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Balancing Act

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It's been a week and a half since those supposed angels pulled him and Jake out of that car wreck, and Ben's doing his best to act like everything's normal. Being acting mayor is a stressful position to be in - he can't get a group of people to agree on anything for longer than ten minutes at a time, he has no idea how Kira used to do it. Used to be when he got stressed about job hunting, or about Jake being home alone so often, or something reminded him of Jennifer, he'd go to Quark's for a couple rounds of poker and beer.

So, if he's acting like everything's normal and he's feeling stressed, he should go to Quark's.

Even though he was just berating the man an hour ago for attempting to mislead the city council about a loophole in current legislation he regularly takes advantage of, when Ben arrives at the bar-casino-game center-general Den of Sin Quark greets him with a smile and a beer topped with a thick layer of foam. "On the house," he insists, then adds in an undertone, "I know how stressful the first week on the job can be - the things Mayor Kira said to me at the start of her first term would make you blush."

"The things she said about you two weeks ago made me blush, Quark," Ben says dryly, but accepts the drink. A free beer is a free beer, after all. If it takes his mind off of why Kira is no longer mayor, so much the better. He nods a greeting to Morn and quickly makes his way over to the gaming side of the establishment. If he stayed at the bar any longer he doubts he would've been able to escape one of Morn's famously endless stories, and while being bored to tears is one way to distract himself, it's not his preferred method.

The casino's pretty packed, and Ben has to walk carefully to avoid stepping on anyone's toes. As it is he nearly trips over Quark's brother and resident technical fixit Rom, hunched behind a slot machine that's flashing red error messages all over the place. He stumbles back, apologizing, and just barely avoids crashing into the mistress of the roulette wheel, Leeta. Starting to wonder just what's in this beer, he backs away again, and as if by magic finds himself standing right where he wanted to be: in front of the poker table.

He doesn't recognize most of the people there but that's hardly a deterrent; trouncing total strangers used to be his favorite part of shore leave. He takes the free seat, nods to the dealer - a man with the large protruding ears that mark him as one of Quark's relatives - and waits for the current hand to play out. The dealer's yet to reveal the river, so there's still quite a bit of the action left. Plenty of time for Ben to scope out the competition.

Most of them are pretty standard players, to his disappointment.

The one on his right has a lot of obvious tells, twitching and rubbing at his ears in a way that says he has a hand that might be fantastic, depending on the next card revealed. The dealer flips it - nine of hearts - and his face crumples into an expression of sorrow. It hardly surprises Ben when he folds immediately; he was probably aiming for a flush, given all the spades lying face up on the table, and didn't manage it.

The one on Ben's left keeps up a remarkable poker face, not so much as a blink at the river. It's impossible to say if it's improved his hand or not. He places a single chip on top of the pile in the center of the table for a bet, which makes Ben think he's got a decent hand, but nothing he's going to risk too much money on.

The guy on his left Ben vaguely recognizes as working in the mayor's office somewhere - not as any government official, but one of the maintenance staff. Ben's seen him around doing all kinds of odd jobs, the sorts of things Rom does here. He wishes he could remember the man's name... something Irish, maybe? He's not expressionless, grinning and chuckling at his cards, but Ben gets the feeling that a bit of it is faked. Sure enough, he matches the current bet, but refuses to raise.

The last person at the table, a woman sitting directly across from Ben, grins and immediately raises the bet by three chips. The expressionless man folds - ah, his hand wasn't that good after all, then - and a brief mental struggle appears on the face of the only other person left in the game. The woman says nothing, merely raising an eyebrow expectantly at him. With a groan of frustration, he folds. Grinning widely, she throws down her hand, bringing a groan of dismay out of the others - she had nothing, not even a single pair. Ben's impressed; he wouldn't have guessed she was bluffing that badly.

When the dealer asks if anyone wants to exchange cash for chips or vice versa, looking pointedly at Ben, he pulls a handful of chips out of his pocket from his last visit here. What with the phone call he'd just gotten, he'd been too distracted to remember to cash them in. The dealer inspects the chips carefully, reluctantly acknowledges that they are in fact Quark's Casino chips, and deals him in.

The first hand goes fast - the flop has nothing useful, a pair of twos and a three, and Ben's six of hearts and ten of diamonds aren't going to do him much good there. He folds, and watches as the woman once again bets outrageously, this time matched chip for chip by the expressionless man on Ben's left. The rest of the community cards show little more promise than the flop, a five, and then a seven that get the man on Ben's right making a pained sound. Ben suspects he had a seven himself, and two-pair might have been enough to win this hand. The woman keeps raising her bet each time, the expressionless man calmly matching, until betting on the river's over, and they're forced to reveal their hands. The man has two queens - a good hand to have, and one that makes the man on Ben's right sigh in relief; if he'd stayed in the game, he'd've lost to this guy. The woman's smile doesn't falter, though, and for good reason: she has a two and a three in her hand. Full house.

Once again, Ben's impressed. She bet exactly the same way whether she had good cards or not, and that's going to make it hard for him to tell what she's got the next time he has a hand worth betting on. It's a clever tactic, and a familiar one.

A few hands later, after he's called her bluff once, given up on a bad hand too late once, and lost outrageously twice, he brings it up. "You know, it's the damnedest thing," he says, adding a couple chips to the pot. "Twenty. The way you play reminds me of a friend of mine, this grizzled old Marine who trained me when I was a new recruit. Went by the name of - "

"Curzon Dax," the woman says with a knowing grin. She sees his bet, raises it to five chips. Same kind of overconfident move Curzon would've used. "Fifty. I was wondering what you would recognize about me, Benjamin, but somehow my poker playing technique never came to mind."

"...I'm sorry?" He doesn't remember telling her his name. Of course, he's a public official now, she might just know it from living in town. But the familiar tone she used...

He's distracted from his confusion by the dealer asking him to match her bet or fold. He matches automatically, realizing when her grin turns toothy that this was a mistake. She cleans him out for the third time and stands up from the table, saying, "Why don't you come over to the bar with me? I'll buy you a drink and tell you more about myself." She walks off with a confident swagger that draws eyes from all across the room.

Most of the people who overheard that give him a look that says, "You'd be a fool to say no." And even though she's not his type, he can't say he isn't interested. In all the years Ben knew Curzon, he never told anyone the logic behind his poker playing. Ben had thought the technique had gone with him to his grave... but apparently not.

He gets up and follows her, curiosity overwhelming his desire to keep playing.

There's already a beer sitting next to her on the bar when he sits down. He takes a drink, pleasantly surprised to recognize his favorite brew from his Marine Corps days. He finishes the sip to find her watching him, content, over the rim of her neon rainbow monstrosity of a drink. "What, did Curzon tell you my favorite kind of beer along with how to beat me at Texas Hold'em?"

"Not exactly," she says, and Ben almost thinks she's enjoying being vague and mysterious. She leans over the bar to whisper something in Quark's ear; he moves down to the far end, where Morn is nursing a glass of something clear and probably at least 120 proof. "You see, Benjamin," she says in a low voice, "Curzon never told me anything about you. I only knew him briefly before he died."

Ben frowns. "Then, how...?"

"He gave me his memories." She says this as though it's a perfectly logical explanation.

"Come again?"

She sighs. "Curzon always knew you were going to be difficult," she says, annoyed. "Let's try this a different way. My name is Jadzia Dax. Dax isn't my family name, nor was it Curzon's. It refers to the Dax symbiont, a worm-like creature that shares my experiences and retains the memories of every host it had before me, including Curzon. I..." she trails off. "Benjamin?"

Ben feels like he needs to clear out his ear. Or stop drinking beer altogether. "A symbiont," he repeats, confused.

"Yes," Jadzia says. "It's like... have you ever seen that show, Stargate?"

On second thought, maybe he needs another drink. "Are you saying that... "Dax" is a goa'uld possessing you?"

"More like a Tok'ra," Jadzia says, smiling at some inside joke Ben doesn't get. At Ben's scowl, she sighs again. "Come on, Benjamin, after what happened to Mayor Kira is this really so hard to believe?" She gestures to herself. "Do you want proof? Because there's a pretty embarrassing story Curzon remembers about you and a case of mistaken identity concerning a pair of Filipino sisters that I wouldn't mind retelling."

Oh, not that story. "He promised never to tell another soul about that," Ben snaps.

"And he hasn't," Jadzia says mildly. "He would never risk you telling people about the incident with those Taiwanese triplets."

That, of all things, gives Ben pause. She's right. Curzon never willingly talked about that, embarrassed in a way he very rarely was about the way he'd treated those girls. And Ben can't believe he'd tell this woman decades younger than him about it, even to pull a prank on Ben after his death. Which means... somehow, she's telling the truth. He drains his glass and sits back, stunned.

"Finally," Quark says, returning to their side of the bar. "I thought he would never stop talking. Can I get you a refill?" he asks, taking Ben's glass before he can give an answer (a fervent nod). "And another Pousse-café for the lady?" he asks Jadzia, leering a little.

"No thanks, Quark," she says, standing up. "I think I'm going to trounce your cousin Gaila at poker again."

"Good!" he calls after her. "The little weasel owes me money," he explains to Ben in an undertone as he tops off his beer. As he pushes the full glass across the bar to Ben he says, "You be careful of that woman. She's a real card shark, that Jadzia Dax. She'll have half your chips in her pocket before you even realize you've lost." The words seem like they should be a warning, but Quark's tone is nothing short of awed.

"I'm getting that impression," Ben says grimly. He chugs half the glass and wipes foam off his upper lip with a vicious swipe of his hand. Looks like acting like everything's normal is going to be harder than he thought.