively saccharine, as sweet as sugar and just as unpalatable to a Trill with a hangover. “Unless you’re feeling too unwell.”

Dax was, but she would not let the Intendant see that. “Why?” she demanded instead. “Are you planning to make good on those threats to make a slave out of me? Or do you just want me flogged in full view of your precious Terrans?”

“Of course not,” the Intendant laughed. “You’re far too entertaining for me to waste your talents down there. Besides, what kind of example would you set for the workers, even if I did have you flogged in public? You’re not one of them, so why should they care what happened to your pretty little hide? No, no. They’d just be grateful for the time off, and we can’t have that, can we?”

She laughed again, like she really did find the idea deeply amusing, and Dax pinched the bridge of her nose in a vain attempt to drive the headache down. “Of course,” she gritted out. “How silly of me.”

“Anyway,” the Intendant went on, seemingly content to keep running with the hilarious tangent she’d found. “If I did decide to have you flogged, it would be here in the privacy of my quarters. I wouldn’t want to share your screams with anyone else, now, would I?”

Dax clenched her jaw until it hurt. “Perish the thought.”

“Indeed.” And there it was again, that sugar-sweet smile and that saccharine tone of voice, the one that threatened to make Dax ill if she took in too much of it. “No, my dear, you have my word that I shan’t harm a hair on that fragile little head of yours. I simply thought you might appreciate a guided tour…”

“A guided tour,” Dax echoed flatly.

“Well, why not? I know how much it upsets you to think of all those poor Terrans slaving away down there.”

In spite of herself, Dax had to smile at that; for all of her apparent willingness to strike out on her own, it seemed that Jadzia was rather more affected by the Terrans’ plight than she wanted Dax or anyone else to believe. “Can you blame me?” she asked.

The Intendant shrugged. “You’ve always been too quick to condemn what we do here,” she said. “And to condemn me personally. I thought it might be a valuable lesson for you to see for yourself how much better off those ingrates are under my care than they would be under anyone else’s.” Her eyes flashed, a lightning strike of fire on obsidian that lasted less than a heartbeat. “Besides, I’m sure it would appeal to that charming host of yours… that dear fellow who’s caused you so much trouble…”

“Joran,” Dax said automatically, and bit down harder on her lip.

“That’s right,” the Intendant crooned. “Joran. I’m sure he would appreciate the efficiency of our operation here, even if you’re still too much of a bleeding heart to see it for yourself.”

Dax licked the blood from her lip, swallowing to keep from saying something she would inevitably regret. She thought briefly about turning down the Intendant’s thinly-veiled offer, even as she knew all too well that the Intendant could and would make the rest of her time here incredibly miserable if she did that. She’d already pushed her to the limit, and the Intendant’s tender mercies were hardly all that tender to begin with.

Coming from a more civilised universe, Dax found it all too easy to forget that she was safe here only at the Intendant’s behest, and only for as long as she entertained her. It was easy to forget, too, when she was looking at her with that quiet affection of hers that the expression and the mood that went with it could turn to poison in an instant. The Intendant was suspicious and quick to temper (more so even than Dax was just now, and that was saying something), and the least little slight could very easily explode into something quite deadly.

Besides, she couldn’t deny that she was curious, for her own sake as much as for the Intendant’s satisfaction. She knew that there was truth in what she’d said, that the whole thing would almost certainly appeal to Joran, and she could feel the trap closing in on her as she considered it. Her skin itched, feeling suddenly too tight as she thought about the two of them, the tyrannical megalomaniac who so enjoyed sadism in the bedroom and the sociopathic killer who enjoyed it in all aspects of his life. They were well suited to each other, Dax thought, and it wasn’t much of a surprise at all that the Intendant would keep trying to break through Dax’s own barriers to reach the kindred soul she recognised in him, to keep drawing him out of her in increasingly sordid ways, and if it made Dax herself suffer to do it, then all the more pleasure for them both.

It was almost more than she could bear, the thought of going down there and feeling Joran’s perverse appreciation of the Intendant’s brutality, watching with a smile that was not her own as the helpless and innocent were forced to slave their lives away or die in torment. She could already feel him slavering at the thought of it, and the sensation made her wonder just how deep his influence really went.

There was a big difference, she insisted, between what had happened last night and what might yet happen in Ore Processing. As disturbing as it had been, the Intendant was right about the reciprocity of last night’s perversions; though Dax had resisted the pull of pleasure for as long as she could, it was still there, and as desperately as she’d tried to keep from relishing the the Intendant’s breath choking and stuttering in her throat, the Intendant herself seemed to have enjoyed it just as much. It was one thing to submit to something like that in a controlled environment, however, to indulge in sadism when it was reciprocal, but it was another thing entirely to draw the same kind of pleasure from the unjust suffering of innocents.

Would she feel the same way if she let the Intendant take her down to Ore Processing? Would she react just as readily to Joran’s sociopathic malice now as she had last night? Would she be able to forgive herself if she did?

She had to know. She had to know how deep it went, how complete Joran’s hold over her was, how much of herself was left inside all the twisted chaos. Since she’d allowed his memories to resurface, she had been blessedly shielded from having to witness any real suffering, at least beyond the walls of the holosuite and her twisted dreams. The closest she’d come to a real struggle was in watching Kira deal with the fallout from her time on Cardassia, and then it had been no trouble at all to drown out Joran; Jadzia’s emotions had overpowered everything, even Curzon, in a rush to support the friend that belonged to her and her alone. When her Nerys was the one with pain in her eyes, when she was the one suffering, there was no violence strong enough to overwhelm Jadzia’s raw empathy, and no perversion deep enough make her draw pleasure from it.

It was easy to push aside and ignore the potential thrill of terrible things when the situation was personal. That, she had learned from Nerys. Last night she’d discovered something too: that it was also easy, horrifyingly so, to let herself surrender to that same terrible thrill when it was safe and controlled. Joran’s influence was absolute here in the Intendant’s bedroom, and Dax could fight and struggle and resist with everything she had in her but there was nowhere to find a purchase, and all the resistance in the galaxy was futile when the only thing in danger was her pride and the Intendant’s satisfaction. Nothing was really at stake here, no matter how freely the Intendant toyed with the idea, and that made it safe. It made her sick, yes, and it made her hate herself just as surely as the dreams did, just as surely as all of those holosuite bloodbaths, but it was safe.

She had to know her limits, she decided. When it mattered, when it was important, when the pain was real and uncontrolled but not personal, who would be the stronger one? She had to know.

“All right,” she said, the words spilling out of her very quickly, before she had a chance to second-guess herself and change her mind. “If that’s what you want. I’m here at your leisure, after all.”

“Yes, you are.” The Intendant beamed like it was her birthday, and leaned in to kiss Dax tenderly on the forehead and then fiercely on the mouth. “I do love it when you remember that.”

She threaded her arm through Dax’s, pulling her in close, as though they were the very best of friends. The intimacy of the contact was so much more potent than anything they’d done between those dirty sheets, and it made Dax feel very uncomfortable. It was one thing to share the Intendant’s bed, to share sweat and sex and sordid desires with the ruthless dictator who wore her friend’s face, but another thing entirely to pretend that those things meant friendship, to act like they shared something sweet and simple and straightforward, to feign the kind of intimacy that had always come so easily to Dax but so hard to Jadzia… the kind of intimacy that she did share with her Kira. It made her itch again, and redoubled the pounding of her head.

Still, though, she didn’t pull away. Let the Intendant parade her around Terok Nor like some kind of prize, if that was what she wanted. Dax would sooner hold out her strength in case she needed it when they reached their destination. She wouldn’t be any good to herself if she wasted what precious little energy she had on something as mundane as this; she didn’t have enough for a confrontation now, not over something so trivial, and definitely not when she was trying to brace for the horrors she was about to see, struggling to ground herself in who she was instead of who her scrambled instincts told her to be. Already, she could feel Joran stirring in her, the pull of his malice, that cold and calculating love of other people’s pain shaping itself into anticipation, sharp as a blade at the base of her aching brain, and she couldn’t afford to give him an opening to take her completely.

She groaned as they stood in the turbolift, disoriented by the gentle thrum that sounded nothing like the well-ordered systems she was used to, always kept at peak efficiency by the expert hand of Miles O’Brien. Dax missed the chief, missed their occasional day-long excursions into the guts of the station just to see what new problems they could find and fix. When they’d first arrived on Deep Space Nine, the place had been a hole; barely anything had worked, and what little worked at all still didn’t work right. O’Brien had gone days at a time without sleep just trying to get the place into some kind of order, and being the only other member of the senior staff with an interest in that sort of thing, Dax had done everything she could to help him.

The hard work had been well worth it. Once they got the station running, short of the occasional Cardassian-Federation software incompatibility or leftover Bajoran sabotage, the station had become a hive of (mostly) functional machinery. Benjamin had been proud, but to Dax and O’Brien the joy was in seeing the job done well. She smiled at the memory, then sighed as the Terok Nor turbolift sputtered and shuddered, aggravating her hangover and reminding her again of just how far from home she really was.

The Ore Processing Centre, when they got there, was everything Dax had imagined it would be, and worse.

Slaves worked to within an inch of their lives while Cardassians and Klingons stood watch over them, shouting threats and abuses if anyone dared to pause in their labour for even a moment. No light, no space, and no mercy, workers lashed to within an inch of their life if they so much as stopped to catch their breath, and suffering far worse if they dared ask for anything. It was like a holo-novel, one of those old-earth documentaries about all the terrible things that Benjamin’s fellow humans — Terrans — used to do to each other, or perhaps a piece of obscene Ferenginar propaganda intended to keep the planet’s females in line and submissive. Things like that didn’t belong in the modern world, and they definitely didn’t belong on Deep Space Nine.

But then, this wasn’t Deep Space Nine, was it? Dax thought of the turbolift, that rattling safety hazard, and looked around at these dying and depredated people, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe at all.

The heat was overwhelming, and that didn’t help either. As a Trill, Dax had no love of high temperatures even at the best of times, but this place pushed her far beyond her limits; it would have been unbearable even if she hadn’t already been feeling ill, but given her precarious condition it was a thousand times worse. Somewhere deep inside of her, she thought she heard Emony complaining about the lack of ventilation in a run-down old shuttlecraft that was supposed to be carrying her from one star system to the next for a competition. The flight had only been a few hours, and it hadn’t even been that warm, but she’d found it utterly intolerable. Pampered Emony wouldn’t survive five minutes in a place like this, and poor hung-over Jadzia wasn’t faring much better.

In a cruel sort of way way, she supposed the heat was something of a blessing in disguise. It was so oppressive, so excruciating that she didn’t have the strength to think of anything else. Whatever she or Joran might have made of the situation, she couldn’t say for sure, because for those first few suffocating minutes, all she could think about was not passing out.

“Are you feeling all right?” the Intendant asked, standing smugly at her side and twisting her features into false concern; yet again, she seemed to have misinterpreted the source of Dax’s discomfort, no doubt this time for shock and horror at what was happening in this place. “You’re starting to look pale again.”

“I’m all right.” Dax took a deep breath, and decided to be honest; for once, the truth would wipe that self-satisfied smirk off her face. “Trills don’t do well in the heat.”

The Intendant coughed, not the least bit delicately; Dax didn’t need to look at her to know that once again her thoughts had taken an inappropriate turn. “That’s news to me,” she remarked, baring her teeth just a little, more for the benefit of her workers than for Dax’s. “If I recall correctly, you seemed to rather enjoy raising the temperature last night.” Her eyes flashed, mischief masking malice. “Are you going to blame that on your past hosts as well, dearest?”

Dax glared at her. “That’s completely different, and you know it,” she snapped, then remembered that they were not alone in the sanctuary of the Intendant’s quarters this time, that they were surrounded by potential witnesses and that her place in the unjust hierarchy of this station was very low indeed. “I mean, that’s not what I meant, Intendant.”

“I should hope not,” the Intendant said sharply.

The warning in her voice was unmistakable, but for once Dax didn’t bristle at it; from what little she knew of this universe’s Terok Nor, Ore Processing was the pivotal point for everything the Intendant insisted she worked so hard to achieve. If her slaves performed badly, then that performance would reflect just as badly on her; it went without saying that here, more than anywhere else on the station, she felt the need to uphold her perfect public persona, the benevolent dictator smiling down on the poor unwashed masses. And all the more so now, Dax supposed, with a rebellion kicking at the door.

So, with a bad taste in her mouth, she played up the humility as best she could while her body adapted to the unwanted heat, looking as pitiful as she could and mumbling a handful of half-hearted apologies. She would make it up to her later, she promised, keeping her face down and her eyes fixed on the floor. She’d been so caught up in her journey of self-discovery, in figuring out where she stood and what she wanted to feel, she realised now that she had grossly underestimated just how important this place was to the Intendant. Joran wasn’t the only time-bomb ticking away down here, it seemed, and suddenly she was afraid of more than just herself.

After a long, hard moment, the Intendant’s features softened just a little, and she trailed her hand along the curve of Dax’s jaw, towards where the line of spots began to fade, equal parts forgiving and possessive, no doubt as much a show for her seething public as for her own pleasure.

“Look at them,” she said, gesturing expansively at the miserable mass of downtrodden slaves. “See the hate in their eyes.”

Dax didn’t point out that the hate was well-deserved. She didn’t say anything at all; truthfully, she was still trying to keep from having to look at them at all. She felt light-headed, nauseous from the hangover and the heat, and she just couldn’t bring herself to look at their faces, to see the pain and suffering and know that there was nothing she could do about it… or, worse still, to see it and feel excited, exhilarated, to drink it down like that damned glass of water, like she knew Joran wanted to.

“They don’t understand,” the Intendant went on, oblivious to Dax’s misery, as she was so often oblivious to things she didn’t think involved her. “They don’t understand that I have no choice. They don’t understand the strain I’m under, or how lenient I am. They don’t realise how much worse it would be for them without me. Anyone else would’ve had them all executed the second that traitor Benjamin Sisko ran off with his tinkerer. Anyone else would have let them rot down here.” The pain in her voice was almost genuine, and that just made Dax feel even more ill. She really did believe this madness. “But not me. I treat them fairly. I treat them well. I do the best I can under very difficult circumstances, but they still hate me.” She tilted Dax’s chin up, forced her to meet her eyes. “Why do you think that is?”

Dax swallowed, resisting the urge to flinch. The air was thick with salt and sweat; it made her think about the taste of blood, the smell of bones and death and decay, the bitter memory of guilt and shame, so many things she couldn’t afford to think about here, and so she focused on thinking up a diplomatic reply, if only to keep from dropping to her knees.

It was a treacherously thin tightrope she was walking; the Intendant wouldn’t be so forgiving of another slip, not in the presence of her workers, and Dax knew her well enough to know that she would be looking out for any tremor in her voice. She was on her guard here, far more than she had ever been in the privacy of her bedroom, and she was hyper-alert, keenly attentive for any hint of wavering loyalty, anything to suggest that Dax might switch sides, that she prove herself another insurgent, just like Sisko had. The Intendant would kill her in an instant if she thought there was even a tiny risk of that, and all the better if she died in front of the workers.

But what to say? She didn’t have the strength to shape a convincing lie, but the truth was a bitter pill to someone like the Intendant. Was there a tactful way of explaining to a narcissistic tyrant that her slaves’ hatred was justified, without being branded a traitor?

“I think…” she said, choosing her words carefully, entirely too aware of how weak she sounded, how unconvincing even to herself. “I think they have a different view of what’s fair and what isn’t.”

“Well, they’re wrong!” the Intendant barked. Dax supposed she should be grateful that she didn’t lash out and strike her for daring to say even that much. “They don’t understand the position I’m in. They don’t know what it’s like to be in charge, to have to answer to Central Command. They don’t understand how difficult my life is.” Dax bit her tongue to keep from pointing out that, from what she could see, the Terrans understood ‘difficult lives’ perfectly well. “They can sing about their precious freedom all they want, but they have no idea. They’d all be dead if it wasn’t for me. If that idiot Garak had his way, there wouldn’t be anyone left on the station at all, and then who would hear their cries for freedom?”

Dax tried to steady herself. She felt like she was sinking in quicksand, legs turned to gelatine. “It’s hard for them to see the way things are up here when they’re down there.”

Angry, the Intendant took her by the arm, fingers digging in hard enough to leave marks, and hauled her across the sweat-choked space, right into the middle of the workforce. The air was even thicker down there, if such a thing was possible, completely saturated with the salt smell of sweat and long-dried tears, and Dax was more than ready to give up and crumple to her knees, but the Intendant was too strong, holding her upright, fingers squeezing like a vice and eyes like twin volcanoes. Her grip was a warning: embarrass me here, and I will kill you where you stand without a moment’s hesitation.

Dax reeled, sickened by this place, the heat and the stench and all the poor helpless people who were stuck here, and she had to fight with everything she had to keep from gagging. She didn’t know if it was Jadzia feeling the weight of it so intensely, or Joran driving his gleeful hate into her stomach like a battering ram, but she supposed it didn’t matter either way. Whoever was to blame, the end result was the same, and the only thing that kept her from doubling over and losing her dignity and her consciousness was the warning snarl curling the Intendant’s lip, the one that said she would not be the least bit lenient this time.

“Do you see, my dear?” she asked, voice low but pitched deliberately so that any workers stupid enough to look up from their task and watch them would hear it without much effort; there was so much more to what she was saying than the words, Dax knew, and struggled to listen. “Do you see why it’s so important that you feed that inner violence of yours? Do you see why it’s so important that you don’t let that beautiful temper of yours go to waste?” She gestured expansively, a queen taking in her kingdom. “These people need discipline. They need a strong hand, someone who won’t coddle them, someone who isn’t afraid to use force when other methods fail. They need someone who will make them see just how lucky they are.”

She shifted her body, a slight but deeply salacious movement, and repositioned Dax’s as well, so that they was facing each other, then cupped her face with pointed intimacy, a tenderness that bore no hint of what they both knew she was truly feeling. Dax felt a heat prick her skin that had nothing to do with the rancid air, and tried not to think too much about the potential audience pressing in on all sides.

“I can see the way you’re looking at them,” the Intendant went on, eyes bright even in the murky darkness. “That cloying empathy. The sickening sentimentality and the adorable if misplaced compassion. You’re such a sweet little thing, aren’t you? So full of fool-hearted hope that there’s a better world for all these pathetic little souls somewhere out in the great beyond…” She sighed, exaggeratedly loud. “But that world doesn’t exist, sweetness, and it’s cruel to feed their delusions. Don’t you see that? Don’t you see how spiteful it is to let them believe in something that can never be?”

She exhaled again, so heavy that Dax almost believed she meant it. “I don’t…” she managed, but didn’t know what else to say.

“Maybe I’m cruel, too,” the Intendant went on, ignoring her. “They certainly think I am. But at least I don’t feed them with false hope. At least I don’t ply them with cock-eyed optimism for some kind of impossible utopian future. At least I don’t let them believe in something that will never happen. It’s for their own good. Surely you can see that. Surely you, of all people, can understand…”

She really did want her to, Dax realised. Not just for the sake of the workers, but for her own validation; she wasn’t just spouting Alliance propaganda, trying to crush any hope of rebellion in a dissenting workforce. She was practically begging, in her own deluded way, for Dax to understand, to hear and agree with her. She really, truly, and honestly believed in what she was saying, that hopelessness was the only merciful option, that despair and depredation were the only humane options.

Dax’s head throbbed all over again, but this time it had nothing to do with bloodwine. Even Joran didn’t know what to make of that, how to interpret the self-delusion the Intendant was pouring so liberally over this soulless place. Even he didn’t know whether to be delighted at the sight of so much suffering, or simply confused by the Intendant’s desperate flailing for self-justification.

She shook her head, trying and failing to clear it a little, and spat out the taste of acid and blood. “False hope is better than no hope,” she rasped, hoarse but spurred on by conviction. “Anything is better than no hope.”

The words spilled off her tongue naturally, almost automatic, as though she’d been saying them all her life, and it was only after they were out, only once she found herself staring back into the firestorm fury of the Intendant’s eyes that she realised she had been. She had been saying it all her life, because she had felt it all her life. Well, Jadzia had, anyway, always driven on by a fatalistic sense of optimism, the absurd hope that she would get what she wanted simply because she deserved it, because it was right, because she had worked hard.

It was hope that had sent her back to the Symbiosis Commission, begging for a second chance even after she was washed out. It was hope that had spurred her on to request the Dax symbiont even after everything Curzon had done to torture her. It was hope that had sent her to Deep Space Nine, alight with the thought of being reunited with an old friend in a new place. All her life, that shy little girl was driven by hope, inspired to do things she’d never imagined herself capable of, even things that history had taught her nobody could do. Hope. Her very existence had been defined by it.

She closed her eyes, remembering the day she learned they’d washed her out of the initiate program, that awful moment where the ground collapsed beneath her feet and the world closed in around her, that devastating moment where she couldn’t breathe or think or do anything, where she was so sure she was dying because she could not process what she was feeling. Her entire existence was reduced to nothing in that one instant, a whole lifetime of excellence and achievement burned down to ash and thrown into the wind, discarded like so much wasted breath.

The memory struck like a blow, powerful enough to block out all the unpleasantness of this place, to drive her back inside herself. She remembered the horror, the disbelief, and the indescribable terror that had followed. She’d never thought to make a backup plan, never bothered to think of an alternative path for her life. She had been through Starfleet Academy, had excelled in four different fields of science, had worked herself down to the bone, but in that instant she forgot all of that. All she could think of was that it wasn’t enough. She had done everything they’d asked of her, and more besides, and in the end none of it had mattered at all. In the end, everything she’d done, everything she’d achieved had all come down to that one awful word. No.

It had almost been the end of her. For one long moment of sick disbelief, the rejection had almost been too much. She’d been so close to crawling back home, hiding under her childhood bed and never coming out again. All that hard work, all those accomplishments, and for that one long moment she was reduced to a child, irrational and petulant, and she had truly felt like everything she’d done amounted to nothing, that all those premiere distinctions added up to zero, that she had wasted her whole life. All the logic and reasoning she’d displayed throughout her academic career was gone too, up in smoke, leaving behind nothing but smouldering ash and four useless degrees.

It wasn’t until later, with clarity and hindsight, that she realised just how much those degrees were worth, that each one was an achievement of its own, that even without a symbiont she had still managed to build something out of herself, that she had done something worthwhile… and that maybe she was worthwhile too.

So she reapplied. She clung to her achievements, to her future, to everything she had made for herself, everything that even Curzon Dax couldn’t take away, all the things she’d done and accomplished and learned, everything she was and everything she’d made all by herself. She wrapped them around herself, shaped them into a suit of armour, protected herself against Curzon and all the ways he’d made her feel small and weak and worthless. She wasn’t worthless, and she wouldn’t let an old man wash her out just because he was washed-up himself. She had worked too hard for that, and she deserved more. If nothing else, she deserved his respect. She had earned that much.

That was really all she’d wanted when she reapplied. She knew better than to expect that they would let her back into the program, but it was the hope of seeing Curzon’s surly face light up in a moment of pride that spurred her on, drove her to do what nobody else had ever done, made her brave and strong and irresistible. All she’d really wanted was for Curzon to look at her and realise that he’d made a mistake… but what she got was so much more.

She got back in, and she got her symbiont. She got Dax. She got everything she’d ever wanted, everything that had seemed so impossible after that first horrible “no”. And it really should have been impossible. It was unprecedented and implausible, and if the Intendant had been there with her, she would have said it was pointless, that Jadzia was holding out for something that would never happen, that it was false hope. She would insist that Jadzia was wasting her time and energy on pipe dreams and silly childish ambitions; she would have waved all those premiere distinctions in her face and told her to get a real job. And little Jadzia, young and shy and filled to overflowing with self-doubt and self-loathing, would have listened to her.

Not any more, though. Not now.

In that moment, she felt almost whole. As she looked around at all those desperate lost souls, feeling their pain and drowning in the heat and the salt, sweat and tears and blood, slavery and oppression and hope, as she looked around and took it all in, she felt connected. Not to Curzon or Joran, or any of them, but to Jadzia. To herself. No roguish old men or sociopathic monsters, no legislators or pilots or engineers. Just her, Jadzia Dax, and everything she was and everything she would be. For the first time in weeks, she remembered what it was to feel like herself.

The Intendant, of course, was not quite so quixotic. “How can you say that?” she demanded; one look at her face told Dax that the question was a serious one, that she genuinely couldn’t fathom the concept. “How can you claim that it’s better for these pathetic creatures to wish for things they’ll never have?”

“Because we have to,” Dax whispered; though her voice was growing weaker and weaker, her spirit felt stronger with every word. “We all have to believe in something. We have to hope for something. We have to… we have to have faith. It’s what makes us who we are. Even when we have nothing…”

Suddenly, all she could think of was Kira. Kira, with her Prophets and her faith and the way she looked at Dax in the runabout, the way that faith had radiated out from her, bright and blinding as a supernova. Kira, her Kira, her Nerys, who defined faith and hope better than anyone Dax had ever met, who defied the odds in ways that she couldn’t fathom, even after eight lifetimes. Kira, and she was struck with all the force of a blow by how different they were, her Nerys and this cold-hearted Intendant, this tyrant who would tear the hope from the hopeless, strip them of everything that Nerys held so precious.

The Intendant was glaring at her, eyes burning so much more fiercely than the unbearable air, waiting for Dax to finish her thought, but Dax couldn’t bring herself to even look at her. How could she explain? How could she make her understand? She wasn’t Nerys, and she hadn’t lived the life Nerys had lived. She was everything Nerys hated, everything that was so terrible about the Cardassian occupation. The Intendant had never been forced to live under an oppressive regime; she was the oppressive regime, and she would never understand what it was to live on the other side.

“Anything is better than nothing,” Dax finished at last, futile and ineffective.

The Intendant snarled, utterly outraged, looking for all the world like Dax had shot a phaser at her back, like she had stripped her down and humiliated her in front of her precious subjects. She was worse than dangerous now, worse than angry, and Dax felt a flood of vindication course through her as she stared her down, suddenly oblivious to the heat and the sweat and everything else.

She was Jadzia Dax. She was Jadzia Dax, and she had earned the right to be here. She, with her false hope and her cock-eyed optimism, had earned the right to be here, to look the Intendant in the eye and cling to the things she believed in, the things that Nerys believed in. The Intendant could not take that away from them any more than she could take the cries for freedom and respect away from the helpless Terrans slaving away in front of them — helpless, yes, but not hopeless. Not hopeless. Never, ever hopeless.

Sensing that she was losing ground, the Intendant squeezed her arm, hard enough to hurt. “Then tell them,” she hissed, furious that Dax would dare to defy her in such a public space, that she would dare to voice anything at all but absolute agreement. “If that’s what you think, why don’t you tell it to them? Tell those pathetic creatures that your way is better than mine. Tell them it’s better to work themselves bloody for something they’ll never have than for the good of the Alliance. Tell them it’s better to die choking on false hope and abandoned faith than knowing they did their duty. Tell them how much their hope is worth, and we’ll see if they thank you for it.”

Dax clenched her teeth. “Gladly.”

The Intendant smiled dark and dangerous. Then, without warning, she twisted Dax’s arm until she cried out, wrenching her whole body around until she stood in front of her, then pushed her down onto her knees.

Her face was unrecognisable now, and it certainly wasn’t Kira’s, the fire in her eyes blocking out almost everything else in this dark place. In some oddly peaceful corner of her mind, Dax supposed she should have known this was coming, should have seen it from the very beginning, and in truth a part of her probably had. She was supposed to be on her best behaviour out here, on display like the perfect little pet, taught to do tricks at the Intendant’s command. She was a puppet, here to validate the brutality that was going on, and she had known that going in. For all her preoccupation with finding herself, she had known the Intendant’s intentions perfectly well.

Maybe all of this was why the Intendant wanted to feed her temper. Maybe that was why she felt such a kinship with the part of Dax that was Joran. She wanted someone who would thrive on the terrible things that were happening here, someone who would bask in the helplessness of these downtrodden people and then smile up at their benevolent dictator, face aglow with praise and awe. She wanted someone to mock the silly Terrans for wanting their freedom and lick the Intendant’s boots for denying it. She wanted someone to help quash insurgent thoughts, not encourage them.

But that wasn’t Jadzia, and right now it wasn’t Dax either. Let Joran come to life behind closed doors. Let him slick Dax’s palms with blood, or bruise her knuckles, or haunt her dreams, or get off on power and pain. Let him do whatever the hell he wanted when nobody else was involved, when it was just him and her. Let him have his moment in private, where it was safe. But not here, and not now. Here and now, she had to be Jadzia.

Maybe the Intendant had underestimated her, thinking that she would give in to the anger inside. Maybe she’d thought that Joran was stronger, or that Jadzia was weaker. Maybe. But then, maybe she had known exactly what would happen when they got here. Maybe she’d wanted to make Dax into an example after all, to prove to her cursed Terrans once and for all that nobody was immune to the iron rule of this place. For all Dax knew, she’d been brought down here as a sacrifice, a paragon of all the reasons why they should give up their futile fight for freedom. Who better to string up as a martyr, she supposed, than the Intendant’s current bed-warmer?

“Tell them,” the Intendant said again.

She pressed her knuckles against the back of Dax’s neck. It hurt a little, but the pain gave her strength; for the first time, Dax wondered if perhaps she should be grateful to Joran for that. She opened her mouth, not knowing what to say, only knowing that she had to say something, that she needed to placate the Intendant, that honesty and hope were all she had left and that neither of those things would satisfy her.

Before she had a chance to say anything, though, the Intendant seemed to be struck by a fresh thought. She stepped around Dax’s body, leaving her on her knees, bowed like a supplicant, no better than the Terrans milling around, or even the overseers who stood above cracking their metaphorical whips, keeping precious order with words borrowed from the Intendant’s iron tongue. This was all deliberate, she thought with no small amount of bitterness; though she’d said she had no intention of publicly humiliating her, that it would serve no purpose, Dax could tell that she wasn’t kneeling here by some happy accident. There was a point to be made here, and it would be.

Leaving her there on her knees, the Intendant moved through the crowd, weaving between dirt-drenched bodies like an empress, smiling with false kindness as the Terrans halted their work and turned to watch.

The fear on their faces was sickening; Dax again forced down the urge to heave, watching with horrified breathlessness as the Intendant grabbed one of them, seemingly at random, taking her roughly by the arm and dragged her out in front of her fellow slaves. Her face was obscured by the tangles of her hair, eyes downcast, so it wasn’t until the Intendant threw her down at her feet that Dax got a good look at the dirt-smeared features, and the recognition caught in her throat like a scream.

“…Keiko?”

Chapter Text

“Do I know you?”

Dax cursed her reflexes. She could feel the Intendant towering over her, waiting for an explanation, and she could see the haunted spectre of the woman staring blankly up at her, scared and confused, so sure that this was some kind of trick, a cruel joke being played on the unfortunate Terran. She thought she was here to learn a lesson, Dax realised. She thought that she’d been dragged out in front of her fellow slaves as an example, a warning. Don’t think we don’t know you, and everything you do. We know who you are. We know everything about you. She thought that Dax was toying with her, mocking her, and Dax’s horrified guilt surged up even more forcefully.

She tried to steady herself, to at least try to look apologetic. “No,” she said, very carefully. “No. I…” She shook her head, trying to clear it. “You reminded me of someone, that’s all.”

But that wasn’t true, and the harder she looked into the dirt-smudged face, the more striking the likeness.

Without a doubt, the woman huddled before her was Keiko O’Brien. She was shaking and terrified, still reeling from the Intendant’s rough treatment and the assumption that something unspeakable was about to happen to her, but since Dax had called her name she was too busy staring up at her to think of hiding her face. Smudged with dirt, lined with the marks of exhaustion and neglect, eyes that were usually so bright turned dull and lifeless under the rigours of this place. She wore the brand of Terok Nor, far deeper than the lines on her face, but she was who she was.

Everyone on Deep Space Nine knew Keiko O’Brien, the strong-minded botanical genius who (until very recently) had single-handedly run a school for the station’s children. Dax herself liked Keiko well enough; they weren’t exactly firm friends, but they spent more than their share of time together through the mutual connection of Chief O’Brien and their shared appreciation for alien plant life, and Dax greatly admired Keiko’s diligence and dedication to the things that mattered to her. Few on the station didn’t know about her early clashes with Kai Winn of Bajor on the subject of formal education, and Dax remembered feeling a new sense of admiration for her in the wake of that. She had seen her in a completely new light then, as many people had, and tried to always make time for at least a passing ‘hello’ and an occasional cup of tea.

The vibrant spirit that she had come to associate with that Keiko was notably and painfully absent in this one, though, and Dax ached to think of what Chief O’Brien would think if he knew there was a version of his wife somewhere out there who looked like this, who toiled and laboured away as a slave, worked to within an inch of her life, and with even that final inch under constant threat. A lump rose in her throat, but this time it had nothing to do with the heat or the hangover; she didn’t feel sick, she just felt sad. For the Keiko O’Brien she knew so well, and for the potential that must have died a long time ago in this broken-down reflection someone so strong.

Other than her face, there was nothing at all to suggest they were the same person. It wasn’t like Jadzia, a hardened echo of Dax, rough and ready but still carrying that same dry wit, that same sense of identity; for every little thing she didn’t recognise when she looked at Jadzia, there were a dozen more that she did, and she found it simultaneously unnerving and comforting. Even with everything they were both going through — and even that in itself was so similar and yet so different — they were still like-minded souls. They were still Dax, both of them.

But then, it wasn’t like the Intendant either, a brutal and serrated incarnation of Kira Nerys, a ruthless tyrant with a taste for narcissism and little patience for anyone else, so unlike the passionate and dedicated young woman that Dax knew so well. Only the tiniest glimmering fragments of Dax’s Kira remained in her, in the way she smiled or the fire in her eyes, rudimentary little things used to devastating effect in completely different ways. The Intendant was nothing like Kira Nerys, and she never would be.

Keiko was nothing like either of them. She wasn’t an echo of the Keiko that Dax knew, but she wasn’t so violently different as the Intendant either. In the barely-existent light of this place, she was sure she could see the ghosts of everything this Keiko might have become, everything that Keiko O’Brien was. She could have been a botanist, could have been a teacher, could have been a wife or a mother or all of those things together. She could have become that Keiko if she’d just been dealt a better life. So much lost and gone and wasted… no, not wasted, destroyed. By the Alliance, and by the Intendant.

It broke Dax’s heart to see it, but what could she do? The Intendant would kill them both without a second thought if she suspected foul play. All she could do was meet Keiko’s eyes, those dark and frightened eyes that were so unlike the vibrant schoolteacher Dax knew, and hope that she could see just a little of what she was feeling, just a little of the pain and empathy and understanding. I know you, she thought. I know you, and I know what you could be.

If Keiko did see any of that, though, it didn’t register on her face. She just whispered, “You knew my name,” like she couldn’t believe anyone would.

Dax swallowed. “I…”

“You called me ‘Keiko’.” It was a simple observation, but even as she said it, she flinched and bowed her head, recoiling as though anticipating a blow.

“Coincidence,” Dax insisted quickly, hating the bitterness of the lie, and hating herself all the more for being stupid enough to make it necessary; the Intendant was right there, so what else could she say? “You look like a friend of mine… well, the wife of a friend of mine. She’s a botanist and a teacher, and I just…” The Intendant gave an irate cough, and Dax cut herself off before she had the chance to lose what minimal control she still had over her rising temper. “It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s right,” the Intendant said, leaping on the opportunity with her usual swiftness. “You don’t matter.”

“I didn’t say that,” Dax snapped back. No longer caring about the trouble it might cause, she took Keiko’s hands in her own, as gently as she dared. “I’m sorry if I upset you.”

Keiko looked like she might pass out. The Intendant, meanwhile, burst out laughing. She crouched effortlessly between them, grazing the edges of her fingertips along Keiko’s jaw, taunting and teasing just like she did with Dax, but biding her time until the slave looked up of her own volition, meeting her eyes under her own power. Then, incensed by the act of defiance, she struck a smart blow across the side of her face.

“What was that for?” Dax blurted out before she could stop herself.

The Intendant ignored her. She brought her hand back down, steadying her balance, and waited for Keiko to recover herself. Only when she’d stopped trembling did the Intendant grace her with speech, and when she did, Dax found herself desperately wishing that she hadn’t.

“I’m afraid she’s not sorry at all, my dear,” she murmured, as though Dax was somehow the villain of this piece. “Not for this, or for anything else. She’s not the least bit sorry.”

“Don’t,” Dax said, voice sharp and shrill, acutely aware of the fact that they were gathering an audience. “Don’t say that.”

“Why?” the Intendant demanded. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” She tugged at Keiko’s hair, forcing her to look up at Dax, and Dax felt a spasm of pain clench in her chest at the despair she saw in her eyes, those patient teacher’s eyes, those fascinated botanist’s eyes. “Tell her, Jadzia. Tell her how much you enjoy the Terrans’ false hope.”

Dax fought back tears; if she let herself cry now, it would be the end of her. Worse, it would probably be the end of Keiko too, and Dax couldn’t bear the thought of carrying that on her conscience. She had to stay strong. She had to stay at least strong enough for one of them to survive this, even if it wasn’t her. She had to find some tiny shred of inner strength somewhere in the roiling of her guts and the pounding of her head, the heat and the sweat and the blood and the tears. She had to find something.

“I didn’t say that,” she insisted, voice weak but turned to steel when she met the malice in the Intendant’s eyes. “I said that everyone should have hope. I said… I meant…”

Keiko blinked, confused and frightened, clearly sensing that she was in the middle of something that wasn’t really about her at all, deeply grateful but also not entirely sure how she was expected to behave. Obviously she was expected to side with the Intendant — that went without saying — but she clearly had no idea what to do beyond that. Survive, Dax thought, and willed her to hear. That’s all you have to do. Just survive.

“And what, exactly, did you mean?” the Intendant pressed, no doubt knowing all too well what Dax was thinking, and how suicidal it would be to say it out loud.

“Hope,” Dax forced out again, clinging to the concept with everything she had in her. Jadzia had never been particularly erudite, but Lela and Curzon certainly were, and she longed for their influence now. “You should always have hope. It doesn’t matter if it’s… it doesn’t matter if you…” She tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry. “It doesn’t matter…”

Keiko’s eyes had widened, fear touched by sorrow, and Dax hated the position she’d been thrown into, the need to shatter this poor woman’s spirit even more than it already was or risk inciting the wrath of the dictator crouched between them, just itching for an excuse to drop the noose.

“You see?” The Intendant was beaming, which was worrying enough even in a comfortable scenario. “Do you see how cruel she is? Having the gall to tell you that you don’t matter. And not just once, but twice! Deny it again, my dear. I dare you to.”

“Stop that.” She realised she was pleading, but she couldn’t worry about that now. She could feel the noose around her neck, tightening; if she didn’t find a way to rip it off soon, it would cut off her breathing entirely. “Stop twisting my words. Stop making this into something it’s not. I just said…”

“Yes, yes. ‘Hope’. Do you really expect this lovely creature to think that’s a comfort?” She turned back to Keiko. “You see? She dangles these useless ideals in front of you like they can save you, when we all know perfectly well that she’s the one holding your life in her hand.”

A terrible weight dropped into the pit of Dax’s stomach. “What?” she managed.

“Oh yes,” the Intendant went on, venom dripping from every syllable; though she was speaking to Keiko, Dax knew the words were entirely for her benefit. “She could end your life just by flashing a smile, if she wanted to. She’d just have to say the word, and I would have you cut down right here and now, in front of all your little Terran friends. Not that I’d want to, of course. I’m on your side, as you know. But I’m afraid I’m so taken with her, I’d give her anything she asked for. Even the life of one of my most cherished workers.”

That, of course, wasn’t the least bit true; the Intendant probably didn’t even know Keiko’s name, much less ‘cherish’ her work. But then, of course, that was not the point and no-one among them was deluded enough to believe it was.

“Intendant—”

“She knows that,” the Intendant went on, eyes locked on Keiko. “She knows that a single word could see you dead. She knows that the only real power here is hers. She knows that she’s the one you should be begging… and yet, she still has the callousness, the gall, to stand before you, and taunt you with ‘hope’.”

“Intendant…” Dax gritted again.

The Intendant did look at her, then, but it was only for a fraction of a second, just enough to cut her the most fleeting of glances. “Now, now, my dear, don’t be so modest. If you’re going to fill this wretched young creature’s head with all that nonsense, don’t you think she has the right to know your position? Don’t you think she has the right to know that her hope is only worth as much as you say it is? If you’re going to dangle your precious delusions in front of her, she has the right to know that you can take them away just as easily.”

“Intendant, I—”

But the Intendant had already turned back to Keiko, all sweetness and false compassion. “You see? I may be ruthless, but I’m not cruel. I don’t let you Terrans forget your place, or how fragile it is. I don’t pretend to be your friend, holding out hope with one hand and sharpening my knife with the other. Call me a tyrant if you like, but at least I respect your kind enough to be honest with you. You’re born slaves, and you will die as slaves.” She turned back to Dax at last, and the fire in her eyes was truly terrible; if she wasn’t so furious, Dax would almost be scared. “Giving hope to a Terran is like offering them the freedom to take their own life instead of taking it for them. What difference does it make when they’re just as dead in the end?”

“It makes a difference,” Dax snarled, rabid. “It makes all the difference.”

Keiko bowed her head, eyes back on the dirt-smeared floor, the obedient little slave. Dax shivered to watch her, to see how easily she fell into her role in the Intendant’s little drama, how well she seemed to know her place in this twisted shadow-play; did she even remember that the Intendant had struck her barely a moment ago just for daring to look at her? Couldn’t she see in Dax’s face how completely it was breaking her heart just to be here at all?

Of course she couldn’t. She wouldn’t see anything the Intendant didn’t want her to see. In her eyes, Dax was exactly what she was shown to be, the cold-hearted lackey, the malicious one who wanted to see the Terrans humiliated, the cruel visitor who had come here only to mock them and play with them. She was, naturally, the perfect counterpoint to the Intendant, the unwitting overseer of this hellhole, the benevolent dictator who would never stoop to such dishonesty, who just wanted the Terrans to do their jobs and would leave them peacefully to themselves if they would only show her the same respect.

The worst part was, it seemed to work. Whatever hatred Keiko might have been justified in feeling towards the Intendant was well-hidden indeed, no doubt by necessity. Dax didn’t want to know what happened to Terrans who dared to show disrespect to her face, and she certainly couldn’t blame Keiko for not wanting to experience it for herself. Still, it stung to see the obedience in her eyes, empty and hollow as she chanced another glance up at the Intendant’s cool features.

After a long moment, she finally ventured to say something, and when she did her voice was rough with unvoiced emotion and rusty with lack of use. Dax supposed, she didn’t get many many opportunities to speak her mind, or to speak at all. She certainly wasn’t speaking her mind here, though; she sounded more like a pre-written character in a holo-novel, blurting out whatever the program dictated, than a living and breathing creature.

“You’re very merciful, Intendant,” she said dutifully. “Thank you.”

Dax could barely control her temper. She’d expected to struggle at controlling Joran when she got here, but she couldn’t possibly have imagined a scenario like this, a situation where she wanted so desperately to indulge him, to let his violence out in full force, to tear the Intendant to pieces right there in front of her damned slaves. She could scarcely even see through the haze of red that fogged her field of vision, all of his anger and hatred and all of her righteousness clashing together inside of her.

For the first time, all that anger felt completely justified. For the first time, she felt vindicated in being so angry, validated in wanting to do such terrible things. The Intendant was doing terrible things too, wasn’t she? Abusing her workforce until they could hardly stand, then hauling Dax out in front of them like some kind of pariah, a puppet to twist and jerk about, demonising her so that her subjects would see their tyrant in a more benevolent light, twisting her into something she could pretend was worse than herself.

It was ingenious, really. But Dax was too furious to care about how damn clever she was. “Intendant—”

“Now, now…” She was positively beaming at how well this was turning out for her, and Dax supposed she couldn’t blame her for that arrogant self-satisfaction; unwitting and stupid as she was, she had played the perfect pawn, if not in the way she’d anticipated. “It’s bad enough that you feel compelled to torment this poor little creature, don’t you think? Let’s not embarrass her any further by making a scene.”

“You don’t—”

“You’re quite welcome, my dear,” the Intendant said, turning her smile on Keiko, then rounding back on Dax. “Well, my sweet Jadzia? Does this charming young woman have your permission to return to her labours? Or would you like to toy with her some more? I’m sure we could arrange some—”

“Stop it.” Dax gritted her teeth, fighting back the urge to bite. “I don’t have any authority here. You know that. Stop using me in your sick games.”

The Intendant gaped at her with mock horror. “Do you see that?” she asked Keiko, dramatically tragic. “Do you see the way she reduces your life to a game?”

She shook her head, as though wounded on her workers’ behalf. The urge to assault her was growing more potent by the second, and the only reason Dax was able to resist it was because she knew that the Intendant would punish Keiko for it if she did. “I didn’t—”

“You see?” The Intendant raised her voice a little, as though in passion, though Dax knew better than to buy into that. More likely, she was just trying to get a bigger audience. “She humiliates you, denigrates you, reduces your life to games and trifles, peddles the luxury of hope when she knows perfectly well it won’t do you any good. She belittles everything you do, everything you are.” She spread her arms out to take in the growing audience of Terran workers, accusing them all. “All of this she does right before your eyes, but I’m still the one you call ‘tyrant’. I’m still the one you vilify. I’m the one you rise up to rebel against, when all I want is to protect you from people like her. Tell me, my dear Terran… my dear Keiko… do you think that’s fair?”

Keiko bowed her head. “No, Intendant.”

It was only when she spat blood that Dax realised she’d been biting her lip again. It was pointless, of course; there wasn’t enough blood in her whole body to stem the tides of hatred this time. “Stop it!” she cried again. “Stop turning me into your scapegoat! Stop using me to hurt her! Stop!”

“Scapegoat?” the Intendant echoed. “What a crude term. I’m merely speaking the truth, my dear. You know as well as I do that I would do anything for you.”

“Then stop,” Dax repeated, as desperate as she was angry. “Stop this now.”

She closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe evenly, to keep her head clear and chase away the red fog of rage until they were safely back in the Intendant’s quarters. To hell with Jadzia and her benzocyatizine, she thought. To hell with everything. As soon as they were safely alone, with no innocents standing by to take the punishment for Dax’s mis-steps, she would let herself lose it. This time, whatever Joran wanted, Jadzia would gladly take.

As she tried to calm herself down, she felt a nervous tug on her shirt. She opened her eyes, and it took them a moment to focus on Keiko’s eyes, wide and uncomfortable. “Can I go back to work now?” she asked, plaintive and pitiful.

The Intendant’s hand was a dead weight on her shoulder. “Well?” she pressed, not giving Dax so much as a moment to respond to the question. “What do you say, my dear?”

“I say she’s your worker. The authority’s yours, not mine. You know that already. You know—”

“Yes, yes,” the Intendant agreed, all too readily. “But she asked you.”

Dax sighed. Of course she did. No doubt taking her cues from the Intendant, frightened and anticipating punishment if she didn’t behave a certain way. Did she realise, Dax wondered, that she wasn’t the one being toyed with at all? Did she realise that this was all for Dax’s benefit, that she was the game being played, that hers was the life-or-death reaction the Intendant was looking for? Probably not, and even if she did, it would probably make no difference; disobedience met death, regardless of the reason.

“Fine,” Dax said at last, surrendering with a heavy heart; she couldn’t fight the Intendant here, of course, so the best she could do was get out of here as quickly as possible, for all their sakes. “Go back to work, then, if that’s what you want. Go back to work and…” She looked down, feeling that she owed it to Keiko to at least meet her eyes as she condemned her to another lifetime of this hell. “Go,” she finished weakly, feeling the fight go out of her as she saw that precious hope die. “Just go.”

Keiko didn’t need telling twice; she waited just long enough for the Intendant to nod her acquiescence, then scurried away as quickly as her overworked legs would carry her. Dax watched, silent and sorrowful as she vanished into the milling throng of her fellow Terrans, then closed her eyes again as one of the Cardassian overseers set to work breaking up the gathering crowd.

The Intendant held her in place for a few minutes after that, keeping her down on her knees in front of the workers, letting them know that even her chosen favourite wasn’t above showing the proper respect. She waited, watching as they slowly but surely returned to their labours, making sure that there was no hint of insurgent muttering among them. Dax doubted she would hear any of the praise she so often craved, but she seemed satisfied enough that there was no open talk of dissent. Acceptance, Dax supposed, was at least a better option than outright rebellion.

When she was content, she hauled Dax to her feet, fingers digging into her arms. Dax let herself go limp, allowing the Intendant to drag her away, as unresisting as any of the Terran slaves who were so afraid for their lives. There wasn’t really that much difference between them, after all; Dax was afraid for their lives too.

So she waited, biding her time as the Intendant marched her through the station, practically pulling her along, as though worried that Dax would turn and run away if she let her go. She made use of all the things she’d picked up from Joran, unexpected tips and tricks that she hadn’t even realised she’d learned, sweet little distractions to hold the anger at bay until she could use it to its full effect. Little things, like digging her nails into the palm of her hand because she couldn’t risk pulling out the knife, biting on her lip where it was already split and sore to double the pain, chewing on the inside of her cheek until her whole mouth was pulsing in a dull throb, anything and everything she could think of to hone and polish the scream of rage, keeping it quiet but simmering, biding its time and biding her own.

As soon as they were back in her quarters, the Intendant threw her up against the nearest bulkhead. Dax smiled as her head snapped back, hard enough to make her teeth rattle.

“If you ever try to undermine me in front of my workers again…”

Without the least effort, Dax shrugged out of her hold, reversing their positions in an instant. The shock and disbelief on the Intendant’s face was almost more satisfying than the crack as her bony shoulders hit the solid surface.

“The hell with that,” she retaliated, driving her forearm against her throat, hard enough to cut off her breathing. This time, when her body flushed with heat, she didn’t even bother to feel guilty. “If you ever try to manipulate me like that again, your workers will be the least of your worries.”

The Intendant struggled, but Dax had the superior strength and height. Besides, she suspected the Intendant was not used to people standing up to her, much less actually using physical force. Well, outside of the bedroom, anyway, and certainly not without her express permission; she was used to playing games, toying with the idea of violence rather than actually experiencing what it could do, and that put Dax in a very powerful position. She was a fighter anyway, and right now she was a hurricane of pent-up anger and hatred and brutality. Pampered and spoiled and used to submission, the Intendant didn’t know what hit her.

Besides, she thought with a bitterness that only fuelled her rage, no doubt, anyone with the guts to even think of assaulting her like this had found themselves slaughtered before they got one foot in the door.

Maybe that was the fate that would meet her when this was done. There was no doubt in her mind that the Intendant would conveniently forget all of her so-called ‘affection’ the moment they were finished here, and it wouldn’t surprise her in the least if she found herself publicly flogged and executed after all. She thought briefly of Jadzia, stuck waiting in the Badlands, a helpless victim of her own inner Joran, and for a moment she felt guilty again. If she did die here, then that Dax was as good as dead too. Just another bloodstain on her hands. She sighed, then shrugged it off.

Was it really such a terrible price for ending this? Wasn’t there a part of Jadzia who deserved her fate just as surely as the Intendant deserved this? Maybe she should have thought about this sort of thing when she threw away everything that the Trill held sacred for some stupid love affair. Maybe she should have thought about the consequences of her actions when she’d chosen exile over her responsibility to the symbiont. It was all too easy to convince herself of that, blinded as she was by Joran’s violence. Right then, she didn’t care about Jadzia. She didn’t care about isoboramine or benzocyatizine or hallucinations; she didn’t care about anything. Right now, all she cared about was watching the Intendant writhe and choke.

For once, she didn’t fight it. She didn’t want to fight it. That hate would keep her alive through this; it would give her the strength to do what needed to be done, to stand up to the Intendant and make her position clear, to drive the point right through her heart if that was what it took. She didn’t just hear Joran’s voice now; for the first time, she wanted to hear it. She wanted that hatred, wanted to think and feel and do terrible things, wanted to thrive on her own violent impulses. She wanted to hurt the Intendant more than she had ever wanted to hurt anyone in all her life, to inflict on her all the pain she had inflicted on her Terran slaves. She wanted to make her pay for using her, for turning her into a scapegoat, a mirror of evil to make her seem better, wanted to turn all that injustice back on her until she choked on it.

It was justice, she told herself. It was vindication, recompense for all the Terrans who had died under her watch, all the unwitting mercenaries who had been strung up as martyrs and pariahs to make their benevolent dictator seem more merciful. So what if she was listening to Joran for once? She what if she was indulging all his twisted thoughts and dark desires? Wasn’t it worth it for a righteous cause? Wasn’t she just using the gifts the Dax symbiont had given her?

But then, wasn’t it a little selfish too? She wanted to avenge the Terrans and their plight, yes, but was that really what this was about? Did she want to make the Intendant pay for frightening Keiko O’Brien, or did she want to make her pay for abusing Dax in front of her? Was it Keiko’s suffering that had cut so deep, or her own?

The truth was, what she really wanted, more than anything else, was to make the Intendant suffer the way she herself had suffered when she’d looked down at those haunted familiar eyes, eyes that she knew nearly as well as she knew Kira’s, to watch as they filled with tears and terror and stand by helpless as the Intendant used her to crush the hopes and dreams that had once lit up behind them. She wanted to abuse the Intendant as she’d abused her. The Intendant had thrown her down as a sacrifice, a paragon of all the awful things that she tried so hard to pretend were not her doing, and Dax wanted nothing more than to turn those things back on her now, drive them into her until she was the one begging for mercy.

Maybe the Intendant was right, she thought. Maybe this place was so twisted and terrible that the only way to survive in it was to become twisted and terrible as well.

The Intendant was smiling; Dax could feel the warmth radiating from her, the fervour of her own anger coupled with a very different kind of heat as Dax pressed up against her, hips against hips and lips against lips, violence seeping through the breath between them. It was just like her, Dax thought angrily, to find pleasure even in this. Even now, she was prideful and arrogant enough to think she was in control, to see Dax’s assault as some kind of perverse game. The thought ignited a similar heat in her belly too, and she responded by shoving the Intendant even harder against the bulkhead, forearm pressing hard enough to bruise and easing up only when the Intendant clawed at her arm.

“Well?” she managed when Dax gave her enough air to speak. “Do you actually intend to follow through on those adorable little threats of yours, or is this all just foreplay?” She bared her teeth, catching Dax’s lower lip, and Dax let her because the sting in the open cuts fuelled her fury. “I should probably warn you, I’m not feeling very playful right now.” She hissed as Dax slammed her back against the wall, then coughed raggedly. I don’t sleep with insurgents.”

“Don’t,” Dax snarled, and resumed her efforts to crush her larynx. “Don’t you dare put me in a position like that and then call me ‘insurgent’ just because I don’t dance to your tune. Don’t you dare treat me like one of your little Cardassian puppets. Don’t you dare!”

The Intendant whistled, or tried to, but Dax was cutting off too much of her breath to muster the sound; despite her feints at ambivalence and disdain, she was clearly impressed, tangibly aroused by Dax’s force and aggression, and perhaps a little by her blithe self-destructive courage. Maybe their little trip to Ore Processing hadn’t turned out the way she’d expected, but it had certainly brought out more of Joran than either of them could have anticipated, and Dax didn’t need Lela’s talents for reading people to know that the Intendant was thrown and thrilled in equal measure.

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” she shot back, and Dax could tell that the tremor in her voice had nothing to do with the brutal pressure against her windpipe. “Why, who are you to say anything at all? This is my station, in case you’ve forgotten, and you’re only here at all because I gave you permission to be.” That was true, but Dax did not acknowledge it. “From where I’m standing, my dear, I think I should be the one telling you what you can and cannot dare.”

Dax gave an animalistic growl and slammed her against the bulkhead once more. The Intendant was right, at least for the most part; Terok Nor belonged to her, and the fact was that if she’d simply said the word, Dax would have been dead long before they reached this point. She was here at her mercy, just like Keiko and the other Terrans, probably like everyone else who had ever set foot on the station. She was just as much a slave as any damned worker, and realising that just made her all the more furious.

Curzon would never have let himself get cornered like this; he would have beaten the Intendant to a pulp the moment she’d issued her first veiled threat. Torias, ever the charmer, would have sweet-talked his way out of it, smiled and flattered her until she really had been smitten with him. Audrid would have tried a tactful approach at first, then cut her losses and run. Emony and Lela would never have agreed to come here in the first place. Only Tobin would have let it get to this point without a fight; only he would have been as slow and stupid as Jadzia was, the two of them as hopeless as each other, socially inept scientists struggling in a world that wanted to abuse them. But then, Tobin didn’t have Joran inside him, or Curzon or Emony, or the others. He just had Lela, and even she was no match for that painful shyness of his, so at least he had the excuse of only having one past life to support him.

Jadzia didn’t have that excuse. She had Tobin and Lela, she had Curzon and Emony and Audrid and Torias. She had all six of them, plus Jadzia to make seven… and, of course, the unwanted eighth.

Joran, with all his anger, all his rage and hate and violence. Joran, with all those terrible things inside of him, those awful feelings that Dax had fought so hard to resist and choke down. Joran, with his twisted influence, the hunger and the heat that had left her so frightened. Joran, beating like a second heartbeat in her chest, rushing like blood through her veins, turning her fist to solid steel as she raised it. Joran, who laughed as the Intendant’s head snapped back again and again and again.

The Intendant smiled as she recovered herself, and Dax felt the pressure in her throat as she coughed. She wasn’t bleeding, and that was all the reason Dax needed to keep striking her, keep lashing out, to do to her what she did to everyone else who crossed her path, to use her and abuse her and destroy her, until the pain was all she could feel and all she knew.

She was more than angry now, more than violent, and it wasn’t just Joran this time. It was Jadzia too, and Curzon, and all the rest of them; it was Dax, and for the first time since Joran’s memories awoke in her, she felt like he was as much a part of her as all the others. For the first time, he wasn’t some separate entity, a dissociated consciousness trying to twist her into something she didn’t want, but a part of her, truly, as whole and complete and fundamental as any of the others. He was giving her something now, something new and different, not a nightmare filled with blood and bones and death and decay or a surge of arousal in the same instant she was repulsed; for the first time, they were on the same side, and when he fed her with all that anger and hatred, it wasn’t just emotion he was feeding her but strength as well, the courage and the fortitude to do what was right. He was feeding her, yes, just like he always did, but this time the fire he was fuelling came as much from Jadzia as from himself.

She felt joined. For the first time since Joran had surfaced, the violence was shared equally between them, and when she slammed the Intendant into the bulkhead again, releasing her throat just so she could use both fists to hit her with, for the first time it felt right.

The Intendant’s legs gave out long before her smile did, and that was reason enough for Dax to keep going. She would wipe that self-satisfied smile off her face if it was the last thing she did, and to hell with the punishment. For the first time, she understood how Jadzia must have felt when she chose exile, how it must have felt to realise that the fire inside her, the passion and the power, was worth more than the continued life of the symbiont, worth more than anything she could imagine, that it was the most important thing in the world.

Dax felt that way now, beating away at the Intendant, fists turning grazed and raw all over again until she had no idea whose blood was whose. She didn’t think about the symbiont inside her, didn’t think about Curzon or Torias or even Joran; all she could think about was justice and vengeance and seeing this thing through. If she died here, if the symbiont died with her, then they would both die proud.

With nothing to hold her upright, the Intendant slid down to the floor. Undeterred, Dax hauled her back up again, letting her sway in place for a moment or two before striking her again. She was bleeding quite profusely now, lines of blood trickling from the corner of her mouth and flowing freely from her nose, and Dax felt her own blood burn even hotter at the sight; the part of her that was Joran thought of licking the blood from her face, staking a claim, but Jadzia’s weaker stomach won out and together they settled for simply striking another staggering blow.

She wasn’t after regret, a plea for mercy or a heartfelt apology. Not now. She had no delusions of remorse or reconciliation, and she sure as hell didn’t expect the Intendant to suddenly see the light just because she was seeing stars. She wasn’t that deluded and she wasn’t that damn stupid. All she wanted was to tear that smile from her lips.

The Intendant mustered a laugh when Dax paused to catch her breath, crawling up the wall and clinging to its surface to keep her upright. “Tiring already?”

“Shut up!” Dax roared, drawing back to deliver another blow. “Shut up, or I swear to your damned Prophets I will—”

“You’ll what?” the Intendant countered, breathless and bloodied but still smiling. “Kill me? Please.” She licked her lips, swallowing blood. “You don’t have the stomach to try. And even if you did, we both know it would turn out rather more unpleasantly for you than for me.”

“Maybe,” Dax conceded; the world around her was edged with red and black, and she couldn’t think clearly. She felt almost like she was the one who’d been beaten, not the Intendant. “But at least those people would be free of you. At least I’d achieve that much.”

“And who’s to say my replacement wouldn’t be even worse?” the Intendant asked.

It was a fair question, Dax had to admit, but she was far beyond thinking rationally. “Anyone is better than you,” she said, breath rattling in her chest. “Anyone.”

The Intendant barked a laugh, loud and wet. Dax, naturally, retaliated by punching her squarely in the mouth. It didn’t deter her, of course, but it gave Dax a little satisfaction to watch her head snap back again.

“How naive,” she chuckled as she righted herself, shaking her head and ignoring the fresh trickle of blood. “Why do you care about them, anyway? They’re not your people.”

“But they are still people,” Dax replied, hearing and hating the crack in her voice. “They’re still living and breathing and thinking and feeling people. Don’t you understand that? Is there even a tiny piece of you that can comprehend what it means?”

All of a sudden, she was the one reeling and tasting blood as the Intendant swung and returned the assault with a sharp, head-spinning blow to the side of her face. “Be careful,” she warned, not waiting for Dax to recover. “My stomach isn’t as weak as yours, and I don’t make threats unless I plan to see them through.”

“You’d kill me for questioning you?” Dax demanded.

The Intendant shrugged, as though a life wasn’t worth more than that careless dismissal. “I’ve killed far more important people for far less.”

Dax had no doubt that was true, but the words still struck hard. Not quite as hard as the Intendant, though, who wasted no time before lashing out with another brutal backhand. The blow was harder and more calculated than the last, and when the stars stopped spinning around her head, all Dax could see was Keiko O’Brien’s terrified face.

“What did you think I was going to do?” she cried, rearing back to deliver a counterstrike of her own. The Intendant, more alert now, parried it effortlessly and shoved Dax backwards with surprising strength. “Did you really think I’d just stand back and let you use me like that in front of…” She closed her eyes, pushed Keiko’s face out of her mind. “…in front of all those Terrans?”

“Why not?” the Intendant shot back, ready for her. “You always did before.”

Dax’s breath hitched, catching in her throat, but before she had the chance to recover and defend herself and her out-of-character decisions, the Intendant swung again, clocking her square in the jaw. This time, instead of stars, Dax saw nothing but black, and when her vision cleared again, she was sprawled on the floor, lying flat on her back.

“But then…” the Intendant went on, eyes glowing, “you’re not really you.” Her face turned to steel, harder and more deadly than her fists. “Are you?”

In spite of the blood filling it, Dax’s mouth went suddenly dry. “What are you tal—”

She was cut off with ruthless efficiency by a heavy-heeled boot planted against her throat. “Hush now. Lies don’t become you, my dear. And I think we’re beyond the point of pretences, don’t you? Now, you can keep trying and failing to convince me that you are who you say you are, while I slowly but surely crush the life out of you… or you can give up this silly little deception, and I’ll let you live long enough to leave.”

Dax choked around the point of her heel. “Garak…?”

“Please.” The Intendant huffed, but at least had the dignity to remove her foot. “I don’t need that usurper to tell me anything. You underestimate my intelligence, dear. And you overestimate your own.”

Maybe that was true, Dax thought bitterly. Maybe she really did think she was better than she was. Maybe she really did believe Jadzia when she told her how blinded the Intendant was by her own ego. Maybe. But if so, it made no difference now; what was done was done, and all she could do was try not to reel too hard. She might be down, but she wasn’t out yet. Not while she still had some fight left in her.

“How long?” she asked, when she could breathe again. “How long have you known?” The Intendant just smiled again, so Dax lurched back to her feet, taking her by the collar and shaking her. “How long?”

The Intendant just stood there, unaffected by her precarious position. She didn’t react at all as Dax shook her again, though she made no effort to pull free. Maybe she just didn’t see the point, or maybe she enjoyed seeing Dax waste what little energy she had left. Dax was weak and breathing raggedly; even she wasn’t stupid enough to believe she could actually do any damage now.

“There you go again,” the Intendant sighed as Dax began to flag and wane. “Forgetting your place, just like one of those stinking Terrans.” She chuckled, and at last pulled herself free from Dax’s hold, effortless and lazy. “That’s one thing the two of you have in common. But make no mistake, my sweet deluded Trill: it’s the only thing. You’re not nearly as convincing as you imagine you are.”

Dax swore, willing herself not to lose Joran’s strength now, feeding on his hunger and his hate to keep her limbs from trembling. “So why am I still here?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” The Intendant rolled her shoulders, licking blood from the wounds on her face, features twitching with the threat of doing the same to Dax’s. “You amuse me.”

“I’m not here for your amusement!” Dax shouted, and lashed out again, a blind and sloppy blow that the Intendant easily ducked. “I’m not here to be your puppet!”

“Yes, you are.” As quick as a flash, the Intendant struck out with her foot, catching Dax right below the knees and sending her crashing back down to the floor. “That’s exactly why you’re here. You’re here because you needed something from me. For her, no doubt.” She smiled, standing over Dax, legs spread on either side of her face. “I imagine she needs it desperately, or she would have come for it herself. Nothing stops that one when she has her mind set on something…”

Dax tried to sit up, but the Intendant placed a foot on her chest, increasing the pressure until it hurt; still, it was better than the alternative, and she was just thankful she could still breathe. She could feel the anger bubbling under the surface, feeling all the more justified with every moment that passed, though her body lacked the strength to make any use of it.

It was a pity, she thought; if she could just summon a little more, she would let Joran loose with everything he had, anger and hate and violence, everything he’d poured into her and a little of her own as well. The Intendant deserved all their wrath, and more besides. Jadzia hated her now, too, and it didn’t matter how much she looked like Kira. She was nothing like Kira, nothing like anyone Dax had ever met, and more than anything in the world she wanted to get back up and punch her again and again, until she stopped smiling completely.

“Listen to me,” the Intendant said, bending over at the waist so she could get a closer look at the hatred on Dax’s face. “You’ll get your benzocyatizine. I’m a woman of my word, and I have standards to maintain. Besides, I have a particular fondness for you… well, for her, anyway, and if I’m going to see her dead, it’ll be by my hand, not because of some biochemical Trill nonsense.” She shook her head, seeming almost nostalgic for a moment or two, before she caught herself and hardened her features. “She deserves better than that. And I will not allow her to be undone by your ineptitude.”

Somewhat taken aback by how personally the Intendant seemed to feel Jadzia’s suffering, Dax could only nod. “Thank you,” she croaked, hating the way the gratitude stuck to her tongue.

“Don’t thank me,” the Intendant said, very seriously. “I’m not doing this for your benefit. I’m not even doing it for hers, though I’m sure she’ll thank me profusely enough the next she comes crawling back from whatever hole you’re hiding her in.” Dax bit her split lip to keep from pointing out that that wasn’t very likely. Ignoring her, the Intendant pressed her boot a little harder into her ribs. “I’m doing it because I can still use you.”

Dax opened her mouth to respond, and the Intendant lifted her boot for just long enough to press it between her lips instead, effectually gagging her. She held it there for a moment or two, until she was certain Dax wouldn’t try and say anything, then withdrew and returned it to its former place on her chest. Dax grimaced at the pressure, and idly wondered if the Intendant would break her ribs if she pushed her hard enough; though Joran shivered at the thought, enticed, Jadzia decided not to put it to the test.

“Now, now,” the Intendant said, cloying and malicious. “You had your chance to speak. My beautiful face is still bleeding from all the talking I let you do.” She shook her head, far more upset by the damage to her appearance than to her body. “This is what happens when I show any compassion,” she went on, angry and frustrated. “Every time. You’re no better than Benjamin Sisko or that traitor from your side who looks like me. You’re no better than any of them, and if I wasn’t such a soft heart, I’d…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself. “But I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that again. Do you?”

“Not really,” Dax said; her lungs were sore, but she ignored them. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.”

“Of course you don’t,” the Intendant agreed. “No doubt you’re just as sick of me as I am of you. But you will, whether you want to or not.” Her expression turned hard, dangerous, and Dax recognised the authority figure that she played for the Terrans overpowering her vanity for a moment. “I’ll let you stay here until your precious cargo arrives. Then you will give me the payment I’m due, take the goods you paid for, climb back into your ship, and leave me and my station alone. Do we have an understanding?”

Dax shook her head, feeling dizzy. “Not really,” she admitted. “Why are you so determined to get your payment? It’s not like you still want me running this place by your side. So why should you care about how dark my dreams and my fantasies are?”

The Intendant shrugged. “Because it will make you suffer to tell me,” she said, quite simply. “And after you betrayed my trust so completely, I think I deserve to see you suffer.”

Dax couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t make her suffer nearly as much as either of them had expected. She was still running on anger and adrenaline, still fuelled as much by Joran’s psychopathic rage as by Jadzia’s righteous fury, and her synapses still crackled and snapped with the newly forged connection, the whisper of understanding between them.

She wasn’t so afraid of him now, and for as long as she could cling to her own sense of justice, knowing as she did now that this situation warranted every iota of rage she or he could spare, she was not afraid of losing herself to him. Not when the cause was right, not when the anger was justified. Now when she was angry for the right reasons and violent in the right way. Truthfully, there was a part of her — and a part of Jadzia herself, as much as any of the others — that couldn’t help thinking, even if she did lose herself completely, there were far less deserving victims than the Intendant.

It frightened her to think that way, but she found that she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. It was new, different, but it wasn’t unheard of; didn’t Curzon always use his fists more than his brains? Didn’t Emony always pour out her frustrations through gruelling workouts, driving her body to the point of collapse to keep from dwelling on the things that upset her? Didn’t they all, in one way or another, lose themselves to flights of ill-advised temper, throwing punches when they shouldn’t and failing to hold their tongue when they should? Was this really so different?

Maybe she really was letting Joran’s influence guide her too much right now; maybe she really was indulging him in a way she shouldn’t. It was a dangerous tightrope, she knew, a thin line between letting his anger feed her and letting it consume her entirely, and though she didn’t think she’d crossed that line just yet, there was some small corner of her that knew it was still a very real danger.

But then, wasn’t it enough to know that? Wasn’t it enough to be aware, to see the line shimmering in front of her when she felt the anger boiling? Wasn’t that enough to keep her from crossing it? She didn’t know, and a part of her understood that she probably never would.

She couldn’t dwell on that now, though. She couldn’t think about the risk to herself, to her morality or her mind, or whether she was strong enough to bear it. If she thought about it, she would expose herself to doubt. She would cast Joran away like she always did when he exerted himself, and she would lose all the strength and power he was giving her. He was about the only thing keeping her going right now, the only thing giving her the confidence to face down the Intendant, to hold her head up and stand her ground and be the Dax that would have made Curzon proud. Joran was the only thing keeping her here, the only thing keeping her from yielding entirely, from letting herself be pulled under and drowned by this terrible place, this terrible universe, this terrible Kira—

No, she reminded herself. Not Kira. Just like that torn-down soul down in Ore Processing was not Keiko O’Brien, the foul creature standing above her now was not Kira Nerys. Whatever face she had, whatever voice she used, she was not Kira, and she never would be. Dax had to remember that. She had to cling to herself, and only herself. And if that meant clinging to Joran as well, then so be it.

“So, then…” the Intendant purred, voice so sweet that Dax felt a little sick. “Do you want to spend the rest of your stay here in a holding cell or between my sheets?”

Dax stared up at her, thrown by the offer. “You’re giving me the choice?”

“I didn’t say that, now, did I?” the Intendant corrected her with a cruel smile. “I just asked which you wanted. I didn’t say you’d get it.”

As difficult as it was to think with a heel jammed between her ribs, it was easy enough to see that the question was a trap, just like everything else that came out of the Intendant’s mouth. She was testing her, baiting her, and Dax knew perfectly well that neither answer would be acceptable; Dax supposed nothing she could possibly say at this point would, and she supposed she should be glad of that, thankful that the burden of trying to please her — of trying to entertain her — was finally off her shoulders.

The truth was, she’d sooner take the holding cell; it would be quiet, isolated and solitary, and it wasn’t just the part of Dax that felt sick every time she looked at the Intendant that would welcome that. The part of her that still seethed with Joran’s festering rage would welcome it too, embracing the opportunity to be locked up where she couldn’t hurt anyone, still clinging to the self-control that so often sent her running down to the holosuite.

Saying it, of course, would risk offending the Intendant, and if she did that she knew she would end up with far worse than a few bruised ribs and a soreness in her throat. But then, if she picked the other option, and the Intendant caught even the faint wisp of a lie, that would be far worse. It was one thing to prefer a prison cell to a bedchamber, but it was another thing entirely to pretend that wasn’t the case.

In the end, she gave up. If she was going to be punished no matter what she said, let her at least get punished for calling her out. “Does it really matter what I want?” she demanded. “You’ll do what you want with me either way. If you want to sleep with me, you can do it just as easily in a holding cell—”

“Oh yes,” the Intendant agreed with a lascivious smile. “I’m sure we could have a lot of fun with those force fields…”

Dax ignored her. “—and if you want me locked up tight and secure, we both know you could do that just as well here.” She looked up, forcing her features to stone. “Either way, we both know you’ll take whatever the hell you want from me, so why should I care what surroundings you choose for the task?”

The Intendant shrugged. “I suppose you shouldn’t,” she admitted with a shrug. “I just wanted to know what you’d prefer. Is it such a terrible thing to want to know what you’re thinking?”

“Everything you do is a terrible thing,” Dax said, earning herself another sharp stab of the Intendant’s heel; she took this one with a smile, though, and didn’t relent. “I don’t care. I’m done playing your games, and I’m done letting you use me. Those poor people…”

She shook her head, struck once again by the vision of Keiko’s face; would she ever be able to look Chief O’Brien in the eye again after what she’d seen here? It took everything she had to blink back the tears, to fight off the urge to curl up in a ball and weep for the life that woman would never know, the love and the husband and the sheer joy of sharing herself with others.

It took everything she had not to close her eyes and weep for the rest of them too, the nameless and the faceless, people she knew and people she didn’t, all those Terrans doomed to have their very existences stunted and reduced to nothing, and all for the sake of this woman and her ego.

Joran was right, she thought, and this time not even Curzon disagreed. Sometimes, the only answer was to indulge in a little bit of violence and a whole lot of hate.

“I don’t care,” she said again, strong and defiant. “Do what you want with me. I’m finished.”

The Intendant hauled her to her feet, almost yanking her arms out of their sockets. “Not yet,” she said, raising her fist. “But you will be.”

Chapter Text

When she was done beating her to within an inch of her life, the Intendant opted for the holding cell.

Dax was admittedly somewhat surprised by the decision; it wasn’t like the Intendant to make things easy for her, and she’d been almost certain that she’d choose to tie her to the bed for the rest of her time here. It seemed like the sort of sordid thing she would do, and so she was more than a little relieved to find that that wasn’t case. A gesture of mercy, perhaps, in payment for the pleasure she’d given, or else a momentary flicker of kindness. Whatever the reason, Dax had no intention of asking.

Notwithstanding the allure of having a private place to lick her wounds and recover, the holding cell was as close to freedom as she could possibly hope for. Sure, it was a whole lot more cramped than the Intendant’s lush quarters, but it was peaceful and quiet, and by that point she would have given almost anything for a few minutes to herself. After the last couple of days spent watching her back, to say nothing of certain other parts that were still sore, solitary confinement was almost more than she could hope for.

Either by some obscene oversight, or else by pre-meditated design, the Intendant did not confiscate her knife — well, Jadzia’s knife, anyway. Maybe she thought it would serve as a sobering reminder of the woman whose life she’d claimed to share, the Jadzia Dax she had pretended to be and all the things she’d done in her name. Maybe she thought it would serve some kind of hubristic point, or maybe she just wanted to make it inescapably clear that she was not afraid of Dax, that she could not hurt her now no matter how well-armed she was. Confinement was confinement, after all, and the keenest blade in the galaxy was just as useless as the bluntest in a room with only one occupant.

Dax didn’t particularly care about the Intendant’s reasoning, or how useless the knife was with no-one there to us it on. All she cared about was that it was still with her, still safely strapped to her hip in its sheath, still available. It was there, and that meant she could use it, could slash at her palms or reopen the cuts between her ribs, could do any one of a thousand things if she needed to feel its sting to keep herself sane.

For a few long hours after she was thrown into the cell, she did not even have the strength to pull the weapon out at all, but just knowing it was there, feeling the weight against her thigh was enough to strengthen her until she could. It was there. It was there, and it was hers, and if Joran wasn’t satisfied, she would be able to use it just like she had before. She was beaten, bruised and bloodied, locked up in a holding cell, exposed and vilified, but as long as she had Jadzia’s knife, she was safe.

As far as she could tell, the Intendant kept her true identity carefully under wraps. At the very least, Dax found that there was a marked lack of curious Cardassians and Klingons peeking into her cell in search of the parallel-universe freak-show. There wasn’t much traffic past her cell at all, really. Whatever friends Jadzia might have made on this station didn’t seem particularly quick to come and pay their respects now that she’d actively crossed the Intendant. Dax didn’t much care about that, either; it was enough that she was mostly left alone, enough that nobody seemed to think of her at all, much less stop by to stare. It was enough that ‘solitary confinement’ actually meant being solitary, at least for the most part. That gave her strength too; there was solace in solitude.

She did have one visitor, however.

At first, she almost didn’t recognise him. He looked almost worse than she felt, badly beaten with one eye swollen shut and the other barely half-open. When he opened his mouth, it was with obvious difficulty; his jaw was almost as badly swollen as his eye, no doubt broken, and he was clutching his chest in a way that suggested his ribs had suffered a similar fate. The look on his face, even through the damage, was nothing short of murderous, and even though Dax knew that she was perfectly safe behind the holding cell’s force field, she still found herself stumbling a cautious step back.

“Garak?”

“You just had to drag me down with you, didn’t you?”

The words, and the dramatic sigh that went with them, seemed to cause him a great deal of pain, and Dax winced in sympathy as he grimaced and steadied himself against the nearest wall.

For a long moment, she wasn’t sure what he meant. She was still reeling from the sight of him, the obvious pain he was in and the devastation that had been done to him, no doubt at his mistress’s tender hand. Briefly, she wondered why he wasn’t resting; on the Deep Space Nine she knew, Julian would have confined him to the infirmary until he had healed at least a little, but she supposed on this version of Terok Nor nobody cared very much about one battered Cardassian.

She was just about to ask him what had happened, if it really was the Intendant who had assaulted him and why, when her sluggish brain caught up with the rest of her and realised the truth of it.

“Oh,” she said, voicing the realisation aloud so that he wouldn’t have to strain himself by explaining it to her. “She found out you knew about me.”

“Of course she did,” he grated bitterly. “You told her.”

For a moment, she didn’t remember; she was so thrown by what she was seeing, the sympathetic pain in her own body pulsing in full force, but when the memory struck, it did so with all the force of a fresh new blow.

“I did…” she blurted out, dropping her head into her hands. “I did. I’m so sorry, I…” But how could she apologise when she hadn’t even realised what she was doing when she did it? “She figured out who I was, so naturally I just assumed you…”

“Oh, I know exactly what you assumed.” He pointed humourlessly to his face. “She made that perfectly clear, thank you.”

Dax winced again. “I’m sorry, Garak. I really am. I just… I didn’t… I didn’t think…”

“No,” he replied, and it was more than pain turning his voice coarse. “You stupid girl. You didn’t think at all, did you?”

“She cornered me!” Dax cried; her own jaw ached too. “She caught me off-guard and she threw it at me, and I just… what was I supposed to do?”

“You could start by not immediately pointing your grubby little fingers at me,” he shot back furiously. “Did you not think for even a moment that I might keep my word? Did you not think that I might have a single shred of honesty or integrity in me?” He chuckled, self-deprecating and entirely without humour, and shook his head. “Well, I suppose you have me there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again, with sincerity. “If I’d thought for a second she’d go after you… if I’d just thought for a second at all…”

“I suppose, if you’d thought for a second at all, you wouldn’t be here in the first place, would you?”

“I suppose not,” Dax sighed.

He sighed too, sounding deeply weary, pain tangible in the hoarseness of his voice and the squint of his one good eye; for a moment, he seemed almost to feel sorry for her, and seeing a vestige of sympathy in a face so deformed and brutalised made Dax recoil.

“I do hope she’s worth all this, my dear,” he said sadly. “But from my experience with the loud-mouthed little harlot, I’m afraid you’ll find she’s not.”

Dax didn’t know whether he was talking about the Intendant or Jadzia, and frankly she didn’t want to.

“Did you come here for an apology?” she asked, feeling just as battered and worn down as he looked. “Because if that’s why you’re here, you’re welcome to it. I really am sorry, and I never meant—”

“That’s comforting,” he remarked wryly, cutting her off. “But no, that’s not why I’m here. Honestly, I just thought you might want to see the consequences of your thoughtlessness. I don’t doubt for a moment that you didn’t mean to throw me to the she-wolf. From what I’ve seen of the charming people from your side, nobody there is capable of malicious intent, even when it’s frankly well earned.” He shook his head, grimaced in discomfort, then pressed on with his trademark poise. “But I’m afraid your self-righteousness offers very little comfort to my poor face.”

Dax palmed Jadzia’s knife, pressing down on the handle. She didn’t pull it out, didn’t tempt herself with the blade, but breathed deep of the reminder that she could. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Garak said hotly, annoyed by her repetition. “I’m not asking you to be sorry. You silly thing! Can’t you see past that perfect little world you come from and look at what you’ve done?” Dax shook her head, wishing that he would just go away and leave her alone. “I’m here as a warning, you stupid child. I’m here to remind you of what happens when you don’t think before you speak. If you don’t start using that empty little head of yours, she’ll eat you alive and leave you with all your senses still intact as you rot away inside her.”

The mental image turned Dax’s stomach, but she wouldn’t let that show. “Thank you for the advice,” she said instead, hollow and dismissive.

Apparently sensing that his supposed chivalry was lost on her, Garak shrugged. “Besides, you’re wasting your energies feeling sorry for me,” he pointed out. “Thanks to you, she’s in a dreadful mood, and it’s not the likes of me or you that either of us need to worry about.”

“What do you mean?” Dax asked.

“You really don’t pay any attention at all, do you?” He laughed, shrugging off the obvious pain. “Just think of those poor Terrans, my dear. They always get the worst of her when she feels like she’s been ‘betrayed’, and if you think she won’t take your treachery out on them just because they’re innocent, you’re even more hopeless than I thought you were.”

There was no hiding the lurch in her stomach this time, and Dax swallowed convulsively to try and settle it. She couldn’t speak, but a single glance at Garak’s face made it clear he that didn’t really expect her to. He wasn’t here to get a rise out of her, she could tell; he was just here to show off the depth of suffering she had unwittingly inflicted. She wasn’t sure if he’d heard about what had happened in Ore Processing, but given how impossible it was to keep secrets in this place, and how monumentally she’d failed to keep secrets from him specifically, she would have been rather surprised if he hadn’t.

It was hard to read the intention in a face as badly beaten as his was just then, but she didn’t doubt for a moment that he’d chosen his words very carefully. Maybe they’d even been planted by the Intendant herself; Dax certainly wouldn’t put it past her to spare his life on the proviso that he do her a favour or two in return. After all, shovelling an extra layer of guilt onto the boss’s latest pet project was a small price to pay for being allowed to see another day.

Of course, that way lay paranoia, and she forced the thought out of her head. Would it make any difference to her situation even if he was here at her behest? His point was still a good one, if unwanted, and what good would it do her, or the Terrans, if she dismissed it just because it happened to come from a despicable source? She could only focus on the words themselves, and she didn’t have the strength to bear their weight and worry about where they might have come from at the same time. The only thing she could do about it was try to meet Garak’s one-eyed gaze without flinching.

“From what I’ve seen,” she said, “they get the worst of her all the time. I don’t imagine she needs much of an excuse to take things out on them.”

“Maybe not,” Garak conceded quietly. “But you’ve certainly not helped matters any, have you?” He shook his head, disbelief evident even in the ravages of his face. “I would love to know what your delightful counterpart was thinking when she sent you out here in her place. She must have realised how much trouble you’d get into. She must have thought…” He laughed out loud, obviously deeply amused by his own train of thought. “But then, maybe that’s the problem with you both. Would it be fair to assume that she probably wasn’t thinking either?”

Dax rolled her eyes, feeling a pulse of pain in her skull, a revenant from her own beating. “Probably not,” she conceded with a wince.

Garak chuckled again, still a little hoarse. “I suppose that’s one thing the two of you have in common,” he remarked. “You’re both stupid and idealistic imbeciles.”

Dax sighed. She thought about telling him everything, about Jadzia’s hallucinations and how frightened she was, how Dax couldn’t possibly stand idly by and watch as she surrendered to them, how personal it was and how deeply she still felt the pull of it. It wasn’t any of his business, of course, but a part of her couldn’t help wondering if it might dull the ache a little just to get it all out in the open.

Probably not, she thought with a sigh. Even if it did ease the pain of her thoughts, the pain in her body and in his would remain, and once he was gone they’d all be right back where they started.

Besides, talking about it wouldn’t undo anything, would it? It wouldn’t reverse the damage that had been done to any of them, to Jadzia or herself or Garak. It wouldn’t take back the injuries he’d suffered because of her big mouth, and it wouldn’t get her out of this cell. It sure as hell wouldn’t help any of the nameless Terrans facing the Intendant’s wrath because she was too loud and too stupid to keep a secret. What good would it do to share her troubles? Her heart might be lighter, but the rest of her would be just as heavy as it was now. Maybe even more so, coupled with the guilt of feeling better when so many people were still in danger because of her.

No. Spilling her guts to him wouldn’t do anyone any good. So, instead of sharing, she just sighed and turned her back to him, staring at the wall to keep from looking at the bruises on his face.

“Thank you for visiting,” she said, much more harshly than she’d meant. “It’s always a pleasure, Garak. Don’t let the force field hit you on the way out.”

At the very corner of her peripheral vision, she saw the flurry of motion as he held up a hand, though whether it was in surrender or dismissal, she couldn’t tell. “All right, then,” he said with another pained sigh. “I know when I’m not welcome. Silly me, thinking that you might have liked a bit of companionship during your incarceration. They do say misery loves company…”

“Not here,” Dax said. She could feel his words, and the implications behind them, scratching underneath her skin, itches that she couldn’t reach and the weight of guilt so much heavier than all the blood and bruises in a dozen universes. “Goodbye, Garak.”

She turned around just in time to see him lower into a deep and exaggerated bow. “As you wish,” he said, and limped away.

As soon as he was gone, she pulled out Jadzia’s knife.

She had managed to hold herself back from actually using it until now, at first because she was in too much pain and then because she was just too tired, but all that changed now. She could still feel the look on his face, the pain overshadowed by disgust, the swollen bruise making his one eye useless even as the other grew keener. And then, of course, there were his words; it was enough of a struggle already, trying to banish the image of Keiko O’Brien, of all those poor Terrans, trying to remember that they weren’t her people, that she wasn’t responsible for them, that their suffering wasn’t her doing, that none of this was truly her fault. It was enough of a struggle to try and make herself believe that, without a loud-mouthed Cardassian telling her that it was her fault after all, that their pain was on her head.

The guilt churned like acid in her stomach, like heartburn in her chest, like the distant and dizzied memory of a hangover, her whole body turned into something unpleasant, something bitter and hard to keep down, and when she finally allowed herself to draw the knife across her palm it was by raw instinct. It wasn’t to cast off Joran’s influence this time, nor was it to keep the anger and the violence at bay. Quite the opposite, in fact; this was the only violence she could get hold of in this tiny little cell, and she gulped it down like a dying man in need of water. The sharp sting felt like a kind of penance as the blood welled up instantly in the lines of her skin, so enticing and so intoxicating. She took the pain now because she wanted it, not because she needed it, and that tiny difference was everything.

If Keiko died here, it would be her fault. If the Intendant recognised the way Dax had looked at her, if she realised there was a connection there and took her life in some kind of twisted vengeance, it would all be on Dax’s shoulders. She was the one who had failed to play the part written for her, and she was the one who had made the Intendant angry; perhaps the Intendant really had singled out Keiko by pure coincidence, but Dax was the one who had ensured she would remember her face and her name. If the Intendant did choose to take out her frustrations on Keiko, like Garak had warned she might, the blood would be on Dax’s hands as clearly and completely as if she was the one giving the order.

She couldn’t blame Joran for that. She wanted to; more than anything in the world she wanted to blame him for all of this. So desperately, she wanted it to be his fault that she was stuck here in this holding cell, with her cover blown and her patience all burned out, but the simple fact was that it wasn’t. It wasn’t his fault that she couldn’t play this universe’s Jadzia Dax well enough to convince the Intendant, or even Garak. It wasn’t his fault that she had refused to play the Intendant’s game, or that she had brought unwitting attention to Keiko O’Brien— well, Keiko Ishikawa, she supposed, though the distinction didn’t really help. It wasn’t his fault that she had blurted out Garak’s name, selling out his knowledge without even thinking of the potential repercussions when the Intendant realised he’d kept the information back from her.

It wasn’t even really his fault that she had succumbed to his influence at last, that she had opened herself to all the violence he had in him, that she had taken him in and welcomed him and let him feed her with his temper and his rage. It wasn’t his fault that she’d poured all of it out on the Intendant; though it had come from him, she was the one who had taken it, and for once it was by her own free will.

None of it was Joran’s fault. Failure after failure, and every one all her own.

Furious, she balled her fist, squeezing the blade of the knife with her fingers and pressing the serrated edge deeper into her palm. This was her doing as well, she noted; there was no Joran in the rage that bubbled up inside of her this time. It felt pure, familiar; it felt like herself. There was no loss of control here, no tidal wave of anger and fear, his power and her weakness, nothing at all but the plain and simple need to punish herself for her own failures.

She could still feel him, of course, and she could tell that there was a part of him feeding those feelings, just as Curzon fed her delusions about her alcohol tolerance or Emony pushed her past her breaking point when she worked out. But he wasn’t forcing her hand, wasn’t driving himself into her, and when she squeezed the blade again, it wasn’t through fear of what would happen if she didn’t, but simply because she wanted to.

At last, she felt like he was a part of her, in harmony with herself. He was helping her, not forcing her, and that made all the difference. Of course she was feeling terrible things right now, but that was because this place was terrible, not because he was. She had done terrible things here, too, and though she was sure she could still blame him for no small number of them, the volume of failure that was her own doing had risen so far beyond that, it seemed almost pointless to hate him for silly little slips. Right now, she had done far more damage than he had, and that fact helped her to harness his feelings in a way that felt almost natural, a way that felt intuitive, not so different at all to the way she harnessed Curzon or Emony or any of the others. For the first time, she felt like they were really joined, like they all were, all eight of them. It felt… symbiotic.

Well, she supposed, at the very least it was one less thing to worry about. Blood dripped silently to the floor when she released her death-grip on the knife, switching to her other hand and cleaning off the blade on Jadzia’s torn-up shirt. It felt fitting, the darkness smearing the fabric, a stain to mark Jadzia as much as Dax. When she was finished with it, she slipped the knife back into its sheath at her hip, taking the same old comfort from its familiar weight and the way it shifted against her thigh when she moved.

She remembered the way Jadzia had looked at the weapon, and smiled to herself. ‘I never fail a mission as long as I’ve got it by my side’, she’d said as she handed it over. Dax’s outlook wasn’t quite so promising, but she appreciated the thought just the same, and as she leaned against the back wall, the sigh that left her lips was as much fondness as frustration.

It was by pure instinct that she closed her eyes, sliding down to sit on the cold floor, arms folded over her knees and chin resting on them. Her mind was a maelstrom, a swirling vortex of other people’s suffering, and she hated it, but she hated far more that it felt almost good. After so long spent fighting her own thoughts, waging war after war inside herself, rebelling against everything they’d ever known, every thought and feeling and idea, against everything she was, resisting the seductive little whisper telling her to become something else, to reshape her very identity until she forgot who she was and could only remember who he was… after so long spent struggling with everything she had against everything she was, she hated that it felt like a relief to think about other people’s pain instead of her own.

There was nothing to do in a holding cell; Curzon had learned that all too well. Nothing to do but think and reflect, and when thinking became too much of a burden and reflecting reminded her of things she didn’t want to know, it was almost second nature to turn her face away from them both. She turned her head to the side, cheek cool against the rips at her knees, listening to the quiet hum of the force field and the whisper of the air filters, listening and staring at the wall and trying not to feel.

This time, when her eyes grew heavy and her vision started to blur, she didn’t resist. Sleep would come for her in a moment, she knew, but she was not afraid.

Whatever her dreams brought, it had to be better than this.

*

She drank only when she was sure that she would die.

It had taken a very long time to figure out what that meant, the difference between dying and needing, needing and wanting. Her body was cruel to her when she refused to drink, but piece by piece she learned the difference between its urges and its pleas, to indulge only the moments when it really would kill her to turn away, and to ignore all the rest. It had been an arduous and painful lesson, but she had learned it. She had learned.

Slowly but surely, she stopped trying to ignore him, not least of all because she still needed him. No matter how desperate she got, her stomach could not tolerate the blood without him there to temper it for her, and without it she would die. She could not live without it, and that meant she could not live without him either. She needed him to hold her steady when she drank, needed him to keep her body working when it tried so hard to reject the sustenance it simultaneously craved and despised. She needed him, just as she needed the blood, and learning to accept the things she needed, even as she resisted them, was deeply exhausting.

Her body was cruel when she ignored it, yes, but it was just as cruel when she heeded it. Most of the time, it didn’t matter which choice she made; she would still spend the next few hours staring blindly up at the sun, waiting for her limbs to stop shaking, her guts to stop clenching, her head to stop pounding. Sometimes, when she had the strength, and under his tutelage, she could use that suffering to her advantage, let it give her fresh strength when she knew she wasn’t thirsty, used it to remind her that her body didn’t need, it only wanted. It helped to know she would suffer either way, that depriving herself of what she craved wouldn’t make it any worse than giving in and granting it. The spasms would be the same either way, and that kept her from indulging them too often.

The promises on his lips were false. She’d learned that too, and she had long since stopped believing him when he smiled that sadistic smile and told her that drinking would make her feel better. Maybe he was just trying to help, or maybe he was trying to entice her, trick her into indulging her urges more than she had to. Either way, she had learned the truth too often to believe him now: nothing in this dead place could hope to make her feel better.

She was caught between two kinds of existence. In one corner, the corner she hid inside and clung to and wished would consume her, the sliver of self-identity that had once been a shy and squeamish young woman, the part of her that fainted at the mere sight of blood, the part of her that rejected the stuff when she tried to drink it down. In the other, whispering in a voice that sounded so much like his, the part of her that craved and hungered, the part of her that could think of nothing but blood and bones, death and decay, rage and hate and fury, the part of her that drank not because it kept her alive but because she enjoyed it. Both parts were responsible for the discomfort, the tremors and the spasms and all the suffering that laid her so low, but for entirely different reasons.

She lay there on her back, half-dazed, hearing but not really listening as he murmured into her ear, telling her that she would feel so much better if she just let herself drink, that everything would come so much more easily if she just gave in and succumbed to the cravings as soon as they hit. She shook her head, drowning out the drone of his voice by humming fractured snatches of barely-remembered songs, Trill and human and Vulcan and Bajoran. Especially Bajoran; they sang the sweetest, saddest songs, and it resonated with the memory of something deep inside her, the place where her heart used to be before it was gone, before she let them cut it out and eat it and turn her into a shadow of someone who used to wear the name Dax.

Bajoran songs were beautiful, she thought. So tragic and so beautiful. She closed her eyes to block out the sun, and sang.

“Stop that. You’re butchering a perfectly good hymn.”

She blinked herself alert. The sun was painfully bright, dazzling her so that she couldn’t see anything at all, but of course by that point she didn’t need to; she would recognise that voice anywhere in the galaxy, anywhere in any galaxy, in any universe, anywhere at all. It was more beautiful than all the songs on Bajor, more beautiful than anything she had ever known, or ever would.

“…Kira…”

“Shut up. If you can’t do justice to the music of my people, then don’t try.” A laugh, musical and melodic. “Honestly, Dax, you of all people should know better.”

In spite of herself, in spite of all the things she’d done, Dax found herself smiling. “Am I dreaming?” she asked hazily. “Are you a dream?”

Kira laughed again. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m a dream.” Dax still couldn’t see, but she felt the shift in the air as Kira shook her head, and sensed the fondness radiating out from her. “I never should have let you kill me. You get so slow and stupid when I’m not around to take care of you.”

“I missed you,” Dax said weakly. “I missed you so much.”

“Of course you did. Someone has to teach you how to tie your shoes.”

Dax swallowed, so desperately thirsty. “I needed you. I needed you to tell me to be brave. I needed you to tell me to be strong. I needed you to have faith in me. I needed you, Kira, so badly. But you weren’t there.”

“That’s because you killed me,” Kira reminded her. “You killed me, and then you ate my heart. Again and again. How do you expect me to tell you anything when I’m dead?”

Dax tried to sit up, but her limbs were too shaky to support her weight, so she settled for just shielding her eyes from the sunlight and squinting up into Kira’s face. She felt the sting of salt on her cheeks, and knew that she was crying. She was so dehydrated, she knew that she couldn’t afford to lose the moisture, but once the torrent of tears started, there was nothing she could do to dam it.

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m so sorry.”

“Are you?” Joran asked, crouching beside her. “Are you really?”

“Yes,” she said, clenching her teeth against the corners of her mind that still thrived in his thrall, forcing herself to look only at Kira, to see only Kira, to know only those beautiful nose ridges and the depthless Bajoran fire in her eyes. “Yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I killed you. I’m sorry I acted like it was honourable when it wasn’t. I’m sorry, Kira. I’m so, so sorry.”

“You can apologise all you want,” he said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d do it again if you thought you could get away with it. You’d give anything to taste her again, wouldn’t you?” He turned to Kira, teeth bright as he smiled that ethereal smile of his, the one that was much too calm for a soul so wild and tempestuous. “Go on. Get a little closer. Lean in a little more. Mark my words, she’ll show you her teeth.”

“No, she won’t.” Kira did lean in a little more, delicate fingertips tracing indecipherable patterns across the skin of Dax’s cheek. Prayers or promises, she couldn’t tell. “She can’t hurt me now.”

Dax turned her face away. She could feel the tremors starting up again, the burning urgency, the ravenous desperation that made it so difficult for her to know whether she was really thirsty or just hungry, whether she was really dying or just half-dead. Joran was right: in that moment, she really would give anything in the world to kill Kira again, to surge up with teeth and nails and anything else she could cut with, to tear through sweet Bajoran flesh like it was made of paper, to hurt and kill and break, to tear out her heart for the hundredth time and feast on it again and again and again.

“Kira,” she choked out, as much of a warning as she could muster. “Don’t. You know he’s right. You know I—”

“I know he thinks he’s right,” Kira said gently. Her fingertips were so tender, so soft; it was all Dax could do to keep from biting them off. “And I know you think he’s right.”

“That’s because he is.” Dax clenched her jaw, whimpered against the roiling desperation inside her chest, the cramping in her stomach and the twitching of her limbs. “He is right. I’ve been out here for so long… so many lifetimes… all I remember is what he tells me. I tried so hard, but I just have to look at you, and—”

“I know,” Kira said quietly. “I know what you’re feeling, Jadzia. I know what you want. I know what you think you need.” She smiled again, radiant. “But I trust you.”

“Why?” Dax pleaded. She felt wretched and miserable, helpless as she balled her fists and flailed blindly for purchase in the bleached-bones sand. “Why do you trust me? Every time you trust me, I hurt you. Every time you trust me, I kill you! You’re Bajoran. You should know better than anyone how dangerous trust is.”

“I do know that,” Kira said, still smiling. “But I also know you.”

Dax closed her eyes. She could hardly bear the look on Kira’s face, the eagerness and the enthusiasm, blind faith the likes of which she had only ever seen in her when she spoke about the Prophets. Dax couldn’t carry the weight of so much faith, so much trust, not when she could scarcely carry her own dark thoughts, Joran’s dark memories, the darkness of the sun burning black above them both. She couldn’t look at Kira without remembering how her good heart was, how pure and honest and breathtaking…

…and how delicious.

She moaned, covering her face with hands that would not stop trembling.

“Jadzia.” Though it was spoken like an order, there was a sweetness to the sound, like a lover’s. “Jadzia. Look at me.”

And so Dax did. Because she couldn’t deny Kira anything. She could fight Joran, could fight Curzon and Benjamin and all the others who haunted her and told her who and what she was, could fight all the confusion and the conflict inside of her, the good and the bad and the downright chaotic. She could fight her shattered-glass reflection, too, Jadzia and all her treachery; she could still feel the chasm in her chest, a hollow mark of everything she had learned from her. She could fight everyone and everything, and herself most of all, but she could not fight Kira. Not here, not now, not anywhere or ever. She could never fight Kira.

“Nerys,” she said. The name felt important, like the memory of a safe place, something fundamentally different to ‘Kira’. Kira was dead, but Nerys felt like the promise of home, like breath and life and faith. So she said it again, and then again, over and over until it was all she could hear. “Nerys. Nerys. Nerys.”

And still, Kira smiled her smile. That smile, that beautiful Bajoran smile, the smile that burned brighter and hotter than the sun beating down from above, the smile that made Dax forget where she was and who she was and why she was, the smile that made her forget Joran, forget Curzon, forget Jadzia, forget all the things that weighed her down and turned her into this twisted broken creature with no heart and an unquenchable thirst for blood and violence and death. The smile that made worlds turn and stars implode. That smile, her smile. Nerys, just Nerys.

“Jadzia…” she said again, in a voice as beautiful as her smile. And then, unfathomably, impossibly, “I forgive you.”

*

It was the cold that woke her.

Sitting up groggily, she remembered the unbearable heat, the bright black sunlight beating down on her and the stark white sand burning underneath her, bones cutting into her flesh. For a few disoriented moments, it was all she could think of, all she could see and feel. She was so cold now, so disoriented and confused, for a while she couldn’t make sense of why she was remembering heat in the first place.

Her whole body was shivering, every muscle tight and aching as if in withdrawal, and it was only as she came around more fully, the stark greys of the holding cell blurring and swimming back into focus, that she was able to grasp where she was and how she’d gotten there. It was the cold gripping her limbs, the cold clenching around her belly, the cold making her shake and tremble. She wasn’t ravenous, she reminded herself over and over again; she wasn’t thirsty, wasn’t dying for the want of blood and death, and she wasn’t whispering desperate pleas to the ghost of a dead Bajoran.

She was just cold.

For the first time, it didn’t frighten her to think back on the dream, to look back and piece together the elusive details as they flickered and faded like bad holo-simulations. She remembered the heat, remembered the thirst and the blood, remembered Kira’s face, and for the first time it didn’t send her huddling in the fetal position. For the first time, it didn’t make her tongue turn thick with disgust or her limbs go heavy with dread. For the first time, it didn’t hurt, even as she remembered it all just as clearly, the thirst and the desire, the need for blood, the ache for Kira’s. She still remembered how it felt to take a life, to want to take a life, but for the first time it didn’t make her shudder or flinch. For the first time, she didn’t feel guilty or ashamed or humiliated as she thought back on all the terrible things she’d done. For the first time, all she felt was awake and alive.

I forgive you.

She could still hear the words, Kira’s sweet voice in perfect harmony with the part of her that was reserved for only Jadzia. Kira’s voice — her Kira, her Nerys — as clear and profound as anything she’d ever known, so far distant from Intendant’s, a thousand light-years away from the cold and calculating malice that she’d become so familiar with since she’d arrived on Terok Nor. There was such a difference between them, Dax almost couldn’t understand why she hadn’t seen it before.

But then, of course, she had seen it before, hadn’t she? She had known it was there from the very beginning, and as fervently as she’d wished she could ignore it, she couldn’t, always so painfully aware that the woman who was seducing her, the woman who was taunting and abusing her, who played her like a toy and used her like a tool, was not truly Kira. She held her name, wore her face, husked in her voice, but she was no more Nerys than the unhinged fist-thinking rebel leader was Benjamin Sisko.

Of course Dax knew all of that that; the only thing they shared was their DNA, and perhaps not even all of that. (Still, the scientist in Dax couldn’t help wondering, and wishing she had the resources to take samples back for study and analysis). She knew that, and she’d always known it, so why did it feel so sudden now, so immediate and impossible, and so inexplicably sharp?

Now more than ever, she had to keep them separate, had to remember which side of the mirror she came from, which side was hers, who was who, and who she couldn’t afford to care about. It was one thing to share a bed with someone who looked like Nerys, to trade sweat and blood and sex, to be intimate without any real intimacy. It was one thing to do her job, to close her eyes and think of Jadzia as the Intendant slammed against her and into her and all over her. It was one thing to be so close but keep her distance in the places where it mattered.

But the moment the Intendant pushed her down onto her knees in front of Keiko O’Brien and tore them both apart, it became something entirely different; it became something personal, deeply and fundamentally, and though a part of her realised that everything about this place had been on the cusp of personal all along, still it struck her to the bone to realise that finally it had become that way. Finally, it had been distanced and different enough that she could not hide behind the confusion of ‘who’ and ‘what’ and ‘where’. Finally, she knew who she was, and where she was.

All of a sudden, the Intendant stopped being a mirror-universe version of the woman Dax knew and cared for. All of a sudden, she wasn’t Kira Nerys at all, not in face or name or anything else. All of a sudden, she was something fundamentally evil.

There was no trace of Kira Nerys in her now. There was nothing left in her at all. Dax remembered the edge in her voice, the steel in her eyes, the way she’d relished Dax’s suffering even more than Keiko’s, the way she had twisted every word she said and smiled as Dax had squirmed. She had taken so much pleasure in it, drawn so much glee from the thought of turning Dax into a pariah, revelled in her anguish and Keiko’s as well, in all the misery she had caused and taken such great care to distance herself from. She couldn’t risk getting her own hands dirty, after all.

Kira would never do that, Dax knew; she hated to cause pain, even to people who deserved it, even to Cardassians. It haunted her, she knew, even when it was justified. She wouldn’t do anything like this. No matter what happened to her, no matter how deeply she suffered or how much she hurt, no matter how hot the fire behind her eyes burned with the need for vengeance and justice, no matter what she felt or wanted, she would never do the things the Intendant did. Not Kira. Not Nerys. Not ever.

Dax remembered a stilted conversation they’d had once about killing. She had been in a state of turmoil, trying to decide if it was worth the stain of murder on her soul to avenge the death of Curzon’s godson, to join her old friends in battle once more and slaughter the Albino who had killed three innocent children. Unbidden, she remembered now the haunted look on Kira’s face as she tried to talk her out of it. She could see the anger in her eyes, the painful memories of her own experiences and the anguish when she thought that Dax was setting herself up to do the same.

This isn’t a game, her eyes had said, even as her mouth had tried shaped a more cohesive argument. It’s not some silly holosuite program. You don’t get to run off and pretend to be a Klingon for a few hours and then turn it off and go back to work like nothing happened. It is real, and it will become a part of you forever.

She wasn’t erudite enough to say any of that aloud, though, and she had stumbled over the words. She had articulated it as best she could, but Dax hadn’t really understood. “When you take someone’s life,” she’d said, “you lose a part of your own as well”; that was all she’d managed to get out, the closest she’d come to voicing all that truth boiling away inside her, and at the time, it had not been enough. Dax had seven lives behind her, countless more in front; surely she could afford to lose a piece of one of them, if it meant doing the right thing, if it meant seeing complete the task that felt bound to her blood. Surely it was worth the price.

It had frustrated Kira, she knew, that she failed so completely to understand what she was trying to say. She had accused her of taking it lightly, and maybe she’d been right, because when it came down to it, Dax had faltered. Time had taught her that lesson far more painfully than Kira could have at the time, and she wasn’t taking it lightly any more. Now, at last, so many months too late, she did understand. She understood how Kira felt and she understood what she meant. She understood everything, all of it, but what good would it do her now?

After Joran, every day became a struggle, a fight to keep from giving in to the part of herself that just wanted to kill, to hurt and bleed and make others suffer. Just as Curzon said in her dreams, there was no honour in what she wanted. There was no righteousness, no justice, no banner to hide behind. There was just her heart screaming for violence, her throat parched for blood, her fists clenching at her sides and her breath choking in her chest. There was just anger. Unharnessed, undirected, untapped. It overshadowed the sense of right, of honour, of justice, overshadowed everything she was.

Dax knew how the Intendant thought. She knew the cruelty, the heartlessness. She knew it all, because it was exactly what she’d fought so hard not to become herself. Every day was a struggle to remember who she was, to keep intact all the pieces of herself that all those months ago she had been so sure she wouldn’t miss losing if it meant doing the right thing.

The change had been so violent, so sudden and so drastic, and she had been wholly unprepared for it because it felt so different. It didn’t sing in her blood like Klingon honour, didn’t light a spark in her veins or straighten her spine to steel; she just felt twisted and broken, and it was only as she fought to keep hold of herself, to remember Dax in the flood of Joran, that she finally understood what Kira had been talking about all those months ago.

Kira could never be like the Intendant. She understood the cost of killing. The Intendant, like Joran, did not. And Dax had come so close to being just like both of them.

She held those words, Kira’s words, close to her chest now, wrapped them around her heart and used them to remind herself that it was still there, that it could still beat, that she wasn’t so far gone just yet. She let them blanket her, Kira’s words and the memory of her voice, shielding her against the cold and the solitude of the empty holding cell. They made her feel safe and grounded, comforted and as close to content as she could ever hope to be in a place as dark and dismal as this.

Part of her knew that the idea was ridiculous, that Kira was as far away as anyone could be, that she couldn’t possibly be present or aware, that she probably wasn’t even thinking of Dax at all right now… and yet still some corner of her couldn’t help feeling like she was here, the warmth of her memories radiating out to chase the chill from Dax’s bones, until she was sure she could feel her presence there, as solid and as real as anything else in this phantom universe.

She could almost believe she was there now, standing next to her just like she had in the dream, reminding Dax that she was there, that she still had faith, that she might yet forgive her. Nothing else. Not touching, not moving, barely even breathing. Just there, just reminding her that she was, that they were, that Dax was Dax and Kira was Kira and neither of them were truly evil.

It didn’t seem like much, but it was. Kira had spent all her life killing, and she understood all too well the difference between need and want, between killing by necessity and killing for pleasure. Kira knew those things, had learned them young and learned them well. For a time they had defined her, and she had tried to teach Dax, tried to help her gain some rudimentary understanding of those things she had never been forced to learn at all. But Dax wasn’t like Kira; she had never been a terrorist, and she had never lived under an occupying force. She did not know, and could not understand until it was too late.

Kira was everything Dax wished she could find the strength to be, but the Intendant was everything Joran had tried to turn her into; she thrived on violence and hate, fear and pain and torture, and she killed not because she needed to but because she wanted to. Kira, Dax knew, had only killed when it was necessary, and the memory of each kill hung around her neck like a self-strangling noose. The Intendant did not feel any of that remorse; she wielded death and pain like precision instruments, and she took great pride in using them. She was everything that Dax had struggled against, and it was only now that Dax was coming to realise she was everything Kira had struggled against as well.

Again and again, she remembered Kira’s warning. ‘When you take a life, you lose a part of your own as well’. Again and again, it swum in her head, and Dax ached to think of the Intendant, to wonder how much of her soul was left, if any at all. Kira had fought her whole life to keep from turning into something cold and hollow every time she took a life, and she had fought to make Dax understand that she too would have to pay that price if she went after the Albino. At long last, Dax had seen what that price really looked like. She thought of the Intendant, and she saw all of Kira’s warnings made manifest.

They were the same person. At least on some level, even if it was only the genetic, they were the same person. But they were so different, so completely and fundamentally different. One, a Kira who had done terrible things all through her life because she had to, because she had no choice, because her life had taken the choice away from her. The other, a Kira who had done the same by her own volition, who had chosen the path she was on and who relished it every day, a Kira who revelled in pain and humiliation, who loved power more than anything, and her own reflection more even than that. There was a difference; even in the same acts, the same behaviours, even in the same decisions, there was a difference.

Terrible acts did not make a terrible person, Dax realised, and she clung to that as well. The Intendant was terrible not because of what she did — Kira had killed and broken people as well, hadn’t she? — but because of the perverse pleasure she got out of it. She did terrible things, and she enjoyed them. That was what made her terrible. Kira had never enjoyed what she did. Kira had never wanted any of it. Kira had killed and sullied her soul for the good of Bajor, for a righteous cause that meant more to her than her own salvation. The Intendant did it for fun.

Dax enjoyed it too, sometimes, but she could never quite let go of the self-loathing, of Curzon’s sense of honour or Jadzia’s weak stomach. She couldn’t quite cast off Audrid’s compassion or Tobin’s nervousness; even when she let herself indulge the very worst of Joran, they were there too, guiding and grounding her. Even when she let herself enjoy it, she hated herself too; she thought of her hands around the Intendant’s throat, the scream of climax, how the pleasure had been steeped in anguish, in self-loathing, in horror at what she had become.

And maybe that should have been enough. Maybe it should be enough that she had hated herself even as she came. Maybe it should be enough that she was still capable of hating herself. But wasn’t hatred the problem in the first place?

It was enough for Kira. Kira could balm her soul with the knowledge and the certainty that she could never become the Intendant, that she could never take unconditional pleasure from terrible things, even if her sense of righteousness smiled to see a Cardassian suffer. It was enough for Kira to see the worst thing she could be and know she never would. It was enough for Kira to know the difference, to see and know and understand. It was enough for Kira. But Dax was not Kira, and it was not enough for her.

“I forgive you,” Kira had whispered in her dream.

So why couldn’t she forgive herself?

Chapter Text

It was only a matter of time before the Intendant came to see her.

At first, Dax made a painstaking effort to keep track of the time. It was a convenient way of passing it, counting out the seconds as they ticked into minutes, one by one, and it was certainly a welcome distraction from internalising her issues. The simplistic repetition gave her something safe to focus on, and the mindlessness of it kept her calm when her darker thoughts pushed to the forefront. That still happened more often than she’d like, and she frequently found herself second-guessing every forward step she’d taken. She supposed it was to be expected, but it frustrated her just the same, and it was something of a comfort to have something as unimportant as timekeeping to tie herself up with.

What was the worst that could happen if she missed a second, or lost a minute, or got the hour wrong? If it was oh-seven-hundred or nineteen-thirty-nine, it didn’t really matter; either way, she was still stuck in here, and no amount of accuracy was going to change that. Keeping the time made no difference at all to her plight, and after so long weighed down by the knowledge that anything she did or said could mean someone else’s death, it was blessedly reassuring to find something to do that didn’t affect anyone at all, not even herself.

The allure of the redundancy wore off eventually, though, and after what felt like three or four lifetimes, the inevitable boredom overpowered the comfort of monotony. Slowly, Dax found herself looking for other ways to entertain herself, other nonsense thoughts to occupy her meandering mind and keep away the more serious ones. Something stupid, something pointless, something that didn’t matter and wouldn’t send anyone to an early grave.

She had just settled on reciting all the alphabets of all the languages she knew (backwards, of course) when a familiar silhouette fell across her little corner of the cell.

“Keeping yourself busy, I see…”

Dax rolled her eyes, but didn’t bother to look up. “I was wondering if I’d ever get to see you again,” she said. It wasn’t true, of course, but she figured there was no harm in stroking the little tyrant’s ego a bit.

“I’m sure you were,” the Intendant deadpanned smugly. “Sitting here all alone with nothing to keep you occupied, pining away for me, wishing you could have just been a little more reasonable. What a sad and sorry creature you’ve become, my dear. Your counterpart would be so disappointed if she could see you now.”

That struck a nerve, and Dax instantly dropped the facade of civility. “Did you want something?” she demanded. “Or is it just a slow day in Brutality Central? Ran out of Terrans to torture, and decided to move on to Trills? Hate to disappoint you, but our blood’s the same colour.”

The Intendant’s eyes narrowed. “I know exactly what colour your blood is,” she said coolly. “You’re still soaked in it.”

That was true, Dax realised, and grimaced. She’d forgotten the pain of her beating for a while, locked up with nobody to talk to, and she’d spent so much time sitting still that the only real discomfort came from stiffness or a limb falling asleep. Still, she couldn’t let the Intendant get the last word, and she certainly wasn’t about to let her drag any more pain out of her, so she shrugged and mustered a lazy smile.

“So what then?” she demanded. “Don’t tell me you missed me…”

On another day, she might have drawn it out even more, let herself play into the Intendant’s hand like she had so many times before, but right now she was in in no mood to pretend at power struggles when there was no doubt in either of their minds who had the stuff and who didn’t. Dax was a prisoner and the Intendant was her captor; there was no point in pretending anything else was the case.

Amused by the question, the Intendant laughed that crazed laugh of hers. “It’s heartening to see that a day in a holding cell isn’t enough to temper your delightful sense of humour,” she said. “Of course I missed you, darling. Good help is so hard to find these days, you know… and to be blunt, without your particular breed of help, things really have become quite unbearable.”

Dax chuckled in spite of herself. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself well enough without me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, my sweet. I’m positively useless with my hands, you know.” That wasn’t true, by any definition, but Dax refused to give her the satisfaction of hearing it said out loud. “Besides, you’re so good at getting things just right…”

Dax had heard enough double-edged innuendoes to last a lifetime, or seven. “You’re breaking my heart,” she said.

“Oh, no. I’m afraid you broke mine.” Her expression turned sharp, sudden and unsettling, and Dax scrambled up to her feet, feeling very exposed. “I was perfectly sincere, you know, when I suggested that you stay here and take a place at my side. And I meant what I said to that snivelling Terran as well: I really would have given you anything you wanted if you’d just had the strength of character to ask for it.” She sighed, too heavy and too loud to be really convincing, and Dax bit down on her tongue to keep from grating out a vicious retort. “I really was thoroughly taken with you.”

“You’ll forgive me for not taking that as much of a compliment,” Dax muttered coldly. “You’re ‘thoroughly taken’ with everyone.” She let her lips pull back into a sneer, the closest thing she could muster to a real challenge. “Especially yourself. I’d wager you’re just disappointed that you got me this time, instead of another visit from my Nerys.”

The Intendant burst out laughing. It was a calculated laugh, this time, the laugh of someone who had heard something unexpectedly wonderful, and was already planning out all the best ways to use it. “Your Nerys?”

“My…” Dax recoiled, feeling suddenly vulnerable. “…shut up.”

The Intendant shook her head, clearly delighted. “Your Nerys,” she said again, enunciating each syllable with great relish, twisting the verbal knife just as ruthlessly as she would have twisted a real one. “My, my, my… things really are different on that side, aren’t they? Have you claimed her yet, I wonder?” Dax opened her mouth to tell her to shut up again, but the Intendant refused to give her the chance. “No, of course you haven’t. If you had, you would never have let me take you. Well, not without a fight, anyway.” She shrugged, as though that made no difference to her, then chuckled, throaty and highly suggestive. “If you were getting what you wanted from your Nerys…”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dax hissed, shivering; even as she said it, she knew that she was playing into the Intendant’s hands, that she had all but confessed the truth, but she couldn’t keep from rising to the bait. “You don’t know the first thing about it. So why don’t you just—”

“Let me guess…” the Intendant went on with a lascivious smirk, ignoring her completely. “You want her, but you can’t have her. You’d give anything for her to be the one doing all those filthy things I do to you, but she’s just not interested.” She shook her head, as though disappointed, though the smile never left her lips. “Well, it’s her loss, my dear. You really are quite a catch. If you ask me—”

“I didn’t ask you,” Dax snapped. “Nobody did.”

“No,” the Intendant agreed with a careless little half-shrug. “But I did ask you, didn’t I? And I still haven’t heard so much as a squeak of denial. In fact, I don’t hear anything at all. Did I hit a little too close to home, my poor lovesick Trill?”

“No,” Dax ground out through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I did!” the Intendant cried, in raptures. “You poor deluded little thing! You do want her!”

“Even if I did,” Dax huffed, still not bothering to deny it, “it would just make two of us.”

Naturally, the Intendant was not the least bit thrown by the slight; in fact, it only seemed to make her even more gleeful than she already was. She beamed, running a lazy hand through her hair and gracing Dax with the most sultry, seductive look she was capable of. Which, given some of the other looks Dax had seen on that face during her stay here, was really saying something.

“It would, wouldn’t it?” she smiled. “Two of us pining away for her… oh, just think of it…” She shivered, and Dax couldn’t help but shiver too. “But then…” the Intendant went on, running her hands over her own curves, “…at least I get to enjoy her body whenever I like, while you languish away with just an empty bed and your own sorry hand to bring you comfort.”

“You didn’t think it was very sorry when it was servicing you,” Dax shot back quickly, though the words sounded empty even to her own ears, the wounded death cry of an animal that knew its end was nigh. “So what does that make you?”

“Why, easy, of course,” the Intendant replied with a wry, self-deprecating laugh. “Did I ever give you any illusions to the contrary?”

Dax couldn’t really argue with that, but she’d had more than had enough of the whole discussion. It made her heart ache to think about Kira, and it hurt in some place even deeper than that to think about the Intendant wanting her as well; though she’d gathered as much from Kira’s reports, it was another thing entirely to actually face it like this, and she shifted uncomfortably on her feet. It was bad enough that this twisted tyrant had tainted Dax, that she had taken her and Jadzia both, that she had branded them and bled them and made them hers. It was bad enough that Dax herself had fallen prey to her sordid desires, let herself be seduced and tried to convince herself it was for the mission. All of that was bad enough, but she couldn’t endure the idea of her wanting to do the same to Kira as well.

Not Nerys. Nerys was better than this. Nerys was special, and she would not be tainted by the likes of the Intendant. Not while Dax was still breathing.

“Enough,” she said as the anger rose anew. “You didn’t come here to humiliate me, so why don’t you just get on with—”

“Now, why would you assume that?” the Intendant countered coolly, cutting her off. “Like you said, maybe it’s just been a slow day. Maybe I really did just come down here to toy with you a little. Who are you to say I didn’t? And more importantly…” She bared her teeth, sharp and threatening. “…who are you to stop me if I did?”

Just like that, Dax felt the fight go out of her. She flinched, defeated, and looked back to the floor where she had been sitting a moment ago. “Nobody,” she sighed. “I’m nobody.”

“Correct!” She turned away, fingers playing over the wall panel, and Dax glanced up as the force field flickered and dissolved in front of her. “You are nobody. In fact, you’re nothing.”

She took a slow, lazy step forwards. Instinctively, Dax reached for the knife sheathed at her hip, suddenly aching for the kiss of steel on skin, the bracing bite of pain to keep safe and under control. The Intendant moved too quickly, though, stepping into the cell completely with one more long stride and wrenching the weapon out of her hand. Dax watched raptly as she threaded the blade between her fingers in her usual way, so taken by the play of light as it bounced off the flawless surface that she forgot to be affronted.

“Now, now,” the Intendant chided, like she was talking to a disobedient child. “Let’s not get over-excited. I understand why you would, of course — the very idea of two of me would be enough to excite anyone — but there’s no need for sadism…” She smiled slyly, leaving no doubt that she knew Dax’s true intention for the knife. “…or masochism, if that’s still your flavour.”

Dax clenched her jaw, swallowed the urge to bite down on her lip. She didn’t need blood or pain or violence, she reminded herself; she could control herself perfectly well without any of them. She wasn’t dying, she was just thirsty, and she could stave that off all on her own. Again and again she wrapped the thought around herself, again and again, until she found the strength to look away as the Intendant continued to toy so carelessly with the knife.

It took every ounce of self-control she had to keep breathing, to make even the slightest movement without lunging at her, diving on her like a wild animal in a bid to reclaim the weapon, or else to throw the Intendant far enough off-balance that she would lose her grip and let the edge slip against the exposed, enticing skin between her fingers. Either would be so easy, and both were so tempting, but she didn’t indulge them. She didn’t need to. She did not need to.

“Are you done?” she asked instead, praying for her voice to stay as steady as her will, for her eyes to stay clear, her limbs straight, her entire self alert and sober.

“Actually, no.”

The Intendant tossed the knife from one hand to the other, light arcing off the blade; no doubt she was trying to goad Dax into making a grab for it, into lurching forwards and giving her an excuse to strike her. But the effort was in vain; Dax ignored the bait, keeping her eyes locked on her face instead, the only part of her that mattered, glowing eyes and the sinister smile that reminded her once again that she was not Kira.

“What then?” she asked.

“If you must know,” the Intendant huffed with a shrug, “I came down here to tell you that your precious drug has arrived. I thought it might bring some light to this gloomy cell. But if you’re not interested…”

She didn’t finish, clearly aware that she didn’t have to, simply quirked a brow and let Dax rise on her own. Which, of course, she did; before she even realised she was responding at all, she had already stood up a little straighter, already bracing herself for the war of wills she was sure they were about to begin. She could see the unrepentant joy shining from the Intendant’s eyes, the anticipation of another excuse to torture someone simply for having the audacity not to lick her boots.

Well, Dax thought, feeling the stubbornness take hold of her, if the Intendant expected her to bow down and beg for mercy now, just because she had something new to dangle in front of her, she was going to be sorely disappointed. Dax had had enough of her, enough of Terok Nor, enough of this universe. She’d had enough of everything, and she was through playing games; if the Intendant wanted to rake her over the coals in payment for saving Jadzia’s life, then so be it. If she wanted to to tear every dark thought of her mind, every illicit feeling and sordid fantasy, then let her. She could have them all; no doubt they would do her far more good than they’d ever done Dax.

“You know I’m interested,” she said, flatly, refusing to drop to her knees and beg. “You know everything.”

The Intendant chuckled. “Not quite everything, my dear… but more than enough, I can assure you. I’m sure you’ll have learned by now not to underestimate me, so don’t insult my intelligence by pretending you’ve forgotten how many times I’ve outsmarted you since you got here.” Dax scowled and shrugged off the point, refusing to break eye-contact, and the Intendant graced her with a benevolent smile. “Now, I’ve already arranged for your cargo to be delivered directly to your ship. No extra charge to you, of course. I’m generous like that.”

Dax rolled her eyes, and pointedly refused to thank her. “Well, you’re certainly not generous in other departments.”

“Your counterpart would beg to differ,” the Intendant shot back coolly. “You will be sure to send her my warmest regards when you see her, won’t you?” Dax grunted, and the Intendant sobered, returning to the task at hand. “But first, of course, there’s the small matter of my payment. As delightful as you’ve been, my sweet, I simply couldn’t dream of letting you go without settling your debts. After all, I may never have the pleasure of your acquaintance again, and my bed will be so cold without all of your delectable perversions to keep it warm. So I’m afraid I must be a frightful bore and insist.”

Dax swallowed, tasting the bitter memory of bile and blood, but forced herself to stay strong and steady. “You want so badly to make this difficult for me, don’t you?” she demanded, letting just the faintest hint of acid creep into her voice, and a shadow of hate. “You can’t bear the thought that it might not bother me any more. You can’t accept that maybe I’ve made peace with who I am and what I feel.”

She spread her arms, exposing herself completely, and the Klingon in her balked at baring her midsection so readily to the flash of the knife. The Intendant’s lips twitched, clearly tempted, but she didn’t move forward. “And it seems that you can’t accept that maybe you haven’t,” she said softly.

“Tell yourself that, if it’ll take the sting out,” Dax said with a shrug. “But you know what? I’m done here. I’m done with you, I’m done with this station, and I am done with feeling ashamed. You want full access to my perversions, Intendant? Well, you’re welcome to them. You’re welcome to my sordid desires, you’re welcome to my dark dreams, you’re welcome to whatever the hell you want. You’re welcome to all of it. I don’t care any more.”

The Intendant watched her curiously for a long moment, not speaking, simply studying her. Dax held her gaze, though she couldn’t help noting that it was getting more and more difficult. She believed in what she was saying; she really and truly did believe it… so why were her hands still trembling when she reached behind her to brace against the wall? And why, in the moment that the Intendant’s features relaxed into one of her sinister smirks, did she suddenly find it impossible to keep from looking away?

“Oh, you deluded Trill…” the Intendant purred, speaking almost to herself. “You can tell yourself you don’t care all you like, but it won’t make it true. You care a great deal. I think—”

“You think a lot of things that aren’t true,” Dax interrupted with blood-tasting bi