Disclaimer: Paramount owns the Star Trek universe, and I have absolutely no intention to contest that fact. No infringements intended.

Rating: I think it's clean. There's some violence, but none too graphic.

Feedback: eagerly awaited at the address currently given on my top page.

Time: I don't rightly know, except that this takes place before BROKEN LINK, and before Kira's pregnancy; there is still a Cardassian/Federation treaty in effect, and Garak might not be quite as much of an outcast as he'd like to pretend. The Dominion is known as a force to be reckoned with, one persistently pursuing its own interests. Any inconsistencies, any feeling of everything isn't exactly as before will be cheerfully blamed on a subtly alternate timeline :)


The Cardassian Connection

 

by Eliann SleepingCat



"Are you absolutely certain you ought to wear green?"

I must admit, I hadn't heard him coming. He passed close behind me, coming round the table to sit down facing me. His usual pleasant self, as far as I could see. Practically beaming.

"My skin is less bluish grey than most", I said. "Besides, I thought green would go with my eyes."

"There is that, of course", he agreed, already losing interest behind his suave facade.

I shook my head. "What happened, Garak? From whence sprung the foppish tailor?"

He spread his hands, his face clear-eyed and benign. "A longtime interest of mine."

"You mean, as good a cover as any. I can hold with that. Still.. you were proud once, Garak. I suspect you still are, somewhere not so very deep down."

"Are you implying that there is anything wrong with my trade? That it is not an art, perhaps?"

Never known to fall out of character. It figured. "They don't need a tailor here. They've got replicators, haven't they?"

"Ah - but no taste!" he exclaimed in his clear tenor. "It's the design, Ghilassa, the design! That's where the art comes in!"

"Glad you remember my name", I said, sarcastically. "What's this with the doctor?"

"Julian? Such a sweet boy.."

"I can imagine. Just tell me one thing straight - are you known in this place for preferring boys?"

The same, theatrical shrug as before. "I'm a man of the universe, of course. A man of tastes as exquisite as they are eclectic. I don't think I have discussed preferences with anyone. Not that anybody has asked."

"Then why the doctor? Isn't that a little obvious? He knows nothing."

"Not yet, maybe", Garak said, his act dropping ever so slightly, "but he's the most gullible. While still being a Starfleet officer. Could come in handy. Besides", he added, his mask back in place, "one can never be too careful. I always make a point of being good friends with my doctor."

'..never too careful in my line of business..' But he hadn't said that. Not even to me. "So that's all it is then? Good friends?"

He was the epitome of innocence. "So far.."

"Good. Because you have to fit me in on this station, and it's best that we pose as lovers."

His bland smile froze a little, but he never lost it, I'll say that for him. He stood though, glancing out of the corner of his eye to see if anyone showed signs of having overheard. His check was automatic, and I could have sworn it was unnoticeable to anyone but me. He walked the few steps over to the replicator. "Raktajino?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Gahh", I said, "Not if you value your life. Hasn't it got anything civilized?"

"Oh, that's true, you never did learn to use stimulants, did you?" he said. "My apologies. It's a talent, you know", he added in a lightning-quick amendment to the apology that I could not but admire. "They do have some decent Chryseïan wines", he continued as if the brief sting had never been, " - and Romulan ale, but it's the synthehol version, you wouldn't want that."

"And the Chryseïan isn't?"

"Not to my knowledge. Which, I think you will concede, is rather extensive."

I raised the cup he handed me, acknowledging his admission. I did not call him on it though - he would only claim it was a small station and he had lived here a long time.

The wine was neither hot nor spiced. I made a face.

"However", Garak said blandly as he sat back down with some steaming mug of his own, "if you want spice, you will have to go to Quark's."

"The Ferengi's place? I've seen it. And what would I have to pay for spice there?"

"That, I imagine, would depend on the spice. The less you want it, the cheaper. The trick is to fool him about your true tastes. That shouldn't be too hard.. your tastes always were - exotic."

Again that swift sting. I smiled into my cup. I was beginning to recognize him.

"City bred", I countered, mock-apologetically.

"Really?"

All innocent politeness. I shook my head. "It's no use, Garak. Perhaps I'll tell you some day - but not now. Stop fishing."

The ease with which he changed the subject, told me I had been right. He had been fishing. "So - what brings you to Deep Space Nine?"

"Oh, I'm just a tourist. They say if you come here and stand about on the Promenade long enough, everyone in the universe will eventually pass you by.. I thought I'd give it a try - see if I can figure out how long I'd have to stand there.."

No quick repartee. No reply at all. He was waiting. All patient blandness, but he was waiting.

"I just thought it might be my turn to banter", I surrendered. "Actually, I came to see you."

"That much", he said, "I had gathered. I'd just like to know why." Again that furtive, all-but-unnoticeable flick of his eye, "And on whose orders."

I made a quick calculation concerning how much to tell him. He noticed of course, but said nothing. "I see no reason not to tell you", I yielded again. "The same as always. Our old employer.."

"I never actually worked for Gul Tilly", he pointed out.

"And I never actually worked for the Double-O", I countered. "If your memory serves you well."

He raised his cup in the barest hint of a salute. He knew as well as I that Gul Tilly had taken on many missions for the Obsidian Order in those days - but he was not about to outline the entire Cardassian clandestine power structure for anyone who cared to listen, and neither was I. He had ascertained that we were both talking about the same employer. He would content himself with that.

"You're being rewarded, Garak", I said lightly. "Someone decided you deserve a vacation."

He promptly paled, but his expression never changed.

"I've seen a holo of the place", I went on, "you'll be in the most beautiful villa on the Zhenaran Bay, the bougies blossoming around it all year, and.. it's true you were a gardener once, isn't it? Well, then you can truly appreciate.."

Finally, he let go of his bland tailor's mien. "All right, what am I being accused of?" he said, his voice low.

"Accused? My dear Garak, whatever gave you.."

"Ghilassa, please. I'm being retired and exiled, at least tell me why. For old times' sake?" he added, some of his composure creeping back. With some of us, it's easier to keep the mask on than off.

I decided to have pity on him. "You're not being permanently retired. At least not yet. It's a vacation, just as I said. To keep you out of things while the investigation is going on."

"What investigation?"

"Mine. To determine whether or not you've done anything."

"What am I supposed to have done?"

"Sorry, I can't tell you."

"I'd like to know what I'm being accused of."

"I can imagine."

"So why can't you tell me?"

"I'm under orders to let you stew."

He leant back in his chair, his eyes closing briefly. "Gul Tilly", he sighed, with more bitterness than I had thought him capable of. Somewhere along the road, his many superficial faces must have fooled me too. "How come you still work for him? How come you're still with the Human?"

I shrugged.

"And don't tell me it's a living", he shot in before I could say anything.

"It is. Besides, he's a free agent. I kind of like that."

"Freer than most", Garak muttered. "But that could change. Everything changes, you know. What if power should - shift?"

I ignored his meaningful stare. No reason to get paranoid. Yet. "First you must find out what kind of power Gul Tilly holds", I said. "If any.."

"What makes you think I don't already know?"

Touchée. On the other hand.. "The fact that you're an eminent pokerplayer", I said. "I think you're bluffing. Besides, you haven't acted on your knowledge."

"What makes you so sure? What if suddenly, when you return to Cardassia, there are no more free agents - only the Double-O, back in force?"

I looked into my cup, swirling it around. "You know, this wine is really flat", I told him. "I know I have a weakness for spice, but I do so relish complex tastes - and scents. Like that of the bougies around your villa.."

"Cut it. What would you do?"

I matched his stare - one basilisk to another. "'Time is an ocean'", I quoted. "'But it ends at the shore. You may not see me tomorrow.'"

He waited.

"Bob Dylan, 20th century Earth", I explained, knowing full well that that was not the explanation he was waiting for.

But his demeanor changed again, smoothing back into his usual, affable- tailor mode. "That's true - you always did have a predilection for Ancient Earth cultures, sayings, and tastes.. from your long service with Gul Tilly, no doubt?"

"Most of it, yes", I agreed. Easiest way out anyhow.

"Where did you meet the gul?" Garak asked, feigning polite disinterest.

I had to laugh. "You're doing it again, Garak. Prying. On Rhyona Prime, actually. No, I did not meet him on Earth, sorry. And to refute your next scatter-brained theory, nor am I Rhyonese. Do I look like one?"

"Looks can be altered.." he muttered, but he did not seem about to pursue that line of thought right now.

"So", I said, "Will you or won't you?"

"Help you? But of course..", he smiled like the reptiloid he basically was. "Though I confess I wouldn't mind knowing more about what's involved."

"I can't tell you what my investigation is about", I said flatly. "That would give you a chance to concoct your own defence."

He shot me a half-amused stare. If I - and Gul Tilly - had truly believed him to be guilty, he would already have been withdrawn. For good. He knew it of course. I had pointed this out to Gul T, but the naturalized Cardassian had merely shrugged; No matter. It's the truth, isn't it? We don't actually believe it's him. Keep your eyes open though. We may be wrong..

"Still", I resumed, "I can tell you what you have to do. I can't very well come barging in here conducting a Cardassian investigation - but I will, if you refuse to cooperate, so don't get any ideas. I would vastly prefer a cover, though. You greet me as your so-far secret lover - your are a secretive man, aren't you, Garak? And you get me some sort of job on the station, because the general idea is that I've come to stay with you. Then, after four weeks during which you teach me everything I have to know about this place, you suddenly have to leave - because that's when you'll be expected on Prime. Urgent message from relatives, or something. Somebody dying. You know damn well that unless you show up in time, somebody will die. You."

He ignored that. "So I leave my beloved behind on the station - won't that seem a little odd?"

"Come on, Garak - there are endless variations. I'm your secret lover because your family wouldn't approve; or, I'm only one of all your secret lovers - all sexes -" I couldn't resist that "- and you had to find some pretext not to take me to where I might run into any of the others.. just so long as we pick one reason, and stick to it."

"Why can't you just be my niece, or something, come for a visit with her uncle?"

"Garak, you're not trying", I said. "Come on, a niece? When did you ever use such an old plot before? A niece, with the bright ambition to work on the station? That's practically screaming over the intercom system or whatever they have here that I'm not what I seem to be."

"The old plots are sometimes the best", he objected. "Who on this station would see through it?"

I brought out the little holocube I always carried with me, and flicked it towards him. It clattered across the table. "That's who", I said. "I take it he's still around?"

Garak shot one of his surreptitious glances around the room. A Bolian couple who had been sitting two tables away, had got up and left some time ago. Nobody else was sitting close. I wondered idly if Cardassians were generally shunned in this place - or whether it was just Garak..

Nevertheless, he efficiently concealed the erupting image behind his hands, as he activated the cube. I could hear a brief but unmistakable reptiloid hiss, then he switched off the cube and handed it back to me. "I didn't think you knew anyone on Deep Nine. Let alone our Chief of Security."

"I don't. I saw him on Bajor once, during the occupation."

"And you don't think he'd remember you?"

"He didn't see me."

"Are you quite certain?"

I shrugged, spreading my hands in an imitation of one of Garak's own favourite gestures. "Are we ever? But I don't think he did."

Garak mused a little, as if weighing his options. "You saw him only once.. and you immediately became so fascinated that you've been carrying his picture around with you ever since? What is it that man has, I wonder.."

"You're fishing again, Garak", I said curtly.

He leant forward over the table, stopping just short of taking my hand. "Maybe I am", he hissed with some intensity, "but before I agree to help you scheming, I damn well want to know exactly who's behind it. Who gave you the holo?"

"I got it out of the files - asked for it, if you must know. Not recently; back then, after I saw him. And no, I was not fascinated."

"Then why?"

I smiled a little reptilian smile of my own. "Let's just say I thought I might need it some day."

"Again, why?"

"Let's say I knew I would become fascinated", I told him, knowing full well that he'd never believe me.

But at least he pretended to. "Women.." he muttered, plunging back into the game. "I still don't see why you can't be my niece though. Odo will figure out that you're up to something anyway, whatever your cover."

"But it might take longer if I'm your lover", I said. "A secret love affair carries its own mystery, explaining any other mystery in its wake. And it's so understandable to most humanoids that they never bother to look twice."

"Odo looks twice at everything. Cross-eyed, mostly. Besides, he isn't humanoid. You did know he's a changeling, didn't you?"

"You've got your terminology crossed. A changeling, in Ancient Earth tradition, is a child left by the trolls, in exchange for one they stole from the humans.." my voice trailed off, but for once I think he actually missed my moment of consternation.

"We're not on Ancient Earth", he pointed out, with some irritation. "But, I'll rephrase: did you know he's a shifter?"

"That much is pretty hard to miss", I said drily.

He looked a bit surprised at that, enough that I wondered if he had missed it himself once, early in their acquaintance.

"About my cover", I resumed. "You have to admit it would seem much more plausible for a lover who comes to stay with you indefinitely, to need some work here, than it would for a visiting niece. Or are you afraid the cute doctor will be jealous..?"

He glared at me, then chuckled, as if the glare had never been. "Well, if so, I'll just have to explain things to him, won't I?" he offered smoothly.

"Take care lest you explain too much", I said. "Gul T wouldn't like for you to blow my cover."

"Oh very well", Garak said wearily. "Let's get the details over with; I'm tired of hearing of Gul Terence.."

"Ohhh..?", I crooned, all meaningful admiration, "So you know his real name now? Not many do, you know.."

He simply beamed at me, noncommittally. "I have my sources too. Now, what would you have me do? It must seem my own, private initiative - part of my cover here is that I'm already exiled; Gul Dukat backs that up whenever he can - I suspect, gleefully."

I did not flinch at the name - there are some things I like to believe not even Garak knows about.

"I could get you a job in my shop", he went on, "helping me out. I could use extra personnel I could trust.."

The last word subtly dripping with sarcastic emphasis. I shook my head. "You'll have to get me close to the computers. I need access to the mail logs."

He chuckled. "If you think for one moment that Chief Engineer O'Brien would allow a Cardassian anywhere near the comp.."

"They are Cardassian in design, aren't they? He might need some - help. After all, it is my specialty. One of them.."

Garak's swift glance roamed the place once more. "He might have needed help in the beginning", he said lightly. "I'm sure he's got the hang of things now." In a barely audible voice he added, "All right, I'll set it up for you. Just tell me what extent of damage you want." Then, continuing in his normal, pleasant tenor as if he had only been clearing his throat, he said, "I could go over his head though. Speak to someone in command. I'll see what I can do." He rose. "Now, I'd better be going. There are preparations to make. Arranging quarters for you among them. Or are you staying with me?" That last with a teasing grin.

"Whatever", I shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

He faked a thouroughly desolate look. "No, of course not. I'm just poor old simple Garak. I'm no shapeshifter."

"Neither am I." Damn. It just flew out. I knew he could be annoying, but that he could still bring me to babbling.. Still, he had made three references, and even the OO teach that the third reference to the same topic is a warning bell.

He grinned widely. "I really must be going. I never feel quite at ease, holding serious discussions in the Replimat." He glanced over to where the Bolians had been sitting. "The tables might have ears.."

"Garak, if this was a trap - ", I spat, but he was already gone. To my right, the Bolians' table became a clear, amber column. Damn. It wasn't even that I had trusted Garak - for an insane moment, I wished it had been - but when he suggested the Replimat I had simply assumed that he wanted the background noise of several parallel conversations as a screen for our own. Instead, he had bet on us being overheard. For his own protection, no doubt, but it was still a dubious choice.

And it still left me in the lurch.

The column solidified into the humanoid shape I knew from years back - and from my holocube. He came to stand at my table, crossing his arms, looking down at me. "Nobody conducts an investigation on my station", he rasped. His voice startled me, I had not heard it before. "Nobody but me, that is."

I sighed. "This is a Cardassian matter. It doesn't concern you, Chief."

He seemed a little surprised at my form of address, and I remembered being told that he was usually called Constable. I had read somewhere that it was not an official title, however.

"Everything on this station concerns me", he said. "You either take your Cardassian matter back to Cardassia, or leave the investigation to me."

"I wish I could take it back to Cardassia", I said. "And I will, as soon as I find out whom to take there."

"But that person is currently on DS9?"

"As far as I know. At least until recently."

He nodded. "You'd better give me the details then."

"I'll do no such thing!", I flared. "This is a matter of state - not of picking pockets or illegal gambling."

"Gambling is not illegal on Deep Space Nine", he pointed out, somewhat fastidiously, "though some stakes might be. I take it you have contacted a few diplomats then - about this matter of state?"

"I'd like to keep it outside the never-ending tours of diplomacy."

"Ah. That makes it my jurisdiction. Will you answer my questions here, or do you prefer the privacy of my office?"

I dived out to my left, keeping the table between us. I sprang for the exit, well knowing I was not as fast as I used to be..

I felt a duranium grip on my wrist, nearly cutting off my bloodstream, yet somehow still flexible. I looked down. My wrist was caught in a kraken's tentacle, pulled tight. I gasped in pain, but made no more of it.

He was still standing on the other side of the table. Aside from shifting his arm, he had not moved. Once, he would not have been able to catch me like that.

For now, things seemed to be going well. Always nice when you can stick to your original plan. "All right", I sighed. "Your office. But don't expect any state secrets."

 

*  *  *  *

He offered me a cup of hot, spiced wine, perhaps to let me know how much he had overheard, perhaps only to show that I was a guest, not a prisoner. I knew he would not resort to poisoning - not that he had any reason yet - so I accepted it. "Quark's?" I asked.

He nodded. "Private stock. Or so he claims, to up the price." He sat down - on the edge of the desk, perhaps to be able to hover over me - yet I was the comfortable one. "Well?" he asked. Just that, no more.

"How much do you know?" I asked back.

"You're seeking a culprit of some kind, thought to be on DS9, and you're doing it on Cardassian orders. Not from the Central Command, I believe - at least not directly; nor the Obsidian Order. Someone else - who's Gul Tilly?"

I laughed. "You don't know? Well, then I'm afraid it's confidential. He's always operated out of the shadows - I'm under the impression he prefers it that way."

Odo grunted, knowing when not to push. "But he's a Terran immigrant to Cardassia?"

"Your tables certainly have long ears", I acknowledged. "Yes, originally. But that was ages ago."

"Before the occupation?"

How innocent, that question. I decided to answer the one I heard. "He is human. And I don't think he's over sixty."

"Ah. You didn't know him before the occupation, but you think he came to Cardassia some time in the course of it."

I nodded. "You work for him - yet you don't know what kind of power he holds. And you are Cardassian?"

I had been needled enough. "Do you want a blood sample?" I spat.

He actually smiled. "It might come to that", he said. Third reference is a warning bell. Of course he had heard it too. Well, I could prove myself Cardassian - but would he really take a blood sample as evidence? Or would the warning bell win out..

"Sometimes there is smoke without a fire", I said. "Garak talks too much."

He bowed acknowledgment, but I could see in those deep blue eyes that he was filing my words for reference. He would come back to this. Well, with luck, his interest would be academic by then.

"So", he said, "What has this person done - this culprit you seek?"

I sighed, as if reluctant to tell him but finally giving up. "Attempts have been made to sabotage the peace treaty. Messages clearly destined to undermine trust on both sides have been sent - from DS9."

"Sent where?"

"Bajor mostly. I assume whoever sent them figured that the Bajorans would be more easily ignited. But some went to Cardassia - no special address, sort of broadcasting to various groups - spams if you will."

"I am familiar with the Ancient Earth expression. It's still used occasionally. And the messages for Bajor - did they have specific recipients?"

I shrugged. "I haven't actually seen any of the intercepted messages. But I can find out if you like. Gul Tilly didn't tell me - presumably nobody bothered much with the Bajoran recipients."

Odo looked surprised at first, then, swiftly, he realized, giving a light, rasping hiss to indicate this. "You think the author - or at the very least the sender - of these messages is Cardassian?"

I pursed my lips in a semi-amused, semi-ironic smile. "Just why did you think it's a 'matter of state?'"

"So. There are traitors even among the Cardassians?"

"We don't hang them out to dry, like the Bajorans do. Bad publicity. We - take care of our own, you might say."

He noted that slight we. I might have scored a point, but I couldn't be sure. "I'm certain you do. Do you suspect Garak?"

"Nobody's above suspicion. But if you must know - no, not really. We don't know yet who brought our attention to the messages; it might well have been him. In which case he probably goes free."

"Are you in love with Garak?" he asked casually, just as I took another draught of my wine.

I nearly scalded my throat. Damn those station-issue thermo cups. "If I had been, I would hardly have been sent here to work with him", I explained. "Certainly not before he were cleared of suspicion. Besides, nobody in authority is big on distraction. Why do you ask?"

"I couldn't dismiss the possibility, since you insisted on posing as his secret lover. Why did you answer?"

He had me there. I could have simply told him not to pry into my private life. On the other hand, I was not accustomed to having a private life. Neither with the Cardassians, nor - before. "Maybe I wanted you to know", I said.

"Ah", he said, and at first I thought that was it, that he was filing the subject away. I honestly can't say what I would have told him, had he called me on that one. However, he was not quite done with that line of questioning. "Why do you keep a holocube of me?" he asked.

I don't know how he had managed to see it - Garak had been very discreet. But I supposed it could have been gleaned from our conversation whom the cube portrayed. "Would you believe the reason I gave Garak?" I asked.

"No", he stated flatly.

"Then I have nothing further to say."

This time he did file it. "What's your connection with Earth?"

"A scholarly interest. A hobby, as it were."

"You've never been to Earth?"

I thought quickly. He could probably check the records. "No", I lied.

He nodded, and was silent for a while, thinking.

"Look", I said, "am I accused of anything?"

"No", he said sort of absently, "I'm just trying to decide to what extent I should believe your story."

"Believe it", I said, "or not, but in the latter case, I will carry out the investigation alone."

He looked up sharply, rising to the bait as I had known he would. "You can assist me carrying it out", he rasped. "While I keep an eye on you."

Harsh of judgment by nature. Of course. It surprised me that I was able to see it so clearly - so objectively. Just when had I begun to feel at home with all the chaotic plotting of the Cardassians? Even to the point where being in the thick of it felt like removing a pair of too tight shoes.. I stood, taking my not-quite-finished cup. "I take it that I'm dismissed?" I asked.

He nodded. "For now. I'll be in touch. Or you will, if anything comes up on your end first. And you won't leave the station."

"Not bloody likely", I muttered, using another of my favourite Earth colloquialisms.

Once out on the Promenade, I glanced back over my shoulder. He was standing in the entrance to his office, still staring after me as if wondering what to make of me. He looked - just like his hologram. The one I had been keeping about me for so long. But to actually see him - to hear him, perhaps to know him.. And those eyes - humanoid at the moment, yet mirroring something much more basic to his being. I had hoped it would not quite come to this, but I was definitely beginning to understand - Her. The one who had given me my - real - mission. The other, of the two beings in the universe whose orders I would actually follow.

I finished my cup and turned to go. To seek out Garak.

 

*  *  *  *

"I have arranged a position on computer maintenance for you", Garak said. "Apparently.. there was a somewhat complicated malfunction, and.."

"And what took you?" I asked. It had been three days. Three days of doing nothing, except familiarize myself with the station, and it wasn't all that big, as stations go. Not compared with some of the starbases I've seen, at any rate. We were walking leisurely along the Promenade, using it for what it was intended for, and trying to look reasonably fond of each other.

"If you think this was easy.." Garak began, frowning. Abandoning that sentiment as non-productive, he explained, "O'Brien flatly refused. Normally, in these circumstances, I would have sought out the second officer, but I could not very well take it to Major Kira. If anything, she detests Cardassians more than O'Brien does. I doubt I could convince her that I was not up to something."

"Oh surely, Garak", I said, "With your silver tongue.."

He actually smiled at that, if only to keep up the show. "So I took it to Captain Sisko", he continued.

"Sounds pretentious", I remarked, "I thought the head officer of a space station was always called Commander, regardless of his actual rank."

"Well, he was promoted while on his current assignment", Garak related. "And since he does in fact command a starship as well as a space station.."

"The Defiant", I nodded. "I've made the grand tour. Several times. All right, she's impressive. From the outside at least.. So what did he say?"

"I'm not sure he believed me, but he was curious enough to see where this would lead. So he ordered O'Brien - or maybe asked him in his own indomitable way - to take you on probation. To think of you as an apprentice, if that made the idea easier to live with."

"An apprentice??" I laughed. "I probably know more about Cardassian computer systems than O'Brien ever.."

"Don't underestimate him", Garak warned, in his lowest tone.

"Never", I said. "I never underestimate a possible adversary, it's inbred." Which was truer than even Garak could know. "And I would certainly never underestimate you", I went on, leaving him to interpret that for himself. "Thank you." And I stood lightly on my toes to put my arms around his neck and kiss him - in a fashion better suited to Terrans or Bajorans, but then, I did it for the gallery..

If I surprised him, he certainly never let it show. He swept me up in a gallant twirl as if we did this daily, and he leant into the kiss as if he meant it. In fact, I gave him a searching look as we broke the clinch, suspecting he was really enjoying himself - at least as much as the audience on the second level were enjoying the spectacle, if their delighted hoots were anything to go by. But - his impertinently innocent face gave nothing away.

"My compliments on your dress", he said lightly, setting me back down. "I do think red is a better coulour for you."

"Well", I said, "it always was my colour."

"Really? Ever since childhood?"

"Garak.." I admonished him, adding a playful punch to his ribs for the benefit of the public.

"I know, I know - no fishing!" he yielded merrily. "Just tell me one thing - does Gul Tilly know your full background?"

I opened my mouth to say no - then caught myself. Clever. Way too clever. If I admitted that the man I had worked so close with over the years, for longer than Garak had known me, did not know where I came from, then I would have told this over-talented tailor in so many words that I had something to hide. I would have to watch myself with my old friend - I meant it when I said I never underestimated him. "No idea", I said instead. "He never lets me see his files."

Garak bowed, the spark in his eye acknowledging our contest. He knew I had been about to say something else.

"Odo knows, though", I said.

"Your background?" Garak asked innocently.

I willed away the frost coursing down my Cardassian spine ridge - as far as I was concerned, he was just fishing, until otherwise proven. "I meant, what we're up to. He eavesdropped on our entire conversation in the Replimat. You could have warned me."

"I hadn't yet decided whether to help you or not."

"So you felt it safer to blow my cover in front of the station Chief of Security?"

"It might have been", he frankly admitted. "At the time, I was thinking of it as an assurance against a poisoned dagger - or the equivalent, in case you're not given to romance. So he knows. Whom will he tell?"

Why was it that sometimes I felt decidedly inferior in this game? After all, I should have had more extensive experience at it than he. "I assume he reports to the captain", I stated, a bit acidly. "Or are there some steps in the pecking order that I'm overlooking?"

"All right, badly phrased", Garak said. "I meant - when will he tell whomever he tells?"

I was beginning to see his point. I hadn't talked to Odo for long, but.. "You tell me", I said anyway. "You know him better than I."

"Then I'd say he'll report it when he's solved the mystery to his own satisfaction", Garak said. "Probably before it has the offical look of being solved if you catch my drift, but not until he knows what's going on."

I nodded. "That should give us some time. All the same, it's kind of disconcerting pretending to be lovers when the Chief of Security knows it's just an act.. still, I can't see anything really impractical about it, so.. by the way, you haven't kissed me in a while - the crowd on the upper level is getting bored."

"Doesn't matter, it isn't the same crowd any longer", Garak pointed out, possibly to give me a hint of his perceptive powers. "Also, I suggest we move on to more trivial topics - there are a couple of Vulcans over by Corg's bazaar - their auditory range should well surpass that of the rest of the crowd, even against this comfortably noisy background."

"Point taken", I quipped. "So who is Corg?"

"Ferengi of course. Distant cousin of Quark's from what I hear."

"You hear quite a lot, don't you?" A borderline remark perhaps, but I could not resist. To my surprise, Garak did not rise to it. I followed his gaze. A somewhat rowdy contingent of Bajorans were just emerging from Quark's establishment, which was just around the turn of the Promenade.

"Behind me", Garak said in a low voice. "This could get ugly."

"I am moved", I said, "Truly I am, and I cannot begin to second-guess your motives for this chivalry. But - I can take care of myself." I started walking down the Promenade, perhaps swaying my scarlet-clad hips a little extra, although I swear I was not consciously trying to provoke that rabble. But of course I did. Simply being Cardassian would have done it nicely.

They all glared at me of course - and one bleary-eyed individual with his earring dangling halfway off his ear spat on me as he passed - scoring too, as the distance proved no challenge even to his condition. I could almost sense Garak going livid despite all his training and skill - maybe not so much over me, as over the affront to Cardassia. I wiped off the spittle, smiling at the perpetrator as though I had just swallowed him alive. "Careful what you're saying.." I crooned. "I might take you up on the invitation.." Not that I'm over-familiar with the sordid mating habits of Bajorans, but the symbolism of a male sprinkling his body fluid over a female should be sufficiently obvious to most humanoids.

It was. I've never actually seen a Bajoran turn blue-black with rage before, but this one did. One of his own sorry cronies laughed, presumably before taking stock of where he was, and that set my anatagonist off. He swung at me, leaving himself wide open and half off-balance to begin with, but I elected to duck, as I did not think that killing a Bajoran on this station would be in my best interest right now.

The lout started to come back at me, but right then someone caught me from behind, swinging me out of his reach. At first I thought his companions had finally seen the light and were trying to hold me for him, so I aimed for the shin of the one who had caught me, skinning it with my sharp heel, from the knee down. A standard defence, as well as a good provocation method, used among many races. However, it failed. The leg suddenly wasn't there, or rather, it was but my heel sliced right through as if through honey. In a split second I realized who must have snatched me.

My suspicion was confirmed as his no. 5 sandpaper voice ordered the Bajorans off. "I'd thank you to disperse. One more complaint against any of you, and you're off my station. Unless you prefer spending your leave in my holding cells. There's plenty of room in there at the moment; I'm sure we can accommodate you."

I glanced to the sides to see if there were any more Security staff backing him up, but I could not see any. Apparently the Bajorans knew him, because they had already started to move off, some of them heading back for the bar. Except my assailant.

"So you're protecting Cardies now, Shapeshifter?" he tried. He could have saved his breath.

"I protect anyone against the likes of you, regardless of the species involved. I will not have anyone molested on the Promenade, is that clear?"

The Bajoran shuffled off, but not without a last comment over his shoulder: "Got it, Constable. Not on the Promenade..."

The shapeshifter let go of me with a sigh.

"My apologies, Constable", I said quickly, before he could. "However, I don't believe I hurt you."

He shook his head. "Of course not. And I know you feel you can take care of yourself", he answered my real message in addition to my socializing one. "I still won't have anyone molested -"

"On the Promenade", I filled in. He glared at me.

"If he tries to make good on that.." he began.

"Bajorans are always making threats", I said dismissively. "Promises, promises.. But tell me one thing, Constable. Were you really protecting me from them - or them from me?"

"The peace", he sternly declared. "From all of you."

It figured. Bedrock principles to make up for a fluid nature. Had it been Garak, he would simply have said something like, Megalomania will get you nowhere thus evading the question. Also on principle. Garak..

Nowhere to be seen.

Odo immediately realized who I was looking for, of course. "Your valiant fiancé took to his heels early on", he informed me, sounding amused rather than disgusted, for some reason.

I nodded. "Garak knows when he's not needed", I said. I did not say unlike some, that would have been uncouth. I merely stressed my words a little too evenly. I could see he got the message. He would. He had worked with Cardassians.

He gave a small grunt and turned to leave.

"Odo?" I called out. "Thanks." I nearly added anyway.

But - then I didn't.

 

*  *  *  *

It seemed we had been right about the constable. He did not tell anyone. As far as the rest of the Deep Nine personnel was concerned, Garak and I were lovers, and I had every understandable reason to want to remain on the station.

I lived with Garak. We had discussed this briefly, then both of us agreed that it might seem odd if we settled for separate quarters. So, the first night, naturally I offered. We both knew we were not emotionally involved, but we were old friends, and I had nothing particular against him. In the course of duty, you often have to do worse things. I felt I might as well be polite.

"Is it required?" he asked at once.

"Not this time", I reassured him. "Gul T doesn't care how we solve the current problem, as long as we solve it. You're under no obligation."

"Then", he drew a deep breath, "I'd just as soon not get any further involved in your affairs than I already am. Nothing personal, you understand", he added hastily.

"Same here", I said. "Nothing personal. I just thought that as you had to order a bigger bed but could not really order two without it seeming strange, well, if you'd feel uncomfortable with restraint, we'd better not impose any."

"I assure you I'm a very disciplined person."

"I don't doubt it", I smiled. "Double-O and everything. Well then, we'll just camp together, each to one edge of the bed."

"Unless that would make you uncomfortable?" he probed.

I shook my head. "I can be quite disciplined too."

 

*  *  *  *

My work on the station computers went well enough, but I could see that O'Brien did not trust me any farther than he could throw me - and that might not be far. Still, as I never sabotaged anything and worked efficiently if not as hard as he believed he had to, he started to relax. He was a social creature, and simply knowing someone went a long way with him. Besides, I took care to be polite to his family on those few occasions that they turned up in Engineering or whenever I met them on the Promenade. His little daughter took a fancy to my long hair which I did not always wear piled up. To her delight, I let her braid it for me. I think that might have been what finally melted O'Brien's heart.

Others were not as easily melted. The first time I saw the formidable Major Kira, she was downright hostile. She had come down to Engineering to check out something O'Brien wanted her opinion on. Spotting me, she froze, standing there like a Mondalese rooster, red hackles risen, her pepper eyes radiating murder. She had that sort of slightly unaligned stare that many find endearing, but it certainly enhanced her belligerent stance. Her angrily red uniform looked pasted on, to the point of making her look slightly disproportionate. Either it was very uncomfortable, or else.. She seemed as unforgiving as any changeling, and for a moment it crossed my mind that she might be one. Then again, her attitude was Bajoran enough.

"So you're O'Brien's apprentice", she said, as if making an accusation. "I hope you don't think you're safe just because we let you work here. I have my eye on you, you can count on it!" Then, to O'Brien, "Any complaints? Is she performing to satisfaction?"

O'Brien winked an eye. "Well, now that you mention it, she is a bit lazy", he joked.

Those laser eyes swung back on me, questioning.

"I believe in putting in results rather than long hours", I said.

"And why would the two be mutually exclusive?" she asked. I hadn't really thought her capable of the vocabulary.

"Long hours are always counter-productive", I said. "Some species might be able to take more than others, but very few will work at peak efficiency on overtime."

She continued to glare at me but refrained from comment. I realized that she must have heard such sentiments often enough from the medical department - they are the ones most persistently ignored by humans and Bajorans both. Some species feel that working until they drop will automatically make them heroes, whether they accomplish anything or not. To a Cardassian, this is simply not good enough. Only results count; how you got them is your own business and hence irrelevant.

Realizing she had nothing on me as yet, she spun on her heel and left. At least she considered herself above petty harrassment.

Then there was Dax - the Trill Science officer. The first time she sought me out as if to make things up to me for what I might have suffered from the Bajoran contingent, I thought she was sent to pump me, to find out by softer means what I was really up to.

Then I was not so sure; there is such a thing as being too suspicious, and it could be that she actually was just socializing. Perhaps out of a general curiosity but no more than that. She seemed to go by rules mainly her own, much like Gul Tilly did back home, and perhaps for similar reasons. It said something for the captain's wisdom that he let her.

We saw a lot of each other, and I 'confided' in her - things of no importance, though I soon refrained from outright lies, as she always saw through them. Once I asked her if one of her symbiont's hosts had been a Betazoid. She just smiled and said no, that would not have worked, they were all Trill. But there were quite a few of them by now; she'd been around a while.

At least one of them must have been a romantic at heart - or maybe that was herself - but one lie she never appeared to see through was the one about Garak and me. I had no problem keeping her interest in relations at ease by feeding her tall tales about our ostensibly domestic life. Maybe she wanted to believe me, maybe it was a sort of wish fulfilment on her part; she clearly had this need to see people happy.

There was this day that she came to collect me at the end of my shift, suggesting we go to Quark's. She had not been in there for a while, she said, he must be wondering why not. I had not been in there at all as yet, mainly to avoid unwanted attention. I knew she was aware of this, but as usual, there was no telling what she was really up to. So I asked. "I understand Quark's is much frequented by Bajorans", I probed.

"As by all other races", she enthused. "Everybody comes to Quark's!"

I smiled, thinking of a reference in Terran lore to what she had just said. A reference she might or might not be familiar with. "You looking to start a brawl?" I asked her.

"Always game for a little excitement. Come on, things have been far too dull lately."

I knew her well enough by now to realize when former host Curzon gained the upper hand. Which was usually the case whenever things had been a little slow around the station for a week or so. Well, why not? Years of Cardassian discipline told me in no uncertain terms why not, but at the moment something else, something almost forgotten, reared its head, and this something was not impressed by Cardassian discipline.

So I went with her.

It was much as I had expected; the place was packed, and Quark was beaming. There was no mistaking him; there rarely is with Ferengi. The one who stands to gain the most will let it show. My first impression was that he had hard, cruel eyes - or perhaps just greedy. Maybe even intelligent, for a Ferengi. I did not know him well enough to tell. There was no table free at the moment, so Dax made her way to the bar, and I followed. Somehow she charmed two tipsy El-Aurians off their perches - I suppose they were the only ones who'd listen to her right then.

Quark spotted the change in customers right away of course. "Commander!" he beamed, "Glad to have you back - been busy lately?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned to me, still addressing Dax. "And I.. don't believe I know your absolutely charming companion?"

"Ghilassa", I said, as he kissed my hand which he had somehow appropriated.

"She's taken, Quark", Dax warned him. "You may have heard that Garak.."

The Ferengi, true to his nature, immediately overacted, pretending to be stabbed to the heart. "Ah! So this lovely creature is Garak's lady! Woe on me that I ever laid eyes on her - what'll you have?" he added in mid-tirade, suddenly all business. I wondered if he clocked his sales peps, terminating them abruptly if they became too long.

"There's something to be said for the truly indiscriminate", I complimented his obvious lack of bias when it came to female customers, regardless of species. Commercially induced of course, but few are able to live up to their ideals the way the Ferengi can. If nothing else, they are consistent. I was beginning to see why Dax would socialize with them. Consistency must hold the same fascination for a Trill of several lifetimes as it will for most Cardassians.. "Garak tells me you have genuine Chryseïan wine", I said.

"Import it myself", he confirmed. "Nothing replicated about it. Costs a little more of course, but quality is always worth it, right? Commander?" he added quickly, poised to take Dax' order before she could have second thoughts, in case she were about to.

"I think I'll have the same", she smiled. "Sounds interesting."

Quark spun to relay the order, then hesitated. I could see that he was anxious to please his customers - at least those he had every chance of facing on a regular basis. "Do you want yours prepared in the Cardassian fashion too? Or would you prefer it temperate?"

She gave him a dreamy look. "You know I love new experiences, Quark. Cardassian fashion, please."

As he returned, I could see by the steaming goblets on his gold-pressed tray, that this was one Ferengi who knew his business. Don't they all.. I picked up my drink, closing my eyes as I breathed in the green scents of the multitude and variety of herbal spice. And the taste.. it was as if I could feel every single breed of spice by itself, and yet the ensemble was not disrupted. I looked up, to meet Dax' amused look.

"Interesting", she said. "It should really be this hot?"

"Just short of boiling", I said. "It must never boil. Some say that like a good sword, it should then be cooled to human body temperature, but I don't agree.."

"Human body temperature?" "Well, it's an old smith's recipe for making a good sword. You are recommended to run it through a human slave to cool it. Hard to do with wine though.."

"You really do that? The sword I mean?"

I could see I had disturbed her. Perhaps I should have watched my tongue a little better. I had to admit, this was really quality wine.. "Figure of speech", I said. "The smiths of old knew nothing of temperature except what worked. They had to describe it somehow. Besides, we don't use swords much these days."

"Wonder if the Klingons have a similar recipe for a good bat'leth", she said, "I must ask Worf.." Once again letting her curiosity about all aspects of life overcome her prejudice. I loved that about her. Not many mature so well. Perhaps it takes some 300 years to get to that point..

"Tell me, Ghilassa", she said, "is it true what I've always heard - and what Quark seemed to imply - would a Cardassian rather refrain from food and drink than accept low quality?"

"Depends on the circumstances of course", I said. "If you're starving, you're starving, but.."

"But if you're not, you won't settle for less than the exquisite?"

I thought for a moment. "Now that you mention it, I think that's probably correct. There's no point in eating or drinking anything if you don't particularly enjoy it. Then you might as well do without. Yes, you may well be right."

"Poor Garak", she said with a little pursed smile. "Now I suddenly understand some of his more fastidious complaints. He must be quite heroic to live among the likes of us.."

"Well, he's cold most of the time for one thing", I said, warming my fingers on my goblet.

"We have to conserve energy to some extent", she said absently. "Is he very uncomfortable?"

"He'll make do. After all, he is a clothier."

She laughed a little, though I suspected she knew I had been quite serious. "Is he really the best for you?" she asked then, keeping her voice down yet knocking me more off guard than I should have allowed. That wine was really getting to me. "I mean", she continued, "your special flair for excellence - does it extend to matters of the heart as well?"

Luckily, a batch of the omnipresent Bajorans chose that moment to pick a fight. I had been expecting them, watching them over my shoulder ever since they sat down at a table just vacated by a company of Zhirr. Maybe that was partly why I had not been prepared when the Trill Inquisition set in. I had also noted Odo, entering just behind the Bajorans and sitting down at a single-seat table by the door. So I was fairly confident when a big, Bajoran male ambled over to me. He was not alone; a scrawny female with a singularly ill-fitting earring was egging him on, yapping like an overexcited puppy around his feet.

"We don't want Cardassians here", he told me, mustering all the intelligence of his species, I warrant.

I glanced over my shoulder. The others had not risen yet, but were glaring hopefully in our direction, to see how things would go. "Too bad", I said. "I didn't know Quark had turned his bar over to you."

I couldn't see the Ferengi anywhere. Pity. If he had been in sight, he would have been in earshot, and he would certainly have risen to an implication like that. His brother was behind the bar though, and he looked up uneasily, as if wondering what he was expected to do.

"Go back to your seat before it's taken", Dax said calmly. "This particular Cardassian is with me."

"Tell her we don't want Starfleet here either!" the thin female squawked. The man seemed to be pondering for a moment whether they did or not, so apparently she felt she had to take over. Emerging from her cover behind him, she screeched, "Cardassian bitch! What did you do during the occupation, I wonder?"

I had spotted Quark. Over by the door, talking to Odo. The Ferengi was waving his arms, most likely trying to persuade the constable to save his bar from destruction while there was still time. Odo did not seem impressed but was clearly looking in our direction. I would have to watch myself then. Killing this female outright would be a little on the obvious side..

"Had the likes of you for breakfast", I told her, finishing my drink with a flourish - it was still quite hot, but I felt the effect was worth a scalded tongue. I was not about to let this rabble spill it. "War rations, you understand. We all had to suffer in those days.."

I waited for the first blow - then I struck, viper fashion. She went down right away; there wasn't enough weight to her to keep her on her feet. I saw Dax shake her head, but her eyes were gleaming. As one of the others from the Bajoran table reached us, she felled him expertly, then turned to help me with the first oaf who was now out to avenge his parakeet mate - or whatever she was to him.

I needed no help. Gul Tilly had taught me Double-O fighting - and then some. Some of what he would use to defend himself against the OO style. Some things all his own - but I resolved to be kind. I struck, cobra fashion this time, taking all his air with a punch to his throat, just below the larynx, then sent him down with a broken arm. The next one from the table got the same arrowhead punch to his groin, for trying to pin me. I was considering the eyes of one behind him, when I heard that by now quite wellknown sandpaper voice rasp, "That's enough! Break it up and follow these nice officers to the holding cells this minute!"

He would wait until they had all left their table, wouldn't he? Well, it had given me - and Dax - the time to have some fun. I looked at her. She was flushed from having floored two Bajorans by knocking their heads together, and her eyes were positively shining. Merrily. No aggression about her.

The Bajoran closest to Odo turned on him, and was immediately caught in a viselike grip. The arm that held him did not change, but I guessed that the strength involved was once more that of a kraken. Also, I could see where the other hand was. Prepared for a death grip, should it prove necessary. I made a mental note of that. I did not think Odo would kill anyone, but I memorized well the fact that it was not because he couldn't. Probably, he would just have cut off the man's air until he saw reason and calmed down, but all the same, this was useful knowledge. After all, the constable was a changeling - unforgiving, rigid, untouchable.. and as he turned to his staff and told them, "Take this lot to the holding cells - two to each, no more. Let them sleep it off, then deport them in the morning." ... I heard the disgust in his voice, and realized that he had the proper condescension too. Maybe not towards all solids, but certainly towards some. From those, he expected no better than he got.

The bar was somewhat cleared after the incident, and a relieved Quark - because damage to his property had been minimal - replaced Dax' and my own drinks with something cool and turquoise that didn't taste half bad. Perhaps it was a favourite of hers this time. Odo slid up on the barstool to my right, and a huge but slightly timid-looking being got on to the one on Dax' left.

"Why hello, Morn", she said, "Where've you been hiding throughout all this?"

I relaxed. Apparently they knew each other. The creature didn't answer her, but waved an uncertain paw in Quark's direction. The Ferengi immediately spun on his heel and poured him something without further specification.

"So who started this one?" Odo asked.

I shrugged. "Does it matter? Not the fault of one that two quarrel and all that. If you want to be particular, they started it. But I had offered them some insults they couldn't refuse."

"Commander?" he addressed Dax, in a rasping whiplash.

"I just felt Ghilassa should have the same right as everybody else to visit Quark's", she said innocently. "Maybe more right than some", she added, and this time I thought I could detect a slight edge of duranium to her voice. Always knew she had it in her. Especially after seeing her fight.

Odo sighed. "I can't very well put you two in a holding cell next to the Bajorans", he said. "But I shall have to report this to the captain. I hope you realize that.

"A barroom brawl?" I asked, disbelieving. "I must have gravely overestimated the activity level on this station.."

He was about to say something, but Dax cut him off.

"Ghilassa", she said, "you're bleeding. Looks like some damage to your neck cartilage. Don't you feel anything?"

Odo gave us a long-suffering look, then slapped his commbadge. "Odo to Bashir.."

 

*  *  *  *

The doctor was just back from the holding cells where, apparently, he had been summoned to treat some of the injuries inflicted by Dax and myself. He was extremely young, but that somehow only served to increase my apprehension. I know what doctors are used for, when they're not healing someone. And I know what it does to them. I remember one in particular - I would have trusted him with my life on the odd days, but.. let's say there were just too many even days in the week, and they increased in number over the years. Generally, the young medics lasted longer. They had less empathy to begin with.

I'm afraid I crawled as far back as I could, on the diagnostic bed. Saving face may be important, but there are limits.

"So, you're the one who's been mauling Bajorans lately", he said lightly, his back still turned to me, as he prepared some undoubtedly sinister device.

I did not answer. No point in annoying him until I had to.

Odo had come with us. I was certain that now I would experience the full rage of changeling judgment. If only I could have talked to him before this..

Now he spoke. "She - and the commander."

Poor Dax - she had unwittingly brought this down on us, by offering the pretext of my light wound. Then she had even come with me, despite having no injuries herself..

The doctor spun around in surprise. "Jadzia?"

She shrugged. "Sorry, Julian. Things have been slow around here.."

Jadzia? Julian? Was she in on this then? Had I made a mistake in trusting her?

"Patch her up and send her to my office", Odo said. "I want to talk to her. And, by the way, take that standard blood sample of yours while you're at it." He turned to leave.

The doctor nodded and approached me with a really mean-looking gadget. I screamed, startling Jadzia and freezing the changeling in his tracks. Dax recovered first, moving up to me and taking my hand. "Of course.." she said. "You must think.. I didn't realize you had not been treated by non-Cardassian medics before. I'm sorry, I should have explained. You can trust us, Ghilassa. We have nothing on you - and nothing we need to find out."

I wasn't so sure about that, but I would give her the benefit of the doubt - she had always been kind, so far. But I must have shot the constable a suspicious look, for he suddenly seemed very ill at ease, though that could mean anything.

The young doctor was looking helplessly at Dax. "You mean, she actually thought I was going to hurt her?" he asked, sounding quite forlorn. Enough to convince me, at any rate, and I'm not easily convinced of people's good intentions.

Dax nodded. "Among Cardassians, the task of examiner - of torturer if you will - naturally falls to the medical profession. There is no Cardassian doctor who is not both. She thought it was the same with us. And she had no way of knowing in what capacity you had been summoned."

The youth looked absolutely riven. His reaction fascinated me, for I had never seen such shock at the idea in one so young. His powers of empathy must be outstanding, and yet he did not look Betazoid. I was pretty sure he was human.

"That's - it's sacrilege", he said in a shaky, but very pleasant voice. I liked the sound of it. Examinations should be held in a voice like that. He would have made a fine executioner. "It's the ultimate betrayal of all humanoid values", he went on, obviously at a loss to find words for his dismay, and making one false start after another.

"Betrayal doesn't enter into it", I said, tiredly. "It's merely practical. We want the best. Who would be better qualified?"

For a moment, I thought he was going to faint, he was that pale, and he had a kind of delicate, indeterminate skin colour that did not go well with pallor. But he held on; apparently there was more strength to him than met the eye. As I said, he would have made a fine executioner.

"Don't your medics have an oath?" he accused. "Don't they have to swear never to cause harm or unnecessary pain?"

I noted the unnecessary bit. So Starfleet needed qualifications too.. "They have an oath", I said. "They take a vow of excellence. And they excel in both capacities."

"I can't see how anyone could live like that", he said, helplessly.

"Now, that is another matter", I said. "But then, they are not expected to. Not for long anyway. Shall we get on with it then?"

He came to with a startled look at the instrument in his hand. It looked much the same as the things we had back home, but all medical tools I knew of were multi-purpose. An understandable mistake. I had decided to trust him. Doctor or not, I did not think he had faked that pallor.

"Proceed, Julian", Dax said gently. I did not think she was in a position to give him orders, but this wasn't one. He steeled himself and set to work, mending my neck cartilege. But once or twice his hands brushed against my skin, and I could sense that he was still trembling, though he kept it in check. Still thinking about it.

The constable stayed throughout the procedure, which surprised me. I knew he had been on his way back to his duties, before my old nightmares caused me to act up like that. Maybe he thought I would run, first chance I got. As soon as the medical boy stepped aside, pronouncing me as good as new with a flourish that went rather badly with his uncertainty of moments before, Odo strode up to me and asked if I was up to answering a few questions. "Not here", he added hastily. "In my office."

I was about to point out that it would have been more practical to ask them here, for atmosphere if nothing else, but I had seen the boy waxen; I did not need to see him turn green as well. So I simply nodded, sliding off the diagnostic bed.

To my surprise, the changeling took my arm, supportively, not apprehending, and assisted me off the somewhat elevated surface. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Why shouldn't I be, I thought. Oh. He must mean.. I closed my eyes briefly, checking. "No signs of injury shock", I said, opening my eyes again. "No nausea. The wounds can't have been deep; after all, I never felt them. But - thanks anyway, Doctor", I turned to the lad, remembering my manners at the last instant. Humans have so many rules..

He nodded gravely. "Any time.. but please stay out of barroom brawls, will you?"

I could not but admire his persistent effort at making light jokes under rather oppressive circumstances. It was clear that Dax was staying with him for a while. From where I stood, it looked as if she were holding him up.

 

*  *  *  *

"So, what do you need to know?" I said, flopping down - rather inelegantly for me - in the same chair I'd been in last time I was in Odo's office.

He handed me a padd. "First, there's something I think you need to know."

I read through it. All. Kept scrolling for quite a while. Then I looked up at him. "You think I've deliberately misled you?"

"Have you?"

Calmly, coldly.. as cold as only a changeling.. I'd better cut it out; that line of thought would not do me a bit of good.

"Actually, no", I said. "I had every reason to believe he was Cardassian. Or she. My employer believed so. Apparently because his employers believed so."

"Given the evidence, I can't see how he can be Cardassian. Or she. No Cardassian was on the station on any of the occasions when the messages were sent."

"Except Garak."

He nodded. "That's what I thought at first. But there were twelve messages sent, and Garak was absent for two of them."

"As were all other Cardassians? Doesn't that seem suspicious in itself? What about delayed dispatch?"

"It's a possibility, of course. And whoever sent the messages may well have used it. So let's look at the time it was set for. On ten of these occasions, there was one Cardassian present - Garak. He alone. On the other two, he was absent. Once from the station altogether, on a very hasty errand he would say nothing about, and he left without telling anyone - and the other time he was in one of my holding cells, from where he could not have sent anything. That visit too, was rather sudden."

"So what you're saying is, someone's been trying to frame him? And overlooked his absence on those two occasions?"

"It seems reasonable."

"Unless, of course, it was him all along", I pondered.

"You're the one knows his motives. If anyone does. Would he want to undermine the peace?"

I thought about it, then shook my head. "I can't really see that. He wants to destroy the Founders at all costs - I don't think he'd want any bickering among allies, at least not until that all overshadowing goal is achieved." I looked up quickly. "I wouldn't tell you this, if I didn't think you already knew."

He shrugged. "I have renounced my people."

"As simple as that?" I teased, half derisively, half - enviously?

"As simple as that."

My turn to shrug. "Well, you can't. That too, is simple enough." I don't know why I said it. He was certainly already suspicious, without my tipping him off. Those ice-blue eyes chilled my bones. Now that I had them.. "Come on", I said lamely. "You watched that little doctor draw my blood. You saw the sample. And the DNA readout. I'm Cardassian."

He nodded acknowledgment. "Fair enough. So what do you know of the Founders?"

"Nothing", I said, bold-faced.

"You said I could not renounce them."

"Just telling you the facts of life", I persisted, against better judgment but too tired and annoyed with his easy-looking escape to do anything but persist. "You can renounce them all you want for a while, but in the end you'll have to go back to them, and they'll see that you're of a mind with them before they take you in. They won't have discord in the Link."

"For one who knows nothing, you seem remarkably well informed", he said caustically.

I shrugged again. "Want to call the doctor back?"

He stiffened. "I won't resort to Cardassian methods. I trust I shall never need to. But, you'll tell me. One way or the other, sooner or later, you will tell me. I can wait.."

Somehow, I had no doubt of that.

He left me for a moment, but for some reason I made no attempt to leave. He was soon back, handing me a steaming mug of that Chryseïan wine. Quark's best, from the scent of it. "Thought you might need it", he said.

Confused, I accepted the mug, watching him. The temperature of his gaze had gone up, inexplicably. "Was it bad?" he asked, without context. I felt even more bewildered. "The Cardassian doctors", he clarified. "I take it you got in the way of your own kind - at one time or another."

"Not the way you think", I said coldly. "I did nothing to offend them. This was - private." He did not say anything, just stood there, all silent attention, like an El-Aurian. So I continued, "He really loved me, you know. Until he broke down, and probably even after that. They all break down in the end. They have a saying: when the wall collapses. The wall they erect between healing and destruction. Between duty and instinct. Between love and disgust.. It's only a matter of time. In the end, he could not decide which part of himself to get rid of. He still had some sense of self-preservation; he did not strike at his superiors. He struck at me.."

I had a feeling the good constable did not know what to say, so I went on, since I had started. "He was skilful. Yet something held him back from actually destroying me, that's why I think he still loved me. He induced a lot of pain, more and more frequently, but he never did anything irrevocable. Though that too may have been only a matter of time." I took a hot sip from my mug. Perfectly spiced. Had he really been all the way over to Quark's for it? Probably.

"I didn't wait to find out. I knew there was no hope for him; there never is. Medics are never let off, they're too valuable - for as long as they last. Ever since he started going overboard, I had been planning to kill him, swiftly, in his sleep. He'd be out of it fast, and he'd never know. But, for some reason I stalled. And I stalled too long."

"What happened?" Odo finally prompted, his voice more gravelly than usual.

"Nothing. No specific event, that is. But I had stalled so long I had given him time to make an enemy out of me. Did you know the Medic's Madness can be contagious, after prolonged exposure? I didn't kill him in his sleep. I turned him in."

"You denounced him as a victim of the Madness?"

"Yes. Naturally, it's a crime, not an affliction. To keep them from succumbing as long as they possibly can. It carries its own punishment. He was handed over to his - colleagues. There was no formal execution. In the case of Mad Medics, there seldom is. It isn't necessary. Nobody will ask any questions. No records are needed."

Odo was silent for a while, leaning against his desk, arms crossed, head down. Thinking. "Did you love him?" he asked then, unexpectedly.

"Not when I turned him in", I said.

"But before?"

"I - forget."

"You chose to forget. So you must have."

"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't", I said irritably. "It's not important anyway. What's important is that - I had not expected to go so far in hatred. In judgment, if you will. My principle has always been to kill quickly, painlessly if at all possible - disposals, not executions. Get rid of someone, no gloating, no warning, not even a reason given. But for the one who meant the most to me - I couldn't do it. I had to bring him down in the worst way - and I wasn't even around to gloat, at that."

"Because he betrayed you. When he turned on you, took to hurting you, he betrayed you. As well as himself."

I sighed, taking another draught. "That's no reason. Betrayal is everywhere; repaying it with more betrayal only seems - petty. And I did not see myself as petty. Didn't know I could be. Now I know. I suppose I shall learn to live with the surprise." I could hear myself sounding more and more bitter, and I hated every second of the decline. This was not Cardassian, it was - I jumped, feeling his hand on my arm. I did not remember his hands as being so warm.

"You've suffered a great deal", he said, quietly.

In a moment, I realized just how far I had slipped, in my un-Cardassian self-indulgence. "Tell me something else I don't know", I said acidly. "So that's your method now? Sweeten the poor thing up, she'll tell you anything? Well, it's a different approach from the Cardassian one, I'll give you that. And maybe I shall tell you - anything. Anything at all.." I refrained from adding, save the truth - that much was obvious.

I stood to go - mug still in hand - but he held me back. He did look annoyed, but not as annoyed as I had expected - from a changeling. "..and you're still hurting", he said, as if I had not spoken. "Which makes you full of distrust. Almost as full of distrust as I am.. Only to me, it comes naturally."

Was that a probe? Well, so what if it was. "Maybe it comes as naturally to me", I said as I left.

This time he let me go.

 

*  *  *  *

Stupidly, I could not sleep that night. I pride myself on being a sound sleeper, no matter the circumstances. She who does not sleep, cannot keep a clear head. And a clear head is necessary in many lines of profession.

At my fifth turn in as many minutes, Garak sat up. "It is obvious that something has not gone well. Is the constable getting suspicious?"

"What would he be suspicious about?" I snarled. "He already knows everything about us."

"Ah. Wrong tack", he blithely confessed. "You have nothing to hide."

"You got that right. The second time."

"Can't blame a poor man for trying", he said. "So what transpired today? How is your investigation going?"

"We think somebody's been trying to frame you."

If I had hoped that would shut him up, I was sadly mistaken. "I can't say it would be the first time. Who?"

"If we knew that, the investigation would be over, wouldn't it?" I spat, turning over once more.

I could see him nod in the semi-darkness. "And you don't want it to be", he stated.

"What?"

"Well, it would be a bit sudden, wouldn't it? I mean, I'm still training you. I haven't even left yet."

"If I can solve the mystery sooner, there's no reason I would want to stay on the station, is there? And if you are cleared, there probably won't be any reason for you to leave."

"Exactly", he said, sounding inordinately smug. "Now wouldn't that be a pity?"

Always probing, always fishing. He could not know anything about my priority mission. It had to be conjecture. He was good at conjecture. I did not answer. I hoped he would take my silence for confusion. Fat chance. But what he said was nothing like what I might have expected.

"You know.." he said slowly, "one should always know one's enemies."

"And you're one of mine?" I challenged. "Thanks, but I had already considered the possibility."

"Not I", he said, "but I can name you one. Major Kira."

"She's Bajoran", I mumbled, suddenly bored with intrigue and actually feeling sleepy at long last. "What do you expect?"

He shook his head. "I meant - your personal enemy. You may have to walk over her to get to the constable."

"I've already talked to him several times - she hasn't even been around. She doesn't look like she'd willingly be anybody's watchdog."

"That's not quite what I meant."

"Then talk to me."

But for some reason - actual or theatrical - he hesitated. Then, "It's hard for me not knowing your motives", he said. "And you won't tell me. So, at least let me give you some advice - watch out for the major."

I sighed. Another one of his tricks. Trying to lure me into telling him what I was really about. Well, it was not going to work. This time either.

"Of course, she hasn't displayed much interest so far", he resumed, and I wished he would shut up and let me sleep, "but the word is that this can be attributed to her youth - if you're kind - or to her Bajoran nature, if you're not. In short, the girl does not know herself."

"What are you talking about?" I muttered sleepily.

"The stationwide speculations as to why she won't return the constable's feelings, of course. And he's been after her for so long.."

I shot upright, parallelling Garak's posture. "A - Bajoran??" I yelled, all incredulous disgust.

"Ssshhh", he hissed. "Why, certainly - I thought you knew." He thought nothing of the kind, the lying serpent, or he never would have brought it up. "It seems that he offered her his heart - repeatedly, over the years", he resumed, "but she, far from recognizing the gift for what it was, would take it, smash it casually on the duranium deck, and grind her heel in the pieces."

"You're quite a poet, Garak", I said. "I see now I may have to kill her."

"Ah!" said Garak, his voice one of relief and satisfaction.

How ironic, the way he was finally off my back. Because, for all his perceptiveness, he was dead wrong.

Wasn't he?

 

*  *  *  *

I spent the final week before Garak's departure in research - when I wasn't helping O'Brien out. Maybe he still thought of me as an apprentice, but that was how I saw it; I was helping him out. Mainly by providing an extra pair of hands when he was overworked, which was often. He had the whole station to look after and keep running; I was specifically assigned to the computers. It left me plenty of time for my investigation. All right - and Odo's. In fact, it was his - or partly his - from the start, but he had not known that. It was never in my orders from Gul Tilly to keep the constable out of it. But - I had my own reasons to bait him, and so I had pretended I did not want his assistance.

The next time I saw him, the major was with him. I stopped short, in the doorway to his office. She was sitting in the visitor's chair I had occupied once or twice, and I could smell the foul vapours of raktajino all the way to the door.

Odo was looking at her, and something in his eyes - almost a spark of joy - told me that Garak could well be right.

Then those intensely blue eyes spotted me - and changed. Very subtly, showing only professional curiosity, nothing worse, but I found I did not like that change. Not one bit.

I walked past the major with barely a nod, dropping my padd on his desk. "I have the names of the Bajoran recipients", I said. "All individual citizens, no groups. I thought you might be able to make something of them."

"Bajoran recipients?" Kira said. "Recipients of what? Let me see.."

She lunged for the padd, and I snatched it up just before she could reach it. "Sorry, Major. Matters of state."

"Cardassian matters of state?" she asked dangerously. "Odo??"

"I will tell you all about it, Major", he promised. "When I know more. At the moment, I'm in the middle of an investigation."

"You're conducting an investigation for a Cardassian?"

"The alternative was letting her do it herself. Unsupervised."

"I am your superior officer, Constable!"

Already it had come to that? She was easily ignited. This was going better than expected.

Of course that locked him firmly in position. "That has never given you cause to tell me my job before", he clipped back. "Nor have I ever presumed to tell you yours. I said I'll tell you, Major. I will. Just not at this stage."

She stared at him for a while, but her unaligned glare was not quite a match for his direct gaze, searingly blue with integrity.

"Very well", she gave in, her tone warning us both it was only temporary. She stood, setting her cup on the desk. "Carry on, Constable." She swept out the door, swaying her all but non-existent hips.

As the glass door whisked shut behind her, those eyes hit me instead, their intensity unabated. "Whatever possessed you to suddenly discuss your 'secret matters of state' in front of the major?"

I just smiled. And maybe I put a little more of the reptile in it than usual. "I don't like Bajorans", I said.

 

*  *  *  *

That evening, he surprised me by coming to my quarters. I had just finished my shift, and Garak was not yet home. I had washed my hair which was falling damply all around me, and I was just about to sit down at our private terminal to continue my research, when I heard the door.

For a greeting, he handed me my padd which he had asked me to leave in his office. "I found a connection", he said. "Several in fact, but only one recent. They all used to belong to various resistance groups during the occupation - not all to the same one all the time, but most of them overlapping. Today, however - look, can I come in? I'd rather not discuss an ongoing investigation in a public thoroughfare."

"Of course", I said, stepping out of his way. Somehow I had not expected him to wait for an invitation. After all, he was Security. If I ever hoped to be a good agent, perhaps I needed to work on my Cardassian bias..

He gave my robe and my damp hair a look as if only now taking in my appearance. "Sorry if I disturbed you."

I shrugged. "It's true I wasn't expecting anyone, but there's no need to apologize. I don't have a private life. A recent connection, did you say?"

"Yes", he confirmed, suddenly all business. "At present, they are all members of a religious group led by a Vedek Cenasta. A religious group with distinctly political overtones, one might say."

"Aren't they all?" I said, suddenly fed up with Bajorans and all their pet peeves.

"This one is among the more militant. And - they're definitely opposed to the treaty. They feel it never should have come about, and they've been working against it ever since it was drawn up."

"Terrorists", I nodded.

"They haven't gone so far as to blow up their own people as yet, but a few more years of frustration, and it might come to that. Unless they're apprehended."

I nodded again. "And you think they're behind the messages - and the sloppy framing of Garak? That it was a Bajoran venture all along?"

"Before I think anything, I need some information from you. Can you think of any Cardassian group or individual who might be equally opposed to the treaty?"

I pondered that. "Not offhand, no", I said. "Most Cardassians today feel the need of Federation protection against the Dominion. They would stand to lose if the treaty were cancelled."

"Then why did your employer think it might be one or more Cardassians behind the messages?"

I shrugged. "It seemed that way, from the look of things. I suppose the rest was fear that it might be true. That we might have dissent among us that we did not know of. Then again - I've never been able to second-guess Gul Tilly. I'm not about to start now."

He shot me a steel-blue look. "Why not?"

"Simple. No one person ever holds as much information as he does."

"And why is that?"

"Nobody knows."

"Then how do you know it's true, and not just legend?"

I laughed a little. "Let's say it's been proven - empirically. He's always at least one step and two turns ahead of you."

"Must be a remarkable person. Why did he change his name?"

"You heard that too?" Well, if Garak knew.. "He took the name of an Ancient Earth general. 17th century; 30-Years War. I don't know why, he never told me. I suppose he thought it fitting in some way."

"A general working behind the scenes.. well, it figures." Quickly back on the subject, Odo added, "So you would agree that Vedek Cenasta's group are the most likely suspects at the moment?"

"It would seem so, yes."

"Then there's more. It looks like the entire group will gather here on Deep Space Nine, in a day or two."

"What? A Bajoran invasion?"

"Hardly that", he said drily. It's been over a month since the last messages were sent - they've had time to move. About half of them are already here. Most of the others are scheduled to arrive tomorrow - on separate flights of course. And the vedek himself will be joining us the day after tomorrow."

I whistled softly. "But Garak will be gone by then", I said. "He leaves for Cardassia Prime tonight."

Odo's blue eyes speared me. "Now, this is important. Does anyone know when he leaves?"

"I suppose. He spread the word today that a distant cousin had died and he has to be at the funeral."

Odo struck an annoyed fist against the bulkhead. The fist flattened slightly, then resumed its shape without his paying any attention to it. So it had become that automatic with him..

"Then we won't find out if they are trying to frame him or not. Well, it was just a thought. Since they're coming here in force, I have reason to believe they have other things in mind than merely sending messages."

"Garak isn't the only Cardassian on board, you know. And we've been working close together. I am not leaving."

He glanced at me briefly. "That's true, you're not, are you? What did you decide on - that you're not fit to be presented to his relatives?"

"That I'm not supposed to meet his fiancée back home. It seemed more plausible. Of course, I'm not supposed to know that - that's for the rest of the station. Me, I'm supposed to believe his grandmother - who's head of the family at the moment - would not approve, so he's putting it off."

"Cardassian coils and convolutions.." Odo muttered irritably.

"Make life interesting", I offered brightly.

The look he gave me was so far outside of his present shape that I answered it in kind, before I thought.

He sat down on a round, upholstered seat - more like a glorified cushion than an actual chair. "You still won't tell me why you feel I have to return to the Founders?" he asked, and I knew he had seen the same thing in my eyes as I had in his.

"Correct", I said. "I won't. Not unless you change your mind and bring the little doctor.."

I meant it as a joke, and perhaps he knew, but he chose not to take it as such. He stood, and moved over to the door. "I would never hurt you", he said. And left, just like that.

"Maybe you already have.." I said to the closed door.

I walked over to the tall cupboard beside my desk, flung the topmost doors wide, then reached in behind a drawer to press a little spring, releasing the hidden compartment.

I took out the tiny, drop-shaped phial, its cut glass only translucent, not transparent, and I stood for a while looking at its unusually cold shade of ultramarine. Such a pretty little thing.. maybe if I sneaked over to an airlock and blew it out.. but could I get close to one unseen, these days?

The 'glorified cushion' suddenly formed into a golden pillar, then settled into a vaguely humanoid shape that I still recognized as - Her. It was a shape She seemed to favour these days. "I trust you were not about to do anything stupid", She said. Not a question - a warning.

I sighed, and put the phial back, snapping everything back in place over it. "I was only looking at it."

"You've been only looking for four weeks. When are you going to use it?"

"I don't like it when you hide in my quarters", I evaded the issue.

"If you paid more attention to your furniture - like a true Cardassian", She stabbed, "I wouldn't be able to. Well? When is it going to be? You had your chance right here."

"Hardly. We were in the same room as the cupboard all along - I couldn't very well just fetch the phial and.."

"You could have found a pretext. You could have charmed him, brought him into your bedroom, you could have.."

"He's not so easily charmed. He's just as suspicious by nature as you are. Besides, he's in love with the major."

She shrugged that off. "She's of no consequence."

I could hold with that. "No", I said. "Bajorans never are, are they?"

"As long as we kill her before he mates with her", She continued, as though I had not spoken. "But that can wait. She hasn't shown any interest in the idea so far."

I pricked up my ears. "You'd rather he did not mate with her?"

"That's right. Because I do not know what would become of the issue."

"A changeling and a solid? You think anything could come of that?"

"It already has. At least once. You know there have been changelings on Earth before you?"

"I had my suspicions", I admitted.

"We've been there a long time - and just about everywhere else, at that. Once, there was an incident. A male changeling took a fancy to a human woman and mated with her. The child.. well, almost 30 centuries later, his feats are still sung throughout the galaxy, as once they were on Earth alone. And yet, true to his father's nature, he was never a leader himself - and never a follower. Just - a counsellor, you might say. And that was enough. His very name became an archetype. We'd rather not have that sort of individual at large again."

"Interesting", I said. "Did he retain his father's shapeshifting qualities?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. That was the most amazing thing about it. While still a full shapeshifter, his natural state was not liquid. It was human."

"He always reverted to a solid, but could leave that state when he chose to?"

"Yes. I hear he had a preference for solid forms though, but he shifted between them effortlessly. Well, almost effortlessly."

"What happened? Is he still around?"

She sighed. "We lost track of so many. From what I hear, he's still alive. Probably dormant somewhere, unless he's deliberately avoiding me. I have no current knowledge of his whereabouts."

"I can see where it would be tricky to reassimilate him - seeing as how he's not basically liquid."

"I've told you not to use that - Borg terminology."

"Sorry. Slip of the tongue."

"A slip of the tongue is a slip of the mind."

"I see you got my message."

"Cardassians have a forked tongue anyway."

I smiled, taking her insult as a compliment. "Only when we need it."

She sighed. "You've been gone too long, Ghilassa. I can hear it in your choice of pronouns."

"And whose choice was it to send me back out again?"

"You know we had no option then, but to solidify you. We wanted - needed to save your life. But the need to survey the Cardassians was also there. They were fast becoming a threat, back then. They were hard to infiltrate - it was becoming increasingly difficult to find acceptable pretexts for disappearing from sight every sixteen or eighteen hours. They had eyes and ears everywhere, and they did not need to shift for it. So we made you Cardassian. You had to be solidified - why waste your misfortune? Would you really rather have suffered for nothing?"

"I'm no longer sure it was a misfortune", I said quietly.

"I know. I've seen the signs for a long time now. Perhaps it's time we brought you in from the cold."

"Aren't you forgetting something?" I said derisively.

"I told you - we can cure the virus now. All we have to do is take you back into the Link; it will be diluted. We had no immunity back then - we have some now. Also, I think the virus has mutated. It's no longer as fierce as once it was. Back when you picked it up on Earth."

I held out my hand to Her. "Good, then do it. Link with me; bring me back to normal."

She took a hasty step backwards. I laughed, lowering my hand. "You still expect me to believe you?"

"I have no immunity of my own", She said testily. "Or I wouldn't have to rely on you to administer the contents of that phial. The moment you become fluid again, the virus inhabiting you is released - as I know you suspected all along. The entire Great Link working together can dilute it and absorb it - I cannot. You shall have to come back with me as you are; then we can cure you - of the virus as well as your enforced solidity."

"It might be too late for that", I said, more serene than I felt.

"Don't do this, Ghilassa", She admonished me. "The Cardassians are doomed anyway."

"Says the One who always takes the long view. How long do they have - a billion years? A lot can happen in a billion years."

"It serves a long-lived species best to take the long view."

"And while you're looking persistently towards your goal, you miss the rock that will upset your cart."

"You're given to ancient metaphors."

"As are you to ancient plans."

She was silent for a while, scrutinizing me. Searching for something that might or might not still be there, I imagine. Then, "You didn't tell him why he has to return", She remarked.

"I delivered your message. I saw no reason to elaborate."

"But you know it's true, don't you? You know he has to come back to us. And so do you."

"I know you need to believe we do."

She shook her head, almost sadly. "Before you were solidified - were you ever divided?"

"Frequently. What of it?"

"And did you not always flow back together again?"

"Of course. It was in my nature. Near as I can recall.."

"The Link needs to flow back together too, once in a while. We're not whole without you. You're not whole without us. It's as simple as that."

"Then you'll never be whole. What of the ones you lost?"

"They are always missed."

"My point exactly. Why not miss two more, while you're at it? Cut your losses."

"Boldly spoken", She said. "As cruel as any Cardassian.."

"Sorry you don't approve", I retorted. "I may have been formed a changeling, but I've been a Cardassian far longer. And I'm beginning to like it."

"I'm sorry to hear it", She said. "You're beginning to sound like Odo. And to think that you two were my favourite children."

"I didn't know you played favourites. Have you shared that with the others?"

"They know."

"They would. We were all split off of you, weren't we? I always assumed as much. I'm sorry if that makes it harder for you to let go, but you've had to before; you shall have to again. If we were really your favourites, and you're not just playing to my Cardassian sense of family - you see, it's been so long since I linked with you that I really can't tell - then try to convince yourself that it is because we were the most independent. And see if you can't value that trait in us both."

Her eyes narrowed in a fashion that really did not go at all well with Her present, half-formed shape. "I had rather you were not an independent Cardassian", She said. "But in an emergency, I could do without you. Just bring me Odo."

"Ah. So now you're going for sibling rivalry? Well, it might be closer to my Cardassian heart, you're right - if I had a reason to hate him. I don't. What are my guarantees that the virus will not harm him as badly as it did me?"

"I offer no guarantees", She said, calmly enough, but I could see that She was angry. "I've told you it won't, that it will only force him back to us, then we can take it away. If you could link with me, you'd know that is the truth."

"Maybe as you see it", I countered. "What if he won't return? What if he'd rather die? If you haven't considered the possibility, I suggest you do so. He's quite strong-minded."

"He'll return", She said. "If not of his own will, then of mine."

I laughed. "You'll force him back and plunge him into the Link unwilling? You do that, and I might even stop by to watch the fireworks. You'd upset the entire pool. Well, maybe a little disruption will do them good. A few sparks to spice up that complacent soup.."

For a moment I thought She would strike me. But if She were going to, She changed her mind - either because to Her I was still basically another changeling, or else because She was afraid to touch me. "You have been away too long", She said instead. "You no longer remember what it's like. Well, maybe I can let you go. If that is really your wish. I shall have to think about it. Just bring me Odo."

It was my turn to sigh. "If I knew why he is so important to you.. Granted that he's your favourite, but.."

I was not really expecting an answer, but She surprised me. "It's a little more than that", She said. "You see - I linked with him."

I nodded. "Of course. You've told me repeatedly, you brought him home to try and shove him into the Link. I always assumed you succeeded."

"You assumed wrong", She said. "I linked with him alone. The others said it was a mistake when I first made a light contact, so I went off with him alone, and I - did not tell the others until afterwards."

This time I did not laugh. "You poor thing", I said. "You may not make many mistakes, but when you do, you make them in spades. If the Great Link ever finally snaps, you know who's to blame, don't you? Who will have ended Nirvana, as the humans might put it? Not me. Not Odo. Not anyone of those who left or died. You. You who once started it. Well, maybe that's fitting. Maybe you can reassimilate - sorry, reabsorb them all and start again from scratch. Or was that what you had in mind all along?"

She looked at me for a long time, Her eyes very bright. "Well, if it was, then I was not aware of it at the time", She said. "For once, I wasn't planning anything. I just - felt drawn to him."

"Because he was the only one who was a mystery to you", I said. "You little fool." I felt like hugging Her, but wasn't too keen on the risk. "So you mingled with all that you did not understand, and you brought it with you to the Link. You might have already set it bubbling under the surface, and you're warning me about discord? Well - maybe you'll attribute this to my forgiving Cardassian nature -", I smirked, " - but I can't say I blame you. I - feel rather the same way myself. I don't know if I would have disrupted the Link over him - now that I'm a solid, however.."

"Please bring him to me", She said, quietly interrupting my bantering. "You will do that, won't you? You only have to spread the contents of that phial over your hands.."

I looked into Her eyes, so filled with a longing that She could not own up to. That She had to rationalize, to justify to Herself what Her moment of thoughtless passion might have led to. I was quite likely the only one She had come close to confiding in; with the Link, She could only have shared her rationalizations. I on the other hand had lived a long time among a people known for their passions - if perhaps not for their thoughtlessness.

The unstructured are the ones most yearning for order. And the ordered ones are the most prone to chaos. The mechanisms of love bring disaster to both. She had come full circle.

"Yes", I sighed finally. "I suppose I shall."

 

*  *  *  *

Two days later, true to his word, the honourable Vedek Cenasta arrived. He was a squarish, middle-aged Bajoran with somewhat oily looks and a face set in stone. I could not imagine him ever smiling.

Odo had a full team meeting him and was there himself, but I must say the vedek's followers were uncharacteristically discreet. True, he was met by an enthusiastic crowd of Bajorans who promptly led him off in the direction of Quark's - decorated for the day with Bajoran religious symbols in his honour; Quark never missed an opportunity - but none of the ones we knew to be members of his group showed up. I wondered if someone could have tipped them off. Or if they had other things on their mind..

Two more days passed, eventlessly. Then the vedek's spiritual lecture on the Eleventh Amendment to the Third Prophesy was bombed. Or rather, the empty cargo hold that had been assigned to him, was. The bomb went off a little early. No one had arrived yet. They could have killed some 150 Bajorans, but they killed no one. Well, it figured. That was only one way of seeing it though. If they had managed to depressurize the hold, they could have killed everybody on the station. I wasn't any too sure about the efficiency of our emergency shields, I had only O'Brien's curses to go by.

Naturally, I landed in one of Odo's holding cells. He actually apologized for that, saying he did not actually suspect me, this was obviously one more instance of the Bajoran framing techniques, but I wasostensibly the prime suspect, being the only Cardassian on the station at the moment, and  I had frequently voiced my feelings about Bajorans. Unfortunately, I had no alibi.

I seethed, but quietly. Then I asked to be allowed to contact my employer. Odo brought me to a public terminal - in chains no less, possibly to appease the Bajoran populace - and stood over my shoulder while I tried to raise Gul Tilly. While I would have preferred to place this call from Odo's office, I could see why the constable wasn't any too keen on my sending scrambled messages to Cardassia. The public terminal had no scrambling function. Besides, it was time for my exercise stroll.

Gul Tilly was out on a mission, they told me. So was my backup contact. In desperation, I then tried for Garak - who was in, surprisingly, since this was supposed to be the day of his cousin's funeral. I told him the situation rapidly, asked him to find Gul Tilly and have him call me back.

There was nothing more for me to do while waiting for the call, so Odo suggested we continue along the Promenade - combining my exercise with his patrol. He did offer to remove my chains - they were lightweight and more for show than anything else; he could provide far better himself, if I tried to escape - but I asked to keep them on. Seasoned residents of DS9 would know that chains were not standard procedure, but the vedek's group as well as rowdy Bajorans in transit might not know, in which case those chains might save me some bother, should we run into either variety of Bajoran rabble.

"As long as you don't mind them gawking..", Odo muttered.

"Constable, I'm perfectly accustomed to being gawked at - for one reason or another."

"So am I", he said, his voice grating close to no. 7 sandpaper, rather than his usual no. 5.

We reached the new half-way mark of the Promenade - as counted from Quark's, incidentally - a newly installed holo-fountain of a beautiful architectural design that nevertheless clashed wildly with the slender, slightly organic, Cardassian style of the station as a whole. The fountain was strictly geometric with a somewhat startling decor of symbols which might have been Romulan in origin - or Vulcan, but they struck me as a little too - imaginative for the latter. The spraying water changed colour as well as shape at irregular intervals - a little overdone perhaps, but when you have holo technique, why not make the most of it?

The fountain was a popular resting spot - most strollers reaching this point would sit down for a while on the edge, trying to keep out of the spray which naturally felt completely real. You could get wet through, then stand up, walk out of the field, and be completely dry.

The illusory structure was pretty crowded as Odo and I came upon it, but I found a place on the rim and sat down anyway. So did he, correctly deducing that he did not have much choice. I trailed my hands in the water - chains and all - just as it shifted from purple to red.

Odo looked at me - a bit strangely, I thought. "Humans do that all the time", he said. "They might have a reason - they used to be aquatic once. But this is the first time I've seen a Cardassian do it. I thought you went more for the dry, hot surfaces."

I snatched my hands back up before I thought, then realized I should have kept my cool. "Missing link", I joked, then froze as I realized what I had said. This was only getting worse. I stood up quickly, and started to walk away from the fountain. He came after me immediately of course, and I started to walk faster, nearly tripping myself on my ankle chains. I did not want to answer any questions he might have on this particular subject.

Just as he caught up with me and placed his hand firmly on my shoulder, I heard a fizzing sound and some children's laughter from the direction of the fountain. I turned - and saw to my astonishment that the whole thing had winked out, landing all who had been sitting on it on their backsides. Then the entire site erupted in a violent explosion, sending shards of deckplates everywhere, torn cables whipping, spitting sparks into the air.

"Down!" Odo and I shouted simultaneously, but he was faster. I may have had my Cardassian form for most of my life, but he still had time to knock me down and cover me, before I could obey my own command.

I don't know how long I just lay there, unmoving inside him. I suppose he had hardened his outer surface, in order to protect us both from flying debris, but he was very soft on the inside, like dry syrup. For an insane moment, I nearly put out my tongue to taste him, but I caught myself in time, and I never moved. It had been so long.. I had, in all honesty, almost forgotten what it was like - what I had been like. I realized afterwards that if I had only moved toward him, if I had made even the slightest effort to link - perhaps he could have reverted me to normal, and Her purpose would have been served in the process, for it would have brought out the virus in me, and given it to him. She would in all likelihood have had enough time to bring us both in and cure us. The slightest touch of my tongue just might have done it. Then again, it might not.

But at the moment I could not think at all, and I'm glad that none of all this occurred to me until too late.

Am I not?

 

*  *  *  *

When all counts came in, they amounted to two people dead and fifteen injured, some of them badly. One of the casualties was a little Andorian girl. Andorians can't take much to begin with, and they're certainly not built to withstand explosions. Few species are, come to think of it.

Odo was furious because this time people had been molested on the Promenade with a vengeance; the young doctor was working around the clock - and so was O'Brien, since several hull breach alerts had gone off in the wake of the incident.

Which left the computers without maintenance - and some systems needed it badly. Badly enough that we suspected sabotage there as well. I was still technically under arrest, but Odo let me take care of the computers from his office - after all, he had all the clearances I could ever want. If I needed to get to the actual installations, I had only to let him know, he would either accompany me himself, or have someone on his staff do it.

While running maintenance, I tried to hunt down who was behind the terrorist attack - as if I didn't know. Someone had sent a brief message - text only - to Captain Sisko, accepting the blame on behalf of some imaginary, ostensibly Cardassian group, stationed on Bajor of all things, and promising to continue to bully the Federation into cancelling or at least withdrawing from the treaty with Bajor, so the Cardassian/Bajoran part could also be revoked.

But there was no way the message could have come from outside the station, and between Odo's powers of deduction and my own experience with Cardassian computer systems, we soon found the Cenasta group's signature prints all over it. Well, we hadn't really expected anything else.

Odo went to Ops to report our findings, came back to tell me I was free to go. He unhooked the chains so gently - almost tenderly, I thought - I was reminded of how it felt to be lying there, wrapped in him on the wrecked Promenade. In another life, I might remember to act on incidents like these. For now, I could only savour them.

He handed me a stein of spiced ale - it was the best his replicator could do - and told me, "Major Kira has contacted Bajor. They requested extradition immediately. I think we will grant it; this is a Bajoran crime, the Major and I both strongly recommend deporting the culprits to Bajor. We certainly don't want them on the station."

"Bajor will never give them justice", I said, taking a draught from my ale. Not bad.

"Oh, is that so? What justice would you see done to them then?"

"I want them dead", I said simply. "I want them off this plane of existence - to deal with in some other cycle, if I don't manage to duck their rebirths in time. Our acts follow us ever, so be it. But for now, I want them gone."

He did not seem interested in Cardassian religions; not that I had thought he would be. Besides, it would have taken a lifetime's study to keep up with them all.

"Of all the victims, none was Cardassian", he said. "In fact, you were still the only Cardassian on the station. There is no way you could bring these terrorists to Cardassia. Even if you had a claim, I doubt that the captain would deliver anyone there, no matter what they had done."

Right then, my call from Prime came through. It was Garak again. But he had been in contact with Gul Tilly, wherever he was, and considering all the information the gul already had on what had happened on our Promenade, I'd say he was a lot closer to us than Prime - but of course, that is only speculation.

"I've spoken to your gul", Garak said. "He says he's tired of the vedek and his group - he wants them, and he wants them now."

"We only just proved they were behind the attack on the DS9 Promenade", I objected, thinking of Bajor's jurisdiction.

"Why should that stop the gul? What does he care when they did what in particular? He knows them, he knows what they're capable of, he wants them. And - " Garak came closer to the screen, not close enough for his face to be distorted by foreshortening, just close enough that it would look like he'd like to kiss me - or strangle me. Or both. "- make no mistake, my dear. He knows what you are capable of as well."

Then he sat back with a wide, bland smile, civility itself.

"But I'm in a holding cell!" I yelled at him, trying to stall. I thought I could hear a light snort behind me which might or might not have been a suppressed laugh.

"Most unfortunate", Garak said. "Then you can't bring them in, can you? Say, I rather like that silver-and-green outfit you have on. Be sure to wear it for your execution."

The screen went blank on his smile.

I spun round to face Odo. "Please, Odo, don't give the terrorists to Bajor", I pleaded. "You heard him. I will be executed if I don't bring that group in."

"I heard him", he said calmly. "And only half believe him, as always."

"You've as good as led me to the scaffold."

"Request asylum."

"With the Federation?" I spat.

He smiled a little. "You could try Bajor."

If he had hoped to get a rise out of me, he was mistaken. I sat back, calmly taking another draught of ale. "Thanks for putting things into perspective. I shall walk contentedly to that scaffold. There are worse things."

"Do you really hate Bajorans that much?"

He seemed genuinely curious. I watched him closely for a moment, not quite sure of how much to tell him. Then, "How many terrorist attacks have you seen?" I asked.

"This was not the first one, if that's what you mean", he said tightly. "On the other hand, I was mainly here - on Terek Nor - during the occupation, I understand that they were much more frequent on Bajor."

"You could say that", I said. "I could give you a typical example if you wish. There was this recreation centre we had set up for those with longterm assignments on Bajor; it was mostly used by 'dependants', the families of those who were on Bajor long enough to be allowed to bring them. But, just to remind you of the twists and turns and fortunes of war, it was not used solely by Cardassians; bored wives would bring Bajoran lovers, children would bring Bajoran playmates, even the military would bring Bajoran servants. In the wake of any war that goes on long enough, communities are set up, because that instinct - where it exists - is far more basic than long-term fighting.

"A group of Bajoran terrorists - with the sense of reality common to such rabble - planted five bombs, destroying most of the centre. They meant to strike at the families specifically, they said later, in view of the strong Cardassian family ties. They felt that killing civilians would have the best effect in this case. Well, it's standard terrorist thinking. But just to remind you of the twists and turns and fortunes of war, one of the casualties was a child, a girl no older than the Andorian who died on the Promenade, and she died because her lower jaw was destroyed, so she could not eat or drink. Oh, she could have been repaired, but not then, not there. This was, after all, occupied Bajor.

"But, just to remind you of the twists and turns and fortunes of war, this girl turned out to be the child of one of the terrorists. He had had no idea she was in there, naturally she would not tell her daddy that she used to play with Cardassian children; he would get all upset and strange. Some Cardassian children were injured too", I added, though I had not at first meant to say it. Feeling I just had to go on, I told him, "They survived."

I had not underestimated his powers of deduction.

"The Cardassians let the Bajoran child die", he concluded.

"To remind you of the twists and turns and fortunes of war", I said.

There was suddenly sub-zero duranium in those blue eyes. "You witnessed this? You were actually there?"

I nodded, taking another draught.

"You did nothing to save her?"

Yet another draught, debating with myself whether or not to tell him. What good would it do? It didn't really belong to the story which was about the twists and turns, etc. Then again, I had told him so much already. Somehow, he was easy to talk to. Almost like an El-Aurian.

"I couldn't say much right then", I said. "In fact, I had a hard time breathing. They rushed me out half an hour later - I spent six months in hospital. That's where I met my - doctor. I wasn't afraid of medics back then - that came with him."

I stood. In those deep blue eyes I could see - a question? A comment? I was not about to let him voice it. Not now. Perhaps not ever. "Thanks for the ale", I said, setting the finished stein on his desk. "And for - the hospitality."

I touched him lightly on my way out - just squeezing his shoulder. "I hate terrorists", I said. "May they all be brought to Cardassian justice."

Then I left.

 

*  *  *  *

I went back to live in Garak's quarters - already working on a plan. The major had agreed to Bajor's request for extradition, and so had the captain. There were 18 group members on the station, the vedek included. Odo stuffed six of them into his holding cells, as a hint to the others not to try anything, because they should know he was on to them. The six had confessed to being involved in the bombings, but they refused to implicate the others. Commendable, I suppose. Since they were all being extradited to Bajor anyhow, Odo decided not to bother sorting out who had done what. Deep down, he knew they had all been in on it, one way or the other, but it was now Bajor's task to prove so.

I for my part, knew this meant that most of them would go free. Bajor would convict the self-confessed, imprison them - not execute them - decide they had nothing on the others, and let them run. They would go deep in hiding for a while, rounding them up for our side would prove extremely difficult by then. Whereas for the moment, I had them trapped. If only I could make use of it..

My door chirped, and I voiced a casual invitation. This was not answered, so I was approaching the door when it opened. I stopped dead in my tracks half a metre away from it, feeling myself going white.

He had never visited me on an assignment before, yet there he was, lifesize, the wide scar across his jaw, whitish blond hair standing up like a root brush, not much taller than I was, but much more massive, for all that he was human and not Cardassian born.

"Gul Tilly!" I gasped. I knew I had had it. If he came here in person..

He smiled, and the smile looked sort of odd on him. I had often seen him laugh, but not this. Then he held out a tiny, blue phial. "I take it you never missed this? It seems you forgot part of your mission", 'he' said.

I took the phial quickly. It was true I had not checked my cupboard since I came back. "You scared me half to death", I growled. "I really thought it was him."

"I told you I'm good", She grinned with Gul Tilly's usual grin. "Why don't you ever believe me? You can cut down on the fear, but keep talking as you would to Gul Tilly. Tell him about your predicament. I may be able to do something."

"And in return.." I said, looking down at my clenched fist, holding the phial with the virus.

"I'm not a Ferengi - at the moment. I make no bargains. You are still requested to carry out my will. I just thought I might help you quit stalling."

I hid the phial among my silver-and-green skirts that had so impressed Garak - and I told Her about my situation, the way I would have told the real Gul Tilly.

She did not stay long, and the next thing I heard, 'Gul Tilly' had left the station. I had no way of knowing Her plans, whether She had left temporarily, permanently, or not at all.

 

*  *  *  *

Two days later, a bomb exploded in Garak's shop, taking half the stock with it. I hoped he would not blame me. While I was investigating the damage - in my dubious capacity of 'next of kin', another one, in my quarters, took out the bed but luckily did not depressurize anything. She was cutting it fine, but I had no doubt She had known I was out.

As a final touch, one of Vedek Cenasta's followers was caught planting something explosive under the console in Engineering that I did most of my work from. O'Brien caught her, and she owned up immediately, this time implicating several other members of the group. Unfortunately, by the time Odo arrived, she had somehow disappeared, nor could any of the ones she had implicated be readily found.

I don't really know how many of them She supplanted, what She did with the originals meanwhile, and I had never asked Her if She had more people on the station.

Well, I finally had my case. Direct attacks on Cardassian interests. For all the good it would do me, as I could not really see Captain Sisko or Major Kira revoke the extradition agreement.

I sat in my quarters that night - temporarily assigned while Garak's were being repaired - staring at the phial. Trying to remind myself what it meant to Her. It felt as if whatever I chose to do, I would be betraying someone. Well, it wouldn't be the first time, so why was I dawdling now? I had to do it, hadn't I? Well then, tomorrow I would.

But the next day, a call came through from the real Gul Tilly - at least I think it was him - hard to know these days..

He confirmed Garak's words - I had to bring the group to Cardassian justice. I no longer had the impression he would have me executed if I failed, that might have been Garak's little joke at my expense, but he clearly did not expect me to fail.

I tried to plead with the Captain, ask him to at least split up the group between plaintiffs - it could be only a matter of time till they were all caught - but he would not send anyone to a Cardassian court, he said.

I told him what Gul Tilly had told me; that the vedek himself already had a record of terrorist acts on Prime herself during the occupation, though most of his present followers were too young to have been in on those. Sisko advised me to take that up with Bajor. After the extradition.

Well, there was nothing for it then. I could see only one solution. I had to talk to Her again.

I had no idea how to contact Her, so I placed a half-molded clay figurine on my desk one morning before I left for work. When I got back to my quarters, it was reshaped - into a Ferengi, barely reminiscent of Quark. I had my meeting place.

 

*  *  *  *

Still wondering why She had chosen such a public spot, I stepped into Quark's. He spotted me instantly, of course, and sent his brother over with a steaming mug of well-spiced, Chryseïan wine. Kind of him - to the extent that a Ferengi is ever kind - but I was actually beginning to tire a little of the exquisite flavour. Always the same thrills, once they got to know you..

"There are several Cardassians here today", Rom blurted in vicarious excitement on my behalf. "Just came in on the 1700 shuttle. Would you like to sit with them?" He pointed - none too discreetly - at a group lounging at the bar, and I looked them over. Nobody I knew. On a regular shuttle, were they? That probably meant Bajor. Well, quite a lot of us still had business there.

"'You're from Cardassia, do you know Gul X?'" I joked. Rom did not get the old joke. Maybe because there wasn't a gul among this lot.. "Never mind. Is Garak back too?"

"I - I don't know", Rom said, obviously anxious that he had missed out on information vital to the customer.

"It's ok", I said. "Just asking. And no, I think I prefer to sit by myself tonight. Thanks anyway", I added, to cheer the poor thing up. He was hard enough put to please his more successful brother.

He left me, half relieved, half apprehensive, I thought. I sat down at a table for two, close by the door. I wondered in what shape She would choose to appear, and how I would be able to recognize her. Well, it wasn't my problem. She would find me.

I sat sipping my wine, surveying the establishment. Would She be one of the Cardassians? None of them had shown an interest in me so far. I looked idly out over the chatting, drinking, occasionally eating crowd. Here and there I could hear snippets of conversation.

At the next table, Dax was sitting with a - probably male - member of some colourful species I could not place at the moment. As I looked over, he stood abruptly, visibly upset. "300 years??" he shouted. "Here I've been pouring out my hearts to you, asking you out to dinner, nearly losing my head over you - and now you tell me you're over three hundred years old??"

"I'm sorry", Dax said in her usual, unruffled manner. "I thought you knew."

"Of course I didn't know! I'm only 20, do you think I would have behaved like this if I had known? Oohh, I'm such a fool.." He slumped back into his seat, and Dax covered one of his hands with her own.

"Relax", she said. "I'm still the same.." Then something seemed to occur to her, for I could see her frown a little. "But - are you?"

I smiled into my cup. Some creatures don't need external problems, they invent their own.

Suddenly I saw Odo, several tables away, but also reasonably close to the door. I had not seen him come in, but then, he could have been there all along. The thought made me a little nervous, but I supposed it was a good thing. At least there was some small chance that whoever approached me wouldn't be him in disguise. He seemed to be dividing his attention fairly equally between Quark, the Cardassians at the bar - and me. Well, as long as he did not come over..

It did offer a slight problem though. I could not really imagine anyone approaching me that he would not find suspicious. While it might seem reasonable for one of the Cardassians to seek me out, Odo would certainly want to know what we had to discuss.

Finally, while I was still looking worriedly around the room, someone came and sat down opposite me. Major Kira. I think I jumped. "Relax", She said, "it's me. Do you have the phial?"

The air whooshed out of me. "Always", I managed. "Are you quite sure this shape is such a good idea?"

"It will at least take him a little longer to get suspicious", She stated in a practical-minded manner as typical of Herself as of Kira. Fixing the major's intense - if unaligned - brown eyes on me, She added, "I won't wait any longer. This time I'll watch you do it. Open the phial now, and spread the contents over your hands. He'll soon be over, and then you find some pretext to touch him. Or just do it, without pretext. I won't leave until I've actually seen you do it."

"I'm sorry you don't trust me", I said. "Don't you want to know what I wanted to see you about?"

She grinned - Kira's wide-mouthed grin. "I can imagine. You want me to plant a bomb on the vessel taking the Cenasta group to Bajor."

"I can hardly do it myself these days. I wouldn't get close enough."

"No problem. Half of them are changelings anyway, by now. They won't even be on the shuttle."

It figured. I did not ask Her what She had done with the originals. Sometimes it is not wise to know too much. "The vedek?" I asked.

"Still himself, as far as I know."

"Will you spare the pilot?" I asked then.

"I can - but why should I? They're only solids."

"As to me, they're only Bajorans", I retorted. "Still.. innocent lives and all that. Bad publicity."

"I'm not concerned with publicity."

"I know you're not. But they will blame the Cardassians."

She gave me a disgusted look - then, unexpectedly, she gave in. "Very well, I shall spare the pilot. Now, can we get on with more important matters?"

With a sigh, I brought out the phial. Just as I was about to open it, She put her hand on mine. "You know", She said, "I have decided to let you go. I just thought you might want to know that."

I stared at Her apprehensively, wondering if there might be a catch to this. She smiled. "I'm sure the question must have occurred to you - surely you must have wondered where I came from?"

"Occasionally, yes", I admitted.

"I was an Independent too", She said. "I left, to found my own Link. I never went back."

"However", I filled in, "you never went solid."

"That side of you", She admitted, "I shall never understand. Now open that thing."

She withdrew Her hands, and I touched the stopper - when I happened to look toward the door, and froze.

The real Major Kira was standing in the doorway, her sharp eyes surveying the place. In her wrathfully red uniform, she was hard to miss.

Her replica looked up quickly, following my gaze. She did not wait to see Odo striding purposefully in our direction; She flowed off her chair, changing as She went, and I quickly shoved the phial back into its pocket among my skirts.

With Kira still in the doorway, She could not go that way, so She made a quick turn towards the interior of the room - I suspected She would either try to hide as something, or make for the stairs to the upper level.

That's when the next bomb went off.

The confusion was instantaneous - rusty nails and shattered glass were flying everywhere; it must have been one of the least clean bombs I had ever seen, and I had seen a few, during the occupation. I saw the major duck instantly - she had good reflexes, I'll give her that. I saw - Her torn apart, then instantly reflowing into a golden column which darted past the prone major and out the door.

I had not expected Her to make good Her escape, but Odo broke off his pursuit and knelt to see if the Bajoran bitch was all right. Well, it figured. He had not even shifted to pursue.

I did not think I could make it past him though, so I started edging towards the stairs instead. My right leg would not quite obey me, but I dragged it along as well as I could, cursing myself for leaving a blood trail along the floor. Well, in the general chaos, I did not think anyone would notice; there was enough blood about as it was.

Over by the bar, I passed the young doctor, already bent over one of the Cardassians. I wondered how he had got there that quickly, maybe he had been in the room from the start, without my seeing him. If so, it was a good thing he had not been injured, or worse. Something in me felt it would have been a singularly deplorable waste.

His patient had not been so lucky. He was - well, badly hurt. I did not look too closely, I just hoped he would not have to live with the consequences. The others must have died instantly. It was quite clear now that the Cardassians had been the prime target.

I had time to see Dax rise from behind the bar, supporting a shocked but otherwise unharmed Morn. A strange keening continued unabated behind her, its source unseen, but it sounded sort of Ferengi.

"Quark is all right, Julian", she said in passing the doctor. "He's just bemoaning his losses. Rom is with him. He's also unhurt; they both ducked in time."

I did not wait around any longer but limped up the stairs as fast as I could. Not fast enough. Odo's hand descended on my shoulder, and I heard his voice rasp, "Oh no, you don't. Not until you've told me all about your connection with the Founders."

I turned around, to look straight into those searing blue eyes - and Major Kira's phaser.

"I'd like to hear that story myself", she said. "You can start talking."

I was not foolish enough to keep up my attempt to escape, but I looked at her coldly. "Hadn't you two better chase down Bajoran terrorists, rather than the occasional Founder?" I asked. "Unless this station is an unofficial freehold for all kinds of Bajoran rabble?"

I think she was about to hit me - and I would have welcomed a fight with her - but Odo stepped between us, his eyes burning with sheer, blue anger. "I'll find them", he said. "Never doubt that."

I nodded. "See that you do. For if you don't, I will. And this time there will be no fawning diplomatic extradition to Bajor. In case you hadn't noticed, this is no longer a Bajoran matter."

I felt Odo's grip loosen somewhat and spun around to make a dramatic exit up the stairs. It didn't quite work out. I don't know if he would ever have let me go right then, but I tripped on the by now blood-soaked hem of my skirt and fell on the stairs, wondering that I should feel so dizzy. I wondered even more that it was the major's exasperated voice I heard calling out, "Julian! Get up here a minute, will you?"

What did she care? She must have wanted really bad to hear that story. I knew I had a severe interrogation coming..

 

*  *  *  *

I woke up in the infirmary, that little underage doctor staring me in the face. I thought I caught a brief glimpse of worry, but as soon as he saw I was awake, he smiled - from one ear to the next. "Don't make a habit out of it. Good thing we were well stocked on Cardassian blood - synthesized I'm afraid, I hope you don't have any ethical objections."

That bad, was it? Well, I had dribbled considerably on Quark's floor, come to think of it. He'd probably charge me for the cleaning, and then let his brother carry it out for nothing. "None to the synthetic kind anyway", I muttered. "Thanks. Do I owe you, or does my supervisor? Central Command, maybe?"

He shook his head, smiling even wider - if possible. "They might, if you were simply a visitor. But apprentices are staff, so station healthcare comes with the job. We're not Ferengi, you know", he joked. He scrutinized his tricorder - a little myopically, I thought. Then, "You're all right", he pronounced. "You caught a flying shard of something in your leg and lost a lot of blood - that's why you fainted - but I've replaced the loss, cleansed and fused the wound. Might be a bit tender for a day or so, then you should have no trouble at all. If you do, come see me at once."

"I'm free to go?" I asked, sitting up abruptly. My head immediately started spinning.

He gave me a long, searching look. I could see he suspected how I felt, but I refused to show anything. I could always lie down in my quarters, once I got out of here.

"Well, I can't hold you", he said, beaming me that smile again. "The constable might want to, though", he added as an afterthought.

I shuddered a little. I still did not like to think of him and the constable in combination. "You mean I'm under arrest?"

He shook his head. "No, Odo just said he wanted to talk to you when you were well enough. However, I suspect he has enough to do right now, rounding up Vedek Cenasta and his group for deportation to Bajor. This time, they've had it."

"He has no right!" I spat. "Cardassia will file a formal request for extradition."

"I doubt he will wait for that. Besides, Bajor's request has already been granted. They got there first."

Deep down, I cursed my supervisor for not having filed sooner. I had told him over a very secure link that attacks had been made on Cardassian interests - and also, since lying to Gul Tilly was not an option, that I had arranged these attacks. Two could play at the Bajoran framing game.

He had told me well done and to make the best possible use of the staged attacks, because he certainly would. And that was all.

After the Cardassian murders, he would have to request the Bajorans extradited, but the request would not come through until it was already academic. I wondered what he was playing at. I had no doubt he was stalling, but as usual I had not enough information to guess why - nor on whose orders.

I took my leave of the little doctor and headed for my temporary quarters with a sinking feeling that Odo and Kira - strongly supported by Sisko of course - were trying to act fast, and that I would have to be faster. My Founder connection had not had the time to accept the mission I had for Her - I had no idea if She meant to help me. I had to assume She would not. If only I could get close to that shuttle..

Thinking of Her made me check abruptly to see if I still had the phial. I did. Apparently, nobody had found the time or a reason to search me. Or had they, and put the phial back? I examined it. None of the contents seemed to be missing. It did not look like it had been opened. My temporary quarters had no good hiding place for it. I would have to keep it about me.

I walked over to my terminal, entered the proper clearance codes, and perused the departure schedules carefully. Just as I thought. They had tried to mask it, but there was a very noncommittal entry for a non-regular shuttle to Bajor at 22.00 hours, station time. It did not take much reading between the lines to see that it was to ferry a group of prisoners, to stand trial on the planet.

My leg was bothering me, and I felt exhausted - probably a belated reaction. Well, there should be time enough to sleep for an hour or so, but no more.

On my way to my bed, I spotted a note on my dresser. I do not recall asking for a redecoration. G. So he was back. Never rains but it pours, as they used to say back on Earth. Well, I would have to deal with him later. With a slightly derailed thought of how it hardly ever rains on Prime, let alone pours, I fell on my bed and slept like a log.

 

*  *  *  *

I awoke far too late. Well, these things happen. Not often to me, but they do happen. At least I felt thoroughly refreshed, and my leg had stopped tingling. In fact, it felt good enough for running, so I did. I had no idea what to do about the shuttle now, should I ever get close - probably only watch it launched, but at least I had to try. I had no readymade bomb, but I managed to find my phaser which I had kept hidden among my luggage during my stay, knowing that weapons were not readily allowed on the station except on regular staff, and I had not been that to begin with. I still wasn't sure whether I counted as regular enough to pack a phaser, but right now I didn't care. I clipped it on to the garter-style thigh belt under my skirts instead of the dagger I usually kept there. My thought was to set the phaser on overload and stash it somewhere on the shuttle, if there was still time, and if I could get on it. If not, I'd try to take out as many of the Cenasta group as possible before they boarded, using the gadget in a more traditional manner.

The dagger was my favourite weapon; I did not like leaving it behind. I made a mental note to add more clips to my 'garter' in the future. If indeed I had a future.

I was out of the door at a run, and I ran most of the way towards the shuttle bay. I'm a good sprinter but not much over distance, so I was pretty winded as I reached one of the viewports overlooking the shuttle pad I was interested in - or rather, anything leaving or entering it; the pad itself was not visible.

I paused to catch my breath, and to cast a swift glance through the port. Nothing as yet. Good.

I was just about to start running again, when a large potted plant - floor size - lost all its colour, and, trading green for gold, started swirling into a fluid column. Naturally assuming my - Superior had chosen to contact me, I waited for Her to form. No use running if She had already accomplished what I was about.

I only realized my mistake as the column grew taller than my own height - and by then it was too late. He congealed in an instant, suddenly barring my way. "Going somewhere?" he asked innocently.

I gave him a long look, weighing my chances. There were occasions when I wished I could have stayed liquid. As things were, I was no match for him. I still remembered that kraken's grip - and how quickly it had locked. I thought briefly of my concealed phaser, but even that was not infallible; he might have time to shape a hole around the beam. And if not - how would She feel about my using it?

I found I didn't care. I did not want to use it. Not on him.

Clamping the lid back down on those feelings, I turned to the viewport. "Oh, I just wanted to see a typical shuttle launch", I said in my best imitation of Garak's multi-toned voice, whenever he knew he was found out but also that nobody could prove anything. I stressed the typical a little, I couldn't help it. We both knew there was nothing typical about this particular launch, least of all its schedule.

As if it had only been waiting for my comment, the shuttle erupted into view. It got clear of the station - with a slight margin - then something left it; a lifepod perhaps, if traffic shuttles had lifepods, but it would seem reasonable that they did. It sure looked like one. The pod was momentarily obscured - and probably quite rattled - by the shuttle suddenly going nova. Blooming into a scintillating glare that felt as if it would stay on my retinae for days, it disintegrated, silently and monumentally. I tried not to show my relief.

As the glare died down to a few scattered slivers of light but with a beautiful corona around them, I could no longer pick out the lifepod. But I saw the effect of it.

In a swirl of blues and cremes, the Wormhole opened, as if hungrily.

"You know what that reminds me of?" I asked the Constable.

"Most humanoids say a flower", he grated, and I got the feel he was holding something back, a tempestuous reaction of some kind that might well hit me later. "An orchid - or a rose."

I shook my head. "A foundry", I said.

"Is that a feeble attempt at a joke?" he asked.

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. "No", I said. "No pun. Machinery smelting ore - at incredible heat. The colours are just right - maybe not for the real thing, but I saw several propaganda films during the occupation. Whenever the glare from the actual process became impossible for Cardassian eyes to take, they would put this filter on the camera that turned the colours exactly so. Cooled them. Ludicrous temperatures - under a cool mask."

The Wormhole had winked out as I spoke - I wondered how long I would be able to distract him with my aesthetical observations on it.

Not long. His hand descended heavily on my shoulder - and I tried hard not to relish the heat of it. I almost succeeded.

"You're under arrest", he said.

For an instant, I thought he sounded bored.

 

*  *  *  *

"So what's your connection with the Founders?" he asked, leaning back against his desk, his arms crossed in his usual, slightly stylized fashion.

I was sitting in the visitor's chair, a mug of plain Cardassian ale in my hand. I was not even in chains. Yet neither of us felt I was a visitor. I did not answer.

"It's a question I've been meaning to ask you for a long time", he said, by way of prompt.

I sighed. "Ask me another. That's the one thing I cannot tell you. Won't tell you", I amended, since I knew he would ask.

"Not even if I fetched the doctor?" But he let me know by the merest shadow of a smile that he was not serious.

"Not even if you hurt me yourself". Which I might not even mind, come to think of it. In fact, there was something rather appealing about the idea..

"Very well", he yielded, suddenly serious. "Then, can you tell me if you came here with deliberate intent to cause harm to this station or anyone on it?"

I sipped my ale slowly. "I came here to find, catch, and bring to Cardassian justice the person or persons responsible for sending disruptive messages with intent to damage the treaty."

"That should not have involved the Founders."

"Perhaps not, but I was obstructed every step of the way - by your precious Bajoran interests."

"So you admit you had help?"

I resorted to a colloquialism picked up on Earth - a long time ago. "It's bloody obvious, isn't it?"

"From the Founders?"

Why not? "From one Founder at any rate."

He put a hooked finger to his lips - those enticing lips, never meant for anyone to get close to.. As if seriously pondering a problem - which of course he was not. "Now why would a Founder help you? In my own experience, they aren't exactly a charitable people."

I nearly said They help their own - but thought better of it. "That is a mystery, isn't it?" I said instead.

"Do they want anything in return?"

"Possibly. Indeed, quite likely."

"But they haven't told you yet?"

"Which do you prefer?" I whipped out, "that I lie to you or that I refuse to answer?"

He nodded. Of course, he had his answer right there. "Then let me rephrase my earlier question. Do they want you to bring harm to this station or anyone on it?"

"That question", I told him with some conviction, "is academic."

"How so?"

"Trust me."

We got no further, because at that moment Odo looked up, slightly annoyed at seeing someone outside the glass doors to his office. The next moment Garak stepped in, almost swaggering. "Constable, Ghilassa.." he beamed for a greeting. Then he turned to Odo. "Constable, I was wondering if I might have a word in private with my fiancée? Things have changed on our homeworld, and we have much to talk about."

"Any political changes on Cardassia Prime would be of interest to Deep Space Nine", Odo pointed out, folding his arms.

"Oh, these are not political changes", Garak said easily. "This is strictly personal."

"Why, Garak", I said in a rather obvious effort to help him out, "Are you telling me your regular betrothed gave up on you and you have finally fallen in love with me?"

"Something along those lines", Garak confirmed. "Though perhaps not quite. Constable, if you'd be so kind?"

Odo looked faintly disgusted. "Very well", he said, "but she's still under arrest." Turning to me, he said, "I have no particular wish to keep you in a holding cell however. Consider yourself confined to quarters. You are not to leave them, and you are not to leave the station; I will check on you daily. And the first sign of any trouble - any at all - I'll snatch you back here so fast you won't know what hit you. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly", I sighed. "Just one piece of advice - don't make your visits too regular.."

"I wasn't going to", he grated. "Now off with the both of you."

Outside on the Promenade, Garak wondered, "Why did you tell him that? If he's stupid enough to have regular habits, why not make use of that fact?"

"I don't like it", I said curtly. "How many classical Terran-style detective novels have you read, Garak? Traditionally, the first victim is someone everybody else could set their clocks by. I - don't want him hurt, if you must know."

I half expected some lecture on efficient spy behaviour, born on the wings of a story - but it did not come. Instead, he just said, "Neither do I. I'm afraid I have rather taken to the good Constable over the years.."

His tone was not quite light enough to match his words - not to my ears at any rate. Of course, I could not be sure, but why not give it a test? "You're slipping", I said. "You're about 2 cms too short. I'm sure he must have noticed."

Garak immediately - grew slightly. Not just straightened, though he almost managed to make it look that way. Grew. Apparently I had been right. "You're right", She said. "It's me. Perceptive of you. Or were you just taking a chance? I came to tell you I have carried out your mission. And to see if you had carried out mine."

I ignored that last. "You're taking a risk, you know that? Garak is back on the station somewhere."

"I would have had no hope of fooling you otherwise."

"Who got away in the lifepod? I thought it was you."

"It wasn't a lifepod - except perhaps functionally."

"Your people", I realized. "Or perhaps I should say your children. Braving the Wormhole together. Probably for someone to pick them up on the other side and freight them home. How many? Are any still left on the station?"

"I don't see that you have a need to know."

"True", I acknowledged. "I'm out of your confidence. Now that you're letting me go."

"Have you given him the virus?"

No need to ask, given whom..

 

*  *  *  *

I did not answer until we were back at my temporary quarters, and She did not ask again. Presumably, She knew. Once we were safe inside, the door closed, She reverted to Her natural state, starting to ooze out over the floor. After a moment, She again congealed into a golden column, then into a sketchy humanoid form. "Sorry", She said, sounding almost human, "Just had to relax a bit. The Cardassian form is so - tight. I don't see how you can stand it."

"I've had little choice, remember?" I said.

"I gave you a choice."

I withdrew the little blue phial from its pocket inside the folds of my skirt. "I'm not coming back", I told Her, handing Her the little delicate, deadly object. "And you can find another to do your bidding. I won't."

She took it, and Her unfinished face looked somehow sad, as She examined the untouched contents of the phial.

"I thought it might come to this.." She said. "Though I had hoped I'd be proven wrong." Then holding my gaze with Hers, so strongly that for once I was grateful for the rather impressive ridges around my eyes - not that She was ever easily impressed - She added, "You take back your promise - I do the same with mine. I will not let you go after all. Or rather, I still might, but now there is a condition. You come back to us, you let us turn you back to normal, you join us in the Link - then, if you still insist, I'll let you return to the Cardassians. We might even re-solidify you. If I feel like it. Otherwise, you'd better get used to sleeping in a bucket in a Cardassian closet once every 16 hours - and to invent plausible explanations each time, same as the rest of us.."

I shook my head, smiling.

"Sorry. I'm not coming. I won't link with you. Ever again. You'd better get used to that."

She stood for a moment, hanging Her head as if in deep thought. As if contemplating Her next course of action. And yet I stood there like a fool, waiting, vaguely wondering at Her silence.

Suddenly Her arm shot out towards me, and I jumped back, realizing too late what She was about.

"I thought you were afraid to touch me", I said, a little shakily.

"Never hurts to be careful. But now all aspects of my mission are over, at least for this visit, and I can go back home in time to be cured, should I contract your virus. So, why not return together? You've been gone so long, Ghilassa. We've truly missed you. Now let me link with you, and if you still have it in you to be kind, let me withdraw in time, before I catch it. Please."

She reached out again, but this time I was prepared. I bolted for the door and was out in public before She could follow.

She did however follow. As Garak, sounding for all the world like a miffed lover. Damn Her, She was getting much too good at imitating humanoids. Or perhaps She always had been.

Out of the Habitat Ring, down on the Promenade, running, running.. desperately now, knowing that I had but this one form, and whatever top speed it might come to. She did not even have to shift, She could keep Garak's form, he was faster than I was, any day..

Suddenly I ran into someone. Someone who yielded quite a bit, far more than he should have been able to. Oh damn.. I withdrew hastily, before I could trigger a meld. I still did not know if I could really incite a linking with anyone unprepared or unwilling - but I could not afford the risk; not anymore. I had made my choices - both of them. I would stay Cardassian for life, and I would not harm this particular changeling. Whatever our ancestress might do to us, She was not to rob me of my decisions.

On seeing Odo, She fell back, offering as many lame excuses as the real Garak might have done, and as rapidly.

Odo made as if to steady me, but I - reluctantly - avoided his touch.

"A lovers' tiff?" he asked, his blue eyes clearly amused, since he knew perfectly well Garak and I were not lovers for real.

"Something like that", I said anyway, noncommittally.

He looked straight through me with those eyes of his. "Are you sure there isn't anything you'd like to tell me?"

"Plenty", I said. "Some other time. When it has all blown over. If it ever does.."

He nodded, filing the information, such as it was. He would not forget. I half hoped that I would.

"I thought I confined you to quarters", he reminded me, far more gently than I suspected was his wont in these circumstances. He didn't even cross his arms. "But you didn't discourage visitors", I said. "All right, I'll stay put. Sorry I panicked. He was - rather upset."

Odo walked me back to my quarters, ostensibly to keep Garak away, but most likely to see that I didn't veer off on my way there. He stopped outside my door, saw that I closed it behind me.

I examined my quarters meticulously, trying to remember where everything had been, looked into closets for spares of the furniture. Nothing. Looked safe enough..

The door chirped. I called out an invitation, but no one came. I went over to open it. I don't know why, perhaps because sounding a door chime seemed much too mundane for a changeling.

I jumped when I saw Her. She looked like any non-descript female trader, human this time, and I can't really say how I recognized Her at once, but I did. Perhaps my eighth sense had become sharpened, through all of this.

I ran past Her, but She merely turned, holding up Her hands. "Just wanted to tell you I'm leaving. For now. I'll get you both back some day, never fear. But I can wait. This is not the time."

I paused, hesitantly, disbelieving Her and still prepared to bolt.

She ignored my distrust. "After all", She added, "I have some hope."

I shot Her a questioning stare.

"You returned the phial to me", She explained. "You could have destroyed it, but you didn't."

I smiled, finally relaxing - not that I really had any cause to, but somewhere, for all the years with never a linking, I still felt I knew Her. Enough to know that She was not about to attack again - for now.

"Maybe the umbilical cord is not yet quite severed", I said. "Or, to put it in a more familiar way - the Link has not quite snapped."

She bowed deeply in acknowledgment - a gesture borrowed from Her current persona, most likely. Then She wandered off. She turned into the nearest connection to the docking ring, and was gone from my view.

It was only as I was about to go back inside my qarters, that I saw Odo. I don't know what he had been just recently, but now he was standing in plain sight, fully humanoid, leaning casually against the bulkhead a few steps away. He made no move towards me. I wondered uneasily how much he had heard.

 

*  *  *  *

I did not see him again. If he came to check on me as he had said he would, I don't know in what shape. Three days later, a request came through from my supervisor. The captain himself came to see me, to tell me that Gul Tilly wanted me extradited to stand trial on Cardassia Prime, and that his request had been approved. I was to leave on the next vessel bound for Prime.

So this was what he had planned to use my information for - to save my scaly hide? I nearly smiled, then reminded myself that what awaited me might well be a real trial - there was no way of knowing. "What am I accused of?" I asked Sisko, searching for a clue.

"Misguided attacks on Cardassian interests with the intent of blaming Bajoran terrorists", he stated.

I thought of the fate of those terrorists.

"Is that all?"

"That is all."

This time, I did smile.

As the captain turned to leave, he paused unexpectedly, saying, "A remarkable man, that employer of yours. I'd like to meet him sometime.."

The door swished shut behind him. I looked at it for a moment. "Well", I told it, "they say that if you go to the Promenade and stand around long enough.." 


*** The End ***


Eliann, 97-03-06