II. Always a seamark to lay a course by.
Major Kira Nerys straightened her uniform, fretting over the wrinkles at her shoulder, the frayed edge of one sleeve.
She caught her own gaze in the mirror and made a sour face; this wasn't like her at all. Besides, Sisko – the Emissary, she corrected herself – had already seen her at considerably less than her best. True, he'd just been Starfleet, then, just the unwanted alien commander of a Bajoran station. He hadn't been the Emissary, not yet.
"This is ridiculous," she muttered, and gave her uniform one last glare in the mirror before turning away. If Kai Opaka had recognized something in Sisko's pagh that proved him to be the Emissary, then he was the Emissary, had always been the Emissary. There was no point in trying to separate the man she'd met in Ops with the man she was about to meet in a more formal setting. He still had a son, and a temper, and a strange, faraway look in his eyes that spoke of loss and mourning. He was the fixed point: she was the one who'd change.
On the turbolift leading to the Promenade, Nerys caught herself tensing up again, fiddling with a loose thread on her sleeve, and sighed. She should have just gone and replicated a new uniform – she was sharing the station with Starfleet types, after all, and now that the replicators weren't emitting worrying sparks or smoking quite as much as they had been earlier, she supposed they were all expected to look pristine, perfect.
And then she found herself stifling a smile. Just what were the rules of decorum, exactly, when it came to meeting an important figure in one's religion? If the Emissary of the Prophets couldn't look beyond a bit of wear and tear, well...
The doors opened on a mass of milling people; it took Nerys a few moments of polite elbowing to make enough space to disembark the turbolift. The shrine was, of course, the main hub of activity; even Quark's looked deserted in comparison, and the more intrepid members of his staff had ventured to the bar's entrance to watch the commotion. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Bajorans were packed into an area meant to accommodate considerably fewer. On a hunch, Nerys scanned the crowd for a familiar figure, and grinned when she saw Odo, looking decidedly put-upon, doing his best to maintain order – among his uncharacteristically exuberant deputies as much as anyone else. There were a few Starfleet uniforms loitering around, too, some caught up in the energy of the crowd, some looking decidedly more sceptical or wary.
And, just for a moment, Nerys had to pause, had to reach out and steady herself against a bulkhead and blink away light-headedness, because this was what they'd dreamed about, this was what they'd fought for. This was Terok Nor, filled with the voices and laughter of Bajorans, pleasantly cool and bright and, somehow, safe.
A chill at the back of her neck shattered the moment, and, trusting instinct, Nerys turned. The Bajoran throng extended back along the Promenade, but one figure was decidedly out of place: the Cardassian tailor, Garak, standing in the entrance of his shop. He caught her eye, smiled benignly, and stepped back inside
Safe for today, anyway.
She turned back to the shrine, and when she stumbled to avoid a pair of children racing underfoot, she nearly walked straight into Lieutenant Dax.
Dax smiled and caught Nerys's arm to steady her. "Quite a turn-out, Major."
"You don't know the half of it," Nerys said, and had to grab for Dax's arm again when someone elbowed her in passing. The lieutenant seemed annoyingly unbuffeted by the crowd, every hair in place, dress uniform crisp and neat – probably newly replicated for the occasion, Nerys thought, wryly. Very composed, very serene.
Nerys pulled her hand away like she'd been burned, planted her feet more solidly, and summoned up a polite smile to rival Starfleet's greatest. "The only reason the preliminary ceremony's happening here is because it's going to take more than a week to prepare enough room for everyone to attend the main ceremony on Bajor."
Dax laughed. "I'm sure Benjamin will be looking forward to it."
"I hope the Emissary will be pleased with the preparations we've made," Nerys said, stiffly, and made as if to start toward the shrine.
Dax caught her by the wrist before she could get too far. "Major, wait." Nerys turned back; the lieutenant looked uncertain for the first time since they'd met. She pitched her voice lower, so that Nerys had to lean closer to hear her. "I don't mean to belittle what Benjamin's become – what he is – to your people. But you need to know it's going to be difficult for him. It's going to be difficult for a lot of us."
In spite of herself, Nerys smiled. "Lieutenant, truer words have never been spoken."
Dax's grip on Nerys's wrist didn't slacken. "I wonder if you'd consider talking to him before the ceremony – not Major to Commander or Bajoran to Emissary, but person to person. There's still a good hour before he's expected to start speaking."
Nerys had to take a step closer to avoid being pulled away by the crowd, which was moving with renewed purpose to hear the preliminary speakers. "I'm not sure that's appropriate-"
"Probably not," Dax said, and her polite smile broadened to something less Starfleet, more genuine. "But having that conversation now just might save you a lot of grief in the long run. Will you come with me? I think Benjamin is in Ops, and, knowing him, he's probably trying to find all sorts of excuses not to come down here until the last possible moment."
"I'm sure the Emissary has more important things to worry about than a conversation with me."
"Trust me," Dax said, "he doesn't." With a smile, she started walking. Almost in spite of herself, Nerys followed.
The turbolift was empty except for the two of them; with the preliminary speeches at the shrine in full swing, nearly the entire Bajoran complement of the station had already reached where they were going. In the quiet hum of transit, Nerys found herself darting glances at Dax, wondering just how much of that outward calm was Starfleet training and how much came from simply having lived for so many years.
As the turbolift cleared the floor of Ops, Dax glanced over, caught Nerys staring, and winked, hopping up to solid ground before the lift had stopped moving.
Ops still looked dizzyingly strange, sometimes – the lighting was brighter, the air was cooler, and now, with all the Bajoran officers on leave to attend the ceremony, Starfleet's presence was even more obvious. A young ensign wearing the blue of a science officer ducked her head in a quick, formal nod as they passed, and Nerys felt her shoulders stiffening in reply. The loose thread on her sleeve seemed glaringly obvious, and, just before the doors to the Emissary's office opened, she wrapped it around her finger and snapped it off in a quick, decisive motion.
The Emissary himself was standing at the back of the room, looking out at the vista of stars as though in silent meditation – or, Nerys wondered, heart pounding, was he in communion with the Prophets? She glanced over to Dax, who shrugged, gave a significant nod in the Emissary's direction, grinned, and... stepped back outside, leaving the doors to close behind Nerys with a whispering hiss.
Resolving to give Dax a piece of her mind the next time they met, Nerys cleared her throat. "Emissary?"
When the Emissary made no sign of having heard her, she risked moving a few steps nearer. Far from the peace and serenity she'd expected to see, the Emissary's face was a study in restlessness, a contained energy she'd experienced too many times to mistake as anything but a powerful desire to escape.
She cleared her throat, spoke louder this time. "Emissary?"
He actually jumped at the sound of her voice, turned around so quickly that she was halfway into a defensive stance by the time she caught herself.
"Major," he said, and his expression smoothed out into a smile, though there was still something wary about his posture, the way he was standing. "I'm sorry; I didn't hear you come in."
"Well," Nerys said, and paused. "To be honest, sir-" She caught herself. "-Emissary, it was Lieutenant Dax who suggested I meet with you before the ceremony."
"Ah," he said, and made a show of straightening his dress uniform. "Right. Dax's idea. I should've guessed."
"I understand if you're too busy to-"
"Major, what kind of commander would I be if I couldn't even have a conversation with my first officer?" He waved to the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat."
Nerys swallowed. "I, uh, I'd rather stay standing, sir. Emissary."
He winced. "Just sir, please. I don't think I'm going to get used to being called the other one."
"I'm not-" Nerys began, and, frustrated, she sucked in a deep breath, releasing it as a sigh. "I'm not sure I can do that."
"As your commanding officer, I could order you never to call me Emissary," he said, with a teasing tone that softened his words. His eyes, though, were serious, a little desperate, raw with some emotion she could only guess at.
She didn't even flinch. "Then I'd have to respectfully disobey that order. Emissary."
His posture stiffened, and he turned away, back to staring at the stars. "I guess Dax was wrong, then. We don't have anything to talk about."
"I think we do," Nerys said, and it came out more blunt than she'd expected; the Emissary turned around, surprise and amusement in his eyes. She cleared her throat. "Look, I haven't known Dax nearly as long as you have, but I'm already starting to suspect she has a habit of being right all the time."
He smiled at that. "Maybe a little."
"And I'm pretty sure she's right about this. I just-" Nerys paused, weighing her options. She'd never been one to err on the side of caution, and the way she saw it, any level of communication was better than none. With a glance back at the door to Ops, she straightened, crossing her arms. "You're not exactly Emissary material."
She'd expected something challenging in response – an answer, an explanation, at the very least – but all she got was an incredulous look, followed swiftly by a guffaw of laughter. "Major, that's the biggest understatement I've ever heard."
"But that's just it," she said, and moved a step closer, challenging. "You have no idea what this means to my people, having the Emissary live in our time. We were nearly wiped out. The only thing that sustained us-"
"Was your faith," he said, and the smile on his face faded. "I know."
"No," she said, softly, "you don't. I could name a thousand things I've witnessed that you've never even pictured in your worst nightmares, and they're all that much more terrible because they happened to my people. And you, you come from Earth, where everything's a paradise, where you've outgrown war and poverty and- and evolved. That's what I mean. You can't possibly imagine what our faith helped us survive."
"I want to understand."
Nerys chewed her lower lip for a moment. "I'm not sure you can."
He turned, abruptly, and paced to the far side of the room. "If you reject my status as the Emissary, then why keep up the pretense? Why keep calling me-" He paused, ran a hand back through his hair with a frustrated sigh. "Should I just call it all off? The ceremony? Should I go back to Opaka and tell her-"
"Listen to me," she said, and to her surprise, he stopped talking. "I don't reject your status as the Emissary. I have no doubt that the Prophets chose you for a reason. I can't doubt it."
She risked taking a step closer. "I just want you to understand how badly we need this. We need to see that the Prophets didn't abandon us during the Occupation. We need to see that you're the symbol of things to come."
He glanced up, studied her for a moment, and seemed to come to a decision. "I never told you what happened to me in that wormhole."
Nerys couldn't meet his gaze. "Any experience with the Prophets is meant for one person, and that person alone."
"They showed me my wife," he said, and when she looked up again, she was surprised to see him smiling faintly. "They showed me that I was still trapped with her aboard the Saratoga, that I'd never really left her, that I had to let go. I thought that was my journey. I thought it was over, that I could get on with my life. And then-" He held up his hands. "And then I come back here, and it's all real again, and there are expectations, and- Major, I barely managed to save myself. How am I supposed to save a whole people?"
There was a moment of silence, and then, startling even herself, Nerys began to laugh.
"I'm glad you find my spiritual dilemma so amusing," he said, but he was grinning as well.
"It's just-" Nerys shook her head. "You're not what I expected. If anyone ever needed convincing that the Prophets have a strange sense of humour..." And that was enough to set them both laughing again. There was something cathartic in it, a release of tensions she hadn't even known she'd been bottling up. "All right," she said, once the moment had passed. "The only way this is going to work out is-"
"-if we work together," he said, with a smile. "Just like the Old Man said."
"She really is right all the time, isn't she?"
"I've learned it's best not to question anything Dax says. Ever."
"That seems wise," Nerys said, and extended her hand. "We just keep getting off on the wrong foot. I guess we've both got a lot of learning to do."
After a moment's hesitation, he clasped her hand in his, and his smile was warm and genuine. "I guess so," he said. "This might be a little-"
"I was going to go for 'unusual'. But I expect we'll rise to the occasion." He released her hand and picked up a padd. "I'll be down in a moment, Major – let me run through my speech one last time."
"Of course," she said, and added, emphatically, "Commander."
He glanced up, and the gratitude in his expression was so powerful that all she could do in reply was nod once more and head out the doors to Ops.
Dax was standing at a station close enough to the doors that Nerys suspected she'd been able to hear every word, though she was doing a passable job of pretending to be engaged in the sensor readings in front of her. "How did it go?"
Her voice was just bland enough that Nerys could almost believe she hadn't been listening in. "You know, Lieutenant, I'm not entirely sure."
Dax froze, abandoning her nonchalance in an instant, and glanced up. "Is that a good 'not entirely sure', or a bad one?"
"Well, why don't you tell Ensign Parkins to take over-" Nerys craned her neck to read what was on Dax's console. "-running a level three security scan on the docking ring's unused cargo bays, since that's obviously such a priority at the moment, and come with me to the Promenade to see for yourself?"
Dax's smile was radiant. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
And as they rode down in the turbolift, Nerys couldn't quite wipe a matching smile from her face, because right at this very moment, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, the Prophets were still watching out for Bajor, after all.