“What was the name of the fellow who always hung around you like a puppy?” the Captain asks.
“Will Kayden. Stompie.”
“Stompie. As cool under fire as a mountain lake. He died at Setlick, didn’t he?”
“Yes, sir,” Miles says.
Eddie O’Brien doesn’t pay much attention to the comings and goings of supply ships to Setlick Colony. Will Kayden is a different story. He charges into the shuttlebay hangar just as Eddie starts the trickiest part of his engine repair.
“Eddie! The Victoria just landed!” Stompie has him by the arm and is pulling him towards the door before Eddie has registered his arrival. Eddie fumbles his micro-spanner and curses.
“Stompie! I’m in the middle of something!”
“ALE, Eddie!” Stompie says, as if this explains everything. “Not the usual synthahol trash. It’s from - well, it’s from Amsterdam or something, I think. But ALE! Everyone’s coming to the square, come on!”
“I’m on duty!”
“Maxwell says it’s fine! Let’s go!” Eddie sighs and loosens his grip on the engine, allowing Stompie to drag him out of the hangar. Down the street, he can hear the low babble of the beginnings of a party - if Stompie has anything to do with it, the biggest party of the war.
To the rest of the outfit, Eddie and Stompie are basically interchangeable. Both non-coms from small Irish towns about a hundred kilometres apart, both on their first assignment, both with curly hair and an eerie knack for implausible engineering solutions. But to Eddie, Stompie is everything he’s always wished he could be - confident, good under pressure, iconoclastic, the life of the party. When their patrol was ambushed by spoonheads, it was Stompie who took charge - directing the others to cover, calling for backup, saying which soldier should treat which wound. He would make a great officer, Eddie thinks - the most likely of any of us to make it through this war.
And for whatever reason, Stompie seems to want to be around Eddie. He stops by Eddie’s tent constantly with ideas on how to prank the latest transfers. They seem to always arrive at the mess hall at the same time. And Stompie drags Eddie not just to these impromptu parties, but to the center of them. For some reason, Eddie thinks, Stompie has decided that the two of them will be inseparable.
The party rages through the afternoon and into the evening, at which point the ale is long gone and the soldiers switch back to synthahol. But by then, no one really cares. And it is a party for the record books. Eddie remembers most of it only in piecemeal over the next few days, coming back to him with the power of suggestion like hangover deja vu. But the clearest part - the part that occupies all his awareness in foxholes and improvised fortifications a couple weeks later - comes in the early hours of the morning, when Stompie climbs to the top of the fountain in the central square and proposes a toast. Not his first of the night, for sure, nor his most eloquent, but it’s the one Eddie remembers.
“To Eddie O’Brien!” he shouts, downing his synthahol shot while holding onto the top tier of the fountain with his other hand. “My best friend!”
It’s that image Eddie holds in his mind as he hides in bombed out buildings, splashes through the jungle creeks of Setlick III, lies in wait for the next Cardassian patrol. That, and the one of Stompie’s muddy, bleeding corpse.
The transfer to the Enterprise isn’t exactly a promotion. Sure, it’s the flagship of the Federation. But on the flagship of the Federation, everyone outranks you. Miles doesn’t mind too much. He likes the quiet hum in the transporter room. One of the commanders has a chair installed, but he likes standing. He likes that sometimes hours go by without him experiencing a single conscious thought.
He’s cordial with the officers and he makes some friends - people he sits with in Ten Forward after work. But he doesn’t much like the performances or the parties, and he usually spends his evenings alone.
He’s sitting with some of the engineering officers in Ten Forward when Commander Data comes in, talking to a woman he’s maybe seen in the hallway a few times. Miles recognizes the look on her face as they sit down - it’s the “this conversation started about ten decks away and I see no hope of escape” look. Miles comes to her rescue, cutting Commander Data off with an “I don’t believe we’ve met.” She smiles. Introductions are made. She invites Miles to stay for her woodwind recital that evening. He stays. Later, in his quarters, Miles picks his cello back up.
Miles finds himself spending more and more time in the arboretum. Keiko joins the engineers’ table in Ten Forward more and more frequently. More and more, Keiko and Miles sit at their own table. Without fully understanding it or agreeing to it, Miles realizes he’s in love.
Keiko is a civilian, which is good, he tells himself. It means she’d be on the saucer section if the Enterprise went into battle. He decides to ignore the thousands of civilians who died at Wolf 359, the semi-frequent Enterprise shenanigans that threaten to leave bodies in their wake. Keiko has to be a safe person to love.
Miles blinks and he and Keiko are alone in his room; they’re talking about the future; they’re getting married, and Commander Data is proposing a toast:
“There are still many Human emotions I do not comprehend: anger, hatred, revenge. But I am not mystified by the desire to be loved or the need for friendship. These are things I do understand. To Keiko and Miles.”
The transfer to Deep Space Nine reads like a promotion but isn’t. Keiko is unhappy but trying not to show it. Molly is unhappy and has no such qualms. The social groups on the Enterprise , which Miles had learned to slip in and out of, comfortable and unnoticed, have vanished. Of all the officers on the station, he likes Kira the best. Her anger doesn’t just bubble to the surface, it forms a dense cloud around her, suffocating anyone in arms’ reach. Not really his style, but he can respect it. Soldiers, Miles decides, understand each other.
Who I can’t understand , he muses over a pint at Quark’s, is the idiot in the infirmary . Miles sits at the bar, half hoping one of the other Starfleet officers will strike up a conversation and half hoping they won’t.
“Chief!” Think of the devil. The doctor is pulling up a chair next to him. “Whatever he’s having!” he calls to Quark. Miles nods politely and returns his attention to his ale.
“So, Chief,” says the doctor, either oblivious of or indifferent to Miles’ body language. “How’s the first week on the station? How do you like your new staff?”
“Fine. Good,” says Miles. “Sir.” The doctor waves away the title, launching into a complex story involving the restructuring of the infirmary staff after the arrival of several Starfleet nurses, and Miles stares straight ahead. The doctor has clearly decided they’re going to be friends, and Miles has just as definitively arrived at the opposite conclusion.
Like Stompie, he thinks, then stops himself. The doctor is nothing like Stompie. Enthusiastic, yes, but in all the wrong ways - he has no idea what space or war or “frontier medicine,” as he calls it, is really like. He’ll request a transfer inside a year. Or get himself killed, and Miles doesn’t particularly want to be around for that.
The doctor is holding up his pint expectantly, and Miles realizes he’s missed a cue. He picks up his glass as well.
“To Deep Space Nine!” the doctor proclaims.
Miles drinks and gives the doctor what he hopes is a discouraging smile.
Julian says the program is a “surprise,” and Miles knows he means it as an apology for the business with the Jem’Hadar. It still startles Miles sometimes, the way Julian can switch gears so suddenly. How he can go from elitist, awkward, and aggravating to smoothly professional in the space of a heart attack or a phaser discharge. Cool as a mountain lake. It’s all Miles can do to reign him in.
It’s been a few weeks since their run-in with Goran’Agar, and they’re back to playing darts and having dinner on the usual days. Miles is determined to pretend that everything is normal. At this point, he’s basically convinced himself. But I won’t apologize for saving you from yourself, Julian, he thinks as they climb the spiral stairs toward the holosuite.
“...bought it from Quark who got it off a Bandi merchant ship,” Julian is saying. “Apparently there are hardly any copies left.” The program loads, revealing a desert landscape and a small stone building. “Basically, last man standing wins. But apparently there are a lot of opposing strategies, and new characters and bonuses you can unlock as you play-”
Miles could punch him. Of all the half-baked, tone-deaf, or downright weird holosuite programs on the market, Julian picked the Alamo. Why would you think this would be fun for me? WHO would think this was fun? The answer to the second question is obvious: Julian Bashir, his naivete only matched by his raging martyrdom complex.
But before Miles can decide which “bad taste” angle to use first, Julian calls “Start program!” and ducks behind cover, and then bullets are flying and people are shouting and there is a man in a dusty military uniform in Miles’ face, and it is this man Miles punches. “Nice one, Chief!” Julian calls, waving him towards a group of Texans pinned down behind some rubble. “Quick, come on!”
It’s a fast game, but not bad for a first attempt. It’s not until they sit down in Quark’s for a pint that Miles realizes he isn’t feeling - well, anything he doesn’t want to feel. His heart is racing, but it’s from running, not fear. The anger that’s always there, around the edges, feels a little farther away. And when Julian went down and the program reset, he hadn’t panicked; he’d helped his friend to his feet. It was just a game.
They order another round. Julian is flushed, clearly delighted with his program. Miles shakes his head, newly impressed that Julian has come this far without getting himself blown up. Maybe officers have nine lives. He raises his glass. “To the smartest idiot I know!”
“Hear, hear!” Julian says, sloshing a little beer on the bar. “Wait-”
“I called Keiko,” Julian says. “Said you’d be staying with me for a couple days. Said everything was… under control.” He has a stack of blankets piled up to his chin and a bottle of something orange under his arm. He offloads the blankets unceremoniously onto the other couch and sets the bottle down. Miles’ expression hasn’t changed.
“That’s all I told her, Chief.” He sits down next to Miles and opens the bottle. “Here.”
Miles sniffs it suspiciously. “Is this a good idea? Considering…” Considering you found me with a gun to my head about 15 minutes ago.
“As your doctor, this is inarguably a terrible idea. As your friend, drink up.”
Miles takes a gulp from the bottle. “It’s… sweet.” He takes a larger gulp. Not the worst thing he’s ever drank, he decides, but it’s up there.
“Ordered it from Bajor,” Julian says. “Small batch distillery. The Lonar province is really taking off, or so I hear. Hey! Share!” He seizes the bottle and takes a long pull.
“Good thing it’s small batch,” says Miles. Julian kicks him.
“I got a whole case,” Julian says. “And if you’re going to be staying here a while, I expect you to pull your own weight.”
They sit that way for a while, silently passing the bottle back and forth as the buzzing at the back of Miles’ skull gets duller and duller. Julian goes to the cupboard at one point and returns with two more bottles of the orange… whatever it is, eliminating the need to communicate even nonverbally. Both have given up the pretense of assembling the couch bed. Occasionally Miles sees movement and looks up, expecting Ee’char to reappear, this time with a vengeance. Demanding to know why there should be so much suffering and death for the people in Miles’ orbit. But it’s always a shooting star or a ship passing close to the window.
Sometime in the early morning - Miles has disconnected himself from all sense of time - Julian hiccups and turns to face Miles. “To Chief O’Brien,” he says, holding his bottle aloft. “My best friend.” Julian drinks so deeply he doesn’t seem to notice that Miles hasn’t lifted his bottle. Julian sets his bottle on the floor. It wobbles dangerously but steadies itself. He puts his arm around Miles’ shoulder, half consolation and half collapse.
Miles doesn’t sleep that night.
Julian shows up unexpectedly one night with a growler in one hand and the Alamo program in the other.
“Chief! Quark had a cancellation - holodeck two is open!”
Miles blinks, trying desperately to switch gears from the clean-up-dinner-get-Molly-into-bed- make-tomorrow’s-duty-roster routine and engage with Julian, standing in his doorway and grinning like an idiot. He glances at Keiko. She rolls her eyes, but motions “go on” with her head.
Miles tosses his coonskin cap at Julian. “Let’s go, Davy Crockett.”
Miles goes down pretty quickly on this playthrough. The program freezes him slumped against a wall, a musket ball in his chest. It doesn’t hurt, of course, but he doesn’t love being left with his thoughts as ancient Texans and Mexicans stampede past him.
Miles continues to tolerate Julian’s Alamo fascination. Once the war had really got going, once Julian saw the front lines of a conflict that threatened to swallow not just the two of them but the entire Federation, the entire Alpha Quadrant, Miles had thought Julian would quietly lose interest. Or even question the morality of producing such a program in the first place. In fact, the opposite had been true, and Julian had started booking the holosuite at least once a week.
Julian leads the last group of bedraggled Texans past Miles, winking as he charges by. The more radiation and plasma burns he treats, the more diseases he tries and fails to cure, the more he seems to want to stab a Mexican with a bayonet. Understandable, really. Miles figures they both need this program, even if for different reasons.
Julian’s taken a musket ball in the shoulder. He slumps, and more shots hit him - leg, belly, other shoulder. He goes down. Miles can see him, this time, so he makes himself watch, breathing slowly, blinking deliberately. It’s just a game, he thinks. Just images. He tells himself that images don’t have power. Today, he believes it.
The program freezes. Julian brushes himself off, grinning, and retrieves the growler from the corner of the holosuite. “Bad luck that time, Chief. Computer, cups!”
Two pint glasses appear in the dust. Miles adjusts himself, sitting straight against the wall. “Not luck. Bad strategy. We can’t keep positioning so many troops on the north gate.”
“You may be right.” Julian pours and passes a glass. It’s a crisp gold lager, but with the slightest purple tinge that makes Miles suspicious.
Julian sees his expression. “Lomar province,” he says apologetically. “Apparently I signed up for some sort of membership…”
Miles snorts and raises his glass. “To the glorious past!”
“The past!” Julian echoes.
Four days later, the thing that is Not Julian explodes in a flash of trilithium and protomatter. Julian steps off the transport a few days after that. He’s thinner. And angrier. Or is it just the new angles of his face? But Julian’s already dragging Miles to Quark’s, eager to catch up on the darts games he says he “lost by default.”
Miles has watched himself die. Twice. He wonders if it’s strange that those aren’t the bodies he sees when he closes his eyes.
Julian is extraordinarily chipper for a man who spent the last month in a POW camp. It makes Miles nervous. He invites Julian over for dinner every day for a week, until it’s Julian saying thank you, he’s a little tired, he’s just going to read a bit and go to bed early tonight.
Miles is waiting for Julian’s mask to crack, for him to give any indication that it is a mask. Miles is ready to be there for him, whatever he needs, to bring him booze or hold his hand or just listen. Usually I can’t get the man to shut up. One day when Miles knows Julian is in surgery, he sneaks into his quarters and reconfigures Julian’s sidearm so it won’t go past stun. He doesn’t feel good about it, but he figures turnabout is fair play. He’s a doctor, Miles. If he wanted a way out, it wouldn’t be that hard. He shakes himself a little and resets the lock on Julian’s door.
Then Julian’s parents show up on the station, and the other shoe drops.
The EMH with Julian’s face gives Miles the creeps. He knows it’s just a hologram - just a projected image - but he doesn’t like being in the same room with it. Which is why he isn’t, when the Bashirs come in. When something out of an Earth history textbook, or one of those Kirk holo-novels, casts its shadow across sickbay. He calls Julian. “Your parents, uh... “ he starts. “Are you…? I’m coming over.”
Now Julian wants to talk. Miles watches his friend pace up and down his quarters and realizes he couldn’t see the mask because Julian has been wearing it as long as he’s known him, since he was a child. Julian, so reckless with his own life, so deliberate with his career, his parents’ livelihoods. The idea that a Founder could impersonate Julian so flawlessly that Miles didn’t notice, not over a month of beers and darts and holosuite bookings, haunts Miles. But more horrifying is the thought that Miles never knew his friend in the first place.
Miles leaves when Julian asks, but later that night, he leaves a bottle of scotch outside his door, with a note. Whatever you decide, it reads, to Jules.
All Miles can think is that he has again, continuously, irrevocably underestimated the doctor. Julian, it appears, can take care of himself.
Miles wonders if it was ever the people around him he should have been worried about.