Title: "Crossing the Lines"

Author: Little Red (mylittleredgirl at gmail dot com)

Rating: R, for violence and sex

Summary: How far will Dax go to save her homeworld from Dominion occupation?

Category: Bashir/Ezri relationship, and a brave attempt on my part at actual plot!

Disclaimer: They're not mine, and that's probably for the best.

Spoilers: All over the place, right through The Final Chapter. And if you want to be nit-picky, I also may have stolen some information from or made references to all of the various Trill and Dax episodes over the years (including TNG's "The Host"), as well as the book "The Lives of Dax." In non-Trill-related spoilers, we have the TNG episode "Second Chances" and the DS9 episode "Defiant." You're fine if you've never heard of any of those things, but you know, credit where credit is due.

Timeline: As much as the Final Chapter rocked and I hate to mess with it, I had to make this AU. The Last Great Battle Against The Dominion of "What You Leave Behind" happened, but they didn't make it to Cardassia Prime and it didn't succeed in ending the war. The war and the Cardassian revolt are still going on. All the dying and the leaving and the ascending into the celestial temple and what-have-you of "What You Leave Behind" hasn't happened yet, either. It's definitely post- "The Dogs of War" because Ezri and Bashir are together.

COVER ART: by nenya.

 

*****

 

"He's going into shock! 10 cc's of cordrazine!" Bashir barked out, almost leaping over his patient -- a human Ensign in gold -- to grab the synaptic stimulator from the nearest trauma cart. "Hold him down!" he ordered whoever was nearby enough to hear when the Ensign's sudden seizing prevented him from getting the chance to apply direct synaptic stimulation without compounding the cerebral damage and short-circuiting the poor man. "I need a medical restraining field," he muttered as a young enlisted woman wrestled his patient still with bodily force long enough for him to apply the treatment.

The patient's convulsions quieted. The young woman who had heeded Bashir's orders to pin the man to the bed continued to hold him down, looking to the Doctor with wide eyes for her next orders. "Leave him," Bashir commanded. "They need help over there."

A quick tricorder scan confirmed that the Ensign would live long enough to wait for proper care, the intended result of triage. Ordinarily, Doctor Julian Bashir would never think of leaving a patient so quickly after synaptic stimulation, but he would live, and there were plenty of other patients left in the cargo bay of the U.S.S. Guandong.

The next patient was a bloody mess, but the tricorder insisted that there were no serious internal injuries that couldn't wait for an hour or two. The fact that he was already unconscious meant that there was no need to slow down long enough to even administer a painkiller.

"Doctor!" the Guandong's chief engineer, in his first day as an emergency medical assistant, practically squealed, and Bashir could hear the telltale sound of a medical tricorder signaling crashing vitals even through the unbelievable noise of the cargo bay. He met the eyes of the Guandong's Chief Medical Officer -- in fact, the only medical officer assigned to the 28-crewmember supply ship -- and she reached the crashing patient before him. Pained cries and the wailing of medical monitors drew him onward without thought.

Of the hundred and seventy-three wounded filling the cargo bays and mess hall of the tiny ship after spilling over from the two-bed sickbay, forty-eight had been declared to be in critical condition by the Guandong's Doctor Muir. It was a rough estimate, since the crew of her vessel didn't have the experience necessary to diagnose patients and she had been busy with the seventeen deaths that had occurred en route to Deep Space Nine. The wounded who had made it this far were barely a third of the crew of the U.S.S. Triumph, the rest of whom had died almost instantly when three Dominion scout ships had attacked inside territory which had been reclaimed by the Federation almost three weeks ago. Aside from the larger implications of Dominion ships beginning to advance again, so quickly after having barely fought off a multi-pronged attack on all their territories, the loss of life was sobering.

"Numerous broken bones and contusions, along with four shattered lower spinal vertebrae," he knelt down to diagnose the Bolian lying on a blanket on the floor. Despite the time pressure, Bashir forced himself to glance up from his tricorder and look the frightened man in the eye for a moment. "His life signs are stable. Prep him for transport to Bajor," he ordered the standing presence he felt behind him, not really caring who it was he was speaking to. Every able-bodied person in this room had been drafted into medical service.

"Got it," a familiar voice replied, as Ezri Dax dropped to her knees next to him and introduced herself to the Bolian.

For a moment, he was startled by her presence. On some level he knew he shouldn't be -- she was a counselor, after all, and her place was by the side of the distressed. Still, seeing her uniform spattered in blood, even though he knew that it was not her own, shook him to his core. It was impossible to completely separate his thoughts from the cries of the injured all around him, but even as he surveyed the room to plan his route he couldn't help feeling the desire to grab ahold of Ezri and take her away from this gruesome, horrible side of war.

He heard her assure the Bolian man that everything would be all right and explain about the better medical facilities on Bajor and the runabout that would transport him, all in less than three sentences before she called for transport. She stood next to Julian and offered him a sorrowful smile that seemed to reach inside of him, conveying her understanding.

He acknowledged her support with a nod and moved on, while she took off in the other direction after a woman who was deliriously trying to move and shaking loose her deep tissue regenerators.

Focus, Julian, he ordered himself unnecessarily, as he scanned a Vulcan officer losing green blood fast directly from a shrapnel gash right through a cardiac ventricle. He had done this before. Too many times. "He needs immediate surgery. Give him 40 cc's of meratropil to stabilize him through transport, and then beam him to the Charon's surgical bay," he named the Romulan warbird docked at an upper pylon.

"Doctor!" a man grabbed his arm, his eyes almost crazy with a kind of pain that Bashir couldn't identify as easily as the other patients'. He was human and wore Lieutenant's pips on what was left of a red collar. Second- and third-degree burns covered his left side, and the rest of his exposed skin was a mess of exploded capillaries from brief exposure to vaccuum, making it difficult to tell anything else about him.

"Lie down," Bashir ordered in his best no-nonsense medical tone, pulling out his tricorder, but the burned Lieutenant shoved the tricorder away.

"Not me," he insisted in the strangled voice of a desperate man, dragging Bashir to the bedside of a woman who was straining and convulsing, delirious with pain.

Bashir opened his tricorder and started scanning. The most obvious piece of data the tricorder read was that she was a Betazoid, so the pain of everyone else in the room was surely worsening whatever injuries she did have. He pressed a hypospray to her neck, but she didn't relax much.

"She's Betazoid, twenty-eight years old," the Lieutenant babbled next to Bashir. "Lieutenant Tessra Rainer... she was in the torpedo bay, I don't know what happened... I just found her here..." Bashir ignored him as his lightning-fast brain catalogued the woman's list of injuries. "She's my wife," the man added, as though that would make the medically impossible easier to accomplish.

Bashir didn't know where to start. The tricorder read massive internal bleeding, and irreparable damage to most of her internal organs, like something had rammed right through her. There had to be an entry wound... he reached for what was left of her uniform.

Tessra Rainer opened her eyes, and suddenly Bashir was staring at Ezri.

Her Betazoid coal eyes were nothing like Ezri's crystalline Trill ones, but the same cherubic face and curiously wise innocence crashed over him like a blast wave as he looked at her. In life, she had probably been about as pale as Ezri; now, she looked positively transparent. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but only managed a pitiful cough. Blood poured down her chin.

She was going to die, he knew even before he sliced away the front of her uniform to look at her. He also knew that as soon as he thought it, mentally articulated that she was a lost cause and that he should move on to someone else, that she knew it, too. Blood flooded from her body like her Starfleet uniform had somehow been the last thing holding it in, and he could see the hole where something jagged had impaled her through the back.

He didn't have to speak her prognosis aloud. Her husband blanched until he was almost as pale as she was, and laid a hand over her gaping wound like he could stop her life from escaping through it by using his own skin as a barricade. He whispered words to her, her name, imzadi, and a number of other prayers and curses that Bashir knew he had no right to hear.

"Doctor!" someone yelled from across the cargo bay, and he forced Tessra and Ezri out of his mind to continue with his duty.

 

*****

 

He rang her doorbell. He had the code, but he never used it when he knew she was home. Ezri had given him the lock code to her quarters before they had even started sleeping together, back when he had walked her home one evening from Quark's and had stayed long into the night talking about philosophy and Trill biology and old Terran literature and he had forgotten his uniform jacket. When he'd asked her for his jacket back the next morning, she could just as easily have gone to fetch it for him, but the lock code was a gesture of intimacy and friendship. She had known that Julian Bashir wouldn't be able to resist looking around her quarters alone for a few minutes, seeing how many of the trinkets lying around had been Jadzia's, how many books she had that he'd read, where her clutter accumulated. She didn't mind, and that was what she was telling him. She wanted him to know more about her, to get him fascinated enough to keep coming back to try and figure her out. Lord knew, it had worked, and here he was -- finally set free from surgery and triage after eighteen hours, edgy from raktajino and an endless stream of trauma patients, and unable to think of anywhere more comfortable to recuperate than her quarters.

"Come in, Julian," she called through the door.

The door swung aside and he took a step in. "How'd you know it was me?"

"I had a feeling." When he entered, Ezri had been flopped over her couch, reading something, but she sat up and put the book down as soon as he approached her. She was dressed in civvies. "Did you just get done?"

He nodded. "Well, I got cleaned up in the infirmary before coming over here." It had taken quite a few extra minutes of sonic shower to convince him that all the blood had really been dissolved away from him when it felt as though it was all still there.

"Are you hungry?"

"Maybe... in a little while."

She frowned and sat up further, her counselor radar fully engaged. "We could get Quark to send some food up to Vic's, if you want," she suggested.

"Do you want to do that?"

"You know me, part Curzon, always ready for a party," Ezri shrugged. "I'm not really in the mood to dress up, but I can get ready in a few minutes."

"Why don't we eat in, then?" He pointed to her replicator.

She looked surprised, but didn't object. They rarely ate in, preferring the replimat or Quark's even after the most exhausting work days. Although they were well past the point of modesty in many respects, eating in felt somehow too domestic and intimate an activity to engage in lightly. He couldn't explain why he felt the sudden need to be alone with her, not just alone in a crowd, even if they were doing something as simple as eating dinner. He just didn't feel like sharing her. "Okay, Julian."

"What were you reading?" he asked, approaching her.

She scooted over quickly to give him room on the couch and displayed her novel. Ezri preferred genuine books to PADDs and had a small collection, both antique and replicated from various cultures, which she kept along with her other treasures on a few shelves in her quarters. He knew that some of the books had been Jadzia's, but he'd never actually asked Ezri whether her appreciation for paper books was something her own or inherited from her past hosts. "It's the Krikorvan. By Kedorvas Lerinn. You wouldn't know it. Just... trying to calm my mind down after today. Audrid liked doing that -- reading after a hard day. Although I guess I enjoyed it before I was joined, too."

"Is it working? Calming you down, I mean?"

She shrugged. "More or less."

He flipped through it without losing her place. "It's in Trill." The curved script, filled with spirals and dots, was unmistakable. He made a mental note, not for the first time, that he really should learn to speak and read Trill. Ezri would probably laugh at that, since she had spoken Federation Standard alongside Trill her entire life, not to mention that universal translators were as close as their comm badges, but he wanted to.

"It's a dialect of the Southern region, where Audrid was from. In the last two hundred years, that provincial dialect has been mostly phased out, and Lerinn's work along with it. It doesn't read quite as well in translation."

"That's a shame. I'd love to read more Trill literature."

She raised an eyebrow. "Really? I thought you preferred human novels."

"Oh, I'd hate for you to think that I'm a Terran elitist that way."

She twisted her mouth into a smirk. "I'm sure I can find some things that read well in Standard for you to take a look at. I never cared too much about Trill literature before I was joined. My mother made me read a few of the classics, but I'd never read this one before. It was one of Audrid's favourites."

He thumbed through the pages of unfamiliar script. "And what do you think?"

"I think Audrid was a little too attached to the pomp and circumstance of most of Lerinn's writing. But I like it. There's a character in here who's a lot like you, actually."

It somehow made him feel good to hear that she was thinking about him as she read. "Really? In what way?"

She studied him for a moment, as though deciding how to answer. "Idealistic. Imaginative, but very duty-bound. He spends most of the novel caught in circumstances that, on a very large scale, are completely beyond his control, but he tries to make his mark on small things. And he's lonely, too. It's a pretty subtle thing, a lot of people don't get that about him because he's always surrounded by people and women and is very charming. Audrid didn't see it, but I definitely think that Lerinn's intention was to show how alienated this character is from the people he wants to reach the most, isolated both by his brilliance and his insecurities."

He whistled. "You think all that about me?"

Ezri's eyes widened in way typical to her when she thought she might have misspoken. "Well, maybe not all of that. I don't know, it just sort of... struck me."

How did she know so much about him, when he could just barely scratch the surface of who she was at any given instant? Bashir knew that her complicated nature was perhaps the main thing that drew him to her, but at the same time he wanted to think that he had a few complications of his own that even three-hundred-some-odd years of experience wouldn't allow Dax to decipher quite so quickly.

"What?" She asked.

"Nothing," he murmured, tracing with his eyes as many spots as he could see around her clothes. Her deceptively youthful features drew him. She looked soft, comfortable, healing.

"Julian, what?" Ezri's cheeks flushed under his admiring gaze.

"Sorry." He'd been caught staring, and he averted his eyes back toward the Trill book, but not before catching a mischevious sparkle come into hers.

"Hey." She ran her hand across his chest and perched herself on his lap before he had a chance to move. She waited until she had his full, if startled, attention before kissing him good and hard. "Don't be sorry," she whispered against his lips with a giggle when they had to break for air.

His body was on fire. That was all it took, to make him forget about Trill literature and the painful, soul-draining work day and any contribution he might have wanted to make to the conversation. He could hardly remember how to speak, he wanted her so badly. He knew Ezri enjoyed how she did this to him, how she could render him so helpless so quickly, but he didn't mind that she weilded that power over him.

He grabbed her and threw her down on the couch underneath him, and her laugh told him that she had been expecting exactly that response. "What about dinner?" she asked with a teasing smile, running her hands over his chest and then drawing fingernails up through his hair to even further reduce his capacity to give her a straight answer.

"It can wait," he managed, and went for her neck, straight for the dark spots that were growing darker by the moment. They tasted sweet, and at that distance she smelled of a unique Trill musk that was irresistible to his senses. Her fingers toyed with the fastener of his uniform jacket for an agonizingly long time, not because she had any trouble opening it but because she enjoyed the way he got when she made him wait.

"Ezri, please..." he begged, not caring if it was uncouth or inappropriate to ask for sex on her couch five minutes after walking in her door. He needed her, needed to feel something good and life-affirming after all of the death and pain he had dealt with that day.

She stopped, and her huge blue eyes fixed on him. "Julian..." she murmured, touching a hand to his cheek as though she was about to ask if he wanted to talk about it. "All right." She pulled away from him just long enough to strip her clothes off, and as he watched he almost forgot to remove his own until she began to help him. He stood up on shaky legs as she ungracefully helped him shed his pants and he grabbed her, kissing her for all he was worth. God, she felt good against him.

Somehow she got him to her bed. The whole thing was frenzied, necessarily so, and over so quickly he almost felt like apologizing to her. He'd make it up to her later, he decided as he lay sprawled out across her bed, almost panting, a comfortable grogginess settling over him in place of the awful anxious feeling he'd been carrying around all day since the Guandong had arrived that morning.

She rolled over and kissed his cheek gently. "Better?" she asked with a sympathetic smile.

He smiled back, contemplating how remarkable she looked, flushed and glistening, with her sprite-like hair going in every direction. And she was his. "Much..." he whispered his reply before pulling her close to him. Cradling her cool body against him made him feel safer than anything else in the universe, as though he could keep the war out just as long as he didn't let go.

"Are you going to tell me about it?"

So all his troubled thoughts hadn't gone unnoticed. "Ezri... you spend all day listening to people's problems."

"Yours are different."

Tessra's eyes and her grieving husband's last goodbyes leapt into his mind. He heaved a sigh and stared up at the ceiling of her cabin. "I don't want to talk right now."

She accepted this more easily than he had expected she would, which meant that it was sure to come up again later. Dax was as tenacious in Ezri as it had ever been in Jadzia. "Okay... then what do you want to do?"

Determined to shake himself from his funk before she got sucked into it, he released his grip on her. "You still want dinner?"

"Now that I've worked up an appetite?" She wrinkled her nose in comfortable amusement. "In or out?"

The question seemed to ask much more than it was really asking. "Let's go to Quark's." He felt strangely disappointed in himself for saying it, and was grateful that Ezri didn't seem to notice.

"Okay," she said, kissing him and then hopping out of bed in search of clothes. She paused a few meters away and gave him a look. "But let's meet back here for dessert."

 

*****

 

"Don't blame yourself, Julian... you did everything you could," Jadzia assured him as she lay on the floor of the Guandong cargo bay, surrounded by faceless victims.

"I'm not going to let you die," he swore, and reached to pull away the scraps of uniform still clinging to her.

She grasped his hands in hers. "The war is more important," she told him.

He pulled the fabric away, but her skin was unbroken, uninjured. He couldn't find the source of her injuries, but he knew that she was dying, was already dead, somehow, although she was still breathing. People around him were screaming but he couldn't tear himself away from this single patient.

Finally he realized what they were screaming.

"Jem'Hadar!"

He was no longer in the cargo bay, but the transition seemed to make sense. Jem'Hadar troops tore through the Promenade, fighting with Klingon bat'leths. He couldn't fight. His arms were leaden. All around him, faceless Starfleet officers were being killed, and he could hardly even move.

And then he saw her, and he fought his frozen limbs with what felt like the last of his strength just to reach her. "Ezri!"

She didn't see him, intent on the battle. She fought like Jadzia with a bat'leth -- practiced, precise, and deadly -- but she was beset by three Jem'Hadar who didn't even acknowledge Bashir's attempts to distract them from her. Ezri was cut down. He screamed.

For some reason, he brought her wounded body to his quarters, and not to the infirmary. She lay in his bed and blinked up at him seductively, apparently unaware that she had been run through with a blade. Her blood soaked through the sheets, through his clothes... he doubted he had ever seen so much blood. There was nothing he could do. "Ezri..." he felt himself sobbing as he tried to stem the tide of blood with his bare hands.

She still appeared unaware of her condition. "The Federation needs you," she cooed, as though the words were meant to comfort him from a distress that she didn't understand.

He was losing her...

He woke up with a start, gasping for air like he had been strangled. Ezri was awake, too, watching him with concern. Her hands were on him, and he realized that she had probably shaken him awake. They took turns waking each other from nightmares.

"You were dreaming," she told him, pulling a centimeter closer and dropping a kiss on the skin nearest to her lips.

Yes, he had been... he remembered Jem'Hadar, and Jadzia in the cargo bay, and Ezri, and blood all over him... the images fled faster than he could nail them down. As he consciously slowed his breathing down he felt a bit more normal, but he still didn't feel quite right.

"I hate this war," he confessed, trailing a finger along the spots on her stomach and hips.

She kissed his shoulder again and looked up at him. "I know."

"The Triumph survivors... They lost more than two-thirds of their crew." She knew all of that, of course, but he felt the need to say it over again to cement the horrible words as reality. "Five people died today, docked here at DS9. To have come so far and then to die back on Federation soil..."

She listened carefully, but didn't interrupt.

"One of their officers watched his wife die on my table."

"Lieutenant Michael Rainor," she confirmed. "Their helmsman." She had probably spent much of her day trying to counsel him after Julian had left to care for other patients.

He swallowed. "Lieutenant Rainor," he repeated. "He couldn't do anything for her, he just... had to watch. And all the survivors were shipped out as soon as they'd been patched up. They're going back out there. He's going back out there. Like this is something he should just... get over. Ezri..." he stared at her for a long moment, and chickened out. He couldn't tell her what he would do if he lost her, because he couldn't even imagine himself. He liked to think that the short duration of their relationship would make it possible for him to survive the loss, even after losing Jadzia barely a year earlier, but he wasn't sure. The mental image of Ezri lying on his table, bleeding out all over him as the helmsman's Betazoid wife had earlier that day, made him feel so sick he could hardly speak. "Ezri, I'm afraid we're losing our humanity in this war. That it's not going to matter if we win or lose, we will still lose. Look at all we've lost already."

She didn't say anything, and he felt a little better. He wasn't sure how he'd lived without this, without her, for as long as he had. She silently readjusted to slip into his arms, so that they lay together like spoons, and he squeezed her as tightly as he dared.

"Don't let anything happen to you," he whispered in her ear.

"I love you, Julian," she replied.

She had never said it before. For a moment, he thought he might break down into tears, for her, for this war, for the girl that had died in the cargo bay that day whose terrified eyes had reminded him so much of Ezri's, but he didn't. He nuzzled her short hair aside enough to kiss the back of her neck and held on. She didn't complain, and they lay like that for a long time before either of them fell asleep.

 

*****

 

"It's hell out there."

Captain Benjamin Sisko sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Why don't you give us the bad news first." Colonel Kira's description of the Cardassian front as hell was perhaps lacking in detail, but it certainly seemed to sum up her preliminary written report rather well. Somehow, he had hoped that in her personal debriefing, intended to fill the gaps in the report that she had literally jotted down in transit back to DS9, she might have something more optimistic to say.

"It's even worse than that," Kira said, the strain of the weeks she had spent in the Cardassian trenches audible in her voice. After the last major engagement and the escalation of Cardassian resistance activity and Dominion retaliation on Cardassia Prime, she had been unable to get safely off the planet. Starfleet had received sporadic transmissions over covert subspace channels, assuring them that she was alive, but unable to say any more while under threat of Dominion eavesdropping. She had finally escaped to the edge of Dominion space on a Cardassian merchant vessel when it became clear that any risk she might face in leaving was far preferrable to the constant danger she was in on Cardassia Prime. Besides, Damar recognized that getting her back to the Federation with accurate word on what was occurring in Dominion space was the only way that he could get any outside help. A Federation ship had ferried her the rest of the way to Deep Space Nine the night before. Sisko had granted her a good night's sleep and a few hours to reconnect with Odo, but Starfleet Command had been unwilling to wait any longer for her debriefing, even if it was only bad news.

"Worse?" Sisko prompted.

"I never thought I'd say this, but even the Cardassians don't deserve to live that way."

The strength of her statement was not lost on Sisko, or on Admiral Ross, who commented, "We can only hope they won't have to live that way long. Our latest intelligence reports from the front seem to indicate that Damar's resistance is gaining ground in the military."

"The military is divided. Many of the older officers have sided with Damar, but there is a whole new guard who received their commissions during the war as upstanding citizens of the Dominion. There are mutinies every day, for both sides, throughout the Cardassian fleet. Galor-class warships have even been seen firing on each other."

Ross couldn't hide his satisfaction at the news. "That should considerably weaken the Dominion's hand on the front lines."

"Don't count on it," Kira tossed back. "The resistance is being strategically extinguished, both with weapons and with propaganda... and any ships that the Dominion might lose when Cardassian commanders defect to Damar's resistance are being rapidly replaced."

"We have noticed increased deployment of ships and escalated aggression along the border," Ross agreed. "But they have only had a few weeks to rebuild."

Kira minced no words. "The Dominion is strip-mining Cardassia Prime and any other planets of value in the area, and using their civillian populations as slave labor."

It took a minute to sink in before Sisko finally said, "What?"

"Apparently the Cardassians have lost their status as beloved citizens of the Dominion once Damar started to gain popular support and critical work-stoppages and sabotage started springing up all over the planet. The Dominion has told the Cardassians that extreme measures must be taken to stop Damar's rebellion, because he is working for an officer of the Federation." Kira indicated her Starfleet commander's uniform, which still gave Sisko pause every time he saw her wearing it. "My picture is up all over the planet as the face of the enemy -- a Bajoran in a Starfleet uniform giving the resistance orders intended to dissolve their relations with the Dominion and, eventually, give Bajor complete control of Cardassia."

"Dammit," Ross cursed. "They can't possibly believe that the Federation would hand Cardassia over to Bajor as some sort of war trophy!" They had all known that it was a risk sending a Bajoran in to help the Cardassian resistance, but there simply weren't any human or Vulcan or Betazoid officers who had her knowledge and experience.

Kira continued in spite of the admiral's outburst. "The Dominion claims that it has enlisted the voluntary help of Cardassian civillians to build a fleet that will put an end to the Federation threat forever, but the fact is that any single act of resistance or sabotage leads to the complete destruction of a random Cardassian town and all of its inhabitants."

There was a moment of shocked silence. "I can't believe the Cardassians would stand for that," Ross said slowly. "That... that such a blatant violation of the Dominion's treaty with Cardassia wouldn't lead to total revolt."

"As a race, Cardassians respect the sword. A blind allegiance to the state is almost bred into them," Sisko pointed out. "And I'm sure there are Cardassians who believe the Dominion and would rather live in servitude of the Founders than risk surrendering to the Federation, not to mention the Klingons or the Bajorans."

"At least it's the devil they know," Ross agreed.

"The Dominion is using a lot more than propaganda to keep the resistance at bay," Kira got up and began to pace around the briefing room, a nervous habit of hers that Sisko was well familiar with. "They have started putting Cardassian schoolchildren in all of their installations as living barriers against resistance activity."

Sisko closed his eyes for a moment, and saw Jake as a child behind his closed lids. He had a hard time believing that even the enemy would do something like that. "Cardassians don't believe in civillians," he reasoned aloud. "They believe that every good Cardassian lives in service to the state, and that to die in its defense is the most honourable possible sacrifice. But I'll bet even the most idealistic Gul would hesitate when faced with murdering children."

Kira nodded solemnly. "It's a hell of a trick. Something the Cardassians might have pulled on Bajor, had they thought of it."

Sisko stared at the PADD containing Colonel Kira's report. "We can only be glad that they didn't think of it." He was grateful that she wasn't saying aloud what she was insinuating -- that the Cardassians were getting exactly what they deserved. He wasn't sure whether she really believed that or not. In many regards, she had changed dramatically over the last seven years, even forging friendships with a few select Cardassians who, through kindness or innocence, had managed to gain her respect. However, there were moments when she was still the angry young woman he had first met, fresh out of twenty-six years as a third-class citizen on her own planet, whose parents had been ripped away by the Cardassians and whose world and people had been raped and brutalized beyond recognition. She hated the Cardassians so deeply that it seemed almost built into her molecular structure, but at the same time, she could sympathize with their current situation more intimately than could the human officers across the briefing table from her.

Finally Ross asked the important question, the one the Federation most wanted to know from Kira: whether they could count on any further assistance from the Cardassians. "Is the resistance dead?"

Kira paused to consider her answer. "Any Cardassian officer who swears loyalty to the Founders is still allowed to serve in the military. I know Damar has a few operatives stuck in there, but there's no telling what assistance they'll be able to provide. There have been a few successful assassinations outside of Dominion installations, and some organized sabotage done to critical systems on the ships that the civillians are building, but the retaliation is severe for these acts and they aren't an effective means of actually loosening the Dominion's hold on Cardassia." She sat down in frustration. "So, to answer your question... unless the tide changes over there, Starfleet should probably count the Cardassian resistance out of any future plans."

Sisko brought his hands to his face for a moment, rubbing at the exhaustion in his eyes as though that simple act could change the bleak appearance of the situation. "I'm ready for the good news now," he said, not really expecting a reply.

Kira laid her hands out on the table, as though physically offering her news. "Although they're rebuilding fast, the Dominion fleet is still in fairly dire straits. Damar's sources in the Cardassian military say that the possibility of surrender was being discussed at the highest levels before the Breen and Jem'Hadar finally managed to turn back the allied assault."

"Unfortunately, our fleets were crippled almost as critically as the Dominion's during the last battle," Ross pointed out, "so we aren't able to push our advantage while we still have it without leaving our borders almost completely undefended. It's not enough of an edge to allow us to actually win in one strike. The best we can hope for is that they take their time rebuilding, to give us some breathing room to rebuild our own fleets. A calm before their next offensive."

Kira shrugged dejectedly. "I wish I had more. I just don't know what else to tell you."

"It's all right. We'll figure something out," Sisko said, although he doubted that any pat assurances would actually do anything to allay the very real fears of everyone in the room. "Now, Colonel, did Damar's military contacts give you anything about Dominion fleet deployment in the outlying sectors?"

The comm beeped, and Nog's voice came over the channel. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Captain, but I have an priority-one transmission from Starfleet Headquarters for you and Admiral Ross."

"That's all right, Ensign," Sisko replied. "Put it through."

"Aye, sir."

Where Sisko was expecting a video communiqué, only a text message came through to the terminal on the conference table. Ross and Kira moved closer to read over his shoulder. "'To all sector and fleet commanders...'" he started reading aloud, but silenced as the message continued. Finally he looked up and met the equally horrified eyes of his first officer and Admiral Ross.

"My God," Ross whispered.

Sisko started to read the message over again, as though they all could have misinterpreted what Starfleet had sent them.

"You should ask Starfleet for confirmation," Kira prompted.

Sisko nodded, and paged Nog over the comm to make the request. He transferred the message to a blank data PADD as they waited in awkward silence for the answer to come back: the message was genuine. The next chapter of the war was starting already.

"Looks like our calm is over," Sisko muttered.

Kira was the one who said it. "We have to tell Dax."

 

*****

 

"Julian, you're doing it again."

"What? Oh, sorry, Miles..." Bashir speared a head of replicated broccoli and did his best to pay attention to what his friend was saying. "I guess I'm just a little... distracted."

O'Brien rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to make a sarcastic comment, but then thought better of it. Ordinarily, he took great pleasure in raining on any parade that Doctor Bashir deigned to throw, but this was something else. He smiled to himself, wondering what Julian would do if he ever found out just how often Keiko harped at him to find Julian a girlfriend, for God's sake, the man needs one. Can't you see how lonely he is? Playing tragic hero in the holosuites with you is great, but it can't make up for having someone to really love him. I doubt that he's ever had that. And O'Brien would always agree, but say that it was none of his business, that their friendship didn't work like that. Now that Bashir had managed to find someone on his own, and, against all odds, had actually managed to break out of his rut and obtain her, O'Brien figured the least he could do was be supportive.

"How's it going? I mean, between you and Ezri? You might as well tell me, if you're going to keep thinking about it the whole time."

Bashir smiled, and then frowned. "She's..." the words escaped him. "I don't really know what to say."

O'Brien snorted. "Well, that's a first." When Bashir opened his mouth to protest, his friend put up a hand. "No, I guess that's a good thing. I mean, she must really be something -- I don't think I've ever heard you be quiet about anything."

Bashir laughed for a minute, and then went quiet, thinking. "I don't think... I've ever felt like this before." That was all he said, when he thought about how it was being with her. The first night he'd thought that maybe it was a fluke, that he had been far too long without sex and didn't remember what it felt like, that the exhaustion of the war was driving him to feel things in a way he didn't normally feel them, that it was like this with all Trill. Then they'd done it again, and again, and he was both convinced and afraid that this might actually be the real thing. Just seeing her across the bridge of the new Defiant made him feel weak, terrified that any minute she would see through the haze over her eyes and realize he wasn't good enough for her. Then she touched him, and his worries vanished. Just a kiss from her managed to convey more genuine affection than he had ever felt before. And sex... she was both playful and serious, her normally confused personalities manifesting themselves as truly remarkable in the bedroom as she made him laugh out loud and made him want to cry, to hold on to her forever, as though being inside her wasn't nearly close enough. And she knew what to say, or rather, how to say it. The night before she had made I love you sound like something necessary for life itself rather than something terrifying and dangerous. She told him he was amazing, and he felt all his demons, his fears of being a genetically engineered fraud, run into hiding. She told him it would be all right, and he let himself believe her.

O'Brien watched Bashir's features play out his every thought. The good doctor had never been very skilled at camouflaging his feelings, after all. "I'm happy for you. For both of you."

"I just worry-" he paused, looking at his friend's face, wondering whether it was all right to talk to him about this. Their friendship was closer than close, but usually they didn't discuss feelings. That was something he usually talked to Ezri about, he realized, a role she had fallen into not just because it was her job, but because Jadzia had always been his emotional confidante before her. But O'Brien didn't look uncomfortable, or like he was about to start mocking him, so Julian finished his thought. "I worry that it's too fast. That it'll scare her off."

"She doesn't look scared off," O'Brien pointed out.

"It feels... perfect. But I know it's more complicated than that. Not just that we serve together, but... Jadzia."

O'Brien leaned forward. "I know I don't understand all the subtleties of the Trill. I don't think anybody who isn't Trill even can. But Ezri and Jadzia are different people. It would be impossible to fall in love with Ezri just because she has parts of Jadzia in her -- you couldn't have gone this far if that was all it was. But she was Jadzia, and she knows that you had feelings for her. This isn't a surprise. I don't see how it's a conflict of interests that you fell for two sides of her at two different times."

Bashir sighed. "Maybe. With her, I feel... I just don't want something to mess it up."

"Well, have you talked about Jadzia at all?"

"Not... not a lot. I don't want her thinking that's why I'm doing this, that she's some kind of... consolation prize." It was a horrible thing to think, and saying it out loud didn't make him feel any better about it. Ezri had confided to him months ago, during a friendly late-night walk around the station, that she was toying with the idea of asking for a transfer. She needed Deep Space Nine because it, and the people aboard, were like a rock to the Dax symbiont inside of her, something to hold onto as she adjusted to her new joining. At the same time, she worried that her being around was too hard on her friends, who felt they couldn't properly mourn Jadzia when part of her was standing right there, and because it made her always wonder whether everyone else only tolerated her because of that piece of Jadzia inside her, because she was the only consolation prize available.

"Listen, Julian, I know a lot more about women than you do," O'Brien launched into wiser-older-brother mode before Bashir had a chance to object. "And let me tell you, if you've thought of something, you can bet that she has, too. And she's going to keep thinking about it, and keep worrying about it, and keep making it worse in her head, until you tell her it isn't true."

"It's not," Bashir insisted, although part of him still wondered. They rarely spoke about Jadzia, not just because it might bother Ezri, but because the pain of her death was too raw and too fresh, even a year later, for Julian to be able to casually discuss it. She had died on his table, her injuries too extensive for any amount of genetically enhanced brilliance to be able to save her. He had tried everything he could think of and more, unable to accept the possibility that all of his training would go to waste, that he would let die the person perhaps most important to him in the universe simply because he wasn't good enough to save her. It was the worst kind of inadequacy, whether she had forgiven him for it or not.

Jadzia had known it was over long before he had accepted it. "You have to save the symbiont!" she had insisted as her death knell, refusing his pleas to allow him to try just one more long-shot treatment for her because it might jeopardize the single most important duty she held as a Trill host. He felt his chest tighten even as he thought about it. He couldn't talk about it with Ezri, because if someone magically showed up to give him the chance to change all of that, to save Jadzia's life and, in so doing, make it so that Ezri Dax would never have existed, he couldn't in all honesty say what he would choose to do.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," Ezri interrupted Bashir's reverie so suddenly that he jumped.

O'Brien handled her arrival, her arms filled with data PADDs, with a little more grace. "Lieutenant," he acknowledged her, and caught a data PADD that slipped out of her hands as she set them down on the table. "Here for lunch?"

Ezri shook her head. "Don't let me interrupt you. I finally got out of my session with Deputy Tileyni and was going to grab some lunch at Quark's... thought I'd say hi on my way."

"Might as well eat here," O'Brien offered. "Spare yourself from hearing another one of Morn's... jokes."

"They do say that humor is species-specific..." Ezri shrugged. "But I wouldn't want to disturb plans for the next Great Battle. Texas needs you, Chief."

"I'm almost done. Julian'll need someone to keep him company through dessert." It helped that he genuinely liked Ezri, O'Brien realized. Not that he had ever truly believed he would be jealous of any girl that Bashir settled down with, but it helped that he knew her, and knew that she wasn't going to get fanatical about monopolizing her boyfriend's time or disapprove of his leisure activities. Besides, she was good for him. As much as Bashir would hate to hear it said aloud, O'Brien knew the doctor was a bit of an idealistic idiot in love, and had gotten his poor heart broken and his head played with far too often for him to not have learned that lesson already. For his part, Miles was just glad that Ezri would treat him well. Bashir deserved a good woman, and although he was still in the dizzy stage and it was too early to say whether Ezri was anything more than a temporary infatuation, at least she wouldn't hurt him unnecessarily.

"Deputy Tileyni?" Bashir asked suddenly, as though he hadn't heard anything else in Ezri and O'Brien's exchange. "Isn't that your third session with him in two weeks?"

"I didn't realize you were keeping such a close eye on my calendar."

"Well, I just wonder what he has to see a counselor about so often. Seems like such a... well-adjusted fellow."

O'Brien laughed. "Worried about a little friendly competition there, Julian?"

Bashir's glare could have shot daggers. "You can't honestly expect me to be jealous of one of her patients."

Ezri put her hands up and backed away. "I'm going to go get something to eat," she said, and headed for the replicators.

O'Brien picked up his tray. "It's about time I got back to Ops." As he headed for the replicator to recycle his tray, he leaned over to add to Julian, "Think about what I said. If you want to hold on to her, you'll have to talk to her about Jadzia."

"I hope I didn't force O'Brien off," Ezri worried as she returned with a plate of what looked like steamed asna garnished with some sort of tiny pink Trill tomatoes. Jadzia had used to eat that, too, Bashir realized. Said it was the healthiest thing in the quadrant. Tasted like watered-down kale, but was guaranteed to put years on his life. He had pretended to think steamed asna was wonderful for weeks before she laughed and told him that there wasn't a human alive who found it palatable, but that she appreciated him giving it more of a chance than anybody else she'd tried to foist it on.

"Don't worry, you didn't force him anywhere," he muttered, trying to put Dax's last host out of his mind to focus on the host sitting in front of him. No matter what O'Brien said, he wasn't about to talk to Ezri about this just yet, not until they got more comfortable with each other. "He had to run a... level one diagnostic on the transtator assembly in Ops. Said it would take him most of the afternoon."

She raised an eyebrow, forkful of asna poised a few centimeters from her mouth. "Spill it, Julian. You don't lie very well."

He smiled bravely at her in face of her scrutiny. "Really, Ezri, it's nothing."

"This is about Deputy Tileyni, isn't it?" she guessed.

She wasn't often wrong about him, and he wasn't about to pass it up when she was. Besides, the Bajoran deputy had been spending an awful lot of time in Ezri's office over the past few months for someone who hadn't lost a close friend or family member to the war. "Should I be concerned about Deputy Tileyni?"

"Ours is strictly a professional relationship, Julian."

"I know. I know that."

She gave him a smug look of barely veiled amusement. "Torias was unbelievably jealous," she revealed. "He'd storm around the house in a rage if Nilani so much as had coffee with a male co-worker. She'd tell me... tell him..." Ezri made a frustrated face that Bashir was used to, the one that she always made when she was faced with sorting out how to correctly talk about a past host's experiences. She huffed once and started again. "Nilani would tell Torias that he was being stubborn and controlling, and so he'd have to pretend it didn't bother him..."

"I'm not jealous, Ezri. I was just making an observation."

She laughed, and the sound enchanted him even though he knew he was being mocked. He wondered how long it would be before the novelty of their relationship wore off and he would stop being taken off guard by the little things she did like that. "Nilani always said that his jealousy irritated her... but Torias never realized how endearing it could be."

Julian plunged his spoon into his bowl of spice pudding and tried not to look as though he was sulking. "Glad I can be of some entertainment."

Ezri allowed herself to enjoy Julian's attempt to conceal his desire to react childishly. Worf's uncontrollable jealousy had nearly driven Jadzia out of her tree on occasion, she remembered. Of course Jadzia had, on some level, enjoyed the attention or she never would have stood for it. Ezri didn't mention that to Julian, knowing that whatever gag rule they had about discussing Jadzia was even more strictly enforced when it came to discussing Jadzia's Klingon husband. Ezri suspected that, on some level, Julian's pride was still hurt by Jadzia's choice of Worf as the better man. To make matters worse, it had only been two months since Ezri herself had defied Starfleet and her own society's highest moral laws to be with him, even though it hadn't taken long for her to realize that nothing she felt for Worf was truly her own. Julian knew all about how Ezri's unexpected joining left her unusually vulnerable to mistaking the desires of her past hosts for her own, but she didn't want to push his understanding by actually talking about that particular example of it. Encouraging an adorable jealousy of a Bajoran deputy Ezri had no interest in was one thing, but she feared that even casually talking about Worf was something their fledgling relationship couldn't yet stand.

After a moment of watching her boyfriend brood over his pudding and considering whether she'd genuinely bruised his feelings -- she knew from experience that the emotions of young men could be impossibly fragile at times -- she changed the subject. "Kira's back on the station."

Bashir brightened at that. "I know. I ran her blood screening myself this morning before her debriefing."

"Did she tell you anything about what was going on on Cardassia Prime?"

"Didn't have much of a chance. Admiral Ross was eager to get her behind closed doors. Did she say anything to you?"

Ezri shook her head. "I haven't actually seen her yet, but I ran into Odo this morning."

"He must be grateful to have her safely back on DS9." Odo had been getting steadily more frantic over the past few weeks when it became clear that there was no safe way for him to rejoin the Cardassian resistance and that it was equally impossible for Kira to safely escape it.

"Well, you know Odo," Ezri shrugged. "He's not about to start going on about his feelings."

"And I guess there's no telling when she'll be headed back out there."

There wasn't much more to say after that, and after a moment of silent chewing, Ezri asked, "Got any plans for tonight?" It seemed awfully trite to be planning things like dates while there was a war on, but if there was any one thing that Dax had learned after nine lifetimes, it was that life had to go on in the face of all kinds of adversity.

"Miles and I were going to try out a new holosuite program I got a few weeks ago, but one of Keiko's friends from Bajor arrived this morning, so he's got to stay home with the kids for her."

"Not going to bring them along to the holosuite?" Ezri teased as she chased one of the pink tomatoes around her plate. "Ride into battle with Kirayoshi strapped to your back?"

"Somehow I don't think that Keiko would approve of her children dressing up as Spartans and killing holograms in hand-to-hand combat."

"I suppose it's educational. Historical, you know. At least, I'm assuming it's historical -- who're the Spartans?"

He waved a hand. "Ancient Greece. The Persian wars. Didn't you take Earth History at the Academy?"

She shook her head. "I filled my history requirements with all my comparative historical psychology courses. And Jadzia did her ancient history requirement in Vulcan History. The only Earth History class she took started about a thousand years after the Ancient Greeks."

"Nine lives and you've never heard of Ancient Greece?"

"I didn't say I'd never heard of it. Heroic defeat for the Spartans, I take it?"

"How'd you know?"

"Sounded like that sort of program."

"Am I really that predictable?"

"No! Just... well, sometimes," she consented, doing her best to at least look apologetic about it. "At any rate, since Miles cancelled on you, I was wondering if you wanted to take me to a holosuite tonight."

"Vic's? Or did you have something else in mind?"

"I've never gotten a chance to see your secret agent program. Well, Ezri hasn't, anyway."

He nearly choked on his spice pudding at the unexpected statement. "You want to play James Bond in a holosuite with me?"

"Jadzia liked it, that one time she played it with you... although she found the clothing a little sparse for her tastes."

Bashir remembered that, how her curiosity about the program had driven her to join him and Chief O'Brien for one story, and she had seemed to enjoy it, although she had broken character long enough to request a wardrobe change when her sheer sequined dress proved unsuited to the arctic climate they ended up in. He'd had dreams about that dress for weeks.

"It's nice to know that she actually enjoyed herself," he said.

Ezri gave him a mischievious half-smile. "Well... she thought it was a rather... enlightening experience. It helped her understand you better."

"You can't judge a man by his holosuite programs."

"I don't know, Doctor, that's not what they taught me in counselor school," she bratted, and then laughed. "But Julian Bashir, Secret Agent, does always get the girl in the end, right?"

He decided not to mention that there was rarely a Bond story in which there was only one girl. "Usually before the end."

"Then sign me up," she purred. "My last appointment's over at 1900 tonight."

"I can pick you up at your office."

Ezri's communicator chirped. "Sisko to Dax."

"Dax here."

"I need to see you in the briefing room, Old Man."

He sounded serious. Bashir felt chills run down his spine. Kira? he mouthed. Ezri only shrugged.

"I'll be right there, Benjamin. Is everything all right?"

There was a moment's pause. "You'd better just come up here, Dax. Sisko out."

"I guess I'd better go check it out," Ezri said, pushing her plate of half-finished asna toward her companion for him to take back to the replicator for her. "Would you-?"

"Sure. I'll see you tonight." He smiled reassuringly.

She leaned over to give him a quick kiss before taking off across the promenade for the turbolift.

 

*****

 

Captain Benjamin Sisko read the transmission over again. It didn't sound any better than it had the other times he'd read it.

"Do you want me to tell her?" asked Admiral Ross. "I am the ranking officer in this sector."

Kira stopped her angry pacing. She had read the transmission over once more, too, and probably knew more than any of them how Ezri Dax would feel about the information contained inside. "Do you want me to go?"

Sisko tossed the PADD down on the conference table. It didn't look any better from that angle. "No. I'm her commanding officer, and she has a right to hear this from me. Colonel, you know more about what's going on out there than any of us. I think you'd better stay for this."

Kira nodded, and took a seat.

A moment later, Ezri walked through the door. She glanced around, looking Kira over with serious scrutiny, as though trying to locate the emergency which necessitated a counselor.

"Sit down, Dax," Sisko requested. She sat. He had never noticed before how physically small she was compared to her predecessors. Jadzia had been as young when he'd met her, but she had never looked so fragile.

She didn't ask what was going on, only looked between the faces of her three companions as though she could read the truth in their expressions.

"I just received a transmission from Starfleet Intelligence. We don't have any details yet-"

"Is it the Destiny?" Dax interrupted, her large eyes getting even wider at the prospect of the destruction of her old ship, with all her friends and colleagues aboard.

Ross and Sisko exchanged looks, before Sisko said, "No. Starfleet Intelligence received an emergency transmission before all communications to the sector were cut off..." he took a breath. "The Dominion has launched a new offensive."

"Already? How is that..." her voice trailed off, and she glanced around her, as though to make certain she was really the only one Sisko had called in for this news. "Benjamin, why did you ask me here to hear this first?"

He took a breath and spoke, knowing that delaying telling her wouldn't make it any better. "The Jem'Hadar have attacked the Trill system."

Ezri was silent. If the war hadn't already turned so many cruel jokes against them, she would never have believed him. The Trill system? There was nothing there! Nothing the Dominion could want... Trill was a planet rich with mineral resources, but no more than any other planet, any planet closer to Dominion space or more valuable as a strategic foothold... the edges of her vision began to blur and she was suddenly glad she was sitting down. Although she knew it was probably an illusion, she swore she could feel Dax seize up inside her in distress.

It wasn't the question she wanted to ask, but it was the only one that made it to her lips. "When?"

"Just a few hours ago," said Ross. "All command posts not currently operating under radio silence are being notified before it hits the official Federation news service. I expect the intention was to inform all Trill officers before the news becomes public." Ezri nodded blindly. It wouldn't be as hard to notify all Trill officers of something as it would be to, say, notify all Vulcan officers. Although longterm and upstanding members of the Federation, the Trill were, by and large, a xenophobic people. To the best of her knowledge, there had been less than a thousand of her people serving in Starfleet posts away from Trill before the war, although there were probably a great deal more who had enlisted in recent years. "We still don't know very much about the attack. The Melbourne and the Hanuman have been dispatched from the Eighth Fleet to try and collect more information."

For an instant, her thoughts cleared and suddenly the questions were coming too quickly. "What will Starfleet do? Two ships can't possible fight off an entire invasion fleet. How could they have gotten so deep into Federation territory without alerting anyone? How did the Dominion recover so quickly from being on the defensive?"

For a moment, no one answered any of her questions. Then Kira spoke up, "The Dominion has started using Cardassian civillians as slave labor to speed up mining and production of new ships. They are rebuilding their fleet faster than the Federation could ever have expected."

"Still..." No matter how Ezri tried to stay calm and rational, the air in the conference room felt far too thin to her. "They can't be up to full strength already. Trill wouldn't be a first logical target for anyone."

"Our suspicion is that the Dominion intended this to be a demoralizing blow for the Federation," said Ross, glancing at Sisko. Admittedly, it wasn't much of a suspicion, since they had only had a few minutes to discuss the attack before Ezri had arrived.

Sisko added, "While there would certainly be advantages for them to use the shipyards on Trill Four and the ore from the Trill moons and mountain ranges, it's doubtful that any of those would justify the problem of extending their supply lines so far into Federation space."

"So they knew the defenses around Trill were minimal, compared to other Federation worlds, and they attacked just to... make an example of it?" Ezri fought down a wave of nausea. If she couldn't control the horrible things happening in galactic affairs all around her, at least she should be able to control her own body and keep from getting sick all over the conference table.

Kira moved to sit in the chair closest to Ezri. Although Ezri couldn't stand the idea of being comforted, the strong presence of her friend was still appreciated. "Your people are strong. They will survive," the Bajoran woman promised, her voice thick with remembered pain of her own planet's occupation.

Ezri wrestled with her desire to cry, but a single sob escaped as she exclaimed, "The symbionts! My people will die to protect them. Unjoined symbionts are completely defenseless. The Jem'Hadar... the Jem'Hadar will slaughter them!" Her hands went reflexively to her own symbiont pocket, where Dax was safely nestled.

"We don't know what the Dominion's intentions are yet," Sisko reminded her, his voice strong and level, giving her something to put her back up against. "We can only assume that all Starfleet and planetary defenses around the Trill system were neutralized. We will know more once the Melbourne and the Hanuman reach the Trill system, which won't be for another twelve hours."

Dax nodded, forcing herself to take a deep breath and regain her composure. "And then what?" she asked. "What will Starfleet do... if there is an occupational force on Trill?"

There was a long, sickening silence. Finally Admiral Ross answered her question, "After our last battle with the Dominion," there was no question as to which battle he was referring to, "our forces are spread pretty thin in all sectors adjacent to the Trill sector. By the time we could assemble a fleet capable of countering a Dominion assault force, without critically weakening Federation lines at the front, the Dominion will already have dug in on Trill."

Ezri's symbiont suddenly felt ice-cold inside of her. "There would have to be a massive ground campaign to get them out." She knew what that meant. The ancient cities would be practically razed if the Dominion put up a fight -- which there was no doubt that they would do. The pristine quality of the Trill wilderness, all the innocent civillians... even the symbionts in their underground pools would be endangered if it came to that.

Sisko cleared his throat, indicating that the bad news wasn't over. "Starfleet doesn't have the resources right now for a major ground assault. We will have to come up with another alternative."

Ezri forced her body to standing, and looked Admiral Ross directly in the eye. She felt Kira leap up beside her, probably worried that her Trill colleague would collapse at any moment. "Is Trill to be sacrificed?"

The admiral didn't exactly flinch under her stare, but he certainly looked uneasy. "No," he assured her. "Something will be done. The Federation doesn't allow its worlds to be picked off one by one. It may just... take awhile."

She could feel Curzon and Torias raging up inside of her, demanding that she do something to fight this, as though a temper tantrum on her part would somehow create more Starfleet ships out of thin air. She reached for Jadzia, for Lela, to calm and center her, to give her composure beyond Ezri's few years. "When a fleet is assembled, I want to be a part of it."

"Ezri-" Sisko started to argue, but Ross cut him off.

"Understood."

She nodded. "Permission to return to my duties?"

Sisko looked her over for a moment, as if looking for any indication that words of comfort or reassurance were desired. When he found none, he nodded. "Granted."

"I'll check in on you later," Kira promised as Ezri left the briefing room.

In the empty corridor outside, Ezri stopped. She waited for the tears to come on in a rush, for her body to fail her and leave her to collapse on the floor, to find herself blindly rushing to the infirmary, to the warm comfort of Julian's arms, but nothing happened. Even the voices of her past hosts felt numb and silent. She tried to imagine Jem'Hadar shock troops walking the streets of the Trill capital, the beautiful city that Lela and Audrid remembered so fondly, but she couldn't do it.

The Ezri in her, the trained counselor, knew that the emotional response accompanying an acceptance of the horrible situation would come soon enough. For now, at least until the Starfleet scout ships reached Trill and reported back the facts, she could continue to pretend that this was all some sort of horribly confused misinformation, and that it would all be all right. She would never tolerate that sort of self-delusion in one of her patients, but at that moment, it was the only thing she could think of to do.

 

*****

 

"You're not looking," complained ten-year-old Molly O'Brien from Kira's lap as she displayed a series of her latest attempts at Bajoran silak weaving. Kira wasn't sure where, exactly, the O'Brien's older child had picked up the traditional Bajoran craft, but she supposed it had been during one of the times Keiko had taken the children to the relative safety of Bajor when the station fell under threat of imminent assault.

"Oh, it's very impressive," Kira assured her, exchanging a smile with Chief O'Brien over the girl's head.

O'Brien, busy helping his one-and-a-half year old son, Kirayoshi, with a junior geometric puzzle, smiled back. Seven years ago he would have thought it absolutely impossible that the hotheaded Bajoran major he worked with would ever feel like an inseparable part of his family, but here they were. He supposed that after that shuttle accident had forced the Colonel to carry his second child to term, during which time she had lived with them, it would be difficult to feel any other way about her. Molly had been nothing short of ecstatic to hear that her favourite "aunt" would be coming by for dinner after spending so long away. "Molly, tell Nerys about your surprise," he prompted her.

"I'm making one for you," Molly revealed in a whisper, indicating the small woven tapestries she held. "But it's not finished yet. Mommy said she would sew up the edges with me. Want to see what I've done on it so far?"

"But then it won't be a surprise," Odo, who had been unwilling to part from Kira's side any longer than necessary and so had accompanied her to the O'Brien's, pointed out from his seat next to Kira on the couch.

Molly frowned at him. "She won't know what it'll look like when it's done," she explained. "It'll still be a surprise."

"Well, my mistake," Odo relented, as Kira and O'Brien exchanged another smirk. Molly wasn't a big fan of Odo's, not because he was a changeling or even because he was so naturally gruff, but because she didn't approve of anyone who she perceived as getting between her and her Aunt Nerys. She had also been considerably less than warm to the Bajoran man, Shakaar, who Kira had been seeing while she was living with the O'Briens, but Molly had gotten even more possessive of the people she loved as the war intensified.

"I'd love to see it, Molly," Kira assured her. "Want to go get it so I can see it before we replicate dinner?"

Molly bounded off to her room to fetch her weaving and Kira watched her go, shaking her head in amazement. "They're growing so fast. Especially Yoshi," she mused, getting down on her knees to stroke the boy's dark hair as he studied the puzzle shape in his hands with intense concentration. O'Brien often made jokes about how Kirayoshi was a born engineer, preferring puzzles over other toys and always trying to figure things out. Kira bet that it wouldn't be a year before the boy started trying to take apart the replicator and sonic shower. "I don't know what I'm going to do when you move back to Earth."

"You'll come visit us, of course."

"I guess I'll have to. Won't be the same, though." It was strangely remarkable, being so tied to this portrait of human domesticity. In an odd way, the O'Briens felt more like family to her than her own. She still had two brothers living on Bajor, one of whom had three daughters, but she rarely saw them and they weren't particularily close. Losing this adopted family to the vast distances of space seemed horribly unfair. "I don't suppose Keiko ever considered settling on Bajor?"

O'Brien huffed. "We're not going anywhere until the war's over. And who knows how long that'll take." News of the new front on Trill had been released publically a few hours earlier. There was very little that anyone on Deep Space Nine could do until Starfleet issued new orders, but it still felt wrong to be sitting around while Federation citizens were fighting for their freedom and their lives. On the other hand, the renewed threat and the certainty of being sent back to the front lines made it all the more important to spend time with Molly and Yoshi while they could.

Kira forced out a smile for the baby, but she was anything but happy. "I knew the Dominion was rebuilding... but I had no idea they were ready to start another offensive this quickly."

"How did Dax take the news?"

"How do you think she took it?" Kira asked, upset less at O'Brien's question than at the whole helpless situation. "I stopped by her office after my debriefing, but she was with a patient."

"Hard to believe she went right back to work." O'Brien knew that if someone was invading Earth he would hardly be content to sit back and retune phase adapters in the docking ring.

"I imagine she's still a bit numb."

"Almost makes you wish we had another counselor on the station, doesn't it?"

"She'll get angry soon enough," Kira promised. "It just... doesn't make sense. I know the Dominion doesn't have the ships to start a large-scale invasion of Federation space on multiple fronts. Trill isn't near any vital Federation strategic posts -- it doesn't make any sense to make it a base in a new offensive."

"My people are desperate," Odo pointed out. "They're dying. This may not be about strategy at all."

"Are you saying they just want to hurt the Federation as much as they can before... before the end?" O'Brien looked awkward, as he always did now when the fatal changeling disease, a genocidal weapon developed by the most deeply hidden and reviled section of the Federation, was mentioned. Knowing that his own people were still capable of genocide was horrible, but realizing that, on some level, he hated the Founders enough to be glad of that genocide, was even worse. He didn't think of himself as an immoral person, but there it was. They had invaded the Alpha Quadrant, after all, determined to impress Gamma Quadrant order upon it. They threatened the safety of his children and took the lives of his friends.

"Nisa, look!" Yoshi exclaimed to get Kira's attention, totally ignorant of the severity of the conversation around him. Kira did her best not to melt at the child's nickname for her, which he had invented when Nerys proved too difficult to say and persisted in using despite Molly's tireless attempts to correct his baby talk. She hadn't even realized how much she had missed him while on Cardassia, where she'd hardly had time to think about it, until right then.

"Do you want some help?" she asked, and helped guide his chubby fingers to the right-shaped hole for the puzzle piece he held out to her. The puzzle, a plastic contraption which rewarded correctly-matched shapes with lights and sounds, lit up to Yoshi's great delight. A moment later, Molly returned with her weaving project and Kira did her best to admire both the puzzle and the weaving at once. If there was nothing she could do about the war, at least she was able to make two young children reasonably happy for a few moments at a time. She caught Odo watching her as though her exchange with the two children was the most fascinating thing he had ever encountered.

O'Brien stood up and headed for the replicator. "I'll go get dinner ready. Molly, will you set the table?"

"All right, Yoshi, let's get ready for dinner," Kira cooed, taking away the completed puzzle and picking up the baby.

The O'Briens' comm panel beeped. "Quark to Chief O'Brien," the familiar voice of the Ferengi bar tender came over the channel.

Odo leapt up from the couch, immediately in investigator mode. "Why is he calling you?" he demanded of O'Brien.

The Chief put his hands up in a gesture of innocence. "I have no idea. Holosuites are probably broken." He hit the comm panel. "Quark, what is it?"

"I need you to come to the bar right away."

O'Brien rolled his eyes. "I'm busy. We're just sitting down to dinner. I'll fix it in the morning."

"Oh, I'm sure Captain Sisko and Colonel Kira wouldn't want to wait until morning for this," Quark's voice took on a distinctly superior edge.

"What wouldn't I want to wait for?" Kira demanded.

"Ah, Colonel, having dinner with the O'Briens, I see. Had I known it was a whole family affair, I never would have-"

Odo had had enough. "Quark..."

"It's about the war," Quark said quickly, as though suddenly realizing the probability that O'Brien would just cut the comm link. "A Krisari trader captain just brought me a little something from Cardassian space that I'm told will be very useful to the Federation war effort."

"The Krisari are one of the few species allowed to travel freely across Dominion borders," Kira commented from her knowledge of the Cardassian side of the war. "They still carry civillian goods in and out of several Cardassian systems."

"That's right. Only problem is, all the data he gave me is locked up in an... information module of some kind, and since my idiot brother is off destroying the economic future of Ferenginar-" at that, Kira looked to Odo for an explanation, but the security chief only shook his head to indicate that he would explain later. "-I have no way of accessing it. I'm told that the information on here will turn this entire war around for Starfleet. Of course, if you don't want it..."

O'Brien looked back and forth between Odo, Kira, and his two children. "All right, Quark, we'll be right there."

 

*****

 

The office door chimed.

"Come in," Ezri called, sitting straighter on her couch and mentally checking herself over for any evidence of weakness. She had gone through four sessions on autopilot, listening to the war fears of her fellow officers while ignoring her own. Certainly she could last through one holosuite date. She braced herself for an awkward stammering of sympathies -- Julian's stammering still occasionally surfaced when he really didn't know what to say but felt the need to keep talking -- or even anger on her behalf or on behalf of all Trill. She hadn't quite decided what to say when he brought up the Dominion attack. She still had a hard time imaging that it was any more real than General Santa Anna attacking Miles' and Julian's holographic Alamo.

The door swung aside and Julian walked in, holding a familiar stack of PADDs. She smacked herself in the forehead with a sigh before he had a chance to say a word.

"I completely forgot those at lunch. I'm sorry, Julian."

He set them down and then leaned against her desk. "I was going to bring them by sooner, but I've been in surgery all afternoon. I hope you didn't need them."

"No, no, it's fine. Thank you. I probably would never have remembered about them."

Julian picked up the top PADD. "Some sort of subconscious desire to avoid having to read the latest batch of Federation Psychology Council papers?"

"Did you read my mail, Julian?" She had to smirk at that, once she mentally went through what she'd left on the table and determined that there was nothing personal or damning in it. As much as he might respect her privacy in theory, and be horribly offended if she suggested otherwise, the temptation of a stack of her private files would have been too much for him. He couldn't stand secrets or sealed files or locked doors at the same time as he loved them, and almost needed them to get him out of bed in the morning.

"I... may have glanced at the top one," he admitted, giving her the sheepish schoolboy look he knew she was vulnerable to.

She snatched the PADD away and glanced through the abstract. Yet another theory on the real psychological crisis being faced by the Cardassians under occupation. She wondered how long it would be before someone on the Federation Psychology Council turned out a paper on the real psychological crisis being faced on Trill. "Don't worry, you're forgiven."

"I just saw Deputy Tileyni in the hallway," Bashir commented, taking back the PADD and putting it with the others. "Two sessions in one day? That's got to be some sort of counseling record."

Ezri sighed. She wasn't really in the mood to coddle Julian's fragile ego. "He was just dropping something off for me. No need to go to red alert."

"Red alert?" For the life of him, Bashir couldn't think of anything a counseling patient would need to bring to his counselor in a strictly professional context. "Dropping off... what?"

"I lent him a book. He finished reading it, so he brought it back."

"You lent him a book?" Ezri had lent him books, too, back when they were still insisting that they were just friends.

"Is that a problem?"

"No... no. What book?"

"Just a book. Julian, do you mind if we talk about something else? Are you ready to go to the holosuite?"

His eyes widened at her belligerent tone. "I was just making conversation."

With a frustrated huff, Ezri stood up and grabbed an electronic book PADD off of her bookshelf and handed it to Julian.

"'Overcoming anxiety: Ten practical techniques from ten Federation worlds,'" he slowly read aloud. "Oh."

"Yes, oh. Not only are we exchanging literature, but we're also having wild sex in here on company time." His face fell, and she immediately felt guilty. He looked like a puppy who didn't understand why it had just been kicked. She wanted to lash out at someone, but Julian didn't deserve to be her target. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

"Ezri... are you all right?" he came toward her, and tentatively placed his hands on her shoulders as though expecting her to bite him.

She blinked. She still didn't feel like crying, but she worried that tears would escape of their own volition if she stopped watching out for them. "You mean... you don't know?"

"Know? Know what? Ezri, what's going on?"

She swallowed. Here she had figured he just hadn't known how to address it and was avoiding this issue. She didn't want to be the one to tell him. It was almost as if, by actually saying the words herself, she would have to really acknowledge them. "I figured... the Federation News reports came out about three hours ago... and news travels fast on the station-"

"I told you, I was in surgery all afternoon. I came right here. Did something happen?"

She supposed that not telling him wouldn't help make it less true. "The Dominion launched a new offensive early this morning... Trill was their first target. No one has heard anything from the Trill system since the attack started."

For a moment he didn't say anything, only stared, mouth agape, his genetically enhanced brain still having trouble processing all the important conclusions from her statement. Then his eyes seemed to focus and he looked her over once before folding her in his arms, pressing her to him more tightly than he usually did as though to provide a physical barrier between her and the war outside. "Oh, God, Ezri, I... I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I'm so sorry."

"I'm all right," she assured him, but he only squeezed her tighter in response. She found his reaction both interesting and sweet, a result of the endearing human belief that, on some level, a loving touch could heal anything. It felt strange to be cerebrally analyzing his hug when, ordinarily, she would have completely melted into it. It must have been the Jadzia in her. Or the Tobin. She didn't really know. "Really."

He must have noticed how stiff she felt against him, and he pulled away just far enough to be able to look at her and brush her hair behind her ears. "What can I do?"

She smiled. "Nothing," she said, shaking her head, almost feeling guilty for the awful helpless look in his eyes. "I just want to wait, to hear what the Starfleet reconnaisance ships are going to find. It might not be that bad."

"Ezri-"

She cut him off before he had a chance to give her a dose of reality. "In nine lives I think I've figured out how to deal with things like this," she said as flippantly as she could. She got up on her toes and kissed his cheek gently. "But I do appreciate you trying."

He didn't look satisfied, but appeared at a loss for anything else to say.

"Did you manage to get a holosuite for tonight?" she asked.

"You... you still want to go?"

"Life must go on, Julian."

"Not right away. If you want to be alone, or stay in, I completely understand. Just tell me what you want."

She felt her throat tighten, but spoke through it. "I would just be sitting around waiting for the Hanuman and the Melbourne to get to Trill. I'd rather be doing something. You know... keep my mind off it."

He nodded. "Okay. We'll go, then." He ran one hand over her hair until he cupped her chin, gently stroking her skin with his thumb. "Just tell me..."

In spite of everything, for a moment she felt ridiculously lucky. "If I need anything, you're the first person I'll tell."

He gave her a half-hearted smile. "Well, then, England awaits."

 

*****

(to be continued...)

 

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