1. Chapter 1 by PerseShow
2. Chapter 2 by PerseShow
3. Chapter 3 by PerseShow
4. Chapter 4 by PerseShow
5. Chapter 5 by PerseShow
6. Chapter 6 by PerseShow
7. Chapter 7 by PerseShow
8. Chapter 8 by PerseShow
9. Chapter 9 by PerseShow
10. Chapter 10 by PerseShow
11. Chapter 11 by PerseShow
12. Chapter 12 by PerseShow
13. Chapter 13 by PerseShow
“So,” Miro said, leaning forward over the table, “here’s the plan.”
It had taken them almost three weeks to regroup. Odo had encountered Miro again several days into his journey aboard the Cardassian ship, after Eeris had been beamed to Deep Space Nine. Miro, Odo had been surprised to find, was suddenly all too eager to have him on board the Challenger again. Though Odo didn't understand the Trill's change of heart, he had the sense not to question it. As long as he was wanted on the Challenger, he could stay near Eeris, and his presence in this quadrant would be of some use after all.
They hadn't escaped from the Cardassians easily, of course. In order to jailbreak Odo, Miro had had to disable the Cardassian ship's shields, beam on board, sabotage main power so that the holding cell's forcefield dropped, and pretty much force their way out with a phaser in one hand and a gas mask in the other—of course because sabotaging main power meant life support couldn't be trusted. They had managed to beam out with minimal grumbling from Miro over Odo's refusal to use a weapon, just before shields had come back up. Then they'd snuck along the Romulan border in the Challenger for a few days, traveling slowly so as not to leave a warp signature, until Miro had finally deemed it safe enough to hightail it away from Romulan territory.
Why they had been in Romulan space, Odo had no idea. He'd had no idea whatsoever of his location in the galaxy until Miro had shown up. They had regrouped on Deep Space Nine, because that was where Eeris had been waiting—somehow, still alive and not starved to death.
All roads lead back to Deep Space Nine, Odo thought uncharitably.
The three had now gathered in the replicate, and it struck Odo oddly that they were even at the same table where they had met almost three weeks ago—almost as if they had come full circle. Miro hadn't wasted a minute in grabbing them food from the replicator, which he was currently consuming mostly on his own as he launched into the subject at hand—their plans for the future.
"A plan sounds good," Odo said. "Please, go on."
"Odo," Miro said, "this is gonna sound weird, but I need you."
"You have seemed strangely eager for my company recently," Odo agreed. "Why? What made you change your mind?"
Miro sighed. "Wish I hadn't. You're bad news. But the fact is, Viresa's opening a new wormhole."
"You're sure?" Odo asked.
"Absolutely," Miro said. "I saw it myself. I don't know when it's opening, but I just know it's gonna lead to the Gamma Quadrant. I can't prove it, but Viresa seems very sure of herself. It explains why she wanted that amber so badly, why her Cardassian lackeys wanted you the moment they realized you existed. I spoke to her, and I think she has a lot of other ambers. Infant Changelings. Whatever. She's going to trade them all with the Dominion for an alliance. And we both know how that will turn out."
"It does seem as if the Dominion won't uphold its end of any deal for long," Odo said. "What about the amber? Do you still have it?"
Miro rolled his eyes. "Of course I do!" He reached in his pocket and opened his palm to Odo before hiding the amber again.
"I had hopes that the Dominion would always honor the treaty it signed nine hundred years ago, but it's clear the Founders have no wish to coexist peacefully with the rest of the galaxy. They killed the Prophets and closed the wormhole, after all."
Miro glared at him. "No thanks to you."
"I was under the impression we were moving past your…hard feelings," Odo said.
"Yeah, I know. It's just not easy, this is all a bit…too close to home." He shrugged. "You know the Founders better than anyone else, Odo. You were one of them for almost nine hundred years. I need you on my side."
"Your side?" Odo repeated. "I didn't think you had a side."
"Not usually," Miro said. "But I have to admit, I can't do this on my own. If I could, I would have put Viresa out of power years ago."
"Years?" Odo examined the man before him. Miro couldn't be older than his early twenties. "Surely you haven't been at her throat for that long."
"Not me," Miro said. "Dax. Sizran, mostly. Viresa really only rose to power about fifteen years ago; I've been out in the galaxy for two. And only one of those was spent holding the galaxy in check. But the point is, we've been at each other's throats for that long. We know each other. I've pushed back against her reign since the day she became a political figure. And look what's happened. She's won anyway. She's the empress of the Romulan Star Empire, she knows it, and she knows I can't beat her alone. Hell, even I know it!"
"What's this plan of yours, then?" Odo asked, grateful to have a more defined purpose in this quadrant. He had come here to help Eeris, but it was still unclear just what needed doing.
Miro rested his chin on his laced fingers, elbows on the table. "I don't have one yet."
"We need to watch her," Miro said thoughtfully. "Let her make the first move. That's the plan, how about that? I need to get good at predicting her. We should probably close that wormhole, too."
"If memory serves," Odo said, "a couple photon torpedoes will do the trick."
Miro shook his head. "We don't know that. Who knows that this wormhole's made of? Knowing the Romulans, it's probably pretty tough stuff—they've been perfecting cloaking devices for centuries, they can even fire while cloaked. They're masters of subspace phenomena. I've even known them to create a black hole or two, though thankfully, those were too unstable to last." Miro shuddered. "The Romulans are paranoid. This wormhole's perfect in structure, from what I saw. I don't know how to close it, but one thing's for sure, Viresa's not going to let me anywhere near it."
"That reminds me," Odo said, "there's something I've been wondering, ever since you engineered my escape from the Cardassians."
"Why were we able to get away so easily?" Odo asked. "I mean, it wasn't easy to break me out of that ship, but you have to admit we were mostly left alone once we were creeping along the border."
Miro shrugged. "Viresa wants me alive. She knows my ship."
"But…she has no reason to let you move freely.
"Sure she does. She's feeling overconfident, certain she's beaten me already. She doesn't think I stand a chance. She wants me to employ every tactic I can against her and still lose, and she wants to kill me when it's all over, when I'm watching the galaxy collapse all around me with nothing I can do to stop it."
"How do you know what?" Odo asked.
"She told me."
"She told you?"
"We've got a long history together." Miro grinned and popped a piece of fruit into his mouth. "We know each other."
Odo harrumphed. "And you say she's the overconfident one."
"Well, she hasn't defeated me yet," Miro said. "And I intend to defeat her. That's why I need you. If the Dominion comes through the wormhole, you know I don't stand a chance against their combined forces."
"Agreed," Odo said. "But I don't see what I can do to help."
"See Eeris here?" Miro nodded at the Bajoran girl, who was sitting at their table with them and thus far hadn't uttered a word. "Your job is to know them well enough to keep her out of harm's way, while we all figure out a plan together. Not to mention, since you going back to the Great Link lines up with both Viresa's and the Founder's plans, I need you as far away from that wormhole as you can get. It's not easy for me to admit this, but I can't win this battle alone. Not this time."
"Alright," Odo said, nodding slowly. "I understand. I'll do whatever I can."
Miro smiled. "Okay, then. First order of business."
He leaned to the side and rummaged in the rucksack he'd brought aboard Deep Space Nine with him. Odo watched as he brought out a familiar object and waved it at Odo, grinning wickedly. It was a book—a real, old-fashioned paperback book—and its cover was emblazoned with a couple gazing soulfully into one another's eyes. Odo recognized it—he'd found it himself in the Nebez flea market.
Odo blinked. "It's…that book. I…thought you sold it?"
"Nope," Miro said, eyes dancing. "I'd make a better fortune on Earth. No one would pay me enough for it out here." He tossed the book across the table so it landed on Odo's side. "Enjoy!"
Odo stared down at the book, half expecting it to rear up and bite him.
Eeris muffled a giggle. "You really do want to read it, don't you?"
Odo looked up, affronted. "Hmph! Of course not!"
Miro's grin widened. "Aw, come on, you want to start me believing you can actually lie? You really think you want to lose my trust, Founder?"
Odo glared at him. "Don't try that, Miro."
Miro chuckled. "Go on. I don't want it. It'll take us a couple days to get to Earth, anyway, and longer to sneak around the patrol. You might as well have your fun while you can, Odo."
Odo's mind stuttered over Miro's words—what patrol was he talking about? —but quickly dismissed it. Surely, in all of Dax's travels, he'd made an enemy or two. Odo turned his attention instead to the book, which he still refused to pick up. He didn't know what had possessed him to grab it from that flea market in the first place. He'd told himself he only wanted it for its value. That had been their mission, after all—to grab whatever was valuable and bring it back to Miro so he could bargain the shopkeeper down. But this book…Odo hadn't wanted it just for its value, and at the time, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe it wasn't worth Miro's purchase, and he could keep it for himself.
It reminded him all too well of that time aboard the Rio Grande, when he'd been escorting Quark to a court hearing under the mistaken assumption that Quark was the one in trouble, and not merely testifying as a witness against the Orion Syndicate. In the unfortunately close quarters they'd shared, Quark had caught him reading a romance novel—quite an enjoyable one, though Odo had been loathe to admit it—and had teased him about it mercilessly.
"I don't want to read it," Odo said.
Miro shrugged. "Fine, just hold it for me then, will you?"
"If you insist," Odo grumbled, still not touching the book.
"Oh, I do insist." Finally, Miro pushed his chair back and stood. "Shall we head back to the Challenger? Might as well get moving, we've got a couple days of travel ahead of us."
"Fine by me," Eeris said, standing as well.
"Well," Odo said as he stood, reluctantly snatching the book off the table and following them, "I certainly never expected my stay here to pan out in…quite this manner."
Miro laughed. "Neither did I, Founder, neither did I."
"I did," Eeris piped up.
Odo glanced down at her. Eeris had gotten exactly what she'd wanted all this time. She had escaped Bajor, ended up in Miro's company, and now even Odo was coming on board—for an indeterminate period of time, no less. Odo wondered, though, if she had expected to find herself right on the front lines of a plot to wreck the already-unstable Alpha and Beta quadrants when she had first set out from her home planet. It didn't seem to bother her. So perhaps she was like Nerys in yet another way—largely unfazed by violence.
Odo shook that thought aside. No, that wasn't possible, this early in Eeris's life. And Odo resolved to keep it impossible. She wouldn't lead the same life he or Nerys had led. He'd make sure of that.
They boarded the Challenger in silence, and in no time at all, Miro had clearance to disembark and was piloting the ship smoothly away from Deep Space Nine. He aimed them in the direction of Federation space. With him busy at the controls, almost appearing to be lost in his own world as he stared out into space, Odo finally found the opportunity he'd been waiting for—to ask Eeris how she'd fared alone on Deep Space Nine.
Their relationship had definitely smoothed out over the past few days, but Eeris still seemed to have her reservations about him. He'd confessed his love for Nerys to her, sure, but that didn't necessarily mean she understood him any better than before. At least she had stopped shooting him those looks—the ones intermixed with suspicion and revulsion. Odo would have taken it, coming from her, Nerys's descendant, but he'd gotten enough of that nine hundred years ago—he didn't need to face it again.
"Eeris," Odo called from the mouth of the corridor.
Eeris got up from the copilot's seat and walked over to him. He noticed as she moved that both arms were still gone. He'd noticed this from the moment it happened, of course—he'd been right there when the Cardassians had grabbed her—but it was still useful to note that she hadn't gained control over her abilities and grown her arms back in the time since he had last seen her. This, of course, only raised more questions. How could she have fed herself without hands? And even then, how could she have gotten ahold of food? She didn't have any latinum on her, as far as Odo knew. And without hands, it would be difficult to steal, not that Odo would have faulted her for doing so to stay alive.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Sure," she said. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Your arms," he said.
She frowned and looked at the deck plating.
"We were gone for almost three weeks," Odo said. "How did you manage to survive on your own?"
Eeris shrugged, a motion that looked a little queer without arms attached to her shoulders. "Divine intervention?"
Odo gave her a look.
"I mean it! The Emissary looked out for me."
"Not by hooking you up to a drip and feeding you through an IV," Odo said. "Which, might I add, would require arms."
"I lived," Eeris said. "Isn't that enough?"
"Not for me."
"Odo, I'm fine," Eeris said. "I'm alive, the Emissary is watching over me, and you two aren't going to let me get hurt. So just let it rest, okay?"
Odo knew better than anyone that it was sometimes impossible to get answers out of someone who didn't want to give them, but he didn't want to give up that easily. Even he wasn't above prying, especially where Eeris was concerned.
"I'm not sure that I can," he said quietly. "If someone took advantage of you, hurt you, threatened you, even—"
"Odo, for the Prophets' sake," Eeris said. "No one took advantage of me or threatened me. I just don't want to talk about it!"
"Well, alright," Odo sighed. "If you insist."
"Can I go back to my seat now?"
Odo gave an assenting nod, and she turned on her heel and marched back to the copilot's seat. He watched her carefully, wondering what she wasn't saying.
Whatever had happened, it didn't look like she was any worse for wear than she had been the last time he'd seen her. She didn't look thinner, or even the least bit emaciated. He considered her explanation, what little she had given. Was it really possible that the Emissary had taken care of her? Odo didn't believe that for a second. Much as he had decided to trust Captain Sisko for the time being, he didn't believe his former commanding officer had the sort of power it would take to keep Eeris fed. What would that have entailed—magically making food appear within reach of her mouth? Odo shook his head, dismissing the idea. Whatever had happened, Captain Sisko was unlikely to have been responsible.
Odo did, however, believe that Eeris wasn't lying. Whatever she had done to stay safe, it must have seemed like a godsend from her perspective. She was lost, alone, the only Bajoran he or Miro know of to have left her homeworld in years. Compounding that was the fact that without her arms, she could barely even provide for herself. It was absolutely confounding. Whatever had happened, Odo hoped she would confide in him sooner rather than later.
3 weeks earlier
Eeris shuffled down the aisle of the transport, trying not to knock too hard into anyone or anything. She'd only just lost her other arm, so she didn't quite trust her balance. Fortunately, the transport doors had been locked in the open position while the passengers were still offloading, so she was able to pass through them without needing to touch them. Eeris allowed herself a millisecond of hesitation before stepping onto Bajoran soil once more.
She didn't want to be here. But she didn't have a choice.
The Emissary had arranged things quite conveniently. Eeris wasn't sure if he wanted her to come back home, or if he just hadn't been able to manipulate events enough to let her stay away. One minute she'd been standing in that dark, dank prison cell with Odo, and the next she'd materialized on the promenade of Deep Space Nine. Only a few minutes later, a transport had docked, heading for Bajor. Her home planet was her only chance of survival. Not that she would ever admit to a soul that she'd come back here. No one needed to know. Not even Miro or Odo. Ever.
Although, maybe Miro would be interested in the Cardassians she had spotted hiding away in the shadows of the station…
Pushing the thought out of mind, Eeris strode away from the transport and toward the road that led into Hill Province. Her plan was to find her father. Her mother would likely be furious, perhaps enough to set the High Council on her heels. And that was the last thing Eeris needed. She'd come, beg her father for food and shelter, give Odo and Miro ample time to get back to Deep Space Nine, and then leave again. And if neither of them were able to get back in time, if at all…well, she'd just have to take her chances.
Eeris knew Bajor like the back of her hand. It had, after all, been her home for twenty-one years. So it wasn't difficult to find her way back to Hill, and then down the odorless streets to her father's office building. She was starved by the time she got there.
But not starved enough for the odd, prickling feeling on the back of her neck to escape her attention. She swiveled on the spot, her back to the building's front door, and scanned the street. She knew Bajor well—she doubted she was imagining this feeling of utter wrongness. And that was when she spotted him. A Cardassian, standing on the corner between two streets.
Her head turned, and she spotted another one, this time under the awning of a one-story building, casually watching the Bajorans pass by with a gun slung over his shoulder. Once she'd begun to see them, she couldn't stop seeing them. There was one across the street from the first one she'd spotted. One just another corner down. One on the nearest corner. One up the rise of a nearby hill, eyes sliding over the city activity below. One on the roof of a building across from her. Eeris jumped when she saw him, sure she'd seen his eyes lock on her. Her eyes swiveled up to the roof of her father's building, and she stumbled ungracefully through the doors, tripping over her own feet in her haste to get inside and away from prying eyes.
She hadn't thought about how she would actually get up to her father's office. The elevator required pressing buttons, and her father's door—damn it all—had a handle of all things. How was she supposed to work a handle?
One step at a time, Eeris supposed. She ignored the stares she caught as she crossed the lobby. She knew those stares weren't just because she was a no-armed girl walking into an office building like it was the most natural thing in the world. They were also because she was Kira Eeris, the abdicated and likely criminalized successor to the Steward, returned from what must have seemed to her people like the dead. She had, after ll, disappeared without a trace.
Serves them right, Eeris thought as she approached the elevator. They never cared about me.
and then the elevator doors glared down at her, the "up" button peering out at her in all its metallic glory.
Eeris scowled. Naturally, things couldn't be easy for her. She'd abandoned "easy" when she'd chosen the life of a renegade, rather than that of a Steward, which had been all mapped out for her. Glaring back at the button, she turned and attempted to press her behind into it. Not good enough; the button didn't even give. She considered head-butting it, but that would require bending down pretty low, and she wasn't sure she'd be able to keep her balance and straighten again. Finally, she settled for crouching on her feels and pressing the button with one fat shoulder stump. At least her stumps had never needed healing; she felt no discomfort as the button gave and the elevator beeped at her in acknowledgement. Eeris sprang off her heels and stood before the doors, waiting for them to open.
Out of the corner of her eye, she swore she saw someone in the lobby reach for a wall intercom. Her heart pounded, hoping to the winked-out Celestial Temple itself that security wasn't being alerted, and she wouldn't find herself stumbling straight into the oh-so-welcoming arms of a Hill police officer. The elevator doors could not open soon enough.
At last, she found herself in the relative shelter of the elevator, isolated from prying eyes.
And of course, a second array of buttons—more expansive than the first—greeted her.
Eeris went with the same strategy, crouching down and pressing the button for her father's floor with her shoulder. It wasn't as good as her finger and she had to try a few times before getting the right angle to press only one button. Finally, the elevator jolted up, knocking Eeris back against the wall. She counted herself lucky she hadn't fallen on her back—it would have been quite a hassle to get on her feet again—and managed to regain her balance, standing on her feet and leaning against the wall for extra insurance.
The elevator dinged when it reached her father's floor, and the doors slid open.
Eeris walked out into the hallway and hurried down the corridor, vision tunneled and seeking out her father's door. At last, she found it and considered how to alert her father to her presence.
First things first. She checked the light by his handle. Occupied. Good.
Now, to get the stupid door open.
She tried pressing down on the handle with her shoulder stump, but it turned out it had reached the limits of its usefulness. She couldn't get the right leverage, the right angle, or really the right anything. She gave up with a grunt and a sigh and straightened, glaring at the paneled wood. She'd like to kick this door.
And that was when it hit her. She could kick this door. It would be equivalent to knocking, and most certainly would alert her father.
Eeris grinned, hefted her foot, and kicked—hard.
And rebounded, falling flat on her back. The door towered over her.
Great, she thought. Just great.
"Hello?" called a voice from inside.
Eeris's heart leapt into her throat. "Father!"
"Father!" she cried, past caring who else heard her. She needed him. "Help!"
"Eeris!" A long beat and then the door whooshed open, revealing her father, standing tall in the doorway.
"Father," Eeris whispered.
He stared down at her, brows furrowed in concern, a multitude of emotions flitting across his face one by one. Surprise—worry—panic. Eeris lay there, watching until his concern finally dissolved into his generally harried expression, making way for the tiredness that had plagued him for as long as Eeris could remember. He looked just as exhausted as the last time she'd seen him before leaving home, if not more. His eyes were still bloodshot, but his hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb in days, and he looked even older than before—older than he should have looked after only a month or so.
"What are you doing here?" he finally asked. "What happened to your other arm?"
Eeris shrugged, skin scraping against the floor. "Long story. Help me up?"
He tentatively approached her, knelt down, and scooped her up in his arms, even though she was twenty-one and surely too big. He cradled her for a second before letting her legs drop, and she was standing.
Eeris longed to brush herself off, recover from her stint on the floor. "Thanks."
"You should leave," her father said. "It's not safe here."
"The Cardassians, you mean," Eeris said.
He furrowed his eyebrows. "How did you know?"
"Ran into a couple of them while I was gone."
"You said it was a long story," he said, regarding her. "I have time."
He gave her a look that brooked no argument. Acquiescing, Eeris followed him inside.
"Now." He pointed to the guest chair and took his own for himself. "Begin."
Eeris sat down. "I should probably preface this with the fact that I'm starved and kind of exhausted. I didn't want to come back, but I didn't have a choice."
"Are you leaving again?" her father asked.
"Good," he nodded. "This is no place for you, Eeris, not with the Cardassians here."
Eeris frowned, mentally rewinding the last few weeks. Back in the replimat, before Miro had agreed to take Odo on board, she remembered him referencing a past occupation of Bajor—by the Cardassians.
"You think they're here to stay?" Eeris asked.
"I don't know," her father said. "But I wish things were different—when you left before, I never imagined you'd come back only for me to have to push you away."
Eeris peered at him. "You want me back?"
"Of course I do, Eeris."
"Honestly?" she asked. "After all the trouble I've caused? I demanded your help and then left you. Barely even thanked you. Definitely didn't say goodbye."
Her father shrugged. "It was some time ago, wasn't it?"
"It was the last time I saw you," Eeris muttered. "I thought…"
"Ah, I see. You somehow got it into your head that your own father wouldn't want to see you again, even after your disappearance just about gave him a heart attack."
Eeris eyed him skeptically. "No, really."
"Not literally," he assured her. "But I can assure you, I never truly believed I was going to lose you until after you had already gone. And then, your mother assured me there was no way to contact you again."
"There wasn't," Eeris said. "You spoke to Mother?"
"Naturally," her father said. "She's worried sick about you."
"No, she isn't."
Her father raised an eyebrow.
"Raise that eyebrow all you want," Eeris said. "You weren't around. You never saw how much she hated me. She was glad that I left, I'm sure of it. It's the only way to explain why she paid for my transportation so readily."
Her father chuckled. "Your mother feels many things for you, but not hatred."
"Well," Eeris said, "I hope she doesn't expect me to walk right back into her house like nothing ever happened. I chose my life with Miro and Odo, and I don't regret it."
"Miro and Odo?" her father asked, eyebrows hoisted in that "dad" look he used to give her whenever she mentioned a masculine name. "Who are they?"
"Nothing like what you're thinking," Eeris scoffed. "They're both at least nine hundred years old. Miro's twelve hundred."
"I'm not sure I like the thought of you gallivanting about with twelve-hundred-year-old men."
Eeris scowled. "He's a Trill, Father, and the man is twenty-one."
"A joined species," Eeris shrugged. "He's got this worm in his belly, and it's lived to see the rise and fall of the whole galaxy. It carries the memories of the other hosts. He's just the current one."
"I see," her father said. "Twenty-one, then. I'm still not sure I approve, Eeris."
"We're not together," Eeris snapped.
Her father raised an eyebrow.
"We're not!" Eeris said. "For goodness sake, he's like a father to me!"
the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Eeris stared at her father's stricken face, unsure what to say, for the five seconds it took him to regain his composure.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you found someone else to guide you," he finally said. "Or even disappointed. I'm glad you're safe, Eeris."
Eeris glanced down at one shoulder stump. "Safe," she scoffed.
"Should I worry?"
"Not at all," she said. "Being unsafe's the fun part. It's okay. Miro takes care of me."
"So," her father said, "if you're so content with your new friends, what are you doing back in my office? Surely you didn't come to visit."
"That's right," Eeris said, and if her father looked a bit hurt, she didn't acknowledge it. "I need a favor from you."
"Feed me," she said. "And hide me from Mother."
Eeris ended up spending all of three weeks hiding in her father's office, squeezing herself into his oversized supply cabinet whenever he had a colleague or supervisor there. He never asked her more about what had transpired to bring her back to Bajor. The few times he had brought up the topic of her second missing arm, Eeris found some way to change the subject, and he eventually stopped pressing her. Eeris figured he was just grateful she'd returned at all, and wasn't pressing his luck.
He'd told her, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't want her staying for too long—there was a chance of the nearby Cardassians poking into his office, and if they did, he couldn't stop them from searching the place. And so they existed, for three weeks, him bringing her three meals a day and even going so far as to feed her, until they both finally got sick of the tedium and he managed to buy her packets of liquid sustenance instead. Those, she could hold between her teeth and suck up into her mouth.
On the twentieth day, she left. She had risked death for escape before, and she could take her chances again—besides, she had faith that the Emissary was watching over her, and he would bring Miro and Odo back to her. It was a foregone conclusion.
Her father drove her to the transport station, as much to say goodbye as to prevent too much depletion of her energy levels. Left unspoken was his worry about leaving her at the mercy of the aliens in gray that stood on every corner, although she was certain neither of them failed to notice their watchers. At last, they stood on the transport platform, waiting for the doors to slide open. Eeris couldn't hug him, but she wanted to. He seemed to understand and wrapped her up in a warm embrace, one that Eeris was all too aware might be their last.
"Go explore the galaxy," he whispered in her ear as they parted. "I'm just glad we've had a proper goodbye."
One that could be our final goodbye, Eeris didn't say. She wasn't sure why the thought troubled her so much. It never once occurred to her that she could stop all this and simply return home, stay in her father's arms forever. She'd only have to make the choice. It was up to her.
But Bajor was dealing with problems of its own, problems that had nothing to do with its abdicated Steward. Armed Cardassians stood watch on the streets. This was no place for a girl with no arms and a wild streak. Besides, Miro and Odo would be waiting for her, and she couldn't leave them without a proper goodbye. No, she couldn't leave them period.
So she boarded the transport without another word, and searched out her father's face in the crowd once she had reached her seat. He never once stopped waving, not until long after the transport had lifted out of sight and he was a mere ant on the ground, one spindly limb waving in the air like a disconnected joint.
"I'll miss you," she whispered, pressing her face to the window. But for her own sanity, and to alleviate the crushing sensation in her chest that almost convinced her to run right back into his arms, she would never admit it again.
She arrived on Deep Space Nine just in time. So convenient was it, in fact, that Eeris partially meant what she said to Odo about divine intervention. She only had time to look like she definitely had not just gotten off a transport from Bajor when she saw Odo and Miro entering from a nearby airlock, looking about as if searching for her. She quickly ran over to them, and was silent for the rest of their conversation there in the replimat, trying to keep her mind from inevitably wandering back to her father.
The Emissary had done this on purpose, she decided. There was no other reason for it to affect her this much, unless it had been important. She had been meant to see her father again, and even enjoy it. And even have a little niggling thought that maybe returning to Bajor, Cardassians aside, wouldn't be so bad.
She quickly killed that thought. She was being ridiculous.
"I'm curious too," Miro said to her in the cockpit, right after she returned to her seat. "How did you survive until we got back? All Old told me before was that the Cardassians arranged for your transportation to Deep Space Nine. Which still surprises me, to be honest. Cardassians aren't known for their generosity."
Eeris smiled. "I guess you'll just have to wonder."
Miro eyed her beseechingly for a moment longer, but he—like Odo—had the sense to drop the subject. Still, he found a new way to prompt her about every five minutes as he piloted the Challenger. Eeris shook her head in amusement, still refusing to bend. Though she had to admire his persistence, especially when he pointed out that the Cardassians shouldn't have been anywhere near Bajor in the first place, and if she held out on him she'd be denying him useful information.
"Hey, it never hurts to be curious!" he cried, when she accused him of prying. "For all you know, they're staging another occupation!"
"Do you think they are?" she asked, hoping her tone didn't give away her genuine worry.
"Nah," Miro said. "Wouldn't happen. They don't even have close to enough resources."
Eeris nodded, hoping he was right.
Aside from that, they spent the trip in relative silence. Just because they had somehow forged a truce and agreed to work together didn't mean they all liked each other, and Miro still made the odd derogatory comment about Odo. And as much as Eeris had begun to understand Odo through his love for Kira Nerys, she still found him to be frighteningly alien, and avoided him whenever possible now that they weren't trapped together in a prison cell. All in all, most of the voyage passed without event, only a few occasional words exchanged with Odo.
Miro and Eeris, on the other hand, didn't exactly stay distant. Eeris passed the time asking Miro about his crusade against chaos in the galaxy, and Miro filled her in with his usual excitement, spinning tales of battles against Cardassians and Tzenkethi and Klingons. He told her about his host Sizran's underhanded exploits, doing her best to sail past the law, and Arvu's unfortunate encounters with the Breen. For the first time, it hit Eeris how truly alien Miro was, beyond the pattern of spots that lined his forehead. She'd gotten good at looking past those spots, at forgetting them entirely. But to think of all the years he'd spent as entirely different people, and to hear him speak of Sizran and Arvu and the others as no separate from him, their memories his own—it was a bit more jarring than she'd ever admit to him.
Oddly enough, Eeris found that she never wanted to be a source of pain for him. Usually, she didn't care. She might as well have given her people the middle finger, for all the care she'd shown them. But Miro was different. He'd rescued her, he'd welcomed her presence on board his ship in the near future, he'd accepted her perhaps less than noble past, and still he didn't pry. He never once asked her about the lengths she'd gone through to get off her planet, even though he'd complained more than once about Bajor's isolation and certainly knew it was no easy task for a twenty-one-year-old girl. He even seemed to have all but forgotten that she'd once been her people's next Steward, the very thing he seemed to hate most about Bajor. Eeris didn't ask about these things. She didn't want to push her luck, and see where his acceptance gave way to anger. But if he was willing to look past all of her imperfections, well, then…she was more than willing to do the same for him, and pretend she didn't notice his alienness at all.
Eeris did have her limits, however. Prophets knew how long she'd be traveling with this man, even sleeping in the bed right below his. He was as closed off about the important things as he was talkative about the things that didn't matter at all, and she knew that in order for her to keep trusting him and keep hanging around with him, something would eventually have to give.
When not chatting about past battles and bio surveys and regions of the galaxy Dax had explored in the not-so-distant past, they were silent. Miro lapsed into a quiet that seemed almost unnatural for him. Eeris had to remind herself that he'd spent ages alone before meeting her. Eeris, loathe as she was to admit it, lapsed into thought about her father. She imagined him worrying about her back home. She had so bluntly dismissed his concerns. She hadn't exactly lied, per se—she hadn't known the extent of the danger Viresa posed until their talk in the replimat earlier—but she definitely hadn't given her father the whole picture. She hadn't told him that she'd been trapped in a Cardassian holding cell for almost a week. She hadn't told him that a metamorphosis who had once abandoned the Alpha Quadrant for his people, the Founders, was now their best chance at insider information about the Dominion.
Eeris hadn't seen a reason to tell them. It wasn't as if it would do her father any good—she wasn't coming back home, so it would just needlessly worry him. But still, it was hard to shake her mind of him and the rest of the people she'd left behind.
She shook herself out of her thoughts. There was something approaching on the view screen—and it wasn't Earth.
"Patrol ships," Miro said. "Damn, I could have sworn I could avoid them."
The ships looked like nothing Eeris had ever seen before, though that wasn't saying much. They didn't bear any resemblance to a Cardassian ship or the Challenger. They looked a bit better kept than the Challenger—no offense to Miro—and definitely less rugged than the one Cardassian ship she'd seen. They did, however, look like they had a few battle scars. They seemed a bit spindly for patrol ships, but then, Eeris wasn't an expert.
"Well, it's not as if they pose a threat, is it?" Odo asked, having joined them in the cockpit. "We're not doing anything wrong."
Miro didn't answer, stabbing at the dashboard.
"Miro?" Odo asked. "We're not doing anything wrong, are we?"
Another ship's interior appeared on the viewscreen, cutting him off. It looked to Eeris like some sort of cockpit, but a fair bit bigger than the Challenger's, and with much more open space. In the center stood a man who looked almost like a Bajoran—or a Trill, for that matter—except there was no sign of any nose ridges. She wondered if he was from Earth's native species. Or was this some other alien, one she had yet to learn about?
"Miro Dax," the man said, after checking something on the flat screen he held in one hand. "I have a warrant for your arrest, if you'll please—"
"Oh, shut up," Miro said. "Look, I'll pay you to look the other way, if that's what it takes. Well, what'll it be? What's your price?"
"It's Miro," he snapped. Rolling his eyes at Eeris, he asked, "Why doesn't anyone ever remember that?"
"Miro," the man on the screen said, "you're in Federation territory. If you expect me to forget I ever saw you like some Ferengi looking to make a bar or two, you're mistaken. I'm authorized to fire if necessary."
"You shouldn't have even seen me," Miro said. "What are you doing off your designated patrol route?"
"That's none of your concern. Now, Miro—"
"Oh, for the love of fate, don't they ever teach you not to warn your enemies first?" Miro asked. "See ya 'round, Federation."
With that, he cut the channel, and Eeris felt the deck plating rumble beneath her as the engines shifted. The distant stars panned across the viewscreen as he changed course, the little oddly-shaped patrol ships slipping out of sight.
"Miro?" Odo asked. "What are you doing?"
"I'll just come in from a different angle," he said, already plotting a course. "Really, this shouldn't have happened. I'd hoped to avoid this sort of hassle, but…oh well."
"He said he had a warrant for your arrest," Odo said.
"Oh, please," Miro groaned, "are you really gonna go all security chief on me?"
"I simply think—"
"…I should just surrender and turn myself over to the authorities?" Miro jabbed a few final buttons. "Yeah, think again."
The words had barely left his mouth when the cockpit shuddered. Eeris stiffened in her seat, eyes darting from Miro to the trembling bulkheads and back.
"Miro…?" she asked.
"Don't worry, kid, I can fight them off," he said. He gripped the joystick in the center of the dashboard and swung them around. "Alright, you two, hold on tight—arming phasers—"
Another rumble shook the cockpit, and a light on the dashboard blinked.
Miro reopened the channel. "What now?"
"Surrender immediately," the Earth man said. "Cut your engines and disarm your weapons or we will open fire."
"You've already opened fire," Miro said. "Care to think of a better threat?"
"Disarm your weapons," the man said. "You have one minute."
Miro rolled his eyes and cut the channel again. "This is ridiculous. Come on, you two, lemme get us outta here."
"You'll do no such thing," Odo said.
"Ya think?" Miro punched something into the dashboard.
"Miro, stop," Odo said. "Whatever you're wanted for, I doubt you want to compound the charges by resisting arrest."
"Figures you'd be on their side," Miro said. "Look, they just want me for a couple petty crimes. Nothing drastic. Honestly, what kind of guy do you think I am? Just because I'm a bit of a galactic troublemaker—"
"Exactly," Odo said. "I have no doubt you're somewhat…shall we say…downplaying the things you did."
"I can't believe I'm listening to this."
Miro gripped the joystick and altered course again, but this time, they'd barely moved at all when a more violent shudder wracked the cockpit. Eeris froze, grateful when Odo's hands grasped her shoulders to steady her. Miro cursed under his breath and punched at the controls, but another blast rocked the ship and Eeris heard something in the back blow out in a flurry of sparks.
"Damn!" Miro cursed. "They've dropped my shields. How did they even…?"
The comm light on the dashboard blinked again.
Miro glared up at Odo. "Just to be clear, I'm blaming you for this."
"Go right ahead," Odo said. "But during your trial, just remember who it was these patrol ships had a warrant to arrest."
Sighing, Miro opened the comm again.
"Disarm your weapons," the man said. "This is your final warning."
"Or you'll what?" Miro snapped. "Blow my ship apart? Nothing I did warrants a death sentence! And how'd you drop my shields, anyway? The Challenger is tougher than this!"
"I'm authorized to apprehend you using any force necessary," the man said, ignoring the last of Miro's questions. "If that means beaming you out just as your warp core blows? So be it."
"Fine," Miro growled. "But I still want to know how you found me—and how you got past my shields! This part of the patrol grid should have been open, I know the patterns! Well? Answer me!"
"Disarm your weapons and cut your engines," the man said.
Miro let out a grunt of frustration and tapped in a command. "Done."
"Good." The man smiled. "Come quietly, and you'll be afforded every courtesy."
Miro rolled his eyes. "That's sure comforting. What does that mean, anyway? Full room service in my holding cell?"
"We'll lock onto your ship with a tractor beam," the man said. "Enjoy the ride."
"Don't count on it," Miro said, and cut the channel just as a low rumble reverberated through the Challenger's hull. He checked his instruments and grimaced. "Well, they've got us. No fighting back now."
"Glad to hear it," Odo said, leaning against a bulkhead and folding his arms.
"Oh, stop it." Miro slumped in his seat.
"Miro?" Eeris asked. "What exactly did you do?"
He shrugged. "Nothing huge."
"Rather not talk about it."
"About a couple of minor crimes?" Eeris asked incredulously. "After everything you've told me about your time in this galaxy, I would have thought—"
"I just don't want to talk about it, okay?" Miro said, frowning. "They shouldn't have found me in the first place—I know the patrol routes, there shouldn't have been anyone here. And how'd they get through my shields, anyway? The Challenger wasn't made yesterday!"
"This is why you were so eager to avoid the patrol routes, isn't it?" Odo asked.
Miro shrugged. "Can you blame me? Picture it. Me, trapped in a holding cell. Standing trial. Manacled, answering to ordinary, commonplace, boring charges. It's ridiculous. I should be out there, stopping Viresa, keeping the galaxy in one piece, not stuck in a tractor beam on my way to…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "Never mind. Just gonna have to deal with it, I guess."
Eeris didn't miss Odo's smirk."
"So what's the plan now?" she asked. "You think the justice system will tie you up for long?"
Miro snorted, and only then did Eeris notice her choice of words.
"Who knows," he said, gaze drifting off into the middle distance. "No telling what they'll try to blame me for."
Odo frowned. "Miro?"
"Never mind," Miro said. "Look, you two, I know this isn't much to go on…but you've got to try everything you can to get me out. This isn't just about me not wanting to be cooped up in a holding cell, though that's part of it. There's more important things at stake. Viresa. The galaxy." He looked them each in the eye. "That won't matter to them. I'm nobody to them. I"m the guy who flew the coop when they tried to clamp down on security 'cause I couldn't stand to sit in one place. They look at me, and they'll just see the vagabond troublemaker who slipped through their fingers not so long ago. It'll be lock me up, try me in court, case closed, move on. We don't have time for that—the galaxy needs me, now more than ever."
Odo nodded. "We'll certainly do what we can, Miro, but I'm not about to circumvent the law."
"Course not," Miro scoffed. "Forgot who I was talking to for a second there."
"So," Eeris said, "who was that? Were those humans?"
Immediately, Miro softened, features creasing into a smile. "Yeah, humans. It's kind of funny, the way everyone calls bipeds like us 'humanoid,' as if Earth's natives are at the center of the universe. And what's more—early in their history, they even used to think that! They even have the nerve to call themselves humans. Not Earthans, not Terrans—though the mirror universe humans were smart enough to go with that—humans. I'm not even entirely sure where the word comes from. But somehow, the whole galaxy gets saddled with it. Next thing you know, it'll be Romulanoids, what with Viresa's thirst for power. I'm surprised she hasn't spread that one around by now."
Eeris smiled. "What about 'Terrans'? Where does that come from?"
"Just another name for the Earth," Miro said. "On a planet with hundreds of languages, it's a wonder anyone calls it the same thing. They mostly just use Federation Standard these days, have since long before all these border wars, but…" He shrugged.
His mention of Federation Standard pricked at Eeris's curiosity. "Hold on a second. Federation Standard? They were speaking Bajoran on the comm just a second ago."
"Nah, you just heard Bajoran. That's the universal translator for ya!"
"So…what did you hear? Trill?"
He shook his head. "No, I heard Standard. Grew up in the Federation, after all. Though if they spoke in Trill—which no one does, honestly—I'd understand it."
"So let me get this straight," Eeris said. "What if I spoke in…I don't know…Romulan? You'd still hear Standard?"
"And Odo?" Eeris turned to him. "What are you hearing?"
"Bajoran," Odo said, though everything about his stance suggested he'd rather not say any more on the subject.
Eeris nodded. "Right…okay. That's kinda weird. Makes sense, though. It never occurred to me to wonder how anyone in this galaxy understood each other…"
Miro grinned at her.
"Hold on a second, though," Eeris said. "We don't have this 'universal translator,' as you call it, on Bajor. What if you spoke to me there?"
"Not that I'd ever be on Bajor," Miro said, "but I've got an implant for that kind of thing. We'd still understand each other."
"This is absolutely fascinating," Odo said dryly, "but I believe we can expect to reach Earth soon."
Eeris looked up at the viewscreen. Sure enough, a bright blue planet with swirls of white was drawing closer.
"Earth," Miro said, shaking his head. "Sure never thought I'd end up coming back here."
"You mentioned something about steering clear of the Federation," Eeris said, remembering their conversation when they had first met.
"That's right," Miro said. "Though it sure wasn't because they'd arrest me on sight. I've got other reasons to avoid them."
"Such as?" Odo asked.
"Oh, nothing hugely important," Miro said, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. "The Federation's shrunk down a lot since you last saw them. Reached their prime a couple hundred years ago, then Viresa struck out from the shadows and…well, they're about as weak as they've ever been. Not important, in the grand scheme of things. Can't get along with the Klingons, had to withdraw most of their ships from deep space…it's not a pretty situation. At least they don't have the strength they did when they wanted Bajor to join. If they did, I'll bet they'd be annexing worlds left and right." He rolled his eyes. "Borg threat all over again."
"That's an…interesting way of looking at it," Odo said.
"Anyway, that's why I avoid them," Miro said. "They're not interesting, not worth my while, and a bunch of idiotic do-gooders besides. Funny, how far they've fallen. And to think, the Federation used to be a vast empire, spanning light-years and thousands of civilizations. Probably shouldn't have expanded farther into the Beta Quadrant—I imagine the Klingon threat wouldn't be so bad." He scoffed. "Their borders are so close it's unbelievable. You can't make a warp jump without running into a bird of prey."
"And yet somehow, we managed to make it here in one piece," Odo said.
"Lucky you, you've got me on board," Miro smirked. "I know my way around. Don't cross the path of a wandering bird of prey if I can help it. Like I said before, Odo, I stay out of the little skirmishes—no sense seeking out the wrong sort of trouble when I could be mediating conflict elsewhere."
Despite her best efforts to stay focused on the conversation, Eeris found her attention drifting. It was irritating, how easily that happened. The only way to learn more about the galaxy and ease her enforced isolation was to listen to Miro talk about things like this, and yet here she was, zoning out entirely. She supposed she should at least be grateful Miro and Odo seemed to be getting along a bit better than before.
Earth, she found, as the planet drifted ever closer, was a sharp contrast to the last planet they'd visited. Where Nebez had been all ruddy colors and swirling storms, Earth looked like a humanoid's paradise, with its generally fair-looking weather and expansive blue oceans. Eeris marveled that tow planets could be so different and yet still be home to humanoids. Even Bajor, she reflected, was worlds apart from this planet, with its hazy skies and dying farmland. And that difference was even more astounding—Bajor and Earth may have had little in common, but their people differed only by a few nose ridges.
They drew in so close that Earth's gibbous fraction loomed below them, the curved line of the horizon encroaching across the viewscreen until it obscured the space beyond. The tractor beam released them with a jolt, and the comm blinked again.
Miro opened it with a tired sigh and rested his chin on his palm as the patrol ship addressed him.
"Our records indicate your craft can land on the surface," the human man said. "Please proceed to Federation Headquarters. Transmitting landing instructions now."
"Received," Miro said. "Thanks, Federation."
He cut the comm before taking the Challenger on a steep dive toward one of the continents in the northern hemisphere. He leveled them out just as they entered the atmosphere, and Eers felt a familiar warmth envelope the ship. She remembered the feeling from their landing on Nebez, but something was missing. She sat quietly, musing, trying to figure out what was different this time. When Miro silently inputted a command, she realized what it was—all of the excitement Miro had shown before, the exhilarating thrill as they crashed in through the atmosphere and skimmed low over Nebez's land, was completely absent. Miro was following the patrol ship's instructions to the letter, and Eeris found she missed his exuberance.
Whatever they were walking into, she had a feeling Miro wasn't going to enjoy it.
He silently piloted the ship down to the join between two great landmasses. Barely a tremor wracked the Challenger's cockpit. They set down in a wide open area next to a tall marble building. To their left stretched fields of bright green grass of the likes Eeris had never seen before; to their right, an entourage of what appeared to be humans approached, marching over bare soil.
"Look at that," Miro grumbled, nodding at the building. "Perfect condition. Never can admit they're falling apart at the borders."
A light flashed on the dashboard, and Miro sighed. "Looks like someone's come to meet us."
Resigned, he got up from the pilot's seat and headed for the airlock. He tapped the code into the panel next to it and it rolled aside; just as had happened on Nebez, the gangplank descended until it touched the planet's soil.
Outside, footsteps approached. Odo joined Miro at the airlock and Eeris followed, keeping the other metamorph's body between hers and the outside.
"Miro Dax," said the man in front. He wore a uniform that was mostly black save for the gold swath across the tunic, and an oddly shaped insignia glittered on his breast. "You're under arrest. I assume you're familiar with the charges?"
Miro didn't answer. Eeris followed his gaze to a woman who stood near the front of the group, calculating eyes watching him. To Eeris's surprise, she looked about Miro's age—maybe a little younger—and even had a pattern of Trill spots sprinkled down either side of her forehead, unlike the humans standing with her. Her brown hair was pulled back over her shoulders and her eyes had an intensity about them that set Eeris on edge.
"Naral," Miro whispered.
If Eeris had thought she'd seen Miro vulnerable before, every time she'd inquired about his past and he'd closed up on her, it paled in comparison to this. His jaw had gone slack, his eyes locked on the woman—Naral—as if they were the only two present. Absently, his hand fumbled for the doorway, and his fingers curled around the frame, knuckles white as he gripped it like a lifeline.
"Miro?" Eeris asked, edging towards him.
He didn't seem to hear her. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally settled on silence.
Naral walked toward him with singleminded determination that frightened Eeris. When she brushed past the leader of the entourage, he tried to hold her back, but she turned on him with a glare that quickly put him in his place. She continued across the dirt expanse that separated her from the Challenger, finally reaching the gangplank and doggedly climbing it, the metal rattling beneath her thundering footsteps.
"Miro," Eeris tried again, hoping to at least help him face down this particular foe with dignity. She'd never seen him like this, not even when that alien Iz'ork on Nebez had threatened him.
But Miro didn't so much as acknowledge her, lost in his own world.
Naral finally reached them at the top of the gangplank. One hand on her hip, she cocked her head, and Eeris would have thought her posture somewhat cocky and defiant if not for the darkness brewing in her eyes.
"Miro," she said. "It's been a while."
Miro blinked. His throat worked as he swallowed. "Uh…yeah."
"Really," Naral said, "too long."
He gulped. Nodded.
"Miro," Eeris whispered, nudging him gently with her shoulder.
At last, he looked at her, his eyes startled, as if he hadn't expected her to still be standing there. Whatever he saw in her, it seemed to knock him out of his daze. His fingers slowly unclamped from the airlock frame and dropped to his side, his eyes tracking back to Naral.
"Naral," he croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Naral."
She smiled coldly. "The one and only."
He cleared his throat again, eyes darting everywhere at once. "I didn't expect to see you here."
"How did you, um…"
"Get off Ebenen?" Her eyes drilled into him. "Oh, I found a way."
His throat worked.
"Took me a couple months to put a distress beacon together," she said. "But I managed."
She took a step closer, crowding him. Eeris inched closer reflexively. "I've spent eight months tracking you down, waiting to spring my trap. You're a fool if you think I'm going to let you go now."
"Right." Miro cleared his throat. He addressed his next words to the security entourage, leaning around Naral's shoulder. "So, I guess I'd better hurry up and face the music?"
Just like that, the moment shattered. Naral stepped back and air rushed in to fill the gap between her and Miro. Miro blinked dazedly, as if just now being released from a spell. The leader of the security contingent marched across the dirt expanse and up the gangplank to handcuff Miro, which was done briskly and with minimal resistance. Miro barely spared Eeris a comforting glance before allowing himself to be led down the gangplank and across to the other security officers. They moved off, and Eeris cringed as Naral fell into step behind them, just a few paces behind Miro.
"Well," she said to Odo, "that was intense."
"Somehow," Odo said, "I don't think she's part of the trouble he was expecting."
Eeris shivered, remembering the way Naral had looked at Miro. There was something not quite right about that woman. Something Eeris intended to find out.
"I want to visit him," Eeris said.
She and Odo had remained on the Challenger after Miro was marched away into holding. Naral's parting glance at the two of them—no, at the Challenger itself, as if it was a spoil of war she was eager to claim—had sent shivers down Eeris's spine, and she was all too eager to find out what had happened between those two.
Besides, she thought with a twinge of guilt, it would get her away from Odo for a little bit.
"I'm sure Miro would appreciate a visit," Odo said. "Especially from you."
Eeris nodded and stood. She'd gotten good at balancing, leaning forward a bit and pushing herself upright, so she could stand without the aid of her arms. She still missed them, though, and there was a little niggling seed of impatience growing at the back of her mind the longer Odo didn't do anything about it. He'd claimed that he would do anything to help her, but so far he was just sitting around and letting events transpire as they pleased. She wished he would at least broach the subject, do something…
Shoving those thoughts out of mind for the time being, Eeris headed to the still-open airlock and stood atop the gangplank. It glimmered bright under Earth's sun, and not for the first time, she noticed how vibrant this world was. It was nothing like Bajor, but didn't quite compare to the complete chaos of Nebez. Where on Bajor, haze hung low in the air, Earth's atmosphere was a pristine paradise. Off in the distance to the side of Federation Headquarters, she saw a faint, grayish undulation on the horizon and wondered what it was—until she realized that they were the shapes of mountains, and she could see that far on this clean planet.
The outdoors suddenly seemed terrifying, without Miro there to guide her. Her heart pounded as she looked down the gangplank, calculating how many steps it would take for her feet to hit alien soil…her shoulders hung uselessly at her sides, making her feel even more vulnerable.
"I'll come with you, if you like," Odo said.
Eeris nearly melted with relief, her earlier desire to put some space between them forgotten. "Could you?"
He smiled and stood. Or, at least, she thought he smiled—it was still difficult to read him, even at that most basic level, despite the fact that she'd spent about two weeks at his side. He approached and, after a moment of hesitation, offered his hand. Eeris shrank back and didn't let it touch her shoulder. She was all too aware of how bigotry felt, and knew from their first conversation aboard the Challenger that she didn't hide hers well. She didn't exactly like being that way. It was just so hard to shake, when he was so alien.
If Odo noticed her discomfort, he didn't point it out this time. He simply walked down the gangplank and paused on the ground, turning around to ask, "You coming?"
"Right, yeah," Eeris said. She dashed after him, this time remembering and correcting for the gangplank's slant, and joined him on Earth's soil.
And stopped. It was her second alien planet; how could she not?
"You alright?" Odo asked.
"Yeah," she said, wiggling her toes so the soles of her shoes undulated against the ground. It didn't honestly feel that much different from Bajor or Nebez, and she wondered why she'd expected it to. "Just getting a feel for the place. Prophets, I wish Miro were here."
The line of Odo's mouth twitched. "So do I. Well, hopefully, we'll figure out exactly what he's been charged with and get this over with as quickly as possible. I, for one, have no wish to stay on Earth for long."
"Why?" she asked as she started walking, and he fell into step beside her. "What's so bad about Earth?"
He shrugged. "Nothing important. Just, I've had a few prior experiences here, and none of them were pleasant."
She frowned, considering. "This was back when you and Miro worked on Deep Space Nine?"
He nodded. "That's right."
"What brought you this far out?" she asked. "I mean, we're not exactly next door to Bajor."
Odo chuckled. "No, we're not. It had to do with the Dominion, actually. I was consulting for Starfleet at the time, and they thought it wise to work on ways to better detect Changelings. Unfortunately, it put me in the position of lab rat."
"They did experiments on you," Eeris said. Her eyes narrowed. "How is that in any way right? Did they even ask you first?"
"Oh, they asked," Odo said. "That was the ironic part—that I would spend seven years wishing to set foot outside a laboratory, only to spend part of another seven as a willing specimen."
She frowned. "Wait a second. "YOu're telling me you spent seven years in a laboratory? When was this?"
He shrugged. "It's not important. Anyway, we're almost here. Do you want me to wait outside, or go in with you?"
Eeris looked up; to her surprise, they were indeed almost to the building's doors. "I wouldn't mind the company."
"In with you it is, then," Odo said, and fell silent until they reached the doors. There, two armed guards—in gold uniform tunics just like the ones who had come for Miro—stepped forward from the sidelines and blocked their path.
"Identify yourselves," one barked.
"I'm Eeris," Eeris said, her voice small. "I've got a friend in there, I just want to see him."
The guard nodded. "The Founder will stay."
"I'm not a Founder," Odo said.
"It makes no difference to us what you call yourself," the guard said. "We don't allow your kind around here. You're lucky we're letting you stay on the premises at all."
Odo harrumphed. "And here I thought a peace treaty with the Dominion would actually do the Alpha Quadrant some good."
The guard blinked, startled. "That was quite some time ago, Founder. Now, I would ask that you return to your ship. We will allow you to stay on the premises so long as you're contained."
"How generous," Odo said dryly.
The guard rested the heel of his hand on his weapon where it was holstered on his belt. "Do I need to ask you again?"
Odo turned to Eeris. "You'll be alright?"
"Course," Eeris said, not quite believing it.
Odo assessed her a moment longer, but seemed to realize he didn't have much choice in the matter when the guard drew his weapon and inch from its holster. He eyed the security guard one last time, reminding Eeris of a long-ago reference of Miro's—security chief, he was—and she wondered if he was remembering what it had been like to be in this guard's position. There was a strange look in his eyes, but as usual, Eeris couldn't decipher it. Finally, he nodded once and turned on his heel to head back to the Challenger. The guard immediately relaxed, and his partner held open the door for Eeris to enter. She quickly crossed over the threshold, and the door thumped closed behind her.
Federation Headquarters was nothing like she had expected. From all Miro's tales of how the Federation had been marginalized and wasn't even worth a second glance, she had expected maybe a shabby interior, barely staffed, maybe even with flickering lights. But the sight that greeted her was far different. She was standing underneath a cathedral ceiling that reminded her of the High Council chamber on Bajor. A wide hallway extended in front of her with numerous doors set into alcoves along the walls. She walked along, footsteps echoing in the vast emptiness of the place, hoping to find some sort of clue soon as to how to get to Miro.
She found it in the form of one of the hallway doors. It was guarded by another of the gold-uniformed officers, making her wonder if this was the security area. She walked towards it with more purpose than she felt and nodded to the officer before leaning her weight against the door, hoping it would swing in the right direction, and heading inside.
She found herself in yet another hallway, but this one ended quickly in a desk with a single computer monitor and another security guard in attendance. She approached tentatively, but the guard waved her on after scanning her with a device that made her wish Miro was at her side. She imagined him explaining what the scan was looking for, banishing the tension that had settled into her shoulders at the alien intrusion, making light of the fact that they were, after all, on another alien planet. And like on Nebez, Eeris was powerless here. She'd never realized how much she'd gotten used to being the center of attention until she'd stepped out into the wide open galaxy.
She headed on past the guard, through another set of doors that gave before her weight, and found herself in a broad room ringed with holding cells. She spotted Miro in one near the far right. He wasn't alone—nearly all the cells held a prisoner or two of their own, and not all of them species iris recognized—but unlike most of the other prisoners, Miro was alone in his. Eeris imagined that was a plus, even if it couldn't be fun to be stuck down here in holding.
"Miro," she called as she approached.
"Eeris?" His eyes lit up and he stood from his bench, meeting her at the front of his cell. "What are you doing here?"
"Thought I'd come check on you," she said. "Can't be fun holed up in here, when you've got the whole galaxy to worry about."
He grimaced, but it faded almost instantly. "Yeah, well, never mind me. Whadya think of Earth?"
She shrugged. "Cleaner than Bajor."
He grinned. "Yeah, that's for sure. Less air pollution around here. Course, twenty-first century had all these people pumping so much crap into their atmosphere you'd think it would be poisonous to breathe, but that stopped soon enough—nowadays, it's just clean air and water for everyone. Quite a step away from what you're used to, huh?"
She smiled, unable to stay afraid in the face of his enthusiasm. "Yup. Very different. And different from Nebez."
Miro laughed. "Ha! Not so many different aliens around here, are there?"
"Although, I was a bit surprised," Eeris said. "The ground beneath my feet…I feel like it should feel different, each new alien planet we go to. But it mostly feels the same."
"Same gravity," Miro nodded. "And all the planets with life are generally the same underneath. Terrestrial, rocky, molten metal core…you get the picture. The difference is who decides to live there, and in Nebez's case…it's everyone! Course, Bajor's just got you Bajorans, and the Steward, might I add, but Earth's got some character itself…humans, yes, but a couple others, as you probably saw just within these holding cells. Not as many as before, though. Federation's collapsed a lot in the last hundred years, lost some of their old territory, and some of the newer planets got taken over, annexed by other galactic powers. It's a mess out there beyond the border, I'm telling you. Still, though. Earth's just about as cosmopolitan as you can get."
"You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think you actually liked it here," Eeris said.
Miro shrugged. "It's not Earth I don't like. It's the Federation I stay away from. Thought it was worth it to earn a few bars of platinum—that'll teach me to swing anywhere near it in the future, huh?"
"All this wasn't just because you hate the Federation," Eeris said. "That…that woman, earlier. Naral, was it?"
Miro stiffened. "Yes."
"Something happened between you, didn't it?" Eeris asked. "What was it she said…something about waiting eight months to find you? Why?"
"No big deal," Miro said.
Eeris frowned. "What, no 'I don't want to talk about it'?"
"Well, no!" Miro cried. "It really is no big deal!"
"Then tell me!" Eeris said. "What happened between you two?"
"Nothing you need to worry about, kid," he said with a smile.
But Eeris wasn't fooled. Maybe it was because for all of his tendency to close off when she prodded at a sensitive subject, he was actually pretty transparent about his emotions most of the time, but she could tell when his smiles were false.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "I saw you when you set eyes on her. It was like you'd seen a ghost."
He shrugged. "Yeah, well, maybe I did."
"So tell me," Eeris said. "I know something happened between the two of you. I've never seen you like that."
"And a good thing, too," Miro said. "Imagine that—me, Dax, explorer, surfer of all fate's waves, the only tour guide you've got, cowering before every threat we run across like some kind of…" He shook his head in derision, as if there weren't even words for how shameful that would be.
"Tell me," Eeris said, stepping closer to his cell.
"What makes you think it's any big deal?" he asked, still smiling cheerily. "For all you know, she just shocked me with her new cosmetic workup or something."
Eeris raised a brow. "Seriously?"
He shrugged. "Okay, not my best lie."
"So, what happened?"
He shook his head. "Honestly, kid, it's nothing. Nothing you need to worry about."
She frowned. "Miro, I'm not going to forget about this."
"Yeah, I'll bet," he muttered. "Can I ask you a favor, though?"
"You can ask."
His smile was thin. "Don't talk to her. Please?"
"Don't talk to who, Naral?"
"There's something about her that bothers me," Eeris said. "I want to find out what's going on."
"Well, at the very least, don't ask her about me," Miro said. "Or listen to anything she says about me. Okay, kid? Really, resentment has a way of tainting opinions."
"She resents you? Why?" Eeris asked.
Miro's mouth twisted in a grimace, but he didn't answer.
"Well?" Eeris asked. "Tell me."
"I think not," Miro said. "Believe me, kid, it's not for your ears."
"Fine," Eeris said. "I'll just ask her, then."
Miro looked pained. "Really, kid, is it too much to ask that you don't talk to her about me?"
"Yup," Eeris said. "Unless you want to tell me yourself."
Miro sighed. "Oh, go on, then. Get the story from her, get the wrong idea. Just don't blame me when she paints a horrid picture."
"Fine then." Eeris spun on her heel. "You had your chance. But I want to know what's going on here, and if you won't tell me, I'm gonna ask someone who will. Even if she lies!"
Miro frowned and gave her a strange look that, for once, she couldn't read, before looking away and examining the floor.
"See you around," she said, and walked out of the holding area.
Eeris was surprised when she ran into Naral not far from the doors to security. The Trill was walking down the broad hallway, eating up the floor with long, angry strides. Eeris ran up to her and tried to fall into step next to her, but Naral's pace made it nearly impossible.
"Hi," Eeris said breathlessly. "Naral, right?"
"What do you want?" Naral asked.
"Well, I was just talking to Miro about you…" Eeris said.
"Whatever he told you, he probably lied."
"He hasn't told me anything!"
"Nothing?" Naral blinked at her. "Well, that's different."
"You're sure he hasn't said a word?" Naral asked. "Hasn't even given any hints?"
"He's stubborn as a rock," Eeris said.
"Huh," Naral said, eyes distant. "I guess he really has changed."
"What do you mean?" Eeris asked. "Did he used to be more open?"
"Hella open," Naral agreed. "Couldn't hide from me at all. Told me everything. Until one day he just…didn't."
Eeris frowned. "Wait a second. You're telling me it was sudden? Like, all of a sudden he just…changed? Just like that?"
Naral nodded, jaw tight.
"Tell me about him," Eeris said.
"Why would I do that?"
"Because I want to know," Eeris said. "That man we're talking about—he's my only means of transportation across the galaxy. Without him, I'm lost. He's my ticket to freedom, but if he's…if he's different, not what I think…Naral, I need to know."
Naral softened, finally slowing enough that Eeris could match her stride. "You're traveling with him?"
Eeris shrugged. "Suppose so. Hasn't been long."
"I was with him for a year," Naral said. "Just a year. But before that…I was his friend. A pretty close friend, I might add."
Eeris felt herself drawn to Naral's wistful tone. Who was the man she was missing, if not the Miro that Eeris knew?
"Go on," she breathed.
Naral smiled. "He was the best. And I say that with the utmost certainty. You don't get better than Miro Bain. He was kind, loving…he tried so hard to love it broke my heart. But he also had a streak of daring, of wanderlust, that he couldn't satisfy from our home on Trill. I planned to escape with him, you know. I didn't want the stars like he did, but I would have given him anything. At least we agreed not to leave Federation space…that way, both of us were happy."
"But something changed?" Eeris asked.
"I'm not sure what," Naral said. "Maybe I'll never know. All I know is that, in the blink of an eye, the man I'd fallen in love with since childhood was gone. There was nothing left of him. One moment, he was the Miro I knew…and the next, he was a complete stranger."
"What happened?" Eeris pressed.
"I'm surprised he didn't tell you," Naral said. "He was always so open. So open. But then, I suppose he couldn't help it…things weren't easy for him, back then."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he'd just gotten joined, for one. And he found it…difficult, should we say, to deal with his new memories."
Eeris frowned. "I've never gotten that impression. I mean, he doesn't like to talk about any of his life before he met me, except for a few occasions when he's rambled off about something or other to do with Jadzia or Ezri, but he's not…"
"Then maybe he was right," Naral said, sighing. "Maybe he's better off without me."
"He told you that?"
"Not in so many words," Naral said. "He did go as far as to abandon me on an alien planet, so the message came through pretty loud and clear."
Eeris blinked. "He did what?"
"We discussed it," Naral said. "He wouldn't tell me what I'd done wrong…just that I needed to go. That I needed to leave him, and he needed the Challenger more than I did. So he left me, took off on his own. I suppose I should be glad he's done okay in the interim."
"Okay?" Eeris repeated. "I can't imagine him being not okay. I mean, there was that one moment when that alien on Nebez threatened him, but the most vulnerable I've ever seen him is when he saw you."
"That was his most vulnerable?" Naral asked. "That was nothing."
"That's really as rattled as he gets?" Naral asked.
"At least as far as I've seen," Eeris said.
"Hmm," Naral said. "Must still hate me, then, if the sight of me is what did it."
"Hate you? What? I mean…why…"
"I don't know," Naral said. "You'd have to ask him."
"I tried that," Eeris said. "He keeps insisting it doesn't matter, isn't something I need to worry about!"
Naral sighed. "He really has closed off, hasn't he?"
"Tenfold, if what you've told me is true," Eeris said. "And you don't have any idea why he did this to you?"
Naral shook her head. "The change began after we visited Bajor. But he wouldn't tell me why."
Eeris stared at her, the gears in her brain firing up a storm. Her eyes widened as she made the connection.
"He refuses to go to Bajor," she said. "Says Deep Space Nine is the closest he'll go. He refuses to even talk about what happened there. I always kind of wondered if something especially bad happened…"
Naral nodded. "That makes sense, considering. He must have chosen silence as his new defense mechanism. He hasn't had anyone to talk to for the past year, after all."
"What, and he used to talk to you?"
"He needed me," Naral said. "I mean, he really did. The slightest trigger would send him into a panic. He needed me there, to calm him, distract him, to bring him back down to Earth. If I hadn't been there…" She trailed off.
"You know what happened to him on Bajor, don't you?" Eeris realized.
Naral frowned. "Yes."
Eeris was about to ask more, but stopped. She didn't understand Miro and everything she learned about him turned up more questions than answers, but she at least had the decency to allow him his privacy here. As a rule, she tried not to think about the Kiran elder back home, that one death on her conscience, no matter how accidental it had been. If she didn't want Miro to know about that, then what right did she have to pry into his deepest secrets?
Though she still wanted him to stop being so damn closed off. Something needed to give, and soon.
"He also doesn't like talking about Ezri," Eeris said, moving on from the tempting subject. "He's told me a thing or two about her, but when I tried to pry deeper, he shut me out."
Naral nodded. "That, again, makes sense. Ezri was a source of great trauma for him."
Eeris frowned, trying to line that up with what she knew of Miro. It didn't fit.
"Trauma?" she repeated. "Naral, that doesn't make sense. He just…he isn't like that. He's always calm and collected and he loves the chaos of the galaxy, I've seen it in his eyes. I know he's been through stuff, who wouldn't after twelve hundred years? But nothing that…that painful."
"Think again, kid," Naral said. "Remember who you're talking to. Maybe Miro's changed a lot since I knew him, but I'm betting one thing's still the same. Enduring trauma never was his strong suit. But maybe now he's a bit like water and heat—he'll take a damn lot of it before he blows."
"Seeing you again," Eeris said. "What do you think it did to him? Is he…how is he right now?"
"To be perfectly blunt, I couldn't care less," Naral said, steel creeping back into her tone. "I've exhausted my compassion for that man. I gave him too much to begin with. And I've spent eight months tracking him, luring him home—I'm not going to start caring for him again now."
"At least help me," Eeris said. "I…I know him, Naral, at least I think I do. Whatever he did to you, I don't think he liked doing it. Please…tell me how to help him."
"You're on your own, kid," Naral said. "I'll never in a million years expend energy to help that man. It's far too late for us."
With that, Naral walked off. Eeris stayed put, watching her go, for a long moment.
Miro, leaving a friend as close as Naral behind? Now that she had a moment to think, doubt began to creep in. It was true, after all, that Eeris had known Miro for less than a month. Wasn't it possible that she didn't know him as well as she thought she did? What if he was the man Naral was describing, and there wasn't a missing piece in this puzzle? What if he was planning to leave her behind too, leave her at the mercy of the universe, and never give her a second glance?
Eeris shook her head, trying to banish the through she she headed back to Federation HQ's front doors, but it wouldn't go away. It was just too possible. Miro hadn't even wanted to defend himself when she was talking to him. She'd given him a chance to tell his side of the story, and he'd refused. He'd even gone so far as to ask her not to believe a word Naral said, as if he knew she would give a negative report! But if he'd known that, why not try and defend himself? What if it wasn't just because he was closed off and private? What if it was because he was guilty, and didn't want Eeris to know he was planning to abandon her?
Eeris leaned heavily against the doors and pushed through before heading across the way to the Challenger, swiping one useless shoulder stump across her eyes as she blinked away tears. It wasn't possible, was it? Would Miro leave her?
She climbed up the Challenger's gangplank and it rattled beneath her feet. She ducked into the cockpit and breathed out a sigh of relief to be somewhere familiar. The Challenger wasn't quite home to her yet, but she believed it could be.
Would Miro want that?
She couldn't afford to get comfortable here, she realized. Miro had been able to abandon Naral without a second thought, hadn't he? And Naral had said they'd been close. He'd even been more open with her. He'd trusted Naral more. Comparing Miro then with the Miro that Eeris knew, it was clear he didn't trust Eeris all that much and probably didn't value her company either. And why should he? He was a rogue wanderer who took the entire galaxy under his wing. He had no one and cared for everyone. He couldn't afford to favor one particular Bajoran girl.
Bajoran, Eeris realized. She was Bajoran, and he—according to Naral—had traumatic memories associated with Bajor. Maybe she even reminded him of things he wanted to forget. Yes, she realized, it was certain—he was going to leave her. There was no way in the galaxy he'd want her on board for long.
"Eeris? Are you alright?"
Eeris jumped in her seat as Odo leaned out of the corridor.
"What?" she asked, trying to catch her breath. "Yeah, I'm fine…"
"You're crying," he noted.
"Me? No. Never!" She forced a grin. "Why would I cry? I've got everything I want, I've escaped my home, Miro's gonna ferry us around the galaxy—"
Her voice broke on the last word, and she choked out a sob.
"Eeris?" Odo asked, quickly closing the distance between them. "Eeris, what's wrong?"
She sighed. "It's nothing."
"It doesn't seem like nothing."
"Just leave it, okay?" she snapped. She couldn't handle his gentle, calm voice. It grated against everything she was feeling inside. It seemed almost false to her ears. And how could he possibly care for her? No one did that. Well, maybe except for Miro, and once upon a time, her father. Although Miro probably didn't either…
Another sob tore itself from her throat, and she hung her head, embarrassed.
"Eeris, please," Odo said, sounding lost. "Is there anything I…"
"No," she said. "No, there's nothing you or anyone can do! Now leave me alone, will you?"
"I…if you're sure," he said.
"Damn sure," she said. "This isn't even your job! Damn it, it's for my father to do!"
Odo went still for a millisecond. Then, "I suppose that's…natural. But…he isn't here, is he?"
"No," Eeris choked, hunching in her seat. "He's not."
Odo crept closer and settled stiffly into the pilot's seat across from her. He leaned forward, and Eeris's eyes flicked up to meet his.
"Eeris…" He paused, sighed, and plowed ahead. "Listen to me. Your father may not be here right now, but I promise you, you are not alone. You may be far from home, but Miro will take care of you as soon as we get this legal mess cleared up, and I'm here. You have us, Eeris."
She shuddered. "But that's just the point, isn't it."
He tilted his head. "What is?"
"Miro's not going to take care of me. Why would he? He doesn't care about me, he just met me!"
Odo straightened in surprise. "What makes you think that?"
"Doesn't matter, does it?" Eeris brushed her shoulder stump across her eyes. "It's true."
"Now, I'd be the first to admit I haven't known Dax for nine hundred years, but he's still Dax, Eeris." Odo's expression was softer than she'd ever seen it, and she could almost believe his sentiment was genuine. "Compassionate to a fault, and in your case, utterly unable to neglect someone in need."
"But I don't want to be in need," Eeris said. "And I don't want him to care for me because he feels obligated!"
Odo frowned. "I'm sure that couldn't be further from the truth. Miro cares for you, Eeris, why would you—?"
"Because that's what Naral said," Eeris blurted. "She told me he left her behind! Marooned her on an alien planet! And they were close, Odo, they were friends, she said since childhood! If he could do that to her, what's he going to to do me? He doesn't care!"
Odo was silent for a moment. "I'm sure that if he did that, he had a reason. I'd like to talk to him about this."
"Good luck with that when you can't even get in the building," Eeris said.
"Then perhaps I'd better talk to Naral instead," Odo said thoughtfully. "Eeris…do you think you could direct her here? Maybe I'll have more luck in getting the full story."
"You don't think I tried hard enough," Eeris said.
"I don't think you know Dax very well," Odo corrected. "You're forgetting, I knew him when he was Jadzia. I think I know a thing or two about what Dax is capable of, and that doesn't include marooning close friends."
"You sound pretty sure about that," Eeris said. "You should have heard Naral. She wasn't lying."
Her own words from her conversation with Miro pricked the back of her consciousness—that she'd get the story from Naral, even if the other Trill lied.
"You may be right," Odo agreed. "It could simply be a matter of miscommunication…in any case, I'd like to talk to her."
"I'll pass the message along," Eeris said dryly. "Assuming I see her again."
Odo chuckled. "Oh, I don't think we've seen the last of her."
Miro stood when Naral approached his cell. He owed her that courtesy, at least, after what he'd done to her. And now that he'd gotten over the shock of seeing her again—even if the sight of her was still bringing up unpleasant memories he'd thought long since buried—he could face her with dignity.
"Naral," he said. "You betrayed me to the border patrol, didn't you?"
She smiled. "Figured that out, did you?"
"It wasn't hard. We're the only two left who know the Challenger's schematics. You must've told them what to look for, where to find me."
"Surprise," she said.
Miro folded his arms. "Not much of one."
"You know," she said, "I've spent a lot of time over the past few months, thinking about what you did to me. Wondering how the man I used to love could possibly change into you."
"I'm sorry," Miro said.
"It's too late for that."
Miro laughed bitterly. "Yeah, same."
"You never did come back for me," Naral said.
He shoved his hands into his pockets, knowing there was nothing he could say that would help. So why waste his breath? He'd damaged their friendship irreparably, and the worst part of it was, he didn't even regret it. Although, in his defense, the wounds she had inflicted weren't the kind one easily forgot. Still, he secretly wondered if some small part of him missed her and wanted her forgiveness, just as he had once looked to her as an example. But even if that was the case, it didn't matter. The life he'd built for himself, the life he loved and was proud of, didn't include her in it.
What he did regret was the way he'd left her. But at the time, he hadn't seen another option—he hadn't exactly been thinking with his brain.
"Miro," she said softly, "if I asked you what I did so wrong, would you tell me?"
"As if you don't already know," he said.
She glared at him. "How could I possibly know?"
He glared right back.
Naral sighed. "Maybe it was foolish of me…but I thought maybe…things would be different. I'm never gonna forgive you, don't get me wrong, but I hoped…"
"Hoped what?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Never mind, it's stupid."
Miro remembered a time, just over a year ago, when he would have reassured her that he was her friend and would never think any less of her. Her best friend in fact. But he couldn't possibly tell her that now. He had made exceptions for a lot of people over the years, knowing that people did strange things when they were hurt, but he couldn't find it within himself to do the same for Naral—not after everything she'd put him through. It tugged at his heart, that he couldn't give her the reassurance he wanted to. Instead, he stood in silence, wishing things could be different. He hoped that somewhere out there in the great expanse of the multiverse, there was a pair of them that had actually done things right, and had nurtured their friendship while they still could.
Naral, to his surprise, spoke up without his prompting, her voice suddenly accusing.
"I thought you might regret it," she bit out. "I thought you might…talk me out of hating you. But you don't even care, do you?"
Her words were a direct punch to the gut, and she didn't even realize it. The weight of his mistakes suddenly too much to bear, Miro sank down onto his sterile prison bench and hunched forward. He couldn't meet her eyes.
Naral seemed to mistake his silence for affirmation. "I knew it."
He squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't stand it—she still, after all this time, held a direct key to his heart—but he deserved this. Every last minute of it. It would be wrong of him—wrong—to deflect her punches.
"I guess that's my cue, then," Naral said. "If there's no chance that you'll…I don't know…take everything back…not that it would make any difference if you did…"
"No chance," he confirmed.
She nodded. "My turn with the Challenger, then?"
He flinched. "What?"
"Hey, fair's fair," she snapped. "You've had her for a year, and I've been marooned."
"Naral," he whispered. "You can't."
"Oh, that got you, didn't it?" she smirked.
He stared at her.
"Wow, you love that ship." She smiled. "What would you do if you lost her, Miro? Where would you be?"
Miro's jaw opened and closed, uncomprehending. Where was she going with this?
"I think you loved her more than me," Naral said. "Well, is that it, Miro? Is that why you could never quite fall for me? You loved our ship too much?"
He frowned. "Naral—"
She held up a hand. "I'm not finished."
His jaw snapped shut.
"What if you lost her?" Naral asked, her smile wide. "What would happen?"
Miro blinked rapidly, refusing to even picture that. If he lost the Challenger, his only home left in the universe…it didn't bear thinking about.
"I'll bet you'd be devastated, wouldn't you?" Naral said, looking like the cat that got the cream. "You wouldn't have anything left. I've kept informed about you, Miro. You'd have no way to fly across the galaxy and save the day at everyone's beck and call! Losing her…it'd be a death knell, wouldn't it?"
Miro glared at her, unable to express how right she was. The words were stuck in his throat; he hadn't tried to express himself verbally in over a year. He wished she'd just shut up—the Challenger was literally everything he had, he couldn't lose her.
"Then I'll bet that'd show you how I felt, hmm?" Naral said. "Give you a taste of your own medicine?"
"Naral," Miro pleaded unthinkingly.
She grinned. "Oh, this is brilliant! Thought with your reputation, you'd have cottoned on to my plan by now, but that really threw you for a loop."
"What?" He blinked. "Naral, are you just having me on? No, wait, why would you do that? But…wait…Naral, make your point already!"
"The Challenger's mine," Naral said. "Well, half mine, that is. And while you're tied up in court, I'm gonna take her."
All the air left Miro's lungs in a rush and he felt lightheaded for the first time since leaving Naral, when he'd been prone to flashbacks and disorientation. Damn it, didn't she see the indecency in kicking him when he was already down? She'd hurt him enough a year ago, and he'd paid her for it, albeit a little too harshly—why did she have to come back and try to rip the rug out from under his feet now?
She grinned. "Wow, that really got you."
"Naral, you can't!" he cried.
"There's the Miro I remember," Naral said. "Desperate, no confidence, terrified. Shoulda known this would take you down a few pegs, especially after you were so desperate to keep her. Well, now you'll know how I felt, Miro. Losing you-I loved you. But you loved the Challenger more, didn't you? And now I'm going to take her from you."
You never loved me, Miro thought. Nothing you ever did was love.
"Naral, please," he said. "Don't. I'll do anything."
"Even sacrifice that Bajoran friend of yours?" Naral asked.
Just like that, Miro's composure snapped.
"Sacrifice?" he yelled. "She's flesh and blood! How dare you? How can you even—"
"That Founder friend of yours has a ship, I'm sure," Naral said. "How else did he get here from the Gamma Quadrant? They'll go on without you. If I can't have you, no one can, Miro."
"You don't understand," Miro said. "The galaxy isn't safe for Eeris. Viresa's planning something, she's going to dismantle everything I've worked for, I can't—"
"Oh, this is even better than I thought!" Naral crowed, laughing. "Miro Dax, galactic hero, felled by a holding cell! Oh, you'll be chafing at the reins now, won't you? What'll that be like, stuck here, following the course of justice, while Viresa herself brings everything you've ever built without me crashing to the ground?"
"Naral, this is bigger than me," he said, fighting to keep his voice even. "The whole galaxy is at stake. If you need to hurt me, go ahead, but please, anything but this!"
"Oh, I don't think so," Naral said. "I'm as tired of letting the universe mess with me as you are. If you think, even for a second, that I'm going to let you keep the Challenger and do what you do best, then you are sorely mistaken."
"Naral!" Miro shouted. "Come with me. Make my very existence hell. Disparage me every chance you get, if that's what it takes! Just don't let the galaxy suffer for this, I'm begging you!"
Naral smiled. "I like that, you begging. Do it again."
Miro's jaw dropped, beyond shocked. But needs must, no matter how humiliating it would be—with barely a second thought, he dropped to his knees before her, gazing up at her in what he hoped passed for supplication. He chafed at the indignity—it was as unfair as unfair got—but he had no choice, if it meant he could keep the galaxy out of harm's way. If it meant he could make it a safe place for Eeris to live in, beyond the shelter of her rather xenophobic people.
Naral, however, didn't seem even remotely moved. "Oh, Miro! Look at you! Is there no end to how good you'll make this?"
"So glad I amuse you," he snapped, jaw throbbing with anger.
"Of course, it makes no difference," she added. "I'm still taking the Challenger, and there's nothing you can do to stop me."
"Nothing?" Miro repeated. "Nothing? Naral, just think, just for a second. If you do this, I won't be the monster here!"
"And you would dare call me a monster," Naral said. "After everything we've been through. I don't even know why you bother, Miro. The galaxy isn't that great a place. What good has it ever done you?"
"Not much," Miro admitted. "But you don't understand. This is so, so much bigger than me. I've been around a long time, Naral, and as Dax, I know the galaxy is so much more wonderful than that. These past nine hundred years, it's been spiraling into chaos, but if you could've seeing back then—fate, Naral, it just needs a little help! Help from me, Naral. Please, don't stop me."
"You don't have a case," Naral said. "Goodbye, Miro."
She spun on her heel and marched away.
"Naral, wait!" he cried, scrambling to his feet.
She stopped and turned, glaring daggers.
"At least let me say goodbye to the Challenger before you go," Miro said.
Naral laughed. "You're even more clueless than I thought. Like I'd let you play any tricks, Miro."
He stood helplessly, arms spread at his sides. As she disappeared from his sight, he absently touched his forcefield with the fingers of one hand, the stark reality of his situation hitting home.
He was still gazing down the hallway, dazed, when Eeris came running around the corner.
"Has Naral been here?" she gasped out, stopping before his cell. "Odo wants to talk to her."
"Just missed her, actually," Miro said distantly, sinking down onto his bench.
"Are you alright?" Eeris asked.
Her words barely registered as Miro stared into the middle distance. And he'd thought Viresa's plans were bad enough. He'd never imagined that he'd one day run up against Naral and consider her an enemy equal almost to the Romulan empress, with both the motive to tear and claw at the foundations of his world and the means to do so. He dragged his hands over his face, his responsibility to oppose Naral and fight his own one-time best friend sitting him anew.
"Miro," Eeris said, inching closer.
He sighed, pulling his hands from his face, but he couldn't find the energy to straighten his shoulders. "I'm sorry, kid."
"What for?" Eeris asked.
"I've failed you," Miro said. "I've lost the Challenger."
She frowned. "What do you mean, lost?"
"Naral means to take her," Miro said.
"So we'll stop her," Eeris said. "Odo and I. We won't let her go."
Miro chuckled, unconvinced. "I'm sure she's flying away from here as we speak."
"What about Odo, though?" Eeris asked. "He wouldn't just let her get away."
"Just watch her," Miro said, setting his head in his hands. "Naral is one determined woman. And I'd bet my ship she's gotten even more determined since we knew one another. She'd have to, to survive in the galaxy on her onw."
"She told me what you did to her," Eeris said.
"And I asked you not to listen to her," Miro said.
"Hold on a second," Eeris said. "Where is she right now?"
"Stealing the Challenger, I imagine," Miro shrugged. "While I'm stuck in this holding cell, helpless."
"Oh my god," Eeris said, and bolted down the hall.
Miro sighed, watching her go for a moment before burying his face in his hands and shutting his eyes. What he wouldn't give for someone like what Naral used to be to him…someone he could depend on no matter what, someone who could ease the strain of the galaxy on his shoulders. Someone who could help him make the difficult decisions, just this once. It wasn't easy, being the only Trill alive who hadn't just lived this long, but who had been on the front lines of every major battle in the last twelve hundred years—he alone carried the burden of all the people in the galaxy who suffered, day to day. He was the only one in any position to stop misfortune. Not that he always succeeded.
But he had no one like that, no one to be at his side. And Naral's choices didn't change the fact of the matter—he was still responsible for Eeris's safety, even if he could barely guarantee his own. He shuddered, just for a moment allowing himself to feel Dax's burden.
But a moment later, he pulled himself together, scraping his hands over his face and blinking away the tears that pricked the backs of his eyes. It had been irresponsible on his part to let Eeris see his moment of weakness. She depended on him entirely—she needed his support, no matter what, and she needed to believe in hi. Even if he had a strong suspicion that they were about to find themselves without a ship.
What would he do then, with no way to ferry her about the universe and keep her happy? No easy way to be everywhere he was needed, fix every major dispute that arose?
He was Dax, he reasoned. He'd find a way.
Eeris tore through Federation HQ and pushed through the outer doors. She raced across the courtyard to where she knew the Challenger would be. She refused to accept any other alternative—their ship simply had to be there. Naral couldn't have taken it. They couldn't be trapped here, not now, not when the galaxy was in danger…
She reached the spot where the Challenger had been, and her heart plummeted. There was no sign.
Eeris suddenly wished fervently for Miro to be at her side. He'd have something to say to reassure her, to make light of the situation. But then again, maybe he wouldn't. He had seemed so distant back in the holding cell, so distracted. It was as if Naral's appearance had flipped some sort of switch inside him, transforming the passionate and enthusiastic person she was getting to know into this distant stranger. Maybe she'd been right, and he didn't really care for her all that much. She was on her own.
She stared at the empty spot on the ground where the Challenger had once been. It couldn't be true, could it? Could she have forgotten where they'd landed? She scanned the area around her, but there was no sign of the Challenger's sleek black hull and arching wings. The ship was gone.
Eeris's heart pounded. Was it possible Odo had still been on board? Dare she hope?
"Odo!" she called at the top of her lungs.
Still silence. That was a good thing, right? Naral wasn't alone on the Challenger, and Odo could come back for them. Although, if he had been on board in the first place, he hadn't been able to stop Naral from leaving to begin with…
Eeris tried to curb the relief that unfurled within her at the thought of being free of Odo's mysterious alien presence for however long she had.
There was only one thing for it, she realized. She had to return to Miro. She had no one else on this planet. He was her only friend, her only hope, even if he didn't care for her anymore—even if he never had.
Dejectedly, she headed back toward Federation HQ. She had only walked a few paces when the sky opened up and rain began to drizzle down on her.
Eeris shivered more violently, wishing she had arms to hug herself as she hunched forward into the downpour. By the time she reached the doors, she was thoroughly soaked and trembling. The guards let her in without so much as a fuss, probably taking pity on her. She probably looked downright miserable, soaked to the bone the way she was. She headed down the hall to the security area, tracking in water and mud from outside as she went.
The guards must have recognized her, because they passed her through quickly—she only had to stay still for the scan for a second or two before she was motioned onward, into the holding area.
"She's gone," Ereis said when Miro looked up at her. "The Challenger's gone."
There was something different about him this time. He seemed more attentive, more alert. He stood and met her at the front of his cell.
"I'm sorry," he said.
A traitorous tear fell down Eeris's cheek. "What are we going to do?"
"Stay on Earth, I suppose," Miro said. "And I suppose I have no way to escape standing trial…"
"Can I be there?" Eeris asked. "I mean…I just…"
She trailed off, not sure whether it was safe to admit to her fear of being alone.
But Miro seemed to understand. "Yeah, of course. Last I heard, the Federation holds open trials—should be open to the public. Though I'm not too happy about you being there while they list off my charges."
"Again with the secrets," Eeris grumbled.
His brow furrowed. "Kid?"
"You never tell me anything," she said. "I had to ask Naral what happened between you two! She told me, and she doesn't even know me! And from the sound of it, you're the one who broke her heart, not the other way around, so I don't know why you clutched the airlock frame like you did when you saw her—what right did you have to look like you'd seen a ghost? And don't even get me started about Ezri—you won't say a damn word! To say nothing of Kira Nerys! You and Odo are my only chances of learning about her, and now he's gone, so I've just got you! Everything that matters, Miro, you've kept secret! You don't tell me anything!"
A flash of hurt crossed his face. "I thought—"
"What?" she demanded. "You thought what?"
"I thought…" He shook his head. "Never mind."
"No, you are not doing that to me," Eeris said. "You thought what?"
He sighed. "I didn't realize that would hurt you, Eeris. I thought…I thought you didn't press because you respected my privacy."
"Your privacy?" Eeris raised an incredulous brow. "Are you serious? We're talking about you making secrets of every damn important thing there is, and you're talking about privacy?"
Miro flinched. "Obviously I was wrong."
"Obviously," Eeris said scathingly.
"Well, kid," he said, gaze suddenly hard, "lesson in tactfulness. Everyone has a past, alright? You got that? You do—don't give me that look, I know you do—Odo does, I do, Naral does, everyone does! We've all got stuff we hide from, and for me, that goes back over nine hundred years! So pardon me if I'm a bit less than forthcoming on some things. I told you we could explore the galaxy, kid, and we will, as soon as I get out of this holding cell. I'll show you everything I know, if you want. But there are some things, kid, I just won't say."
She glared at him. "Did you even hear a word I just said?"
"Course I did," Miro said. "But I think I've been around the galaxy a couple times more than you, don't you? If I tell you something about how people work, probably best that you listen."
Eeris huffed. "I knew it. I knew you didn't care about me. Your secrets are worth more."
His jaw dropped—maybe in surprise that she'd guessed the truth at last? —but before he could admit just how right she was, the security doors banged open and a tall woman in a dark gray uniform marched in. She reminded Eeris a little bit of the Cardassian commander who'd apprehended her and Odo back on Nebez, but she had none of the commander's gray skin and scales. And her uniform looked a lot more soft and comfortable than the Cardassians' rigid chest plates. She was human, with a sharp, weathered face and curly light brown hair that perched atop her head.
"Miro Dax?" the woman asked, reading the name off a padd and looking up at him with beady eyes.
Miro braced himself. "That's me."
"My name is Nora Simler," she said. "I'll be conducting your hearing in twenty-four hours. You have the right to hear your charges beforehand, however, and at your request, I can assign you a lawyer."
Miro sighed. "Yeah, that'd be great."
Simler frowned. "Optionally, you can appoint your own lawyer—"
"Yeah, let's skip that whole lecture," Miro interrupted. "I don't even make a hundred bars of platinum a month and certainly don't have that much saved up. And even if I did, it would be on my ship, which isn't on this planet at the moment. Go ahead and assign me one."
As Simler nodded and tapped something into her padd, Eeris looked at Miro in realization. He had lost everything he had along with the Challenger, hadn't he? And yet, when she'd brought him the bad news, his first thought had been for her…
Eeris shook the thought away. After everything she'd learned about him today, that was next to impossible. She focused back in on the conversation just as Simler spoke up again.
"Your representative will meet with you within the hour. You can discuss your plan of attack then. In the meantime, I'm here to familiarize you with the rules of our court. As you are being represented, it is inadvisable to speak for yourself unless you are at the stand—"
"Yeah, I know," Miro said irritably.
"And while we're at it," she said, eyeing him carefully, "any unnecessary outburst or disrespectful commentary will be treated as in contempt of the court—"
"If you're telling me to behave myself," Miro said, "I'm Dax. Twelve hundred years old. I think I can handle myself in a courtroom."
Simler nodded, more slowly this time. "Very well. You are permitted to object at any time, though it's not recommended. Any questions?"
"Don't think so," Miro said.
"Good. I believe that's all for now. You'll be escorted to the courtroom at 1200 hours. And one more thing, Dax—"
"Miro," he snapped.
"Miro," Simler said, sounding irritated now. "Your case is a bit special. It's taken two years to track you down—for minor offenses, I might add. Federation security is eager to get this over with. If you don't find the result favorable, I'm afraid I wouldn't bank on your chances of making an appeal."
"Right," Miro nodded. "Thanks for reminding me why I avoided this place in the first place." He shot Eeris a glance. "And I didn't even get to sell that book!"
Simler shook her head and walked away, leaving Eeris alone with Miro. Well, alone except for the numerous other prisoners locked behind forcefields.
"What was all that about?" Eeris asked. She hadn't understood half of Simler's technical wording. The legal system on Bajor was nothing like this.
"Long story short, my lawyer's coming in an hour and my trial's tomorrow," Miro said. "And if they decided to lock me up a while longer, there's not much chance of changing their minds. Plus, I get a standard-issue lawyer, so their efforts will probably be mediocre at best. I've evaded capture for too long, these guys are all too eager to hold me while they can."
Eeris sighed. "So we're stuck, then. You couldn't get off Earth even if we had the Challenger."
Miro's mouth twisted. "That's about the size of it."
Eeris slumped against the wall next to the forcefield. She ached for Miro to reach past that fizzling barrier and wrap her in his arms and never let go, but at the same time she chastised herself for her weakness. She couldn't afford to crave attention from someone who didn't even care for her.
"Please tell me you have a plan," she said.
"Not yet, kid," Miro said. "But I promise you, I won't rest until I've gotten us outta here. No matter what it takes, kid."
Eeris nodded, knowing what he wasn't saying. He wanted to get off Earth so he could save the galaxy. Eeris was just along for the ride—he wasn't really doing any of this for her. Why should he? She was just a Bajoran, just another reminder of the traumatic memories he didn't want to face.
She sighed, for the first time realizing just how far she was from home, and just how lost she was without a hand to guide her.
Once Eeris had left the Challenger once again, determinedly swiping her shoulders across her eyes to banish her tears, Odo headed directly to the back of the ship. He generally avoided the cockpit, since he knew neither Eeris nor Miro were fully comfortable with his presence, and acceptance would only come with time. Of course, neither of them were on board right now, but retreating to tieback was beginning to be a habit.
He'd barely set foot in the galley when his surroundings undulated.
"Captain!" he called, recognizing the signs of a so-called "vision" by now.
Sisko appeared before him as if stepping out from a halo of light. Odo might have snorted at the ridiculousness of his entrance, but he was more preoccupied with worry—what could the captain need to tell him now? Had something happened to Eeris or Miro?
"You've done well, Odo," Sisko said. "All is proceeding according to plan."
Well, there went that theory. "Captain, I'm getting tired of this. If you have something to say to me, just say it!"
Sisko smiled. "I believe Nerys would remind you that the Prophets work in mysterious ways."
"First of all, Nerys isn't here," Odo growled. "As much as I wish she were, she isn't! And second, you're not a Prophet. You're my former commanding officer, and I would have thought that after all the time we served together, you'd recognize that I have little patience for this prophetic nonsense."
Sisko sighed. "Still the skeptic, I see."
"That's not changing anytime soon," Odo said.
"Well." Sisko composed himself. "I suppose I can make an effort to speak to you as a human."
A strange look flickered over his features.
Odo frowned. "Is something wrong, Captain?"
"No, not as such," Sisko said. His smile was self-deprecating, and looked odd amid the vision's hazy light. "It's just, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm not sure I remember how to be a corporeal being anymore."
Odo harrumphed. "You are corporeal, just suspended from my reality in some kind of pocket of space-time. And as soon as I see Miro again, I'm going to ask him what could possibly be going on here. None of this can possibly be real."
"I'm afraid it is," Sisko said. "And I"m afraid that means there are still trials in store for you."
"Enough with the cryptic messages, Captain! Just tell me what you want me to know and get it over with!"
"There isn't much I can say," Sisko said. "Time itself balances on a precipice; there's no telling which direction it will fall. Everything depends on you, Odo. Remember that."
Odo rolled his eyes. "That really doesn't make it any more clear."
"I'm sorry, Constable," Sisko said. "Sometimes it isn't clear, even to me. I'm not a full Prophet, you know."
"Oh," Odo said, "isn't that surprising."
"And one more thing," Sisko said.
Odo sighed, shaking his head. "I'm listening."
"There are trying times ahead," Sisko said. "Even I can't see what the outcome will be…though I have confidence in you, Odo. But as one trial begins, another ends. Be prepared, Constable."
"And how would you suggest I do that?"
"You'll find that out in time," Sisko said.
"That's what you said the first time I spoke to you!" Odo said. "And I still haven't found out what you meant for me to do!"
Sisko smiled. "Are you sure about that?"
Odo faltered, jaw opening slightly.
"Good luck, Constable," Sisko said, and before Odo could protest, he was gone.
The light flashed bright and dissolved, and Odo's breath hitched as he came back to himself. His eyes flicked from side to side as he tried to get his bearings. He was inside the Challenger, near the replicator. Yes, of course, now he remembered. He'd made this little cranny of Miro's ship his temporary home, since Miro and Eeris spent most of their time up front. He'd retreated back here after the Starfleet security officers had refused him entry to Federation Headquarters…
Odo stilled, his Changeling senses suddenly coming on high alert. Something was different…the sensation was dulled, since he was in humanoid form, but the vibrations of the Challenger's hull plating definitely felt wrong. They didn't feel like those of a ship safely landed on the edge of Federation premises. He titled his head, concentrating, and was surprised to hear the faint hum of the engine…and then he realized the entire hull was shuddering, just slightly, as if the ship was in motion.
He crept up front, slowly. Surely if Eeris or Miro had come on board, he would have noticed? Miro wasn't exactly known for being quiet, and Eeris…well…let's just say, her altered balance from losing both arms and changed her gait, just a bit. But no, he hadn't heard a thing, lost as he'd been in Sisko's imposed "vision."
Odo cautiously peeked around the corner that joined the cockpit with the corridor, and was shocked to see the female Trill from earlier—Naral—sitting in the Challenger's pilot seat like she owned the place.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
She jumped clear out of her seat and whirled around to face him, body pressing back against the dashboard as if to put as much distance between them as possible. Her eyes widened as she took him in.
"Wait," she said, pointing. "I know your face."
Odo tilted his head. "Do you?"
"You're him," she whispered. "You're actually him!"
"It might help if you clarified," Odo said.
"You're Odo! The shape-shifter!"
"Changeling, if you don't mind," he said. "How did you recognize me? I haven't been around here in nine hundred years."
"Oh, come on," Naral said. "Only the Founders look like you. And there's only one Founder Miro ever knew. You and the Challenger in the same place? It's too much of a coincidence."
Odo sighed. "I'm not a Founder."
She huffed impatiently. "Yeah, whatever. Do you have any idea how much Miro used to talk about you?"
"Really?" Odo stepped forward, curious despite himself. "What did he say?"
"Oh, it was always something or other about the way you'd betrayed Nerys and it was all your fault Bajor had plunged into chaos," Naral said, waving a dismissive hand. "But never mind that. What are you doing on board? Miro would never allow an enemy on the Challenger!"
"I'll have you know, I'm not an enemy," Odo said. "But I could ask you the same question."
"I'm not an enemy, either," Naral said.
"Oh? Then I suppose Miro's reaction upon seeing you was…purely shock?" Odo said. "Miro doesn't strike me as the type who's easily rattled."
Naral laughed. "Oh, if only you could've seen him before! By the dead Prophets themselves, he really has changed, hasn't he?"
"Well, he's certainly not the Dax I knew," Odo said, folding his arms. He leaned against the aft wall of the cockpit. "So, Naral—it is Naral, isn't it?"
"Mind telling me where you're taking Miro's ship?"
"It's not just Miro's ship," Naral said, shooting him a glare. "I own the Challenger too, fair and square. I can do whatever I want with her."
With that, she plopped back into the pilot's seat, looking for all intents and purposes as if she were completely absorbed in piloting the ship. But Odo had observed humanoid behavior for far too long to be that naďve, and he knew better.
"Don't think you can evade me forever," Odo said. "I can be very persistent when I want to be. Now, how about you tell me where we're going?"
She glared at him over her shoulder. "Trill, if you must know."
"Oh? And why would we go there?"
"That," Naral snapped, "is none of your concern."
"I don't suppose there's any chance I can convince you to fly us back to Earth?"
Naral laughed. "Are you kidding me? I'm due to testify at Miro's trial in twenty-four hours. I'm not gonna miss the time I've got."
"To do what?"
"Why, to visit home, of course." She stiffened. "What's left of it."
Odo frowned, not missing the significance of her words. "Trill hasn't been destroyed, has it?"
"Oh, no. Not as such." Naral shook her head in vehement denial. "Why would I return to a destroyed plant? No, it's just my hometown that's gone. Well, our hometown."
"You mean yours and Miro's," Odo said.
She shrugged. "It's obvious enough, I suppose."
"At least to me," Odo said.
"You know, he was right about you," she mused. "You're just as annoying as he described you."
Odo shook his head, exasperated. "He just doesn't let up, does he."
"Oh, he's been getting after you, has he?"
"Nonstop," Odo said. "Except he does seem to have accepted my presence as of late."
Naral raised her eyebrows. "Has he?"
"It would seem I'm part of his plan to save the galaxy," Odo said.
"That's what it's always about, huh?" Naral laughed. "Mind you, he didn't do so well at that when I knew him, but I've kept tabs on him these past few months—I know he's been everywhere. And I know he never leaves a conflict unresolved."
"I'm not surprised," Odo said. "I only wish the galaxy had others like him."
Naral snorted. "This galaxy has far too many Miros, as far as I'm concerned."
Odo favored her with a curious look—just one Miro in the galaxy, and she thought that was too many? What did she mean, she wasn't an enemy of his? She certainly didn't seem like a friend—not a single word out of her mouth since they'd first started speaking had been supportive in the least. Even if Kira had done something awful to him, which she never would, Odo knew he would never allow himself to succumb to any resentment toward her. He would always have loved her, no matter how she treated him. But then, he allowed, it was entirely possible Naral's relationship with Miro had been…far less devoted.
"Naral…what exactly was your relationship with Miro?" Odo asked.
She glanced up at him. "We were friends. That's all."
"That's all it ever could be," she said, occupying herself with a course adjustment.
Odo sighed. "Unreciprocated?"
She scoffed. "That's an understatement."
"Ah." Odo nodded, no longer comfortable meeting her eyes. "I…know how that feels."
Her eyes flicked up to meet his. "You mean Kira Nerys, don't you?"
"I—how did you know?"
She shrugged. "Miro used to talk to me, you know. I knew him before he closed off completely. He told me a lot about the two of you. Except…to hear him talk about it back then, you'd almost think he was talking about old friends."
"He was," Odo said. "What made you think he was referring to enemies?"
"The look in his eyes," Naral said. "Like he would trade it all for never having met you. Both of you."
"I don't know what I did wrong," Odo said.
Naral squinted at him. "You know, you're as annoying as he said, but you don't seem worth hating."
"If only Miro agreed with you," Odo said.
She gave him a tiny smile. "Forget about Miro for a bit. I've spent over a year thinking about nothing but revenge. That's why I'm visiting Trill, you know. We can have our respite together."
Odo wanted to ask her what Miro had done to deserve her revenge—whether he truly had marooned her—but decided it was best to accept the olive branch she'd offered. He'd find another time to get the answers he and Eeris both wanted.
They passed the trip to Trill in relative silence. The only sounds were the slight vibrations of the ship as the engine shifted, the changes in pitch and frequency as its instruments traded off duty hours. These were sounds Odo hadn't noticed nearly so much during his years on Deep Space Nine, but ever since he'd returned from the Great Link and had some time to get accustomed to his humanoid form again, it seemed his senses were heightened. He'd tuned it all out at first, focusing instead on his shock at seeing the promenade in such disarray—and then, later, on the intricacies of galactic conflict he'd somehow gotten himself involved with—but he noticed it all now, especially since he had nothing else to do. Nothing but stand around inside the Challenger as he waited for Naral to bring them to their destination.
At last, they reached Trill, and Naral dropped out of warp and into orbit around the greenish planet. Odo realized, to his surprise, that he'd never actually been to this region of Federation space before, let alone Trill itself. The oceans, he noticed, were a bit greener than what he remembered from Bajor—and, obviously, a far cry from the "ocean" he knew on his homeward. The land had scattered continents similar to Bajor, but they were a bit larger on Trill, close to the size of Earth's major landmasses. As they drew closer, easing into a geosynchronous orbit, Odo noticed something strange. There was an enormous swath of land on one of the northern continents that looked to have been completely blackened.
Naral had said her hometown was destroyed. She hadn't mentioned just how much farther than that the devastation had spread.
"I take it that's our destination?" he asked.
Naral didn't answer as she glanced at the region out the viewscreen, her eyes crinkling with a profound sadness. Odo wandered if she'd even been back here since the event. She looked as though she'd never seen the devastation here before.
"Who was responsible for this?" Odo murmured.
"The Klingons, if you must know."
"Ah." Odo nodded. "Yes, Miro mentioned they were at odds with the Federation these days…"
"Oh, not just these days," Naral said. "They've been at each other's throats for years. It's what Miro and I grew up with."
"I don't blame you for wanting to escape," Odo said.
"I still wonder, though. I was never told what exactly Miro was charged with…was leaving home his only crime? And if so, did you face trial as well?"
"Yes and no," Naral said. "No, leaving home wasn't all he did, but martial law was in place, so yes, that was part of it—and yes, I stood trial after they rescued me from Ebenen. Couldn't get around it, I suppose. And I promised them I'd drag Miro back to face the music. Really, it was only fair. He maroons me, takes off and makes a name for himself in the galaxy, makes the galaxy need him, and what do I get for it? A prison sentence? A lost friend?"
Odo frowned. "So he did maroon you? That doesn't sound like Dax."
"Then I guess you don't know him as well as you think you do," Naral said. "It's exactly like Dax. It's what he did, and he's Dax."
"Yes, I know, I believe you," Odo said. "But still…the Dax I knew would never have done something like that."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe he changed? That maybe it's been nine hundred years since he was the Dax you knew?"
Odo sighed. "The thought had crossed my mind. I've already noticed more differences than similarities.
"Then you have noticed similarities."
"Of course," Odo said. "I knew Dax as three different hosts—it would be difficult not to notice what they had in common."
"You know…" Naral paused, shook her head, then plunged on. "I'm curious now. What similarities? What makes him like the Dax he used to be?"
Odo shrugged. "There's his daredevil nature, for one. Never hesitating to put himself in the line of fire if it'll engineer the best outcome for everyone involved. That's very Dax. I remember the time Ezri tracked down her friend Worf after he had already been presumed a casualty of the Dominion War…and even put herself at the mercy of the Breen in the process. And Jadzia—the host I knew the best—even risked her life to help a few Klingon friends avenge the deaths of their sons. She tried to ensure that they all returned safely." He frowned. "Not that they did."
"Huh." Naral set her chin on her folded hands, watching as the night slipped slowly around Trill, revealing more of the charred expanse. "Dax, friends with Klingons. Miro never even got a chance to do that. We were powerless when the Klingons struck. Powerless. And then he had Dax to deal with. Never quite could, as long as I knew him."
"I think," Odo said, "that I may not know Dax very well anymore, but you don't know the full picture, either."
"How can anyone?" Naral asked. "He's lived for twelve hundred years. I think that's the way he sees it, even. He takes the whole galaxy upon himself because he believes he's the only one who can."
"Not anymore," Odo said quietly.
Naral glanced at him, clearly not understanding, but Odo didn't elaborate. She didn't need to know that his former commanding officer was hounding him with so-called visions of lightning storms and troubled Bajoran girls and trials yet to come. He wasn't even entirely sure he should have told her as much as he already had. But there was no taking it back now.
"Alright," Naral said softly. "Should be close enough to morning where I want to land. Shall I take us in?"
"You're the pilot," Odo said, wondering why she was making the effort to ask in the first place.
Naral shrugged and plotted something into the Challenger's dashboard. The first thing Odo noticed was that she didn't manually fly the ship in toward the planet like Miro had when they'd landed on Nebez. He wondered if flying on autopilot was just a personal preference of hers, or if she hadn't had time to learn manual before Miro had allegedly marooned her on Ebenen. Either way, she didn't touch the controls even once as they flew in. It wasn't until they descended onto a flat, burnt patch of ground that she swept her hand over the control panel, powering the ship down all across the board and leaving them standing in darkness.
"I have to say," Odo said, looking around and finding himself unable to see even a few feet in front of him, "Miro never powered her down quite this far."
"I'm not Miro," Naral said. "He always did have sort of…renegade tendencies. This is actually standard procedure."
"Are you sure?" Odo asked.
But when he next heard her voice, it came from the direction of the airlock, and he turned to find her silhouetted in the light that pulsed from its outer rim. She reached up and tapped a code into the panel on the bulkhead—a panel whose numbers were helpfully backlit—and the gangplank drew down as the airlock slid open, letting Trill's weak morning light come filtering in.
"Well?" Naral called from atop the gangplank. "You coming?"
Shaking his head in something akin to disbelief, Odo followed her. He wondered if she'd picked that particular line up from Miro; it was almost a direct quote.
He stopped when he reached the ground, and found Naral standing a short distance away. She turned slowly in place, taking in the vast expanse of the charred landscape. It was nothing like what Odo had expected. Where he had imagined the charred remains of houses, maybe a rogue brick chimney or two, only the most basic foundations remained. There wasn't even a sign that this had been a recent devastation—everything was gone, as if the lack of houses or trees or other buildings had let the wind sweep through and wash the rest away, leaving the area a barren wasteland.
"The Klingons did this?" he asked, breath hitching on a gasp. "Seems more like the Dominion's caliber."
"The Dominion hasn't been around for nine hundred years," Naral said. "And the Klingons are a warrior race. Is this honestly so surprising?"
"They're not just a warrior race," Odo said. "They—when I knew them, at least—they placed honor above all else. Is that what this struck them as—as honorable?"
Naral laughed, the sound out of place in this bleak landscape. "The Klingons? Honorable? Where have you been living, under a rock?"
Odo blinked. "Well, not exactly."
She huffed. "They used to be better, Miro told me once. But ever since the Prophets died, they haven't been quite the same—and when Viresa swallowed up the galaxy with her power, the last vestiges of their honor went right along with the rest. It's like everyone's lost their aim these days. There's no honor to fight for 'cause we all know Viresa'll win in the end. No use fighting for a better tomorrow 'cause we all know it's not gonna happen. The Klingons have entirely forgotten what peace means, and the Federation…well…we just don't have the might to make any difference. Fat chance of that changing, the way Miro hates us."
Odo frowned. "You sound almost as if…you'd want him to step in and make a difference."
"Well, yeah, you'd blame me?" Naral sighed, brushing a stray wisp of hair out of her face. "He's all the hope we've got. And I don't even have him. We've got too much history together, he'd never save me if it came to it."
"And you're certain of that?" Odo asked.
She shrugged. "Well, who knows, maybe he'd see me as just one more of the millions he takes upon his shoulders every day, and maybe, just maybe, I'll get lucky and be one of the couple hundred actually manages to save. Guess I'd better just keep myself out of trouble, then. Never know when it might matter."
There was something curious about her tone…something strangely resolute. Odo peered at her, wishing he could make out her features better in the soft morning light. As it was, he had only her voice to go on. But nevertheless, he sensed something, even if she hadn't said it outright.
"You care for him," he whispered. "Don't you?"
"Me? No. Never, I—"
She froze, her jaw snapping shut, as if she'd caught herself on her own lie.
Odo nodded. "I through so. He's done something unforgivable, hasn't he? Something you can't move past, and whatever it is, I'm sure you're well within your right. But at the same time…I think you want to stay out of trouble, not because you don't believe he'd help you if you needed it, but because you don't want even the slightest chance that you might lure him into trouble. That when he gets hurt, as is bound to happen with the life he leads, it'll be even the slightest bit your fault."
Naral gaped at him. "How did you—?"
"I've observed humanoids for quite some time," Odo said. "And let me tell you something, Naral. He may be different, and he may not be the same person either of us once knew…but he's still Dax. Every Dax is really the same, at heart. It's not just his daredevil spirit and rambunctious mentality—it's the way he takes the entire galaxy upon his shoulders. Don't you see? That's Dax, right until the very end. Compassionate to a fault, never able to let others take the fall when he can instead. And if he's still Dax, Naral, if he has enough heart to care for the entire galaxy—then I have no doubt that he still cares for you. Even if whatever happened between the two of you is too…raw…for him to admit it."
Naral sighed. "If only. But he's a free spirit, Odo. He has a habit of flying the coop. What does caring matter when he can never commit?"
"Is that what one wrong?" Odo asked.
"I'll never know," Naral sighed, and her distant eyes spoke of little hope.
Odo let the moment rest, sensing that Naral needed time to process the loss of her home—and he also knew it was the first time since she'd made her appearance that she'd seemed anything short of angry at Miro. Maybe her anger had just needed to run its course, and they could all get back to their lives.
"So," he finally said, breaking the silence, "is there anything else you wanted to see here, or shall we head back to Earth?"
Naral's eyes flicked guiltily to meet his. "Yeah…I should be going."
"Is something wrong?" Odo asked.
"No," she said. "Well, yes. I just…I just don't want you to come with me."
"I've already come this far," Odo said. "I'm miles away from any form of civilization—possibly farther. I don't think I have much of a choice but to come back with you."
She bit her lip. "I know."
"Naral, I was under the impression we had an understanding," Odo said. "I thought we had formed a truce, of sorts. And now you want to leave me in the middle of this devastation?"
Naral sighed. "It's not you, Odo. I wouldn't even leave you here if I didn't know you were a Changeling, insusceptible to the survival problems we humanoids have to worry about. Goodness knows I know what it's like to be left behind. But…you're Miro's friend, aren't you?"
"I'd like to think so," Odo said.
Her eyes crinkled sadly. "He's back on Earth right now, getting what he deserves after more than a year. It's probably one of the most gut-wrenching moments of this new, shining life he's built for himself, and he's earned every minute of it. When I planned this, I didn't count on him having an old friend from nine hundred years ago to stand by in his defense…and I'm sure as hell not gonna let you be there for him now."
"So what's your plan?" Odo demanded. "Take off, leave me here, and hope Miro will decide to come after me, after all I've apparently done to him?"
Naral grimaced. "Sorry, Odo. But trust me, it's not the end of the world. I had it better than you—Miro at least had the heart to drop me off amongst civilization. This isn't the most welcoming place in the galaxy, but you're a Changeling. You can handle it."
"Naral, I don't like this—"
"And I'm not asking you to," she said.
He sighed. "Naral, you realize you don't have to do this, don't you? Recrimination isn't always the answer."
She chuckled. "Funny, coming from a former security officer. Isn't it your job to recriminate?"
"Not anymore," Odo said. "And you don't have to, either."
She sighed. "Did that Did that Kira Nerys of yours ever betray you?"
Odo paused, uncertain how much he should reveal to her. She had proven herself to be more than just a vengeful enemy, but she was still a person who intended to hurt Miro…and who was willing to essentially maroon him in the ruins of her hometown to do it.
"Once," he finally said, "a long time ago. But I wouldn't have done anything like this."
"Because she loved you," Naral said. "In the end, she was able to love you back, wasn't she?"
Odo frowned. "Your point being?"
"Miro never could," Naral said. "And somehow he still thinks he holds the high ground in this friendship—in everything he does in life, for that matter. He needs to remember he can fall."
"I could just climb back onto the Challenger, morph into a bulkhead, and come with you back to Earth," Odo said.
"Please," Naral said. "Don't. I know he's your friend, and I know all you've got to go on is my word, but I deserve some justice too, don't I? Don't you care about that?"
Her hand moved purposefully to her pocket, and Odo's eyes followed the motion. They narrowed when he saw the shape of a Federation-style phaser outlined there.
"Naral," he said, "do you have a phaser in your pocket?"
"And to think you used to be a security chief," she said. "You're getting slow."
"Not slow enough," Odo said, tensing. "If you expect me to just stand here while you walk back up that gangplank and leave me here alone—"
"Actually," Naral said, "I expect you to count on my inability to shoot."
Odo said nothing, eyes on her hand near her pocket, wary of her every move. It had been some time since he last had to dispel a violent situation, but he was confident he still knew how to do it. Even nine hundred years in the future.
But he next thing he knew, the phaser was in her hand, aimed straight at him.
"You forgot to watch my eyes," she said, and his eyes widened minutely at her smirk. "Don't worry, it's not set to kill."
"Naral—" he tried.
But a millisecond later, he felt the burn of the phaser's energy spread through his cells, and his facsimile legs gave out beneath him. Seconds later, he felt the rest of his form crumple to the ground The last thing he saw before darkness descended was Naral's feet walking across the ground and out of sight.
For as long as she could help it, Eeris refused to leave Miro's side. It was more out of her own fear of being alone than out of a desire to keep him company, though that was part of it. She could tell his attention was beginning to drift, his worry distracting him from his usual optimism. He was good at hiding it, but Eeris could tell—his grins were more forced, his shoulders stayed hunched, and he didn't really stray from his bench in the back of his cell.
Eeris, meanwhile, stayed slumped against the wall, her body tilted so that she could see the arch of his cell's entrance out of the corner of her eye.
She was grateful for the forcefield between them; it was too tempting to just walk in there with him. The forcefield spared her the embarrassment of running into Miro's arms and seeking comfort in his embrace, the comfort she knew her father would give if he were with her. She imagined knocking on his office door, barreling into his lap, sighing as his arms closed around her…and was pulled from her fantasy every time when she remembered that knocking required arms, and so did hugging. She couldn't do either of those things anymore.
Any comfort Miro could give would be one-sided. So why embarrass herself by asking it of him? Maybe he'd even give it, but she knew he'd just see her as the weak Bajoran girl he'd taken under his wing on a whim. Maybe it would even make him want to abandon her sooner.
That was when her thoughts became incongruous. Odo, the very being who frightened her and, shamefully, repulsed her, was the one who had comforted her when she needed it and not seemed to mind at all. Miro was the one who she'd entrusted with her safety from the beginning, the one who had promised her the galaxy and who, despite that smattering of spots down the sides of his face, wasn't so frightening. And yet he was the one who didn't care for her.
The waning hours of the day seemed to crawl by. Miro met with his lawyer, who hd snapped at and grumbled at just as much as he had Simler, and Eeris was eventually forced to leave the holding cells. One of the building's security officers drove her out to a transit station where she could spend the night. It was the first time since leaving Bajor that she had been truly alone, not a single familiar face in sight. It was not an experience she cared to repeat.
A different security guard picked her up on the morning of Miro's trial and drove her back to Federation HQ. She was escorted back to the holding area, where she and Miro were left alone. The air was heavy between them, and silence swelled until it nearly felt suffocating.
"I really am sorry," Miro said.
"For what?" Eeris asked.
He shrugged. "Trapping you here. Not the most amusing place in the world, I have to admit."
She lifted one shoulder up and down. "It's alright, it hasn't been that bad…I mean, I guess I'm kinda glad I know about you and Naral, now."
He didn't answer.
"She told me what you did to her, you know," Eeris whispered.
"And?" Ereis sprang to her feet, much more practiced now after having been armless for days. "What do you mean, and? You say that like it doesn't even matter! Have you even seen the look on her face when she talks about you? I'm pretty sure you broke her heart!"
Miro laughed bitterly. "Nope."
Eeris blinked. "You didn't? How can you know that?"
He looked away.
"Well, you at least broke your friendship," Eeris said. "Do you even care?"
He glared at her. "What makes you think we had a friendship when I broke it?"
"Now you're making it sound like it was her fault," Eeris said.
"Well, she's not innocent," Miro said.
"So why'd you do it?" Eeris asked. "Why'd you maroon her?"
"I don't want to talk about it, Eeris."
Eeris stared at him, jaw agape. He was seriously doing this now? She was right on the verge of answers, and he was closing off on her again? As she watched, he dropped her gaze and hunched forward, clearly not about to change his mind.
"Did you think about it?" Eeris asked.
He glanced up at her but looked away just as quickly, as if holding her gaze physically pained him. "Eeris."
"No, answer me," she said. "Did you think it over, or did you just leave her behind, just like that? I know you never told her what she did wrong. Did you even give her a chance to see it coming? Or did you just blindside her?"
He made a muffled sound and buried his face in his hands. "Eeris, stop."
"No, I'm not done yet," she said. "Because from the looks of it, you did this pretty easily! How do I know you're not gonna do the same to me?"
He straightened and looked at her, wide-eyed, expression more open than she'd ever seen it. "Eeris, enough!"
She stopped, shocked. And she'd thought she'd seen Miro at his most vulnerable before—the look in his eyes, in the slight furrow of his brows, could only be described as absolute terror. Was this what her cousins had seen in her eyes, back when they'd taunted her in the school cafeteria?
In the time it took Eeris to back down, Miro had relaxed back onto his bench and composed himself. He looked so completely normal, Eeris wondered for a moment if the past few seconds had even happened.
"Listen," he said quietly, "I'm not going to leave you behind. I don't go to Bajor, remember?"
"Well, you didn't exactly leave her behind on her home planet," Eeris mumbled.
Miro sighed. "That was cruel of me, yes. I regret that. Do you honestly believe I'd do the same to you?"
Eeris shrugged, barely able to meet his eyes.
"Eeris, look at me."
She tried, but her gaze flicked away at the last second.
"Eeris." She heard him stand and walk over to her. "Please, look at me."
Eeris wished she could sink straight into the ground. But since that was clearly not an option, she forced herself to do as he said—and was surprised to see that he didn't even look angry. But she could still see the hurt lingering in his eyes, and that was worse.
"Eeris, talk to me," he said. "Do you believe I'd leave you behind, like I left her?"
"Well, what do you think?" she said. "I just met you, Miro."
He flinched. "Let's just say, kid, I wasn't unprovoked. It was wrong and I wish I hadn't left her the way I did, but it's in the past, I can't fix it. What I can do is promise you I'm never gonna do the same thing. Unless you're planning on betraying me in cold blood anytime soon?"
Eeris blinked, startled out of her self-flagellation. "What? Where did that even come from?"
"Didn't think so," Miro said, flashing her a grin. "So no, I am not going to leave you the way I left her. If we decided to stop flying around together, then I'd leave you on Deep Space Nine, okay? I don't go near Bajor."
"Why not?" Eeris asked.
He started to answer her, but stopped and looked away.
"No, honestly, why not?" she asked.
He sighed. "Because the last time I was there, it wasn't fun. Let's just say, kid, Bajor's not my favorite place in the world, and it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, so guess what? I get to ignore it! Works out well for me, that way. Viresa will never be interested in it, and the Cardassians can't start up an occupation without her help, so…" He trailed off, shrugging.
"You're sure they can't?" Eeris asked quietly, suddenly remembering her foray through the streets of Hill.
"Kid, we've been over this," Miro said.
"But are you sure?"
"Course I am." He frowned at her. "You should see Cardassia Prime. No, wait, I take that back, bad place for you to be—but take my word for it, they barely have the strength to keep their own planet running. That's why they turned to Viresa in the first place. Big mistake, if you ask me, but…oh well, that's what I've got to deal with these days. But no, they'd never occupy Bajor. It just isn't feasible."
"What if they did?" Eeris asked.
"What if?" Miro repeated. "First of all, they wouldn't—they can't. And second of all, why are we talking about hypotheticals?"
Eeris shrugged. It had taken enough courage to dredge up the subject with him again. She'd never in a million years actually admit to having gone back there—it defeated the entire purpose of escaping.
"Just humor me, alright?" she said.
Miro sighed. "Alright, fine. Whadya wanna know?"
"Let's say you're right," Eeris said. "The Cardassians don't have the means to occupy Bajor. What could bring them back there again? Let's say they were on every street corner, just waiting, watching. Why? Would would that get them? And would they stay?"
Miro frowned. "Why, is that what's happening?"
Eeris flinched backwards. "Why would you think that?"
"I dunno, you're the one who's been on Bajor the most recently."
"I—how did you-?"
He peered at her. "Well, you sort of made it clear enough when we first met, didn't you? I mean, you said you were escaping Bajor…"
"Oh, right." Eeris breathed out a sigh of relief. "Yeah, I was on Bajor, and no, there weren't Cardassians on the street corners. But what if there were?"
"Wait a second," Miro said. "You somehow stayed alive on the station for three whole weeks while Odo and I made our way back to you. I was content to never know before, fate knows I can understand having secrets, but now—"
"The Emissary provided for me," Eeris said. "Just leave it."
"So you weren't on…"
"No," she snapped, hating to lie to him.
"Well, alright," Miro said, eyeing her. "If you're sure…"
He was giving her a chance to be honest with him. Eeris wondered if he saw through her lie. And for a moment, she considered telling him the truth—after all, she expected no less from him. And she had already hurt him enough for one day, drilling into him when he was clearly already wounded. But he couldn't know the had gone back to Bajor. It was entirely too humiliating. And what was the point in telling him about goings-on on Bajor when he didn't even consider the planet worth his while in the first place?
"Of course," Eeris said. "Like I said, the Emissary provided for me. Simple as that."
He frowned. "If you say so, kid."
"So," Eeris said, changing the subject, "You haven't answered my question. What if there were Cardassians on the street corners?"
Miro crossed his arms, one hand coming up to pinch his chin in thought. "Well…I suppose it wouldn't be so different from last time. They hung around for a bit, got the Bajorans used to their presence. Course, the guise of peace probably wouldn't work this time around, Bajor's been through enough trouble at alien hands to know better. But I can see them bringing the mines back—Cardassia may be weak, but Bajor's weaker, there wouldn't be much resistance. And without help from the Federation or anyone…" He shook his head, hands dropping to his sides. "It wouldn't be pretty, Eeris. Why are you asking me about this? Your home's safe, the Cardassians aren't coming."
Eeris swallowed, wishing she could tell him just how wrong she was.
"Although," he continued thoughtfully, "I did get wind about a future occupation when I was talking to Viresa…"
Eeris jumped to attention. "What? When? Could that really happen?"
"Well, if she backed them…which she wouldn't…but as far as I gather, she wants to trick them into occupying the planet…" Miro frowned. "It's possible, I suppose. To an extent. I did see Cardassians loitering about the promenade last we were there. But that's just the Cardassians being idiots—as if Viresa would ever support them for long on that one. They'd have to pull out eventually."
"But would 'eventually' be soon enough?" Eeris asked.
"I told you, kid," Miro said. "It wouldn't be pretty."
"My people," Eeris whispered. "They're so isolated…they'd be defenseless."
"Well, yes," Miro said. "But that's not happening, is it? So they're fine. Everything's fine."
"Guess so," Eeris said, eyes on the floor.
"Hey, kid." Miro bent to try and look her in the eye, but was only moderately successful. "What's this all about? Are you actually worried about your people?"
For a brief instant, Eeris's eyes flicked up to meet his, her gaze heated. What was he implying, that she would enjoy watching as her people fell to the Cardassians? But she forced herself to let it slide—she knew it was no use. He would never help the Bajorans.
She shrugged. "Nah, like you said, it wouldn't happen, would it?"
"Right," Miro said slowly, watching her. "Wouldn't happen."
Eeris shifted uncomfortably, wondering if he'd seen through her lie. She had the eerie feeling that he had.
"Well!" he exclaimed, puling her out of her thoughts. "That's enough depressing talk for today, isn't it? No use lingering on what-ifs and would-bes when we've got a whole galaxy to save, and I'm still stuck in a holding cell doing nothing." He cast a significant glance over her shoulder. "I hope that's about to end soon?"
Eeris turned and saw that a guard had entered. The security officer approached Miro's cell and tapped something into a nearby control panel, and the forcefield dropped.
"Well," Miro said, shoving his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels, "what a surprise. Aren't you afraid I'll try to jump ship or something?"
The guard gave him an even look before stepping inside and pulling a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
"Aw, come on," Miro said. "Do you have to? Look, I was kidding, my ship isn't even on this planet!"
The guard paid him no heed as he silently secured the cuffs around Miro's wrists, gripped Miro by the bicep, and roughly manhandled him out of the cell.
"Okay, okay, enough of that," Miro said, shaking him off. "I'll come willingly."
Eeris raised a surprised brow at him.
Miro caught her look. "What? It's not like I can just fly away now, is it? What choice do I have?"
Eeris shook her head in amusement as she followed him out of the holding area. How she'd ever managed to get on board a ship with a twelve-hundred-year-old alien who thought running from the law was a good idea, she'd never know. For all his self-proclaimed wisdom, he really was like an adolescent in that respect. But the thought had barely formed when she realized she'd done the exact same thing.
She stopped in her tracks, and only started walking again when Miro shot her a concerned glance.
Was it possible he understood her? As in, really understood her? No one had ever come close before…she'd always felt isolated and alone on her world, even before her people had started giving her hell just for being herself. She'd known about her strange metamorphic abilities for so long, and others around her had definitely noticed when their future Steward had started changing hair and eye colors without warning around the age of five. And when she'd lost her arm, it had only gotten worse. The piteous glances had been the only thing worse than those of revulsion. And the idea that she was still expected to be Steward of all things had turned her stomach. These people, these Bajorans who hated her so, still expected her to lead them?
But Miro…he'd evaded the law. He'd left home, and he'd hurt others. Though Eeris had yet to get the full story on that, and fully intended to try, she couldn't help but think of the Kiran elder whose death was on her conscience, and all the other perhaps less than noble things she'd done…just to get away from home.
Was it possible Miro knew what she'd gone through? Was it possible there was another being in the universe who understood how much she'd sacrificed just to get away, and she'd somehow stumbled across him in her quest for freedom?
Not for the first time, she wondered at how well the Emissary had engineered all this. The situation was far from perfect, and somehow she doubted her Emissary had intended to put her on the front lines of galactic chaos as Viresa swept in to dismantle the galaxy's fragile equilibrium, but if Miro understood her…not only had the Emissary managed to connect her with the one metamorph in the galaxy who could help her, but it seemed he may have even found that one humanoid out of a million who knew, really knew.
She sighed. It was just a shame Miro didn't care for her. It figured, with her luck. But it was just one more imperfection in the Emissary's plan. She'd just have to learn to deal with it.
Aas the guards shuffled him up to the defendant's stand in the Federation courtroom, Miro refused to let his smile fall from his face. He was well practiced at false levity, after nine hundred years of shouldering the galaxy's burden and refusing to let anyone else see how tired it sometimes made him. His mouth had run nonstop since he'd been escorted from his cell, and he could only hope his efforts to comfort Eeris were working. From the way she stared at the floor instead of him as she was ushered into the front row of the audience, Miro suspected they weren't.
He honestly didn't blame her. When she'd agreed to join him on the Challenger, there was no way she could have thought they'd end up here. He'd seen the look in her eyes—it was hope, simmering just below the surface, barely daring to burn bright. She had listened to him talk and believed he was her ticket to freedom. How ironic was it that they'd just spent the past twenty-four hours in Federation security as he waited to face charges to the fullest extent of the law? He couldn't help but think he was letting her down. Eeris had dared to believe that just one person in the universe might turn her life around. And now she was going to be shown just how fallible he was.
Miro was left alone in his seat, and he took a deep breath as he tried to calm the staccato of his heartbeat. He was only moderately successful.
The chatter within the courtroom swelled as the hour drew closer to the mark. He could practically feel the jury's energy—it was something stuck in limbo between anxiety and excitement. Excitement, because soon enough his case would finally be closed—and face it, everyone in the room knew who they were bringing to justice. He wasn't exactly the backwater nobody he'd been when he'd escaped home. And anxiety, because knowing his reputation meant knowing how hard Miro Dax was to contain. He could imagine the question everyone was asking—was he about to make this hell for them?
Truth be told, Miro hadn't yet decided.
The gavel suddenly descended overhead, and Miro flinched at the noise, wondering if this was the sole reason he had avoided the courtroom for so long.
"Order!" Simler called. "This court is in session!"
A hush fell over the crowd. Miro's heartbeat cranked up a few notches. He concentrated on breathing—in through his nose, out through his mouth. That's it, Miro. Doesn't matter what memories they're gonna bring back—you're not going to lose it today. Not in front of Eeris."
His eyes fell on Simler as she swept her gaze over the courtroom. Well, here went nothing.
"Miro Dax stands accused of the following charges," Simler said, voice carrying across the courtroom. "Sabotage of Federation technology, assault of Starfleet personnel, disregard of martial law, and theft of a Federation vessel. This trial seeks to determine whether the accused is guilty."
"Wait, wait, wait," Miro said. "Theft? Where'd that one even come from? The Challenger's mine, fair and square."
Simler frowned. "We'll address that later. First, the charges of sabotage, assault, and disregard of martial law. Prosecution, you may call your first witness."
A chair creaked nearby, and Miro looked up as his prosecutor stood and called him to the stand. Sighing, Miro picked himself up and forced himself to move. The quicker he got this over with, the better.
"Miro Dax," the security officer said, "I'm sure everyone in this room is well aware of your reputation. You've been all over the galaxy, making friends and enemies alike. Could you clarify for the jury why that is?"
"I'm Dax," Miro said, going for the simplest answer. "I have experience I can offer."
"And that's the only reason?"
Miro stiffened, bracing himself against the stand. "Not quite."
"Then please do elucidate."
"The galaxy's falling apart," Miro said. "That's no secret to anyone. You don't have to be twelve hundred years old to see there's border conflicts everywhere, no one can reach peace. And the Romulan empress's moves certainly don't help anything."
"And you believe you can offer a solution?"
"I hope so," Miro said. "I mean, you Federation people sure haven't."
Miro didn't miss the officer's smirk.
"Dax, you stand accused of sabotage, assault, and disregard of martial law. Did you commit these crimes?"
"Please answer the question," his prosecution said.
Miro shut his eyes and took a deep breath. "I committed them, alright. But I've gotta say, I don't blame me for wanting to get outta there. Martial law on a planet being bombarded by Klingons? You're lucky I'm the only one who tried to escape!"
An agitated rustle swept through the audience. Miro couldn't help his self-satisfied smirk. Even if it was about to work against him in court.
Simler banged the gavel. "Order! Order!"
The audience hushed, and Miro forced himself back to the present.
"Dax, may I remind you of the rules of this court," Simler said. "Prosecution, continue."
"You admit that you sabotaged the Federation's security sensors so as to escape undetected?" the security officer asked.
Miro smirked. "Yeah, well, would've been a little hard to get off Trill if I hadn't."
"And you admit that you knowingly and willingly assaulted Starfleet officers in order to continue on your way?"
"I think of it more like necessary damages," Miro said. "Bit hard to cause trouble without anyone getting hurt."
"And you admit that your actions were in disregard of martial law?"
"Suppose they were," Miro said.
"Your Honor," the prosecution said, "I submit that the accused is indeed guilt."
Simler nodded and banged the gavel. "Defense, you may question the accused."
Miro's lawyer, a heavyset man who had thus far proven extremely unhelpful, stood and approached. He nodded at Miro, who took his cue and retreated from the stand, relieved to be out of the limelight for the moment. Miro might have been well known across the galaxy, but that didn't mean he liked standing out. It was why he loved Nebez—even with his distinctive features, he blended right into the crowd.
"The prosecution has shown that Miro Dax is guilty," his lawyer announced. "We do not deny this. However, I submit that Dax was unaware of his actions at the time and cannot be asked to serve out a sentence for them. I call Eella Kirel to the stand."
Miro took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he heard the approaching footsteps. He didn't need to see this witness to know exactly who it was—it was impossible to forget that name, and he'd even begrudgingly agreed to this beforehand.
Miro forced his eyes back open just as a wiry old Trill woman took the stand. She had silvery gray hair that was brushed back from her face and secured in a bun. Her blue eyes were kind and soft, too soft, and Miro clenched his jaw against the ire that rose within him. This was absolutely unfair. Why did she have to be his only defense? She was about to dismantle his reputation before the entire court.
"Kirel," Miro's lawyer addressed her, "please state your occupation for the jury."
"I'm a therapist with the Symbiosis Psychiatric Committee on Trill," Kirel stated.
"And what is your connection to the accused?"
Her eyes found Miro's inevitably, and he railed against her compassion as she smiled at him. "I worked with him when he was first joined…quite extensively."
Miro ground his teeth. There it was, stated before the entire court. Miro Dax, galactic hero, was a mental case.
"What was your impression of Miro Dax?"
"Determined," Kirel said. "Driven. He was one of the best initiates I ever had the pleasure to work with. I want that clear, before any of his mental health records are brought before the court. I'm joined myself and I've known Dax for some time, though not personally. Miro here is the best choice for the symbiont there is."
Miro blinked in surprise.
"More to the point," Miro's lawyer said, "how would you describe the condition in which Miro Dax came to you?"
Now, Kirel hesitated. "I really would say that Miro's brilliance is part of the point—"
"Kirel," the lawyer said, "please answer the question."
Kirel sighed. "He wasn't in a good place."
"You have to understand," Kirel said, "joining with a symbiont, especially one as old as Dax, is no easy undertaking—"
"Your Honor," the lawyer said, "I request that the witness be ordered to answer the question directly."
"Kirel," Simler said cooly. "Please answer the question."
Uncertainty flickered in Kirel's eyes. "Miro…was troubled. The symbiont…overwhelmed him. His mind…"
Images of a hundred therapy sessions flashed across Miro's mind, and he gripped the edge of the table as he forced the memories away.
"Continue," the lawyer said.
Kirel's eyes met Miro's across the room as she spoke, as if in apology. "He struggled to find his sense of self. Dax's memories consumed him. The symbiont had been subjected to trauma that should have been treated early on—about nine hundred years ago."
Miro shut his eyes, willing the memories away. Even now, they were still intense, still threatened to roll over him like a tidal wave.
"And when did this trauma begin to affect Miro?" the lawyer said.
"Oh, immediately after he was joined," Kirel said. "He didn't stand a chance—even as a trained initiate, exposure to the sort of raw trauma the symbiont had endured was liable to cause brain damage. But you have to understand, Miro wasn't the first—"
"Irrelevant," the lawyer said.
Miro turned, seeking out the voice, and his heart plummeted. The man who had spoken was the security officer he'd had the most run-ins with in the past. This was a man who knew full well what Miro thought of the law, and had been through so much grief chasing after Miro as a young renegade that he wouldn't hesitate to bring Miro to justice now.
"Sustained," Simler said. "Kirel, you may continue."
"As I was saying, Miro was far from the first Dax host to have trouble," Kirel said. "He's the only one I've personally worked with, but the symbiont's trauma has been on record since the early 2400s. Like I said, Miro is a brilliant young man and is fully deserving of the Dax symbiont. His reaction is hardly a poor reflection on him."
"Perhaps not," the lawyer said, "but this trial concerns Miro alone. Wouldn't you say that his trauma impeded his judgement? He could not have been responsible for his actions."
"Objection, Your Honor," the prosecution said. "He's leading the witness."
"Sustained," Simler said.
Miro sighed. This was what he got for never making enough platinum for a decent lawyer—even now, as his lawyer tried to embarrass him before the court, he was losing his case.
"Kirel," his lawyer said, voice strained, "please describe Miro Dax as you knew him for the jury."
"I would say," Kirel said carefully, "that Miro came to us lost, confused, afraid. His reason was lost within a deluge of memories he'd never been trained to deal with. That's what we helped him with, and he showed promise throughout our sessions. I could always see the determination that made him fit for Dax. He wanted to be better. He wanted to make himself into a man befitting of Dax, and it was his doubt in himself that spurred him on. He left our care not the disgruntled, frightened young symbiont host that I first met, but a young man full of confidence. He still had a long ways to go, that's certain, but we would not have discharged him had he not exhibited great promise."
Miro's lawyer looked like a kicked puppy. "No further questions."
Miro let the tension drain from his body, head thunking the table. This was going even worse than he'd imagined. And now Eeris had gotten an earful of how helpless, how lost, he used to be. That was no how he wanted her to see him—she needed someone to guide her, and the picture his therapist had just painted was not that person.
Simler nodded and banged the gavel. "This court is in recess."
"Recess?" Miro cried. "Aw, come on. There's only one charge left and I'm innocent—let's just get this over with!"
Simler might as well have told him to shut his mouth, for all the disinterest in her eyes.
Miro found Eeris slumped on a bench outside the courtroom. He had cooperated enough during the trial that he was now allowed free reign—if it could even be called free rein with his wrists manacled and a guard never more than a short distance away. He hesitated briefly before joining Eeris on the bench and leaning over to nudge her shoulder stump.
"Hey, kid," he said.
She mustered a tiny smile for him, but didn't look at him for more than a brief second. Did she think less of him already, just because of his therapist's testimony? Part of him was desperate to change her mind, to show her that he did have it all together, while a part of him he was less than proud of was a little irked that she could change her opinion that quickly. But he set all that aside, choosing instead to focus on her discomfort.
"Sorry about that, back there," he said. "I told you you could come, but I wish you hadn't…well…been there."
"You never told me you hurt people," she whispered. "All to get off Trill?"
Her tone surprised him—it wasn't accusing in the slightest. He couldn't quite tell why she was upset, but he intended to find out.
"Well, yeah," he said. "You heard them—martial law had been declared. Couldn't get out without knocking out a couple security officers. They call it assault, I call it a means to an end."
"You don't regret it," Eeris said.
He paused. "Regret it? Sure I do. Doesn't change that I had to do it. I couldn't stick around on Trill. You don't…I can't…it was madness."
"The Klingons," Eeris said.
"Yeah." His voice cracked a little. "Never known even one year of peace, I'm afraid."
Eeris sighed. "No wonder you're always making trouble. You've never known anything different."
He shrugged. "Well, maybe, if you're just talking about this lifetime. But Dax—"
"Yeah, yeah," she said, dismissing him. "And here I thought we were actually on the same ground."
"The same ground?" He hoisted his eyebrows in surprise. "What, you telling me you did anything less than noble getting off Bajor?"
The look she gave him, so bleak and full of regret, nearly stopped his heart.
"Eeris," he breathed.
"I know," she whispered, a single tear slipping down her cheek. "I wasn't going to tell you, you being all high and mighty. And then I still wasn't going to tell you. But I…the Kiran elder…"
Miro had no idea what a Kiran elder was, but that wasn't important.
"What happened?" he asked softly.
She shook her head. "Like I'd tell you. You're Dax—you stand in judgement over the whole galaxy. You even dare to oppose the most powerful empress there is. What's stopping you from blaming me? Seeing me differently?"
"Because," Miro said, nudging her shoulder gently, "that's another part of being Dax. I do understand. I've known a lot of people, and like I've told you before, everyone has a past. I sure do. Everyone does. None of us are paragons of virtue. Fate, just look at me, 'standing in judgment' as you say over the whole galaxy when I'm wanted for petty crimes back on my own world. I'd never judge you, kid. Or think less of you. I know who you are, and nothing's gonna change that."
She flashed him a watery smile. "Well, if you say so."
"So?" he inquired gently. "Feel like telling me what happened?"
She sighed, shoulders slumping. "It's still hard to say. I can't believe I—"
"Hey, c'mere." Miro lifts his manacled wrists over her head and wrapped her in the loop of his arms. It wasn't the most comfortable hug in the world, but he managed it. "Listen to me. Whatever you did, I know you regret it, or you wouldn't be so upset right now. I'm not gonna blame you for it, Eeris."
"Promise?" she asked.
Her voice was so small, so uncertain, and her body was so stiff and fearful in his arms. Miro vowed to spend as much time as he could showing her just how much he promised. This girl wasn't allowed to feel uncomfortable or judged in his presence, ever.
"Always," he murmured, setting his chin in her hair.
She sighed and relaxed a little against him. "The Kiran elder. I…he died."
Miro stayed still, knowing even a single flinch would scare her away.
"He collapsed," she whispered. "It's all my fault."
Miro tightened his arms around her. "I don't see how."
"I was Steward," Eeris said, tensing as if she expected him to withdraw. And Miro realized she had every reason to—he had certainly been clear about his opinion of the Steward when they'd first met. But Miro pulled back to look at her for an entirely different reason.
"You were the Steward?" he asked. "I thought you were just in line."
"No, I was actually inaugurated," Eeris said. "Got the ring put on my finger and everything. Couldn't stop it."
He pulled her back against his chest, determined not to let any of his reservations about Bajor interrupt her words.
"Not for lack of trying, though," she whispered.
He grinned, even if she couldn't see it. "Oh, I believe it."
"I stumbled back, at first. Didn't let him inaugurate me. I downright refused. My mother wasn't happy with me, yelled at me, and the elder wasn't happy either…"
"And he stumbled after me." Eeris shuddered. "He forced the ring onto my finger. I was so shocked, I could barely take it in—one minute I was resisting with all my heart and the next there I was, inaugurated, Steward of my people. And before I know it, he's stumbled back to the stage. He never made it, though. He…he slumped against the steps. Fell down. He…"
She choked out a sob, and Miro squeezed her tighter, feeling her pain like his own. Fate knew he'd been responsible for deaths in the past, and not just in this lifetime. He knew what it was like to regret. But for this girl to have one on her conscience so early on…it was an absolute injustice.
"Miro," she whispered, trembling against him. "It's my fault she's dead."
Miro shook his head. "No."
"He didn't have to exert himself like that," Miro said. "Did you ask to be inaugurated? No. He had no right to stumble your way, force that ring onto your finger. And if he was so close to death's door, he shouldn't have been part of the ceremony anyway."
"Still," Eeris said. "He died because I refused the throne. Doesn't matter if I didn't personally point a gun at his head. He's dead because of me. Because of my choices."
Miro sighed and pulled her tight against his chest, rocking her gently back and forth. "Oh, kid…you're being too hard on yourself."
"You're being too forgiving," she said.
"Honestly," Miro said, fighting back the urge to chuckle. "Do I seem like the forgiving sort to you?"
He waited as she considered, likely thinking of Viresa and Naral. "I guess not."
"Maybe I'm a bit more judgmental than I have any right to be," Miro said. "Maybe I take my lifetimes of experience as my excuse to control the galaxy…but you realize, Eeris, if I forgive so selectively, you're hardly an exception."
She choked back a sob, hardly the reaction he was expecting. "That's ridiculous. Why would I be? You don't even care for me."
Miro froze as shock pulsed through him, immobilizing him.
"Eeris," he said, keeping his voice as steady as possible, "I need you to be very, very clear with me…what in the name of fate made you think that?"
She shrugged. "It's obvious, isn't it? You were close to Naral, closer than you are to me, and you were able to leave her behind without a second thought. I gave you the chance to defend yourself, back in that holding cell. But you didn't. I'm guessing that's guilt, right there. You're probably planning on leaving me behind too, and you just don't want to break the news this early. I get it, though. You just met me and you have the whole galaxy to think about. I'm just a burden."
Miro shut his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to calm his rage against the universe for predisposing her to these kinds of thoughts. He remembered the moment he'd taken her hand back in the flea market on Nebez, and how she'd seemed so startled at first—and, when he'd asked if she'd ever held someone's hand before, she had choked out that it had been a while. How long had it been since someone had shown this girl that she was valued, and not just for her lineage? It really was no wonder her skills in empathy were lacking; she didn't seem to have experienced much of that in the first place. He wondered, not for the first time, how he had ended up with her at his side. Since when was he, the one who eschewed personal relationships, at all qualified to ease this girl's insecurities?
He had to try.
What was she to him, then? Certainly not just some passenger he had taken aboard without a thought, even if that had been true in the beginning. She had become so much more than that, in such a short time it terrified him. Already, he knew he'd do anything to protect her. And why? What was so special about her, a child of Bajor who was descended from one of his greatest enemies, the demon of his nightmares? He should be running away from her, running at high warp from this kind of emotional attachment, but he wasn't. He couldn't bring himself to even try.
She was Eeris, his only friend. The first person to worm her way past his defenses since Naral. And just for that, she meant the world to him.
"First of all," Miro said, gathering his thoughts, "you are far from just a burden."
Eeris hiccuped a sob. "Oh, come on."
"I mean it." He wished he could hold her closer, but his handcuffs really were in the way. "I may be the galaxy's guardian, but it didn't mean anything to me until you came along."
She stiffened. "What?"
"It's my duty, as Dax," he said. "Simple as that. I can't run away when the galaxy needs me any more than I could have stayed home on Trill. I can't shirk responsibility—I never could. But as Miro…it's been tempting, oh so tempting, to just ignore the galaxy's needs, to let Viresa plunder it until it implodes. The galaxy's done precious little for me in this lifetime, kid. Not much reason to save it anymore, and I wouldn't, if I didn't remember how wonderful a place it could be." He paused. "But you…I want to make it a safer place. A better place. For you."
Eeris went still in his arms. "But…"
"No buts," he said. "I can't explain it. But you know, I should've told you what happened as I was hightailing it away from Nebez before…did you know I was coming to rescue you?"
"I sort of gathered that, yeah," Eeris said. "But you did sort of go talk to Viresa first. And I did sort of have to fend for myself with no arms for three weeks."
"Oh, kid, I'm sorry." Again, Miro wished he could tighten his embrace. "Should've told you, though…I guess I didn't think it mattered. Viresa's ships attacked me over Nebez, kid. Nearly killed me. Had the Challenger on a downward spiral. She would've been toast—the atmosphere was right there, and I knew I didn't have much of a chance. I thought, then, that I was going to die. And I would've. For all my experience, I would've."
"But you didn't," Eeris said.
"Nope!" He grinned. "Thought of you, in my last moments. How I'd promised myself I'd give you the chances you'd never had, show you the galaxy you'd never seen. And I knew I couldn't let them defeat me, not then. That was when I thought of it—well, Jadzia thought of it, I suppose. Came up with a plan and got outta there. They never even knew I lived."
Eeris's breath hitched. "But…why? What do I matter? I was the Steward, Miro, and you hate the Steward!"
"Well," he said, "you're not the Steward now, are you?"
She shuddered. "Prophets, no."
He chuckled. "Exactly. You have no argument, then. I do indeed care for you, and that's that."
"I can't believe it," she whispered. "I was so sure…"
"Believe it," Miro said.
"I still don't understand, though," she said. "If you care for me, you must have cared for Naral so much more. You knew each other longer—she said she'd loved you since childhood. And yet…you…"
"Let's just get one thing straight," Miro said. "Whatever she told you, she never loved me."
Eeris blinked. "But…she said…"
Miro's muscles tensed as his mind drifted into the past, and he relaxed his hold on her for fear of frightening her. "Look, kid, maybe she believed that she loved me, maybe she even still believes that—but I was the one who experienced her so-called 'love' first-hand, and believe me, it wasn't real. It never was."
"So what happened?" Eeris asked.
"It's a long story, kid." He took a shuddering breath. "One that I'd honestly rather not think about, let alone talk about."
"For the Prophets' sake," she cried, jumping back and pulling him into her as his manacled hands stayed locked around her, "enough with the secrets already!"
Miro covered his flinch by pulling himself upright again and lifting his arms from around her. Eeris jumped to her feet and faced him in all her fire-breathing glow, and Miro thought he might just tell her anything if his privacy upset her this much.
Might. And that was a far cry from would. He had no intention of letting her plunder all his defenses.
"I'm tired of this," she said. "You claim to care for me, but you don't even talk to me! Everything's, I don't want to talk about it. And you know what, I was content to let you get away with it at first, I even decided to try and accept it—but this just crosses the line! Everything's a secret with you! Don't you get it? What am I supposed to think when you keep yourself a complete stranger?"
Miro gaped at her.
"And don't give me that blank look!" she shouted. "I've had enough, you hear? Enough! And now you better start talking or we're done, forever!"
Miro swallowed. "What do you mean, we're done?"
"I mean, done," she said. "You can take me back to Bajor, and I'll take my chances there. Anything's gotta be better than living with a stranger—and I mean literally living with a stranger! I sleep right below you, Miro, or have you forgotten that? I need to know you! At least with my people, I knew them! And I knew they were bigoted idiots with no respect for the past, but I knew them! With you—Prophets, I've got no idea who you are! I can't do this!"
Miro's mouth opened and closed helplessly. "Eeris—"
"Don't," she said. "Don't tell me you can't, or that I should respect your privacy, or that you're in charge of this mission 'cause it's your ship we're flying and I can't tell you what to do. Just don't, Miro."
Miro cleared his throat. "I wasn't going to say any of that."
"Well?" she demanded. "What were you going to say?"
"I was going to say," he said slowly, "that I had no idea. And I'm sorry. Really, Eeris, I am."
"Sorry doesn't cut it," she said.
Miro made a noise somewhere between a gasp and a chuckle. The parallels to Naral in that moment were just too much.
"I need you to start talking, Miro," Eeris said. "That's what's gonna cut it. Understand?"
He nodded numbly, unsure where to even begin. He knew, in an instant, that he'd promise her anything if it meant she'd stay at his side, keep trusting him. And that alone was a huge step from when they'd first met—then, he'd been convinced it was in his best interests to leave her someday, and even after Viresa had revealed her grand plan to him, keeping Eeris at his side had been a necessity, not a desire. But now…Miro had faced an old friend he'd never wanted to see again, crimes he'd run from for over two years, and memories he'd kept buried for…well…too long, and he could no longer deny that he wanted Eeris around. She was still a liability, that hadn't changed. But he knew now that upsetting her was a far greater crime than any other he could ever commit.
But such devotion was dangerous, and he also knew that promising to talk meant opening himself up on a whole new level. He wasn't even sure he knew how to do that anymore.
"So talk to me," Eeris prompted. "Why did you leave Naral, if you're so sure you're not gonna do the same to me?"
Miro swallowed. Cleared his throat. Opened his mouth—and no sound came out.
She destroyed me, he wanted to say. Being joined to Dax threw me for a loop, and then I lost my home, and I thought I could count on my best friend, but what she did—
He couldn't even mentally complete the thought.
Eeris frowned. "Well? You promised!"
"Yeah," he said, "I know."
"So what's stopping you? Why are you silent this time?"
His eyes slid away from hers. "I just…I can't. Eeris—what she did—"
But the words stuck in his throat. He looked up at her, hoping to find some compassion, only to see her glaring down at him.
"Well?" she demanded. "What did she do?"
He sighed and shook his head. To hell with it—he couldn't say it, he'd have to beg his way out of this one. "Eeris, I haven't confided in a soul in over a year. Wouldn't you be a little tongue-tied?"
She blinked. "Hadn't thought of that, I gotta admit."
His smile was pained. "Yeah, I'll bet you didn't."
"So don't confide in me," she said. "You don't have to get personal or deep or anything. Just tell me the bare bones of it, so I believe you wouldn't do the same to me. Why did you abandon her?"
Miro shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Of course she wouldn't let him off the hook so easily. But how could he give her what she wanted, when he wasn't even mentally ready to revisit the wounds Naral had inflicted? For that matter, would he ever be ready?
One thing was for sure—Eeris was in no place to understand that. He needed to give her something.
"She…she betrayed me," he finally said.
Eeris frowned. "You did that to her, too. It still seems to me that your betrayal of her was worse."
"Only because you don't know the half of it." He managed a bitter smile. "I wasn't in a good place, at the time. I'm sure you figured that from my therapist's testimony. Hell, the fact that I had a therapist in the first place is evidence enough. And then she decided it was a good idea to add insult to injury. But not just once. It wasn't just one instance. It was a whole year."
"A whole year?" Eeris repeated. "I…I never thought…"
He chuckled, but there was no humor in it. "I just hope I can spare you what I've gone through. I'm better off for it, I hope, but it's still more than anyone should have to endure. Least of all you."
"Then how the hell does she not know about it?" Eeris asked. "She told me she has no idea what she did wrong!"
Miro barked out a laugh. "Well, she would say that, wouldn't she? Can't bear to admit she tortured her own best friend for a year. Especially since she thinks she's in love with him."
"You think she's lying."
"I think she doesn't know what the hell she put me through," Miro said. "Now, if that's enough evidence for you, I would really like to stop thinking about it."
Eeris's shoulders relaxed and she nodded. Miro slumped in relief—but suddenly noticed that Eeris had tensed again, and was looking at something down the hall.
"Eeris?" he asked.
Her mouth tightened. "Look who's here."
Miro jumped to his feet, afraid of what he would see. Sure enough, there Naral was, striding toward him with the confidence and poise of a vengeful goddess. Miro's heart leapt into his throat at the same time his stomach twisted, and he fought for breath. To his surprise, he felt Eeris lean gently against him, and he cleared his throat and composed himself.
"Naral," he said, steel creeping into his voice. "Fancy seeing you here."
"Think I'd miss your trial?" Naral smiled sweetly. "It'll be the talk of the galaxy."
"Fate, I hope not," Miro groaned. "How'd you get back here, anyway? Am I to believe you stole the Challenger from me and then brought her back? What kind of revenge is that?"
Naral's smile spread. "Oh, Miro. I have no intention of giving her back."
"Well, you sort of just flew her back," Miro bit out. "Sort of defeats the purpose of stealing her, if you know what I mean."
Naral laughed. "This day just gets better and better!" She checked the chronometer on the wall. "Oh, and it looks like the court's gonna be back in session. Just in time. See you in a few minutes, Miro."
She ducked through the doors to the courtroom, which thumped closed behind her.
"Well." Miro took a fortifying breath. "If she's gonna be there, I'd better be spot-on with my performance. No need to let her see me sweat."
Eeris smiled. "You never once cracked until we came here. Just picture yourself on the Challenger again. That's where you're strongest, isn't it?"
He looked at her in surprise. "How'd you guess that?"
She grinned. "The way all your confidence started falling away the second you stepped off your ship earlier might have clued me in."
Miro stared at her for another stunned second, not used to being understood, until his guard suddenly stood to attention and approached, taking hold of his bicep.
He winced. "Guess that's my cue."
"See you inside." Eeris's shoulder stump brushed his arm. "You'll be fine."
"Course I will," Miro said as he was marched along. "Always am."
Miro was led up to the front of the courtroom, where he resumed his seat next to his useless lawyer. He braced himself as he prepared for the court to resume. He had an uneasy feeling about this court session—it was time to face the one charge he was innocent of, theft of the Challenger. He knew that wasn't true, and with Naral here, he had a feeling he knew who had accused him. And if she was making the effort to be here, and seeming so confident, he had the worst feeling that she had a trick or two up her sleeve. He was going to lose his ship.
Simler banged the gavel. "This court is in session. We now address the charge of theft of a Federation vessel. Will the prosecution please stand?"
A lawyer Miro didn't recognize stood. Miro's heart pounded in his throat.
"You may call your first witness."
"Your Honor," the lawyer said, "I call Naral Prallax to the stand."
Miro shut his eyes. No.
Naral gracefully stood from her place at her lawyer's side and walked up to the stand. She looked so confident standing there that Miro knew something was up. And if what he suspected was correct…
"Please identify yourself for the jury," Naral's lawyer said.
"My name is Naral Prallax," she said, smiling. Miro couldn't help but notice the way she projected her voice—like an A student giving a presentation to her class. "I'm from Trill, as you can see by the spots."
"And would you state your relationship to the accused?"
"I was his best friend," Naral said. "We traveled together. He stole my ship and left me on the planet Ebenen with no resources, no chance of escape."
Miro couldn't help himself. "Objection!"
At his side, his lawyer startled. They had agreed he wouldn't be doing the speaking.
Simler narrowed her eyes at him. "Make your case."
Miro stood, on a roll. "I didn't steal any ship. We owned it together, half and half! And she agreed to stay behind when I took the Challenger!"
"Is that true, Prallax?" Simler asked.
"No, Your Honor," Naral said calmly.
"Overruled," Simler declared. "Prosecution, you may continue."
Clenching his hands into fists, Miro fell woodenly back into his seat. This could not be happening.
"You claim that he stole your ship," Naral's lawyer said. "For clarity, please identify your ship for the jury."
"It's called the Challenger," Naral said. "And I've landed it just outside. I have its registry and ownership records with me."
"You can't possibly!" Miro cried. "What good will that do you? You know she's half mine too!"
"Hearsay," Naral said.
Simler banged the gavel. "Order!"
Miro was practically vibrating in his seat. Fate, how he ached to run out to the Challenger and stand in her cockpit once again…that was all he needed. He just needed his ship back.
"Prallax," Simler said, "you will present evidence of your claim before the court."
Naral lifted her hand, a thin piece of paper fluttering in her fingers. And Miro knew the instant he saw it what her plan was. It was the Challenger's ownership records—the old ones. The ones with only Naral's name on them, because Miro hadn't gotten his own name on the ship until later, when he'd saved up more latinum. But those records had been destroyed in the Klingon attack, and Naral knew it.
"Naral," Miro whispered. "No."
He ground his teeth. This was absolutely intolerable.
Naral's lawyer approached the stand and retrieved the documentation. Miro's nails dug into his palms as he fought to keep hold of his sanity, which was slipping away like the tide. He wouldn't help his case any if he couldn't control himself.
"Your Honor," Naral's lawyer said, approaching Simler's table and handing over the paper, "I submit that the witness, Naral Prallax, does indeed own the Challenger in full, as stated here."
"Objection," Miro said weakly. "Those records are outdated."
Simler looked at him with interest. "Sustained. Can you produce more recent documentation?"
Miro's mouth opened, but no sound came out. This was it, Naral's final victory.
"It was burned," he said.
Simler raised an eyebrow.
"No further questions for this witness," Naral's lawyer said. "I call Miro Dax to the stand."
Miro stood and did as he was told, more confident now. He barely spared Naral a glance as she surrendered her place and resumed her seat, too angry with her for words.
"Miro Dax," Naral's lawyer said, "please state your plea for the jury. Did you or did you not steal the Challenger?"
"No," Miro said. "She was half mine, and Naral agreed to let me take her. I know that's hearsay, but it's also true."
The lawyer steamrolled over him. "And yet you also claim that the records of your joint ownership have been destroyed."
"They have," Miro said, jaw tight. "We escaped during one of the Klingons' attacks. There were fires everywhere. I was barely aware of my surroundings—I must have left the paper in the house, I don't know. All I know is, once we got up into space, it was gone."
"Objection," Naral said. "I don't believe Miro was in any fit state to remember that."
"Explain," Simler said.
"He may have been cleared with the psychiatric committee," Naral said, "but that doesn't mean he was alright. He was huddled on the floor, rocking back and forth like a child when I found him. I had to ease him out of a panic attack. He was so distracted, he couldn't pilot the Challenger, and then he was upset because he watched our home burn while I was piloting. His memory's distorted, Your Honor."
"Sustained," Simler said.
"My memory isn't distorted," Miro ground out. "I know I own half the Challenger!"
"Then present your evidence," Simler said.
"I can't," Miro said. "Don't you get it? The paperwork burned! But of course Naral won't tell you that, she means to take her from me!"
"Objection!" Naral said.
Miro's fingers scrabbled at the corners of the stand, unable to believe his ears. But there was a dark, hopeless part of him that very much did believe it, and he felt that part of him rise up in earnest, before he could stop it. Despair clutched at his heart and he gripped the stand for dear life, battling with his legs to stay standing for five more minutes. He would not show weakness in front of Naral and the rest of the court, he simply would not.
"Dax," Naral's lawyer said, "can you or can you not prove that you have joint ownership over the Challenger?"
"I can't," Miro whispered.
"Then I submit that the outdated paperwork be treated as the most recent record," the lawyer said to Simler. "There is no reason to believe that it has changed, even if it is outdated."
Simler nodded. "The jury will convene." And she slammed the gavel down.
"I'm gonna lose her," Miro said.
He sat on the bench outside, back hunched and chin resting on his manacled hands. He clasped his fingers so tightly his knuckles were white.
Eeris leaned against him. The comfort was small, but he appreciated it, especially since it was all she could give with her lack of limbs.
"Maybe Odo's still on board," she said. "He won't let her take off without us."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Miro said. "He used to be a security officer, remember? Think he'll have any pity for the accused?"
"You're innocent," Eeris said. "You didn't steal her. You just can't prove it."
"Which means I'm as good as guilty," Miro said.
"Hey," she said, "stop this. It's not like you to be so…pessimistic."
"I am capable of realism," Miro said. "Been around long enough."
"Then let's try a little optimism, okay?" Eeris asked. "It'll be alright, Miro, you'll see. The galaxy needs you. We'll get the Challenger back, and we'll go save the day."
Miro couldn't help but smile at the hope in her voice. Even if it was false hope, it was still hope, and he adored her for it. Eeris was the girl who had spurned destiny and chosen her own life among the stars, no matter how difficult it might turn out to be—and what was more, she'd chosen to join him. It was no wonder she could find hope in the most desperate of situations; it hadn't been that long since she had broken free of her own shackles and taken on the universe. For him, it seemed like eons ago, and he hadn't even felt nearly that much hope.
Silently, they watched the clock tick by. They were due back in the courtroom in five minutes, and Miro didn't want to waste a minute of it.
"Suppose it doesn't matter, does it?" he mused. "I can always buy another ship."
Eeris smiled. "You could get a job. Save up."
"All the while Viresa springs her trap on the galaxy," Miro said.
"You'd catch up to her."
"And imagine how much fun she'd have if she could see me right now?" Miro raised an eyebrow. "Look at me. Miro Dax, chained to the Earth. Even my ship's gonna be taken from me."
Eeris shook her head. "She'll never know."
"Oh, she will," Miro said. "She'll notice when I stop buzzing in her ear. I'm like background static for her. She'll notice when it's missing."
"And then what?" Eeris asked.
"And then she'll strike me where it hurts," he said. "She'll plunder the galaxy bit by bit, and she'll do it while I'm trapped here and powerless to stop her."
"I thought you didn't care about the galaxy," Eeris said. "I thought it was just…obligation."
"Obligation's still obligation," Miro said, jaw tightening. "And in my case…duty." He snorted. "Look at me. Talking about duty when I'm probably about to serve time in prison while my ship gets taken away from me."
"I don't know if this will work, but I've got an idea."
He raised an eyebrow. "I could use a good idea right about now."
"Talk to Naral," she said.
He blinked. "What?"
"Talk to her," Eeris said. "Not that I know her very well, but I know that when you opened up to me, even a little, it made a world of a difference. What's to say talking to her won't do the same thing?"
"That's insane," Miro said.
"Naral told me you never told her what really happened between you," Eeris said. "And you haven't told me the whole of it, either, so I can believe it. What if you told her? What if you really explained? Think she'd hate you so much?"
Miro's hands shook. "Eeris, can't you understand that I can't talk about that? I can't even think about it!"
She shook her head. "No, just tell her the basics. Like you told me. And if there's any way you can tell her more than that…you should try."
"That's assuming I can even say it, kid. It's stuck. You've seen me, I can't…"
"Try," Ereis said. "If you want to get your ship back."
Miro frowned. "If I want to get my ship back?"
"Well, yeah," she said. "That's the whole goal here, isn't it?"
"Bit of a heartless one," Miro said, hunching forward and staring into space.
"I thought you said she deserved heartless."
"I never said that," Miro said. "Maybe I implied it…all I said was it wasn't all me, she did plenty of damage too. But I already paid her for that, by leaving her behind. By cutting her out of my life. By cauterizing the wound, so to speak. I tried to forget about her. Doesn't make marooning her a good choice—I should never have done that. Just as I can't just manipulate her into giving me my ship back now."
"So…what's the plan?" Eeris asked.
He frowned, straightening. "You're right. I should talk to her. But only because she deserves it. It's not like I have to keep being her friend after this."
Eeris peered at him. "You don't even like her. She's never done you any favors, from what I've heard. Why would she deserve this?"
Miro looked at her. "Look, kid, I'm sure you haven't had it easy. I'm guessing you haven't really been accepted or loved, and you deserve better. But that's the point—everyone does. Why do you think I'm still on a crusade to save the galaxy even after it's done no favors for me? I've never met a soul who wasn't flawed, but that didn't change that they deserved the best. I'd even save the Klingons, if it came down to it. And Naral…she used to be my friend. We've got history back on Trill, even if we can't ever go back to that. I can't just…" He shook his head. "I marooned her. And now you want me to manipulate her, too?"
Eeris was silent for a long moment. Then, "I guess I'm not really cut out for the Steward, am I?"
Miro laughed. "No, kid, but you're learning."
"So," Eeris said, "you gonna talk to Naral, then?"
"You bet." Miro pushed to his feet, suddenly determined. "I'm calling for a recess."
He didn't miss Eeris's smile as he turned and went to speak with Simler.
Miro trudged across the concrete out front of the courthouse to the landing pad where the Challenger sat. He'd been surprised when they'd let him go without a guard—maybe they just understood he wasn't really in the mood to cause more trouble than he already had. That was something he did when he was flying by the seat of his pants, living by his own rules, not a chance he was willing to take when it might ground him here on Earth forever. He was smarter than that.
The Challenger was a sight for sore eyes. He'd been afraid he'd never see her again. She was angled ever-so-slightly towards him, as if waiting for him. Of course, Miro knew all that really meant was that Naral could see him out the side window, but he didn't care. He headed up the gangplank and smiled when it rattled beneath his feet. Other people, normal people, might be a little freaked out that parts of the ship could be that rickety, but not Miro.
His smile dropped when he entered the already-open airlock. Naral was sitting in the cockpit, waiting for him.
He steeled himself. There was no way he was going to be able to tell her the whole story, any more than he'd been able to tell Eeris. But maybe he could tell her some parts of it. Maybe the bit about the time she'd taken him back to face Bajor…
"What are you doing here, Miro?" Naral asked.
He glanced around, buying himself time. He peered down the corridor that led aft, but there was no sign of Odo. He frowned.
"Where's Odo?" he asked.
"Left him on Trill," Naral said. "Thought you could do with one less ally around here."
"Hey, I had this all planned out," Naral said. "Even managed to slide on a few of my charges eight months back—told them you'd done all the assaulting. How was I supposed to know you'd bring along a friend? I had to get him out of the way."
"Odo's not a friend," Miro muttered.
"Yeah? Tell him that."
Miro shook his head. "Whatever. I came to tell you Simler's calling for a recess. The jury's holding the verdict for the time being."
"How did you possibly manage that?" Naral asked. "Last I heard, you don't even have a case." She waved the Challenger's ownership documentation at him.
Miro snatched the paper away before he could think twice and let it flutter out the airlock. "That's a load of rubbish and you know it."
"If you think you're actually going to get me to sympathize—"
"Sympathize, no," Miro said. "Understand? Maybe."
She frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Miro took a deep breath. "I left you behind. I didn't even talk to you."
"You told me you couldn't trust me anymore," Naral said. "That I'd shown you that. That was enough."
"No," Miro admitted, "it wasn't."
She blinked. "Did I just hear you right?"
"Perfectly," Miro said. "It wasn't enough. And it wasn't fair to you."
"Well, you got that right," Naral said. "But a lot of things in our friendship weren't fair to me, and I let them slide. It's you shutting me out that bothered me. You didn't even give me a chance to be your friend."
Miro's expression went slack. "And all this time—"
"And only now you realize," Naral said. "The great Miro Dax, famed across quadrants for his eons of experience, is baffled when it comes to personal relationships."
Miro winced. "Yeah…not entirely sure why that is. A lot of my hosts in the past were actually a lot better at this whole friendship thing than I am. A failing of my age, I guess? It's easy to forget I'm not so much better than everyone else—that we're all on the same playing field."
Naral's smile was tearful. "You know, you haven't said anything remotely that respectful since before you were joined."
"And I'm sorry for that," Miro said.
She shook her head, and all signs of empathy disappeared. "I'm done forgiving you, Miro. You broke my heart once, and I told you all that time ago, I'm never gonna let you do it again."
"Oh, please," Miro scoffed. "As if I really broke your heart."
"Don't fool yourself that you actually loved me," Miro said. "Just take a good long look at how you treated me for a whole year, and tell me what you see then."
She glared at him. "I'm still not forgiving you."
"I'm not asking for forgiveness," Miro said. "What kind of a fool would I be to think you'd give me that? I wasn't born yesterday, Naral."
Her mouth twisted. "No, you were born twelve hundred years ago."
"And yet," Miro said, sliding into the copilot's seat so they were on the same level, "I was also born twenty-one years ago."
Naral's smile was more like a grimace. "Been a while since you let me remember that."
"I got joined," Miro said. "And then, all that experience…all those years, all those lifetimes…I expected better of myself, Naral. And there I was, huddling in your arms because I couldn't stand the weight of Dax's memories. It was…it was humiliating."
"You couldn't help it," Naral said.
"And that was the problem!" he cried. "I was helpless! I was dependent! I couldn't even fly the Challenger on my own at first, remember that? I was just…gone. But I was Dax! I should have been so much better than that! I'd seen the galaxy rise and fall, I'd brokered peace treaties, I'd started and stopped a war or two—and look at me! Cowering on the floor like some kind of pathetic—" He broke off, shaking his head.
Naral was staring at him. "I…I didn't…"
"And you," he said. "You should have been there. You should have helped me…not try to fix me. I wasn't some broken toy."
"I should have been stronger," Miro said. "Fate, I was nothing. Remember that day we stumbled across that Klingon battle? It was about a year after we left…"
"How could I forget?" Naral said softly.
"The phaser fire was blazing across the view screen…it pulled me back again, tugged me deep within Ezri's memories, and I couldn't stand it."
"I tried to help you," Naral said.
"You tried to fix me," he snapped. "Best friends actually have an ounce of patience, last time I checked. No, it was all about you and how I wasn't being much of a friend. So I decided then, no more. I was going to take care of myself for once. I was going to earn Dax. was going to prove to myself that I could actually be the Trill I'd chosen to be. The Symbiosis Committee had given me the symbiont, sure, but that wasn't enough."
"You had to believe in yourself," Naral said.
He grimaced. "And it didn't work, Naral. I tried, I went back to my bunk, dove under the covers, tried to control it…but it wasn't enough. I needed you, don't you understand? But you were never there. Not when it mattered."
"And I took matters into my own hands," Naral said. "I took you back to Bajor."
Miro's breath hitched. This part of the story, he wasn't sure he could relive.
"I was so sure I could help you," Naral said, watching him carefully.
"Were you?" he spat.
"Stop," he said. "Don't even try to justify yourself to me. Taking me back to Bajor…you were just playing therapist, because there wasn't one around to fix your crazy shipmate."
"Crazy shipmate?" Naral scoffed. "If that's how you think I thought of you—"
"What, you think I was your best friend at that point? You think you loved me? Don't even start."
"Don't," he said. "I got enough of that from you a year ago. I don't need it now."
She huffed. "None of that explains why you marooned me."
"Oh, doesn't it?"
She laughed out loud. "Goodness, Miro! You come here all set to apologize, and you still don't regret it!"
"I never said that," Miro said. "Of course I regret it. Of course I know you didn't deserve what I did to you. I'm just saying, I wasn't exactly unprovoked. You did plenty to hurt me, and I think if you could be honest with yourself for even a split second, you'd realize it."
"So tell me," she said.
He sighed. "I had no excuse. I was certain you had known beforehand what seeing that valley would do to me, Naral. I was certain."
She was indignant. "How could I possibly—"
"Didn't say I still believed that," Miro said.
She shut her mouth.
"You were never there for me," Miro said. "And then you tricked me into facing my worst nightmare."
"Oh, come on," Naral said. "It wasn't that bad. Just a valley and—"
"…and…not just a valley," Miro said. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes, and forced himself to continue, even as his hands clenched together, every muscle in his body rigid. "I…I can't…that place…it's just…Ezri…"
Naral was watching him. "Go on."
"Naral, joined Trills don't just…break like I did," Miro said. "If you were an initiate, you'd know…Dax wasn't supposed to crush me. I'd trained to be joined, I was prepared."
"So what went wrong?"
"Well," he said, "I may have been prepared…for any other symbiont. But Dax…Dax had trauma. You didn't hear my therapist's testimony, but…Dax should have gone through treatment, it should have been nurtured and tested and retested until they were sure what happened to me wouldn't happen. But…Ezri never reported it."
"Never reported what?"
"The incident in the valley," Miro grit out. "She never…she was too determined. She doubted herself even more than me, had to believe she was still Dax…if you'd known her, you'd understand. She thought she could heal herself without therapy. Big mistake, on her part. The symbiont suffered. See, as a joined Trill, she had to think of the symbiont too, not just her own mental health—but it never occurred to her, Ezri hadn't even trained as an initiate, though that's a whole other story. Anyway…she may have gotten over it, at least mostly, but the memories remained, ingrained within Dax…and since she never reported it, the Symbiosis Committee never found out, never gave the symbiont the help it needed. So it all festered, until the symbiont was screaming inside, and no one had any idea—it was unjoined, it didn't have a mouth, couldn't express itself. Then Arvu came along, he was joined, and he…buckled."
"My god," Naral said.
"Naturally, the Symbiosis Committee found out," Miro said. "He'd just been joined when he just…lost it. Right there on the exam table. I remember my mind just…splintering. Chaos. Images, all over the place, of everything—Dax couldn't contain the memories, I'm lucky I didn't suffer neural damage. They finally stabilized Arvu, but it was too late to remove the symbiont. He had to live on…as Dax."
"They couldn't help the symbiont?" Naral asked. "Surely they would have recognized their mistake, and not repeated it for future hosts."
"If only," Miro said. "It was too late. The symbionts are fragile things, Naral. They need the host to survive, or the symbiosis pools. Dax nested within Arvu, and they learned to cope together. But not enough. Never enough. And when Dax was next without a host, the memories were too deeply buried…even our best telepaths couldn't reach them. The symbiont resisted all prodding, it would have been dangerous to try harder. But they were still painful, still traumatic. That hadn't eased in the slightest."
"I'm sorry," Naral said.
Miro flashed her a weak but grateful smile.
"But there's one thing that doesn't make sense," Naral said. "If all this can happen, just because one host fails to take care of the symbiont…why would they let Ezri be joined? You said she wasn't trained."
Miro grimaced. "Yeah, she was an exception. My host before her was dying, the symbiont was critically injured. They couldn't get Dax back to Trill in time, and Ezri was the only Trill on board. It was an emergency operation."
"Ah," Naral nodded. "And they never gave her any impromptu training?"
"They did," Miro said. "But you realize, Ezri was the one who endured the trauma first-hand…when she was recovering, she wasn't thinking of all those little bits of trivia the Symbiosis Committee had packed into a few counseling sessions. She was supposed to learn it all over years."
Naral nodded slowly. "Alright, makes sense."
Miro nodded. "And when it came my turn to be joined…Dax had been through enough hosts, everyone thought the situation might just take care of itself on its own. No one told me how much I'd have to brace myself for Ezri's trauma. So it just rolled over me…it caught me off guard. Imagine, Naral, I'd lived with only my own memories of nineteen years…and suddenly there I am, remembering the pain of another person entirely, but feeling it as my own…I was Dax, Naral. There was no stopping it, and I was proud of it, I wanted it. But Dax meant Ezri, and…and my other hosts…none of them lived easy lives, they were all just a little on the sensitive side, and the galaxy took it out on them."
"I had no idea," Naral said.
Miro sighed, falling silent.
"I guess you're right…I wasn't there for you, was I?"
He shook his head numbly. And that wasn't even the worst of it. There were other wounds she'd inflicted, ones that were only beginning to scab over—he knew better than to pick at them now. Maybe sometime in the future, he'd be willing to tell her the rest, but he doubted it. It had already been a year. If that wasn't long enough, then what was?
"Thank you for telling me," Naral said. "Even if it was about a year too late. What made you change your mind?"
Miro's gaze drifted off into the distance. "Eeris talked me into it, actually."
"Eeris? You mean that little Bajoran girl you brought along?"
"That's the one," Miro said, smiling. "Though I didn't 'bring' her anywhere. She came of her own accord."
The look in Naral's eyes was unreadable. "You really care for her, don't you?"
Miro warmed inside. "Suppose I do."
Naral's gaze caught his, still giving him that unfathomable look. "I'm glad you've found someone, Miro. Someone who can give you another chance at being close to someone. Even if it didn't turn out to be me."
Miro glanced at her. "I don't suppose…"
"…that I'll forgive you? Sorry, not a chance."
He nodded. "That's fair."
"But…" She paused, thinking. "I'd be lying if I said this didn't throw everything into a whole new perspective."
Miro laughed. "And now you see the light."
"I'm on the verge of understanding you, Miro. Don't ruin it."
He cringed. "Right. Sorry."
She sighed. "Are you determined to be angry with me, or what?"
"Not determined," he said. "Just…betrayed."
She laughed. "You're telling me!"
Miro rolled his eyes. "I think we've established that I didn't just abandon you at the drop of a dime, haven't we?"
"You still did it, though," Naral said.
Miro nodded. "I'm sorry."
"You know…" Naral looked at him thoughtfully. "I never did want the stars, not like you did, at least. I left Trill for you."
"Yeah, right," Miro said. "You left Trill 'cause Klingons were shooting at us."
"That too," she said, the corner of her mouth twitching. "But I agreed to leave with you long before that. And it wasn't because I shared your wanderlust."
"And then I just went and marooned you," Miro gasped. "No wonder—"
"Exactly," Naral said.
"But if you don't want the stars…why do you want the Challenger?"
She bit her lip. "I don't."
"I don't want her," Naral said. "Never did. Just didn't want you to have her."
Miro forced a nod. "Fair, I suppose."
Naral snorted. "You suppose."
"Thing is," she interrupted, "I think I've hurt you enough for a lifetime."
Miro shrugged. "You could say the same of me. We've both made our mistakes. Even if I'm not sure I'll ever get over what you did."
"Still," Naral said. "I'll drop the theft charge. It's not true, anyway."
"Well, thanks," Miro rolled his eyes. "Wasn't looking forward to getting jailed for something I didn't even do."
Naral glared at him. "On one condition, Miro."
"You're going to have to earn the Challenger. She's still half mine, you know. Maybe over a year ago I would have been content to just hand her over, but you've made that a bit impossible for me. I have to get something out of this, too, and I don't have a solid living."
Miro nodded. "My fault, I guess."
"Yes, your fault. And if you don't promise me that, you can forget about keeping the Challenger—if you insist on hurting me again, I'm gonna lose whatever little ounce of compassion I have left for you."
"Wouldn't blame you, either," Miro said. "There's just one problem…I don't exactly have enough latinum for you. Even for my half. I don't make that much these days. It was one thing when we were both dabbling in the black market, making a fortune every other month, but now…"
Naral smiled. "It's alright. You can pay me off a little bit at a time. I'll find you."
Miro groaned and scrubbed his hands over his face. "You have got to be kidding me."
"You don't get rid of me that easily, Miro."
"Alright…fine." He composed himself. "You've got a deal."
Naral nodded. "Bout time I dropped that charge, then."
"I'd appreciate it."
"I'm sure you would." She stood. "Walk with me?"
Miro smiled and followed her out. Maybe he had hurt her far more than she deserved, but at least she would be getting some justice out of this. And he didn't need to fear her anymore. They wouldn't be at each other's throats, and he would keep the Challenger. And he wouldn't have to fight the woman who had once been his best friend in all the world.
Against all odds—or perhaps because of them—he headed back to the courtroom with a spring in his step.
"Take a seat, kid," Miro grinned. "Alright, here we go…thrusters at full…hold on tight!"
As Eeris pressed her back into her seat for lack of a better way to hold on, the Challenger lifted up into the air. She wasn't sure how much of Miro's enthusiasm was because he'd resolved things with Naral, and how much it was because he'd essentially "flown the coop" on his prison charges. All had been according to plan—or, that was, his prosecution's plan—right until Simler had announced his sentence.
At first, it had been impossible not to be discouraged. Miro's sentence had come out to ten years in prison. But then Miro had shot her a daring look over his shoulder, grabbed her hand, and before she knew it, they were taking off for the door. They'd made it all the way outside the building before anyone caught up with them. Miro hadn't been able to escape without scoring a few punches, but Eeris had looked over her shoulder as they ran off and seen the security officers picking themselves up. They'd boarded the Challenger to screams of bloody murder.
Eeris's own smile bloomed as the Challenger soared up into the darkness of space, and she felt the telltale rumble from behind her as the ship shifted to impulse and Miro punched in a new course. All too soon, however, she noticed something else. Their third passenger was mysteriously absent.
"Where's Odo?" she asked. "We're not going to leave without him, are we?"
Miro grimaced. "No, of course not. But, um…Naral might have told me that she sort of marooned him on an alien planet."
"Apparently to keep me isolated," Miro said. "I took it she figured out who Odo was—I mentioned him often enough, back in the day. Must've taken a bet that he was on my side this time around."
Eeris shook her head, sighing. "Marooning him…she must've learned from the best."
"Yes, must've." Miro didn't sound amused.
"So…are we going to go get him?" Eeris asked. "Do you know which planet he's on?"
"Possibly," Miro said. "Why are you so eager to be around him all of a sudden?"
"He was there for me when I doubted you," Eeris said.
Miro nodded. "Ah, that explains it. Loyal till the end, isn't he?" He sighed. "Suppose we'll have to go after him, then."
"Just a few days ago, you were saying you needed him," Eeris reminded him.
Miro cringed. "Yeah, that's for sure. Unfortunate and annoying, but true."
Miro set a course, and Eeris leaned forward, trying to catch his eyes as they flicked over the dashboard.
"So," she said, "tell me, then. What planet is he on?"
Miro tensed. "Trill."
"Is that okay?" Eeris asked.
Miro shrugged. "Won't be fun, but I'll manage."
"You think you'll recognize the place?" Eeris asked.
"High chance I will," Miro said. "Also, Trill is one of two planets in the galaxy that have one place I never want to go, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time in both places these past two years."
"Well," Eeris said, shrugging, "what're the chances?"
Miro gave her a withering look. "Did you really have to ask?"
She laughed. "Don't tell me you believe in karma."
"Nah," Miro grinned. "But I'd prefer not to tempt fate…just this once."
She smiled, shaking her head.
"Seriously!" Miro said. "I come all the way out here, put myself through all that legal nonsense, just to make a killing on a book—and what do I get for it? No latinum, nothing! I could use some good luck right about now."
Eeris chuckled. "Then let's hope the universe will do you a favor."
The trip to Trill took only a few hours, trundling along at warp speed. Miro's obvious anxieties aside, Eeris was looking forward to seeing his old homeworld. It was a perfect chance to get a better picture of his past. And she hadn't failed to notice that of all the random bits of history Miro had rambled about before, his life on Trill hadn't been one of them. She couldn't help but wonder what they would find.
Once they reached Trill, they followed Odo's biosign down to one of the northern continents. Eeris wasn't sure what she had expected, but it wasn't this.
The land was barren. Out the view screen's narrow view, she could see a meager scattering of debris, but nothing to suggest this place was inhabited. The sky was overcast, reminding iris of the hills outside her society, the mostly uninhabited ones where she had found that religious stronghold. This place sent chills down her spine.
Miro powered the Challenger down and then turned the view screen off before letting his head sink heavily into his hands.
"Hey," Eeris said, by now recognizing the signs. "You alright?"
"Will be," he mumbled.
She stood and wandered behind him so she could brush her shoulder stumps against his back, wishing she had hands to touch him. It seemed to do the trick, though—he straightened and turned, flashing her a grin.
"Well, kid, no time to waste!" He bounded for the airlock. "The sooner we find him, the sooner we can get outta here."
They descended down the gangplank, and Eeris got her first good look at the landscape surrounding them. The ground beneath her feet seemed have been burnt to a crisp, and there weren't any houses in sight—just low, charred sprinklings of wood that littered the landscape as far as the eye could see. Eeris wondered if they had landed in the ruins of a forest of some sort. It wasn't until she saw Miro's pinched look as the ground crunched beneath his feet that she realized they weren't just little sprinklings of wood at all—they were the remains of houses.
"Oh, Prophets," Eeris whispered.
Miro sighed, shaking his head. "Not the Prophets. This was the work of the Klingons."
"From everything you've said about them, they sound horrible."
"Well, can't seem to make peace with the Federation, but I can't blame them for that, can I?" Miro said. "I mean, they did destroy my home, but aside from that, they're really not that bad. They've got their own motivations, everyone does. Only one who's really bad is Viresa. The rest—they're just unwilling pawns in the galaxy's game."
Eeris's eyes widened, taking in the burnt expanse. "This place…this was your…"
"Yup!" Miro said, entirely too much false levity in his voice.
"I'm sorry," Eeris said.
He glanced at her. "It's fine."
"No, it's not," Eeris said. "You used to live here. I'd never want to return to Bajor, but if Lohnar burnt, Prophets, Miro—"
"I said, it's fine," Miro snapped. "I don't want to talk about it."
This time, Eeris let it go, realizing that unlike the other bits of his past he'd faced in the past twenty-four hours, asking him to relive this for her might be a little bit much. Despite his promise to be more open, Eeris had a feeling this was one thing he wouldn't budge on. And why should he? He had left this place behind, turned up his nose in the face of authority, hadn't even escaped legally—and this was what happened.
"Where'd you live?" Eeris asked, unable to stop herself.
He pointed in a direction in the distance to their left. "Right about…there."
Eeris scanned the land he'd indicated for any sign of having once been lived in, but it was the same as the rest of the area—charred, burnt, dead. Abandoned.
"How could this happen?" she asked. "I can't imagine what kind of weapon would do this much damage."
"You'd be surprised how much havoc a ship's phasers can wreak," Miro said. "Oh, look—there he is."
Eeris looked up, and sure enough, there was Odo, walking toward them like the devil himself was after him.
"Miro!" Odo called. "Have you seen Naral? Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, she was on Earth, last I checked," Miro said. "Why? What happened?"
"She's determined to hurt you," Odo said. "She shot me with her phaser so that I wouldn't return to Earth with her…all to deprive you of your allies."
Miro frowned. "I was right, about her getting more determined."
"I was beginning to think you'd been sentenced to prison," Odo said. "I didn't expect you to return for some time."
Miro shrugged. "Yeah, well, I sort of was sentenced. Couldn't escape most of the charges. I'm here now though, aren't I?"
Odo frowned at him. "You were sentenced? Should I expect us to be dragged back to Earth again whenever we risk passing through Federation space?"
Miro grinned. "Oh, yes. Which is why I don't plan to pass through it in the first place."
"Well," Odo said, "you don't seem to be avoiding it now. Last I heard, Trill was part of the Federation."
"Like I said a couple days ago, I need you," Miro said, and turned on his heel. "Well, you feel like chancing your luck or are you coming?"
Odo shook his head in what might have been exasperation. "You know, Miro, there's one thing that hasn't changed about Dax. You're still just as stubborn."
Miro raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think that?"
"Oh, nothing in particular," Odo said. "Just…why do I get the feeling you're not quite as uneasy about my presence as you were when we first met?"
"In your dreams, Odo," Miro smirked. "Well, c'mon. Ready to save the galaxy?"
"As I'll ever be," Odo said.
As they all boarded the Challenger and Eeris took her seat in the cockpit next to Miro, she couldn't help but feel that they were finally underway. It had taken weeks on end to get here, but now they were on track, doing what they were supposed to do, and at last allied under the same cause. And Eeris knew she wasn't going to go doubting Miro's friendship anytime soon. They were in this together, and they would be till the end.
A light blinking on the dashboard brought her out of her thoughts. As she looked up in curiosity, Miro pressed a button, and the viewscreen came to life with images. Eeris wasn't sure what she was seeing at first—it looked like they were in space, watching as several unfamiliar starships whizzed past, but she knew they were still sitting solidly on Trill's surface.
"What's that?" she whispered to Miro, just as a voice-over began.
"News service," Miro said. "I catch 'em when I can. There aren't many reporters who dare to be out there on the front lines these days, but the ones who do—well, I can't help but respect 'em."
Eeris nodded. On the screen, the ships changed course, and a planet she recognized rose up into view. She'd know those scattered continents anywhere—it was Bajor! And now she recognized the starships that were heading towards it. They looked a lot like the one she and Odo had been dragged on board back on Nebez.
Eeris had spent most of her life wanting…more. In the beginning, she was never quite sure what she wanted—she'd known nothing but what her people had taught her. She'd known to worship the Steward or expect recrimination from the High Council. She'd known to respect her mother or lose that of her society. And she'd done a pretty good job at pretending she was okay with it—after all, what else was out there for her? What opportunities did she have? As her mother had so succinctly put it not so soon after the beginning of her rebellion, her destiny was her only choice. Eeris's sole goal had become to rise beyond that, to prove to herself that there was something else for her in this life, something besides the Steward. Her goals had never been to betray the Bajorans. She had never wanted to hurt her people, no matter how inevitable it had become.
And now the skies above her world were filled with deadly-looking starships, armed to the teeth and on a steady descent.
"Those are Cardassian ships," Odo said, behind her.
Miro was frowning. "No…this shouldn't be happening!"
"What's wrong?" Eeris's heart was in her throat. "What's happening? Why are there Cardassian ships headed for Bajor?"
Miro swallowed. "I don't know if you're a visionary, kid, or if this is just a huge coincidence, but it looks like that occupation you were worried about is happening."
Eeris nearly choked on the words she was desperate to say—that it hadn't been coincidence, that she'd known about this, that she'd seen those Cardassians on the streets—but how could she tell Miro that, and admit to having lied to him? She knew his trust in her was flimsy as it was. He'd only just begun to open up to her. When she had insisted that she hadn't been on Bajor more recently than he was aware, she had no idea that her honesty would be put to the test. Besides, what was the point in getting worked up over this? Miro had already said he wasn't going to help Bajor.
"You okay, kid?"
She realized Miro was looking at her with concern. She swallowed and barely managed to squeak, "Yeah, fine!"
He raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that?"
"That's my home," she whispered.
He softened. "I know."
"Those are my people," she whispered. "They're in trouble. We can't just…"
"Sorry, kid," Miro said, shooting her a sympathetic glance. "There's not much we can do."
"They can't even defend themselves," Eeris whispered. "I abandoned them, hurt so many people…and it's not like I want to return, but how can I just let this happen? They've fallen off the map, like you said—they don't matter—no one else is going to help them! Not the Federation, not the Klingons, not the Ferengi, no one!"
Miro nodded. "Yup, likely no one will even blink an eye."
"And you're just going to let this happen?" Ereis asked.
"Kid," Miro said softly, "I know it's hard. Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to surrender my home to the Klingons…but there was nothing I could do. And really, you're luckier than me—the Cardassians don't have the strength for an occupation, remember? They'll pull out before long. It'll be fine."
"I know," Eeris said, sighing. "I know."
"If Cardassia lacks the strength for an occupation," Odo spoke up, "then why are they doing this?"
"It's Viresa," Miro said, shrugging. "It's just a distraction, so they're up to their necks in Bajorans and don't even notice when she betrays them."
"Then, if Bajor is a distraction," Odo said, "what is Viresa planning to do now?"
"I'm guessing the wormhole will open soon," Miro said. "And we all know what happens then. I, for one, don't wanna be lingering around Federation space when the Dominion comes through. Probably shouldn't go anywhere near Bajor, either."
Odo frowned. "What happens if the Cardassians don't get distracted? What happens if they notice when Viresa betrays them?"
Miro's brow furrowed. "They won't. Why would they? They've got Bajor to deal with."
"But what if they did notice?"
"Well," Miro said slowly, "I imagine things wouldn't go as smoothly for Viresa, then. What are you suggesting, Odo?"
"I'm suggesting," Odo said, folding his arms, "that we don't allow this occupation of Bajor to happen. Eeris is right—it's her home, and no matter where her loyalties lie, she has every right to be concerned. Besides, I for one have no interest in standing by as Bajor is plundered once again. I did nothing when the Cardassians took over the first time, and I even joined Deep Space Nine's ruling council when Dukat returned with the Dominion. I've done enough standing by. Now why don't we step forward and stop this while we still can?"
Eeris shot Odo a grateful look.
"Distraction or no distraction," Miro said, "Viresa still has the power to execute her plans. I say we make sure we're ready for her."
"We will be ready," Odo said. "It looks like she's putting Bajor on the front lines, if this third occupation is anything to go by. And like I said, I have no intention of standing by and watching this happen."
"Wait a second," Miro said. "What did you just say?"
"The same thing I've been saying for the past five minutes," Odo said. "That I have no intention of—"
"No, no, before that," Miro said. "Something about Viresa putting Bajor on the front lines?"
Odo nodded. "It certainly seems that way, doesn't it?"
Miro's jaw dropped, eyes going wide.
"What?" Miro asked. "Miro, what's going on?"
"Oh, fate," he whispered. "I can't believe I missed this."
Eeris frowned. "Missed what?"
"I spend so much time remembering what the whole galaxy has gone through, trying to forget all about Bajor, that I don't even realize what's right under my nose," Miro said. "And what was it I realized just after I faced Viresa earlier? We can't just dismantle her power, knock her down from her throne—we need to find a new power to take her place. Otherwise, the galaxy will plunge into chaos. We need to keep balance, otherwise it's no use toppling Viresa, we'll all be doomed."
A slight smirk graced Odo's mouth. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"I'm saying," Miro said, fear in his eyes even as his jaw set, "that it's time we forced Bajor to the front lines. It's our best chance. It's so marginalized, it hardly has a reputation anymore. And that's what we need—for someone to stand up and hold the galaxy in equilibrium, someone who isn't involved in who knows how many unnecessary border conflicts. We need Bajor."
Eeris's eyes lit up. "Really? We're going to save it?"
"Not us," Miro said, eyes falling on her, and the intensity of his gaze frightened her. "You."