"So," the toaster said, "what anniversary is it today?" He had been with Neelix for four weeks now, ever since the Talaxian had salvaged him from the derelict mining vessel, and he had learned that when Neelix looked this despondent, it was almost always a Kes anniversary. Neelix remembered dozens of them-- just in these few weeks, the toaster had endured the anniversaries of the day Kes and Neelix had met, of their first kiss, Kes's elogium, and the day they had joined the Voyager crew. But this was by far the most depressed Neelix had been yet.
"Oh, Mr. Toaster," he wailed. "It was eight years ago today that Kes first told me--" he choked back a sob-- "told me that she loved me." And Neelix put his head down on the table and wailed.
When the storm of tears had subsided into a sniffling whimper, the toaster tried to comfort Neelix the only way he knew how. "Well," he chirped, his grill blinking brightly, "would you like some toast?"
"I just couldn't think of food now. I'm sorry, Mr. Toaster, but you understand." The toaster didn't, but he'd learned that this reaction to his well-meaning offers was regrettably, inexplicably, very common. He thought for a moment of trying to interest Neelix in a crumpet, or possibly a waffle, but on the last anniversary that ploy had caused Neelix to run weeping from the room. But something, obviously, would have to be done. These constant anniversaries were steadily wearing the Talaxian into a state of extreme depression and complete disinterest in grilled bread products. And the toaster, after long cogitation, had come to the surprising conclusion that the solution might, in fact, be completely un-toast-related.
What Neelix needed was not toast. Neelix needed to find a new mate.
But saying so provoked another storm of tears. "How can I, Mr. Toaster. In all those years on Voyager after she-- left-- there was never anyone else."
"You were still in mourning then. Forget about the Voyager people. You hardly ever see them, anyway."
Neelix wiped his eyes. "But, who else is there?"
"Well, you go to Deep Space Nine every couple of months, don't you? Is there anyone there?"
The Talaxian shook his head. "I don't know. I only stay there long enough to sell my salvage, and then I'm back through the wormhole again, unless the Voyager's nearby. I don't really know any of the station people that well."
The toaster thought for a moment. "Well. Maybe I could get to know them for you, scout out a likely prospect. Set you up with someone."
The Talaxian frowned at him. "Send you to arrange a... a meeting with a potential mate? I don't know. It seems a bit sordid. Pathetic, really."
The toaster blinked his grill lights. "Hey, you're already sitting here pouring your heart out to a toaster. How much more pathetic can you get?"
The Talaxian was back, with another load of junk. Quark sighed, tugging at his ear. The Talaxian's one-man salvage operation in the Gamma Quadrant was relatively successful, and Quark had found many buyers for his scrap titanium, antimatter, and engine parts. But a few months ago, in a moment of weakness, he had agreed to sell some of the Talaxian's smaller finds on consignment, and though it was mildly profitable, he was still regretting it.
It was the usual assortment this time-- alien trinkets of no recognizable function, a few shiny objects that might have been jewelry or insignia or ship registry plates, others that might have been kitchen implements or toys-- or sex toys, possibly, one never knew with alien gadgets. He'd keep them at the back of the bar, hawk them as curiosities.
And then, no telling how it had come to be in the Gamma Quadrant, there was the bizarre Terran artifact.
"It's a toaster," Neelix said, with his usual simpering grin. "You put sliced bread in this slot at the top, and push down on this lever, and these heating implements toast it. It comes out crisp and browned. Those humans, Mr. Ferengi! Those humans are so clever!"
"Those hu-mons are bizarre," muttered Quark. Hu-mon cuisine got stranger and stranger the more he learned about it. And this was the strangest thing he'd learned yet. "This even beats the root beer."
"You haven't even seen the cleverest part yet," the Talaxian cooed. "Watch this." He pressed a power switch and turned the device on.
"Howdy doodly-doo!" the toaster warbled, its grill lighting and flashing. "I'm Talkie, your cheerful breakfast companion. Talkie's the name, toasting's the game. Now, would anyone like some toast?"
Quark stared in astonishment. Only the hu-mons, he thought, could imagine something this perversely compelling.
He would display this one in the front of the bar, he decided. On its own table.
Under a spotlight.
And so the toaster began his quest for a mate for Neelix. He felt more needed than he ever had when his only function had been warming bread. It was a good feeling, and he threw his mechanical heart into the search.
Quark's marketing ploy was successful; the Terran curiosity drew a continual stream of station residents and transients into the bar, and the toaster drew each one into conversation. The transients he largely ignored-- Neelix needed someone he could come home to-- but for the residents he was especially charming, and he was soon purchased. And returned, and purchased, and returned, and returned again.
The first buyer was the big Lissepian, Morn. When they returned to his quarters, the toaster gently began to question him about his love life. But the litany of perversions that was his answer sickened him, and he knew that Morn's tastes would deeply shock the innocent Talaxian. No. Not Morn. And after a night in which he awakened the Lissepian thirty-eight separate times to ask if he wanted toast, he was returned to Quark as soon as the bar opened the next morning.
The next buyer was, like Neelix, a freighter captain, but she kept quarters on the station, and so the toaster allowed himself to be purchased. Captain Yates had a child, not quite three years old, whom the toaster knew Neelix would be charmed by. But Yates herself still lived in hope that the child's father, the former station commander, would return as he had promised from the realm of the Prophets, and the toaster soon determined that she was not ready for a new attachment. And so, after another long night, it was back to Quark's.
A human doctor came into the bar several times, seeming very lonely and lost, and the toaster thought he would be an excellent prospect-- he was alluring, compassionate and clever, and when the toaster questioned him teasingly about his romantic history and his attitudes toward aliens, he seemed to be quite broad-minded and willing to take risks; in fact, he closed their discussion by pounding the table and exclaiming "You're absolutely right! Life is too short not to seize the moment! I'm not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself one minute more!" But the day after their conversation, word came to Quark's that the doctor had transferred to the Federation Medical Relief Services and taken the morning transport to Cardassia. The toaster would have to find someone else.
He tried the Trill counselor next, whose rather vitriolic break-up with Doctor Bashir was speculated to be the reason for the human's sudden departure. She was quite willing to talk to him about the problems of his friend, though she seemed to labor under the misapprehension that he was using a non-existent friend to disguise his own problems. At first, the Toaster had high hopes for her-- she confessed an attraction to a wide variety of aliens even stranger-looking and -acting than Neelix, and she seemed quite ready to plunge into a rebound affair to, as she put it, "get that insufferable twit out of my system once and for all." But further discussion made the toaster somewhat wary. He suspected that Neelix would be disgusted by the knowledge of the worm in her abdomen, and spooked by her age and her many previous lives. But the clincher came when she accused him-- him, the toaster!-- of having a toast fixation, and tried to psychoanalyze him! No, he decided. No one who questioned the centrality of toast to his existence could possibly be a suitable match for any friend of his.
And the Trill, it seemed, was already being courted by Captain Sisko's grown son, and when Jake admired the toaster she gave it to him-- with a warning about his 'toast obsession' that made him fume. Jake Sisko was a fine young man, handsome, eloquent, devoted to his young half-sister. But alas, he had eyes for no one except the Trill, and the toaster soon realized it would be futile to try to interest him in anyone else. And so after a sleepless night, Jake returned the toaster to Quark's on Dax's behalf. The Ferengi grumbled at refunding his price for a third time, but he seemed happy enough to have him at the front of the bar again, drawing in the crowds.
That didn't prevent him from giving-- giving-- the toaster to the new station commander as lagniappe after some dispute over the rental of a private banquet room. The Bajoran was difficult to draw out, but he had already heard that she, too, was mourning a lost lover, a Founder who had gone back to his people, and when he pressed her for details she eventually, testily, answered his questions. She had come to terms with the Founder's departure, she was ready to meet someone new-- but the experience had soured her on aliens, and she was interested only in a Bajoran lover. The toaster was returned again, this time without even having wakened the Colonel once-- "This is the nosiest kitchen device I've ever seen!" she told Quark. "I won't keep a machine around that demands details about my love life!"
"Kira has a love life now?" Quark asked him when she had stomped out of the bar. "Do tell." The toaster preserved as much of Colonel Kira's privacy as he could, but he did let out that Kira was in the market for a partner again. "Really," Quark muttered, tugging at one earlobe. "Did she say anything about me?"
"Why?" the toaster asked. "Are you interested?"
"Of course I'm interested. The Colonel is beautiful when she's angry. And around me, she's always beautiful." He sighed. "And if I don't find someone soon, I'm going to give myself an ear infection."
Quark stopped stroking his ear and abruptly dropped his hand. "Never mind. So, what does the lovely Colonel think?"
"I'm afraid she's only interested in Bajorans right now."
Quark snorted. "It figures. Bajorans are so parochial."
The toaster felt his lever prick up with interest. "So... I take it you're a bit more... broad-minded... in your approach to romance."
The Ferengi grinned. "Rule of Acquisition number #212: Keep your options open."
"Quark?" Neelix was back in the bar, talking to the toaster while Quark contacted a scrap dealer in the DMZ to interest him in Neelix's hold full of rhodinium plating. "Do you really think so?"
"I think you have a good chance," the toaster said. "What do you think of him?"
"Well, I've never really... considered him that way before. But now that you mention it... he does have some excellent points, doesn't he?" He tapped his glass abstractedly. "Yes, he's clever, and so witty. Very droll. And there is a certain charm in that wrinkled nose." Tap tap tap, went his fingers. "Yes, you are absolutely right, Mr. Toaster! I have been quite blind. Quite blind indeed. Quark is truly a charming person." He stopped tapping and frowned. "But what should I do now? How do I approach him?"
"Leave it all to me," said the toaster.
Quark soon summoned Neelix to the vidphone to finalize arrangements with the scrap dealer, and while Neelix was thus engaged, the toaster called Quark over to his table. "Hey, Quark, remember that conversation we had about keeping your options open?"
"Why?" said the Ferengi. "Do you have an option?"
"I think I do," said the toaster. "I know someone who'd like to get to know you a lot better."
"I'm all ears." Quark sat down and leaned in close to the toaster's speaker. "Tell me."
"Kind," the toaster said, "considerate. Brimming with devotion and pampering and no one to lavish it on."
"Tell me more."
"Thinks you're clever and witty. Thinks you have a charming nose."
"Good taste, too, I see." He tugged absently at his earlobe.
"Independent business person, but not a competitor of yours. Travels for a living, but wants someone to come home to. Full of stories about incredible adventures. Loves to cook, very domestic."
"Better and better," crooned the Ferengi. "What about looks?"
"Pleasingly speckled face--"
"--is it Dax?"
"--and long yellow hair."
"Not Dax. Who, then? Who is she?"
"Well," said the toaster, "it's not a she."
Quark was momentarily dumbstruck, and as he sat silently, mouth open, the toaster called out, "Neelix!" Quark turned around to face a beaming Talaxian. "Oh, Mr. Ferengi, I can't believe it's taken me so long to realize what a fine person you are!" And Neelix bent down and closed his mouth with a kiss.
For a moment, Quark simply endured it, still shocked, but when Neelix's hand came up to caress his earlobe, he fleetingly thought, "Oh, what the hell." And leaned into the kiss, and returned it.
The toaster looked on, his grill light flashing in contentment. He hadn't told Neelix the most important point in Quark's favor.
Quark had developed an insatiable appetite for toast.