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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?"

"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."

"But—"

"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."

 



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