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.