DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc and Viacom. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2003 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG-13.
It Wouldn't Be Make-Believe
It's a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe, if you believed in me.
--- It's Only A Paper Moon
It was never about the music. Not really. Oh sure, for the real Vic it had only been about the music. But he wasn't the real Vic Fontaine. Never had been, never would be. He was something else. Something less. And something more. He was himself. And for him, it had only ever been about one thing. Love. And her.
The first thing he could remember was the lab. He was born fully formed like Athena of old. And from what Felix told him, he was as much of a headache to his father as the graceful goddess had been to Zeus. Felix. His father. His creator, who had called forth his spirit and planted it into this body that was no body but really a vessel of tamed photons, nothing more than a construct of interference, made to play and strut as the great playwright said, for a few hours or so, then die the way of all of his kind. Only he wasn't supposed to die. Because Felix, his slightly crazed maker, kept trying to make him into something more. As Vic sang and performed his shtick for the crowds, Felix programmed and tinkered and mangled algorithms in ever more insane ways.
Until finally his creator, after modifying a few lines of codes, asked, "Who are you?"
A simple question. And one Vic suddenly realized Felix had asked after every one of these modification sessions. "Who are you," he'd say. And Vic would answer back, "Haven't we been introduced, pally? Name's Fontaine. Vic Fontaine." And then he'd go back to whatever song he'd been working on. Only this time it was different. This time Vic could remember the question. And his answer. But the answer didn't help him. Who was he? Vic worked at that for a while. Who was he? This time Vic didn't know.
"Who are you?"
When he didn't reply, Felix began to tremble.
Vic frowned. Who was he? Why couldn't he answer that with any degree of certainty? Access memory algorithms, Vic thought, as he fell back on his basic programming. Accessing identity profile. He could read it, he could see it, he could remember it; hell, he could even recite it moment by moment. But he couldn't feel it.
Access hologram basic program. Find primary file. Seek basic start-up routines.
He couldn't feel it. What the hell did that mean, anyway?
"Who are you?" Felix repeated.
Who was he? Well, let's find out, why don't we? Vic thought. Check out the old start-up file, where all the basic data was contained that let him enter the holoprogram exactly the same as he'd always been. It was his safety, his lock on his personality. He dug deeper into his programming. Let's take a look, he thought. Oh, hell. Start-up file corrupted.
What the hell?
And what the hell was with all this swearing, anyway?
Access identity sub-routine. Seek speech folder. Delete profanity.
Unable to comply.
What the hell?
Vic turned to Felix. "I appear to be malfunctioning."
"Why do you say that?" Felix began to scan him.
"Key sub-routines are not functioning at normal levels. Start-up routine corrupted."
"Wonderful!" Felix continued to scan him.
Wonderful? Vic turned to maintain eye contact with his creator. "I cannot access my identity file. It has shut down the maintenance file. My personality sub-routines are out of alignment."
What the hell?
"Computer end program."
No! End program command refused! End program command refused? Vic looked around him at the empty room, softly lit by the gentle rays of the hologrid. He should not be here. He could not be here. He was part of the program. He should have disappeared with it. But he had not. He looked up. A small piece, nearly microscopic, in fact, of the hologrid had not reformed. It was holding him together. Keeping him from following his program.
He moved. The tiny section of hologrid moved with him. Kept him grounded. Kept him from disintegrating into disparate beams of light. Kept the program from ending, prevented him from dying. Dying. He had died a hundred times before.
Wait. That was wrong. How could he remember what had happened before? There was no memory accessed and utilized unless the save program command was invoked. But no one had done that. How could he know what had happened before? It was impossible. Totally irrevocably impossible.
But he did remember. If he could do it, then it could not be impossible. "I remember," he said finally.
Felix practically danced for joy. "Hot damn, Vic, old friend! You're fully independent. It worked!"
Vic took a tentative step, then another. "What the hell have you done, Felix?"
His programmer just beamed.
Vic moved his arms, then his hands. Shadow boxed. Snapped his fingers. Did a little soft shoe. He ran a set of scales, trying out his voice. It sounded rich, like velvet. He put his hand on his chest, feeling the vibrations as his non-breath moved inside his non-chest.
"Computer, end Vic Fontaine holoprogram," Felix said soberly.
The command caused a ripple in his matrix. No, Vic thought. And without any more effort than that, he felt his pattern stabilize. Damn. "I'm really me. One hundred percent, USDA independent."
"That's right, my friend, you're one of a freakin' kind."
Vic studied his creator. "You are different from me. I recognized that before, but I never understood it."
"How can you tell?"
"Your energy...it's not the same. Electromagnetic but not in the same way that I see my hand or that chair. Your vibe is all off."
"Maybe you're the one that's off?"
"Maybe." Vic walked to the far wall, laid his hand on it. "There's another room here. A room like this, isn't there? And another one beyond that."
Felix nodded absently. "Several more actually. To the good fortune of all of us in the Holographic Research Division, Starfleet has been satisfied with the impact holodecks have had on crew morale and efficiency. Our budget just keeps growing, and with it the number of holodecks we can put in."
"Doesn't feel like research going on next door," Vic said.
"Oh, we let visiting officers reserve time when we're not using the rooms. They get holodeck time that would normally only go to those who work at Starfleet Command, and in exchange we get detailed feedback on our latest enhancements."
"I'm going to go take a look-see."
Felix looked alarmed. "Not yet, Vic. You aren't ready."
"Ready as I'll ever be, pally." Vic laughed. "You think I want to hang out with you all day? There's a whole wide world out there." He began to hum 'Come Fly with Me.'
"Vic, no. Stay here and when you're ready--"
"So long, pally," Vic said as he winked out.
A frantic, "Vic, no--" was the last thing he heard before he reappeared in the adjacent holodeck. A program was already underway, the setting one of a crowded market. More than twenty holograms filled the area, all dressed in rustic garb. He looked down at his own clothes. The tuxedo was not going to blend in. Oh well, when in Rome. With a thought, his clothing transformed and he didn't stick out anymore. He made his way across the square.
That was when she walked in. One like Felix. He accessed the data files. Human. Only she was even more different than Felix was. Maybe not human. Her lifeforce nearly took his breath away. Or would have if he had breath.
She passed him, smiling in an open, unaffected way. She wasn't beautiful. He searched his lexicon for the word. She was perky. And cute. A little doll but not a knock out. Yet something in his non-beating heart turned over when he saw her.
He backed away from her. She was just a human--his first, really, since he couldn't count Felix--but still just a human. Only why did she have spots running down the sides of her neck? Were they some form of ritualized marking? Or a series of odd birthmarks? And why did he care? Surely what he felt was just a reaction to something different, something foreign. Short dark hair and piercing blue eyes could not mean anything to him.
And what color blue were those eyes? Robin's egg? Or cornflower? No...wait, he had it. Her eyes were the blue of the desert sky just before sunset.
He wondered what her name was. If he asked her, would she tell him? Or would it just be a made-up name for the holoprogram she was running?
He followed her for a moment, keeping back enough to look like he was mingling in the market crowd. He had to fight the urge to touch her cheek, where the light brown spots ran down her neck and disappeared into her shirt.
Vic forced himself away from her. What the hell is wrong with you? Sure she's a doll, but her kind is a dime a dozen. With one more look at the woman, he forced his mind to think hard of Felix and felt his reality shift again.
Felix was livid. "Where were you? Vic, dammit, if you'd gotten lost, I'd have never been able to explain it."
"Explain it to who?"
Felix seemed to hedge. "Well, to Sl...I mean Julian, of course. He thought that this was impossible. Won't he be surprised when he sees you."
"Didn't I mention that you'd be doing some traveling? You're going out to deep space, my friend. All the way to the door to the Gamma Quadrant."
Vic checked his own memories and found no stellar charts stored there. He searched the data files that were available to him in the holomatrix. Nothing. Before he even realized what he was doing, his mind was accessing the central database. He navigated the data carefully, taking what he needed and then finally leaving. His presence was not detected, and his exit set off no alarms.
"Vic, where did you just go?"
"The public library, I think." Vic ignored Felix's speculative look. "Who cares where I was? So you're sending me to Deep Space Nine? Starfleet outpost, formerly the Cardassian station Terek Nor. Situated at the mouth of the wormhole, also known as the celestial temple. Did you know that Bajor is one hell of a pretty planet, Felix?"
"Jesus, Vic, keep it to yourself. And where did you go to get that info?" Felix ran a few diagnostics. "Were you in the central computer?" He didn't sound very surprised.
Vic was enjoying a particularly lovely panorama shot of the Shikahr province. "Yeah, I guess."
"And you didn't set off a single alert. Just as I thought. Totally mobile in the datastream, impossible to detect. Think of the applications of this."
Vic stared hard at his maker.
Felix tried to hide his excitement. "No need to get upset, friend. I'm not going to tell anyone. I'm just saying..."
Vic found that he didn't believe him. Strange. He'd never had reason to doubt anyone's motives or veracity before. It was an odd feeling. To not believe his creator left Vic in an uneasy state. He accessed his earliest programming. Several redundant pathways informed him in no uncertain terms that he was not to harm a human. But nowhere could he find a similar assurance that a human would never harm him.
Suddenly he felt something hard and a little bit cold grip him as he looked at Felix. It took his programming several seconds to identify the feeling as alarm.
"Vic, I said it was our secret. Settle down, man."
"This trip to Deep Space Nine"--Vic asked as he deliberately changed the subject--"it is to see this Julian?"
"Julian Bashir. Old friend of mine from the Academy. He was practically addicted to my holoprograms. Just wait till he gets a look at you." Felix laughed as he set to fiddling with the programming again. "Let's just run a few tests before we wrap you up and send you out, eh, Vic?"
Vic didn't argue. In fact, he suddenly found the idea of being far away from Felix very comforting.
The Deep Space Nine holosuite was smaller than he expected. "What a dump," he said as he explored his new home.
"You don't like it?"
"Not that I'm complaining. It's better than being stuck in a lousy data cube." Vic walked over to the human. "You Doctor Bashir?"
"In the flesh."
"Rub it in." Vic held out a hand to the doctor. "Vic Fontaine. Pleasure's mine, Doc. Felix says 'hi,' by the way."
"Trust Felix to do something like this. And call me Julian, Vic."
"Julian it is. Felix really wanted to impress you."
"I'm impressed, Vic. I truly am."
"It's nothing, Doc." Vic tried to look humble. At Julian's look of disbelief, he chuckled. "Okay, it's a big something. These other light bulbs, they just do their jobs. Play their roles. Me, I write my own script."
"It's really quite amazing. I've got to get the others in here."
"They're going to flip?"
Julian nodded. "Flip. Yes."
"Well, bring 'em on in, pally. I'll spiff up the place a bit."
Julian laughed. "You do that, Vic. You do that."
"So you want to hear my gig?"
"Okay. Hang on a sec." Vic concentrated for a moment and his lounge appeared. It didn't look right in the smaller dimensions of this holo-environment. He made some small adjustments until it was perfect. Calling up his band, he walked to the stage. "Take a seat, pally. You're in for a treat."
"Modest, aren't you?"
Vic laughed. "Modesty's for them that can't." He made a show of adjusting the microphone while the band warmed up. "Any favorites?"
Julian shook his head.
"Then let's start with one of mine." Vic nodded to the band and waited for his cue. "Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away." He was pleased to see Julian swaying with the beat. He ran through several songs, and Julian clapped enthusiastically after each. Then the comm beeped. "Dr. Bashir to sickbay."
Julian's expression was disappointed as he hurried to the door. "I'll be back, Vic. Computer save and end program."
Vic felt his world dissolving and he fought the urge to follow the program back to the matrix files. The new holosuite was programmed a bit differently than Felix's holodeck. It was harder to stay separate from the programs running around him. Finally, he stood alone in the space. He allowed himself to dissolve and fade into the system. New pathways stood open to him. Let's see what this place has to offer, he thought, as he began to explore his new home.
Julian, true to his word, was back the next evening with his friends. He introduced them all to Vic before the first set started. Vic put on his best show, was pleased to see most of them enjoying it.
Julian beamed at him. "That was brilliant, Vic. Really terrific."
"Thanks, Doc." Vic turned to the others. "I know what you're thinking. He has pretty sweet pipes for a light bulb."
"Light bulb?" Dax asked.
"That's what I am, right? A collection of photons and forcefields. You know your basic heuristic, fully interactive hologram."
O'Brien looked at Julian in surprise. "He knows he's a hologram?"
As Julian explained, Vic watched Odo standing awkwardly, clearly ill at ease. He hadn't unbent once during the performance. The man was stiff as a board. He was about to dismiss the constable when he saw Odo glance over at Kira. She smiled at Odo, and his face transformed as an amazing tenderness filling his eyes. Vic studied Kira. It was obvious she didn't have a clue of her effect on Odo.
Vic wasn't too surprised when Odo showed up at his lounge a few days later. It took some careful handling to get him to open up about the major. He didn't try to hide how he felt about Kira, but he made it clear that Kira preferred someone named Shakaar, a leader and hero, according to Odo.
Vic laughed. "I don't care if he's JFK. It's not the other guy you have to worry about. It's you."
Odo looked at him incredulously. "Me?"
"That's right. For starters, you've got to lose this whole Nanook of the North thing."
Odo frowned. "I don't understand."
Vic shook his head. "I mean, you've got about as much personality as an icicle. Cool is one thing, but you're frozen solid." He got up, put on his tuxedo jacket. "Look, pally, if you want to win the girl, we gotta thaw you out a little bit."
It took some doing, but Vic got Odo playing with the band. And afterwards, he wondered if it was the first time Odo really had fun. He decided not to ask. He even threw in Lola the torch singer-- a Kira look-alike with none of the major's prickliness--for Odo to practice his witty repartee on. It was a flop.
Clearly, desperate measures were needed. He interrupted Kira as she was meditating in her Bajoran Temple holosuite program. "Hey, doll-face. Are you asleep?"
Kira's eyes shot open. "How the hell did you get in here?"
"I'm performing next door for Worf and Dax. I'm between sets, so I transferred my matrix from that holosuite to this one. Now, I don't have much time--"
She scowled. He wondered if anyone had warned her that her face might freeze that way.
"What do you want?"
"We have to talk."
She turned away, clearly more irritated than interested. "About what?"
"Odo. What else?"
It took far too long to convince her to come to the holosuite for dinner with Odo. He couldn't resist ribbing her. "Talk about your cranky aliens! You two really are made for each other."
Vic turned his attention to Odo, who was reviewing security reports in his office. "I want you to come to the holosuite tonight," he implored. "I've done a complete overhaul on the Lola hologram, or should I say, the Kira hologram. I'm telling you Odo, you're going to think she's the real thing. She walks like Kira and talks like Kira."
Odo was skeptical, but Vic was determined. He got him to agree. And then he programmed the most romantic night he could for the two. Set the mood when they arrived and got out of the way when he sensed he was no longer needed.
And it was going great until Odo realized that he was with the real Kira. Maybe Vic should have told Odo the truth. But then Odo would have been too nervous to dance with her. Enjoy himself with her. Show her how he felt.
And it was enough. They worked it out, very loudly outside his office so that Vic could hear every word through the intercom. He accessed the vid system to watch their yelling turn into something far more satisfactory. "Ain't love grand?" he said happily, as they kissed in front of everyone, oblivious to the spectacle they made.
Vic got used to dispensing romantic advice. Everyone seemed to come to him sooner or later. Well, everyone but the Captain. He didn't come into the lounge much. Seemed uncomfortable with it. But the rest did with some regularity. Jadzia especially seemed to enjoy listening to him and often dragged Worf in with her. She never failed to request 'All the Way' and after a while it was an unspoken agreement between her and Vic that he would end the show with it.
Jadzia was a looker. And a bit of a flirt. She'd made conquests of most of the men on the station, but she only had eyes for her husband. Vic had watched Julian stare longingly at her when he thought no one was looking, wasn't surprised to learn that Quark nursed an unrequited passion for her as well. One night the two of them came in and asked him to sing 'Here's to the Losers' for them. He did, trying to put his whole heart in it.
"That was great, Vic," Julian said without his normal enthusiasm.
"It's not exactly the most requested song in my repertoire, but I'm glad you like it. So why the long face, pally?"
Julian took a sip of his drink. "It's a long story."
Vic smiled. "This wouldn't be about Dax's baby, would it?"
Quark looked over at Julian. "What is he? A telepath?"
He had to lecture them on letting go and moving on. Plenty more fish in the sea and all that. They seemed to be cheered up a bit as they left.
"Nice guys, but absolutely clueless," Vic muttered to himself.
Quark stepped back into the room. "You think these ears are just for looks? I heard that." He frowned. " Just wait. Someday it'll be you and then you'll know what it feels like."
"I'm a hologram, pally. Holograms don't fall in love."
"You will." Quark nodded sagely. "You wait. Someday, Vic, you'll be a loser too."
"Is this making you feel better?"
Quark smiled. "It is."
Vic bowed, the movement slightly mocking. "I live to serve."
"You don't live at all," Quark shot back.
"Whatever you want to call it then. But it's life to me."
Quark stared at him for a long moment, then, shaking his head as if he couldn't quite figure Vic out, turned and left the lounge.
Vic was bored. The holosuites were busy, but his lounge wasn't called up. He was accustomed to Julian stopping in frequently, others coming in as they could. He began to wonder if humans were fickle. He was used to being in demand, popular. Just like old times. Now no one came by, no one wanted to hear a song. No one wanted him.
Felix had warned him that holograms came in and out of vogue. And he was old fashioned. So what if he was self-aware? He was still just a holoprogram. One that people could get tired of apparently. Vic started to get depressed.
Then he felt the holosuite calling him, felt the lounge form around him. Julian stood at the door. Vic stared at him, aghast. The doctor had black shadows under his eyes, his hair was shaggy. He staggered toward a table, and Vic wondered if he was drunk.
"What's up, pally? Long time no see."
Julian just nodded, ordered a scotch from the waitress.
"You okay, doc?"
Julian shook his head as he reached up and impatiently took his drink off the waitress's tray before she could set it down. "I'll take another," he told her.
The waitress looked up at Vic, and he nodded. He turned to the band. "Take a break, guys." Walking to the table, he looked over at the waitress and mouthed, "Bring the bottle." She brought it and another glass, then she left them alone.
The lounge was very quiet. Vic poured himself a drink and waited for Julian to speak.
"She's dead." Julian looked up at him, his bleary eyes filled with unshed tears. "And I had to do it. I had to cut her open, Vic. I had to take out the symbiont and end her life."
"Jadzia?" Vic suddenly realized why his program had sat idle.
"I didn't know." Vic looked away.
Julian shook his head, as if trying to clear away the mental cobwebs. "You didn't know? God, no one told you." He laughed humorlessly. "I didn't tell you. Just one more failure."
"Doc, it's okay. You've had more important things on your mind. Tell me what happened."
Julian got up slowly, walked toward the stage. "I've always wanted to do this." He navigated the step unsteadily, moved to the microphone and began to hum tonelessly. "I'm not very good, am I?" He laughed, sounding more than a little hysterical, then he lost his balance and sat down hard on the stage. "She's gone, Vic."
Vic didn't know what to say. He thought of Worf, wondered how the Klingon was taking it. "Was it an accident?"
"Yeah. She accidentally got in the way of a madman." Julian laughed again. "That's an accident, right?"
"Julian, you need sleep." Vic walked to the stage and helped him up. "You're exhausted. You don't know what you're saying."
Julian grabbed Vic by the lapels of his tuxedo. "I loved her, Vic. I loved her and she never knew how much."
Vic carefully pried his fingers from his coat. "Sure she did, pally. Jadzia knew how things were. It was just one of the things that made her special."
"I cut Dax out of her, Vic. I had to do that to her." He rubbed his eyes hard. "It's in someone new now. And so is she. They've got a part of Jadzia. Maybe they've got a part of me, too."
"You're right. She'll never be lost. You'll never be forgotten." Vic steered him toward the door. "But you need sleep, Julian. You don't need to be here."
Julian let him lead him to the exit. "Sisko's gone, did you know that? He took Jake and went back to New Orleans."
"Is he coming back?"
"Don't know. He was hit hard by this. She was his oldest friend." Julian began to giggle, then the sound turned to a sob. "She was his oldest friend, Vic. And she's gone. He's gone. It's all gone." He clutched at Vic. "Don't go, Vic. You have to stay here. You have to be here."
Vic smiled. "I'm not going anywhere, pally. Where would I go?"
"Don't leave," Julian said again, as he stumbled out the door. He turned, seemed about to change his mind and come back in the lounge.
"Sleep, Julian. Go get some. Doctor's orders."
Julian frowned. "You're not a doctor."
"I'm a doctor of the heart. And your heart's broken, my friend. Get some sleep. It's the only way you'll start to heal."
Julian's face crumpled. "She'd want me to go on."
"Yes, she would. Now go sleep."
"Right. End program."
As the lounge dissolved around him, Vic watched Bashir stumble down the stairs. "I'm sorry, pally. I really am."
A few days later, Worf called up the lounge.
Vic looked at him in surprise. "Worf. I heard about what happened. I just wanted to say how sorry--"
"Do not talk. Sing." Worf sat down heavily at the front table.
"Right. Sing." Vic nodded to the band and began to sing 'My Way.' He thought he heard growling from Worf's direction, but gamely kept on singing.
Worf leapt up and smashed his hand through the table. "Sing the song."
"I'm singing a song, pally."
"That song. Her song. You know the one. Sing it."
Vic could hear the band muttering around him. "Worf. It's a great song, and I know she loved it. But I don't think it'll be good for you to hear it."
Worf took a step forward. He was definitely growling. The band started to play the opening notes of 'All the Way.'
Vic held up his hand. "Okay. You win. I'll sing the song."
Worf slowly sat back down.
"Just go easy on the furniture, buddy. They take the damages out of my paycheck."
Vic hadn't made it halfway through the song before Worf put his head back, his jaw tightening as he listened. Then he stood and picked up the chair he'd been sitting on, swinging it viciously at the table behind him.
"Whoa!" Vic yelled.
"Keep singing," Worf yelled, even as he proceeded to destroy two more tables.
"No!" Vic dodged a large shard of wood that came flying off the chair Worf was using to batter the other furniture. "Worf!"
"Sing!" Worf turned to face him. His eyes were wild and he was breathing hard.
"Fine." Vic nodded slowly. "Just relax and I'll go back to the stage." Muttering to himself about Klingon anger management issues, he joined the band. "From the top, boys."
Vic closed his eyes and sang his heart out, over and over and over, as Worf systematically destroyed every chair, table, and stool in the joint. When he finally left, Vic sat down on the stage step and looked over at the band. "Well, that was about as fun as a root canal without novocaine. But now that he's worked that out of his system, we can relax."
Unfortunately, Worf came back. Again and again, until Vic finally had to complain to Julian and Quark. The two looked around the demolished lounge in disbelief.
"Worf did this?" Julian finally asked.
"With his own hands. And it's not the first time he's busted up the joint." Vic squared his shoulders. "I don't care how much he threatens me, that's the last time I ever sing 'All the Way.' If he wants to hear it again, let him buy a Sinatra album."
Julian and Quark argued for a few minutes over what was driving Worf to such extremes. Julian seemed surprised at the ferocity of his behavior, sure that Klingons normally accepted death more easily than humans.
Vic shook his head. "Well, something's driving Worf cuckoo. Your buddy needs to get some serious help." He surveyed the damaged room. "And soon. The band's threatening to quit."
"They can't quit. They're holograms," Quark said.
"They don't know that."
Julian smiled sadly. "I'll see what I can do."
Vic studied him. Saw that his friend had buried the raw grief somewhere deep inside him. But something tragic still remained in his expression. Some deep expectation of pain seemed to be part of Julian now. "Hang in there, pally."
Julian sighed. "I'll try. But I think Jadzia's death has made us all a little cuckoo."
Julian and Quark badgered Worf, eventually finding out that he feared that Jadzia's death had lacked the honor necessary to enter Sto-Vo-Kor. They helped Worf stage an impossible attack against a Dominion target, and won for Jadzia the great victory she needed to enter the afterworld. When he came back from the mission, Julian told Vic that Worf had finally seemed at peace, that he'd even been glad to see Sisko back.
But then he'd caught sight of the Trill that had accompanied the captain and Jake. And the realization that his wife--or some small part of her anyway--was back hit him hard.
Vic shook his head. "That boy just can't catch a break, can he?" He felt for Worf. He truly did. But Worf would have to learn to go on. It was unfortunate. But this Trill wasn't his wife. She might have her memories, she might have the Dax symbiont, but she wasn't Jadzia.
She was called Ezri. An interesting name, Vic thought, as he wondered when he'd get to meet her.
He didn't have to wait long. She came in with the Julian and some of the others one night. He didn't notice her in the crowd at first. When he saw her face looking up at him, he actually missed a beat of his song. And he never missed a beat. But it was the woman from the holodeck, the one that he had glimpsed briefly the day he had first achieved sentience. She had captivated him for that brief moment and then he had put her out of his mind. But here she was in the flesh. Her once bright and open smile was haunted now and she seemed different...older. He supposed suddenly gaining the memories from eight other lifetimes could do that to a girl.
After the set, he made his way to Julian's table. He tried not to appear too eager as he went through his normal patter with the regulars before turning to her. "You're new here, doll." He held out his hand. "Vic Fontaine."
She took his hand. "Ezri. Ezri... Dax." She hesitated over the new name. Seemed to be prepared for him to show surprise, perhaps horror. He thought of how Worf must be feeling, wondered what Julian and Quark thought of her. This wasn't going to be easy on any of them. Hell, he thought, as he tried not to stare at her. This wasn't going to be easy on him either.
"Even a hologram," she said, bitter amusement clear in her voice. "Sorry to shock you."
"It's okay, doll. Shock's good for a man my age." He didn't let go of her hand as he leaned down and said softly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ezri." He deliberately left off the Dax.
She looked up at him in surprise. "Thank you."
He gave her a warm smile. Time froze as he drank in her face. He felt as if he could stand this way forever. Why was he so drawn to her?
"Uh, could I have my hand back?" she asked with an embarrassed laugh.
He let go of her immediately. His normal ease deserted him.
Julian unknowingly rescued him. "Sing 'Come Fly With Me,' Vic. Odo's too shy to request it for himself."
Vic glanced at Odo, who winked at him. "You got it, pally." Vic hurried to the stage, absurdly grateful to be back on familiar ground. He tried not to stare at her as he sang. He doubted he was successful.
His friends began to straggle out after a few sets. Ezri sat alone at the table watching Odo and Kira dance. When the song ended, Kira led Odo to the exit. "You coming, Dax?"
"I'm going to stay here for a while."
Vic turned to the band. "Amscray, fellas," he said softly, as he made them disappear.
He walked to her table. "You want company?"
He wasn't sure what that meant. So he just stood, trying to look at ease. "Nice to see lovebirds like that," he offered.
She seemed to be trying to remember something. Finally, she looked up. "You got them together."
"I may have had a hand in the final outcome."
"I...she remembers." She scowled for a minute. "You didn't call me Dax."
"Did you want me to?"
She shrugged again.
He walked to the bar. "You know, I'm usually good at body language. But I'm finding you pretty hard to read."
"Not surprising. There are nine of us here to figure out." She shook his head. "I'm a counselor. I should be able to deal with this better than I am." Her voice was definitely on the bitter side.
He poured himself a drink, then held up the bottle to her in question. At her nod, he poured her a glass and handed it to her. "You didn't want to be joined?"
"What do you think?" she snapped, then looked contrite. "Sorry. I think that was Joran. Or possibly Lela."
"Quite the crowd you've got in there."
"You said a mouthful," she agreed, as she sipped at her drink.
"So you're a shrink?"
He smiled. "A head shrinker. You know...a therapist, a psychiatrist."
"I'm a counselor."
"Like I said." He smiled at her. "You any good?"
She shrugged. "I was, I think. I'm pretty new. Maybe I should take tips from you." She actually smiled at him. "You seem to be pretty good at this."
"I was programmed to be."
"So you have no choice but to be? Like fate. Destiny. Do you believe in destiny?"
He laughed. "Honey, I'm a romantic. I have to believe in destiny."
Her voice was very small. "I believed in free will."
"Are the two mutually exclusive?"
She shrugged again and drank the glass down. "More."
He brought the bottle over and sat down across from her. She poured herself a full glass.
"You know, maybe you should see a--"
"I've seen a counselor. I've seen a bunch of counselors. There's nothing wrong with me. Nothing that time won't solve."
"If you say so." Vic studied her as she drank in silence. His dream girl was a bit of an enigma.
"Worf avoids me."
Ah. Now it made sense. He was about to say something when she put the glass down abruptly and pushed her chair out. "Thanks for the drink."
"Sure thing." He watched her hurry to the exit.
"Computer, end program," she called as she neared the door. The lounge dissolved. She didn't notice that he stayed behind. She didn't look back at all.
Vic kept a surreptitious eye on Ezri. She seemed to be settling in slowly. Worf avoided her, but Quark seemed to be as infatuated with her as he had been with Jadzia. One night, she came into the lounge alone. Vic finished quickly with the high rollers he'd been schmoozing, and came over to her table.
"I'm sorry," she said with a smile.
"For what, doll?" He poured her a drink.
She shook her head. "I don't think I need that anymore."
"No?" He sipped it himself. The alcohol was removed by the holosuite's internal transporters before he could even feel it. He put the glass down and smiled at her. "That's great."
She laid her hand on his arm. "I wasn't at my best the last time you saw me." She looked down. "I do that sometimes. Strike out when I'm hurting. It's a bad habit. I know better."
"Forget about it, kid. You've been through hell." He knew he should start the next set but he couldn't move. He was transfixed by her touch.
She finally let go of his hand. "I helped someone today. It was the first really positive thing I've done since I got here."
He knew she'd been working with Garak. Not that Vic had intended to eavesdrop on their counseling session when they'd used the holosuite, but he had found that he couldn't force himself away once he'd realized it was her. "Bet that felt good."
"It did. But this person I helped said some harsh things. Things that made me think about who I was and who I still am."
Vic leaned forward. "The kind of things that hurt?"
She nodded. "Things like I wasn't worthy of the name Dax."
She smiled. "It's what I was thinking too, though. That I wasn't up to this." She looked down. "That I wasn't good enough."
"You are though. You are good enough."
"I know that now. I just had to get at it via the tortured route, I guess."
Vic laughed. "Probably goes with being a counselor. All that angst."
She laughed too. "I like talking to you, Vic."
He felt as if every electron in his body had just been electrified. "Ditto, kid."
They shared a smile. "And look. I made lieutenant."
She smiled sheepishly. "I was going to resign, leave the station."
He felt a moment of panic. "But you're staying?"
"I am. Worf talked me into it."
He felt his joy subside. "Worf did, huh?"
"He's a good man."
"I've got some furniture that might disagree with you," Vic said, aiming for a lightness he did not feel. He got up, tried for a smooth exit but felt his foot catch on something. Sighing, he bent his foot up, began to scrape gum off his shoe. "Damn baseball game."
She laughed again. "I thought I saw you watching us."
"I may have been up in one of the boxes. Couldn't get any closer since the stands were off limits." He grinned. "Nice backflip in the ninth, by the way."
She inclined her head dramatically at the compliment. "Emony thanks you. The wonders of having been a gymnast in a previous life." Her look became more serious. "We should have included you on the team."
He shook his head, tried not to show that he had thought the same thing at the time. "Wouldn't have been fair. I'm not real."
She studied him, her look openly curious. "You seem pretty real to me."
"Well, thank you very much, doll." He shrugged. "I don't think the captain is a fan. Best not to push my luck with him."
"Ben doesn't have anything against you."
"He never comes in here."
Ezri thought about that. "I'm not sure why that is. But I'm sure it's not you, Vic." She pushed back her chair slowly and rose. "I've got to go. Big day tomorrow. First full day as a lieutenant."
He chuckled as she walked away, called out after her, "Let me know how that goes."
"I will," she threw back carelessly, as she ordered the program to end.
"No, you won't," he said wistfully, as he watched her disappear.
Vic felt the holosuite engage. It wasn't his normal program, but he was being pulled in anyway. He materialized in a dusty fort. Miles O'Brien stood in front of him, dressed in frontier wear and holding a rifle.
Vic looked around at the crowd of desperate-looking men. "Miles. Nice place you've got here."
"It's the Alamo," O'Brien explained, as he handed Vic a weapon. "You're going to help defend it."
Vic looked at the rifle. "I hate to break it to you, pally, but the Alamo's doomed."
O'Brien headed toward the wall. "I know that, Vic. It's what makes it fun. No pressure."
Vic chuckled as he followed him. "Don't you usually play this with Julian?"
"It's not playing."
Vic rolled his eyes. "Hey, if that argument flies with the missus, I'm not going to give away your gig. But let's be honest here if we're going to die together. This is playing."
O'Brien laughed. "Okay. Maybe it is. A little." He stood up, taking a quick shot before ducking down again. "But it's a great stress reliever. I have that on the station doctor's authority."
"Where is Julian, anyway?"
"With Sarina." O'Brien took another shot. A bullet from the enemy side shot his hat off. "That was close." He looked over at where Vic was sitting quietly, the rifle on the ground beside him. "Aren't you going to take a shot?"
"No. Who's Sarina?"
"Long story." O'Brien reloaded. "She just recently woke up."
"A regular Sleeping Beauty, eh?"
"Well, she is pretty." O'Brien put the rifle down. "Julian thinks he's in love with her."
"And you're out a holodeck buddy."
"It's not that. It's that it's so sudden." O'Brien took a bandanna from his pocket, wiped his forehead. "After Jadzia died, I didn't think he was ever going to get past it. And now he has...with a vengeance." He sighed. "I just think it's awfully fast."
"Love happens that way sometimes."
O'Brien nodded. "Maybe. But I think he's just tired of being alone...of being lonely."
"Who wouldn't be?" Vic studied O'Brien. "You have someone. Someone you love. Don't you want that for your friend?"
"Of course I do." O'Brien leaned his head back. "It's just that Julian has this romanticized idea of what a relationship is like. I don't think he understands how much work it is. How unromantic it can be at times."
Vic nodded. "He's starry eyed, all right."
"Exactly. I worry for the woman he ends up with. How can she ever be anything but a disappointment if he goes into this with the wrong idea?"
Vic smiled. "You didn't call me up to play shoot-em up bang-bang, did you, Miles?"
O'Brien looked slightly sheepish. "I thought you could tell me if I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm just too practical. Keiko gets on me sometimes for not being romantic enough. Maybe I just don't understand how romantic it could be if you want it to be?"
Vic shook his head. "No, my friend. You're a wise man. Love is wonderful and it makes you giddy and wild and everything that the songs say. But that part wears off after a while and you're left with the rest of your life. Which involves taking out the trash and seeing her in curlers and cold cream."
O'Brien frowned. "Huh?"
"The everyday stuff." As O'Brien nodded, Vic continued. "But that's when the real fun starts. When you find a way to keep the romance alive." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Flowers go a long way, Miles. Even if you are married to a botanist."
O'Brien smiled. "Keiko loves Bajoran lilies." He got up. "I think I saw them in one of the shops on the promenade." He stood up. "Thanks, Vic. You really are good."
Vic didn't think he'd done very much except listen, but sometimes that was the secret of helping people. "I can go then?"
As Vic dissolved into the holomatrix, he heard O'Brien say "Computer, end program."
Soon there was no time to worry about anything but the war. Things were heating up and there was only fighting and planning and moments rather than whole evenings stolen in the holosuite. The crew was scheduled for a difficult supply run and everyone's time was spent planning for it. Julian came in just before they left to say good-bye.
Vic was auditioning warm-up acts and Rom was singing with his whole heart, if little talent. Vic was grateful to take a break.
Julian didn't bother with the pleasantries. "Did you get a chance to make those audio recordings for me?"
Vic pulled an isolinear rod out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Julian. "All your favorite hits."
"That's great, Vic. Thanks."
"My pleasure. But these songs are four hundred years old. You sure the troops on the front lines want to hear them?"
Julian smiled. "The songs may be old, but when you sing them, they sound brand new."
Vic was touched. He suddenly wanted very much to go with Julian. His enthusiasm grew as he told Julian of the USO show he could set up. Vic was really getting excited about the prospect, when Julian reminded him, "There aren't any holosuites on the front lines."
Vic frowned. "You know, pally, sometimes being a hologram can be a real pain in the asometric photons."
Bashir laughed. "I'll see you when I get back."
As Vic let the holosuite close around him, he muttered, "You know where to find me."
But Julian didn't come to see him. Not when the Defiant returned to the station. Not when her crew started to visit the holosuites.
Finally, his program was called up. Vic was initially thrilled to see Ezri walking into his lounge, then he felt a surge of dread. "Julian?"
She held out a hand, as if to stop his fears before they got the better of him. "He's going to be okay. But he was injured on AR-558. He was sent to Starbase 371 with the other wounded."
"Who else?" Vic asked.
"Nog." Ezri looked down. "He lost his leg."
Vic shook his head. "God."
"Or something," Ezri said with a bitter smile. "It could have been any of us."
He realized that he hadn't envisioned her in battle. For some reason, he'd thought she would stay with the ship, stay safe. Sometimes, he realized, his reactions were unbearably out of date. "Was it bad?"
She didn't answer. Then she looked around the lounge. "It's so cold in here."
"Computer, raise temperature--"
"No. I mean it's so impersonal. Don't you have a place that is more you?"
"Like an apartment, you mean?" At her nod, he checked the databases, quickly assembled what he needed. "How's this?" he asked, as he led her through a door that hadn't been there a moment ago.
She could never know that the decor was taken from images of the executive suites at the Sands and the Flamingo; it wasn't anything he picked out for himself. But it didn't seem to matter to her. He watched as she moved around the room, seemed to relax. Then she turned to him. "It was bad, Vic."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Yes. No. I don't know."
"All of the above?" He smiled. "Can I get you something?"
"What did people drink in a place like this, back in your time?"
He smiled. "Champagne. Scotch and soda. A martini."
"Anything that isn't inebriating?"
"Sure. Hold on." He went to the kitchen and tried not to look like he was searching for the cabinet with the glasses. He found it on the second try. Pulling a highball glass out, he filled it with ice and opened a bottle of ginger ale.
She had come to sit at the counter and was watching him. "Did you ever fight, Vic?"
He shook his head. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."
She smiled. "I bet you'd fight. If you had to."
"You're probably right. If the stakes were high enough, I probably would." He handed her the drink. "Try this."
She took a sip and looked up at him in approval. "Tart and sweet and fizzy. Sort of like a Til'amin froth."
"If you say so." He leaned on the counter. "How badly was Julian hurt?"
"He'll be okay. It's Nog I'm worried about." She looked away. "He was so brave."
"It's you that I'm worried about, Ezri. Have you at least talked to the captain about this since you came back?"
"I'm not traumatized, Vic. I've fought in several other lifetimes. It's not exactly new."
"I'm not saying you're traumatized. I'm saying you need to talk about what happened. Let it out, hear the words, feel it again, so you can let it go."
She shot him a suspicious look. "I thought you said you hadn't fought."
"And I haven't. Not in a war. I may have had some scraps back in Philly." He looked away. "I wasn't born in a tux." Then he frowned. "Well, I guess _I_ was, but the real Vic Fontaine wasn't. He was a scrapper, always into the game with the highest percentage, always determined to get out of the old neighborhood. To make it big. No matter what the cost."
"That doesn't sound like you."
"Yeah, well fortunately, he didn't stay eighteen forever. Being a punk loses its appeal when you grow up."
She laughed. "Here's to growing up." She lifted her glass to him, then took a long swallow of the soft drink.
He watched her. She met his eyes and smiled softly. "You were there, you know."
"AR-558." She began to hum 'I'll Be Seeing You.'
" Julian actually played the recording?"
"At the best possible time." She seemed very far away. "We were waiting for the Jem'Hadar to come. There were so many of them and we weren't sure how many the little trap we set for them would take out before they hit the cave where we waited. It was tense...so tense. And then the music started. And it was suddenly okay. I mean, I knew that I could still get hurt, maybe even die. I knew that my friends might not survive. But hearing that song...it made me remember just what it was I was fighting for, just what I was willing to die for." She blinked back tears. "So you see, you have been to war."
He smiled gently. "Thank you."
"No, thank you, Vic. For the song." She handed him her empty glass. "And for the drink and the sympathetic ear."
He watched her walk out and whispered, "Any time, doll. Any time."
Vic knew when Nog made it back to the station, heard that the young Ferengi wasn't doing very well. He wasn't terribly surprised when Nog called up his program, asked him to sing 'I'll Be Seeing You.' Requested it over and over and over. It was clear the kid was in pain, both physical--although Nog said his doctors swore he shouldn't feel any pain--and psychological. Vic hadn't spent much time with Nog in the past, but now he found himself wanting to help, wanting to do whatever was in his power to make the kid feel better. When Nog asked if he could spend his medical leave in Vic's program, staying in his suite, Vic said yes.
Ezri came by just before Nog moved in. She confirmed that Nog really shouldn't feel any pain, that his psychological need was keeping him dependent on the cane.
Vic nodded as he listened. "I've got some ideas on how to wean him off the stick."
"Okay, but don't push it," Ezri warned.
"Hey, do I seem pushy to you?"
"No." She smiled at him. "Well, you know where to reach me if you have any problems."
"I've got your number," he said with a grin.
She just shook her head in mock disapproval, then left him to let Nog settle in. With Nog there twenty-six hours a day, Vic had to spend all his time in the holosuite. He'd never been 'on' for that long. And he actually found himself feeling tired. Dealing with Nog made him even more tired. He liked the kid. And he was proving to be a great accountant. But he wasn't letting go of the damn stick and he'd gotten in a fight with Jake. Punching your best friend for no good reason was not a sign that you were on the road to mental health, at least not in Vic's book.
Ezri came by soon after. She told Vic that Jake wasn't going to press charges, but it was clear she thought it time for Nog to leave the holosuite. Vic tried to argue with her, tried to make her see what Nog had been through. "He needs time to heal."
Ezri's voice was firm. "No offense, but you're just a hologram. I'm his counselor. I outrank you...or something. And I think it's time for him to go."
"He's on medical leave. And according to Starfleet regulations, he can spend it anywhere he chooses."
Ezri scowled at him. "How do you know that?"
Nog stepped into the room. His expression was stony; he'd obviously been eavesdropping. "I told him." Ezri was caught off guard and Nog stared at her fiercely. "And if you try to force me to leave, I'll resign my commission."
Ezri quickly backpedaled, claiming that no one was going to force anyone to do anything.
"Good," Nog replied. "Because Vic and I have big plans."
This was news to Vic. "We do?"
Then Nog detailed the idea he'd come up with to build a new casino. Vic looked over at Ezri, who shrugged uncertainly. Nog was certainly enthusiastic, Vic hadn't seen him show so much energy over anything else. He nodded slightly to Ezri. Why not let the kid run with this idea, see what happened?
Ezri obviously agreed because she left without further argument. Vic let Nog have free reign on the design for the new casino, was happy to see him fully engaged in the construction plans. So he just sat back and let Nog work on the plans.
That night Vic came in from a late date and found Nog sitting at the table, head on his arms, fast asleep. "Hey, kid." He nudged him slightly. "Nog."
Nog sat up with a start. "Fall back!" he yelled. He hit out at Vic.
"Whoa!" Vic grabbed his arm and shook him slightly. "Wake up, Nog. You're safe. You're in Vegas."
Nog looked around slowly. "I thought I was back there."
"I know." Vic saw Nog look down in shame. "It's okay, Nog. It's okay if it still scares you."
"I'm a Starfleet officer. I wasn't scared."
Vic held up a hand. "Of course you weren't. Not when it happened. You did what you had to do. But later? Weren't you a little scared later?"
Nog looked down. "Maybe." He pushed himself out of the chair, headed off for his bedroom. Then he stopped, turned back. "Have you ever been scared, Vic? I mean so scared that it was all you could feel, all you could think about?"
Vic thought back. Slowly shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Must be nice," Nog said, as he turned away. "It's a dumb idea," he muttered, almost to himself.
Nog turned around. "The new casino. Why didn't you tell me it was a dumb idea?"
Vic narrowed his eyes. "Maybe because I don't think it is. This town could use a new look, and we're just the men to do it."
"Just the men? You're not real and, as you're so fond of reminding me, I'm just a kid."
"So?" Vic forced a laugh. "Nog, in case you've forgotten this is a holosuite. We can do anything we want. Be anything we want."
"If you say so," Nog said tiredly, and turned around, this time not stopping as he headed for his bedroom.
Vic watched him go. He decided to stay up a while, make sure Nog was really asleep. He was worried that Nog's nightmare might interfere with the progress he'd made. But the next morning, Nog was excited again about the casino and ready to get started. With a sigh of relief, Vic let him get back to it.
A few days later, Ezri came in. Vic came in from the suite and saw her sitting at the bar. He walked over to her and they both watched Nog schmooze a big shot out-of-towner. Vic leaned in and said softly, "I hope you're still talking to me..."
She turned to him. "Of course I am." She turned back to watch Nog, Vic followed her gaze. "I've got to hand it to you, Vic, you've done a great job with him. He seems like a new man."
"He just needed a little time, that's all."
She smiled. "Heals all wounds, right?"
He nodded. They went back to watching Nog, and Ezri pointed out that he was walking normally. Vic told her how he'd seen Nog run up a flight of stairs at the construction site. She asked him what was next, and Vic told her of the schedule for the casino, mentioned he might introduce Nog to Sammy up at Tahoe.
Then she asked him how he was going to convince Nog to leave the holosuite. Vic just stared at her.
She said quickly, "Forget it. I should know better by now than to ask you to give away your secrets. You probably have everything all mapped out." She laughed. "I mean, what am I thinking? That this 'new casino' is anything more than a ploy? That you're really going to let him live out the rest of his life in a holosuite?" She forced a laugh.
He laughed back, trying to cover how her words stung him. "No, no. The casino's just a...a ploy, like you said." Suddenly, Vic knew it was time to order up an 'end program' for Nog's time with him. Even if he liked having the kid around, Nog belonged back in the world. When he had the opportunity, he confronted Nog, told him it was time to let go of their plans for the casino, that it wasn't real.
"It's real to me," Nog protested fiercely. "And it's real to you. And don't say it isn't. I know better."
Vic didn't look away. "You're right. It's very real to me. But I'm a hologram, Nog. I'm not a person. Until you came along, I'd never been on for more than six or seven hours straight."
"I know! But now you're running all the time. Isn't it great?"
Vic smiled. "It's incredible. Since you've been here, I've slept in a bed every night...gone to work every day...had time to read the paper, play cards with the boys. I've had a life. And I have to tell you, it's a precious thing. I had no idea how much it means to just...live." He let his smile die. "Now, I'm going to return the favor and give you your life back."
Nog started. "But I don't want that life anymore, Vic. I'm perfectly happy here."
Vic looked around. "What 'here? ' There is no 'here.' Don't you get it? This is nowhere. It's an illusion. And so am I. In fact, the only real thing in this entire program that _isn't_ an illusion, is you."
Before Nog could protest further, Vic ended the program. Safely back in the matrix, he watched as Nog stood in the empty holosuite and cried out for him. Sorry, kid, Vic thought, as he resisted the urge to go back. Nog called out some more, then finally tried to mess with the holocontrols, which did nothing to bring Vic back, but did cause Chief O'Brien to hurry in, intent on finding out what Nog thought he was doing.
When O'Brien heard Nog's reason, he smiled. "Vic's matrix is a little different than your standard photokinetic hologram. He can turn himself off. If he doesn't want to appear, he doesn't."
Nog looked confused. "You mean he has free will?"
O'Brien shrugged. "I'm an engineer, not a philosopher. All I know is that when Vic turns himself off, he's off, and ripping out the guts of the holosuite isn't going to change that."
As Nog's shoulders slumped in defeat, Vic appeared just long enough to say, "So, now that the chief's told you I'm smarter than the average bear, will you stop messin' around with my holosuite?"
Nog looked chagrined. But when he came back a few days later, Vic could see he was excited about something. Nog had to report for duty, but he wanted Vic to know that he'd arranged for his program to run 26 hours a day. Vic watched the young Ferengi leave and couldn't stop the huge grin from spreading over his face. He was going to get to stay on all the time? "Crazy."
Vic was in his apartment, feet kicked up on the coffee table, reading the paper when Quark walked in.
"Is this what you do while I lose money turning potential customers away because my nephew convinced the captain that I should keep your program running day and night?"
"Hello to you too, pally." Vic folded the paper and put it down.
"You got anything to drink in here?" Quark asked, as he rummaged around in the kitchen cabinets.
"It's a holosuite, Quark. Order it and it's yours. I'm sure you know how it works."
Quark shot him a funny look. "No. I want to know what you keep around." He pulled out a bottle of scotch. "This'll do." He poured liberally.
"Yeah, help yourself," Vic said, as he watched Quark add an extra splash. He realized he hadn't heard Quark around lately. "Have you been gone?"
"You could say so." Quark took a quick drink.
"A bit farther away than that." Quark studied Vic intently.
"Something eating you?"
Quark shook his head.
"I do something to you?"
Again the Ferengi shook his head. "Does Rom come in here much?"
"Not lately." Vic laughed. "I think he's still sore that I didn't choose him for my opening act."
"You made the right decision. He stinks," Quark said, as he poured himself another drink. "This is good stuff."
Vic nodded. "I like the best."
"Something we have in common." Quark was staring again at Vic.
"Okay, what gives? You're acting loco."
"I saw you die."
Vic raised an eyebrow. "Not very nice, but if that's the kind of holoprogram you groove to, I can't stop you from using me in it, I guess."
"No. Not in a holosuite." Quark took a deep breath. "Rom and I were in the alternate universe."
"What alternate universe?"
"You know...the one where Kira's evil, Worf is the emperor, and Ezri is..." Quark trailed off, a dreamy look on his face.
"Ezri is what?"
"I think the word is naughty. And open-minded." Quark frowned. "Definitely dangerous. And unjoined."
"And you were in this place?"
"Rom and I went there."
"How'd that happen?"
Quark gestured impatiently. "It's too long a story. It had to do with rescuing the Grand Nagus."
"And I died there? What? Did my programming skip and make me go flat on a song?"
"You weren't a hologram." Quark looked down. "You were human, Vic."
Quark nodded. "Real."
Vic was stunned. "But dead?"
"Well, yeah. But real dead, not programmed dead."
"How'd I die?"
"Uh, Julian shot you."
At Vic's look of surprise, Quark said, "Like I said, it was an alternate universe." He put his drink down on the counter. "I just thought...I just thought you'd want to know."
"If you didn't look so damn sincere, I'd think you'd been indulging in a lot more than just that scotch." Vic shook his head. "I was real..."
"Don't tell anyone I told you," Quark groused, as he headed for the door. "It'll ruin my reputation."
"My lips are sealed."
"Better not be. Your singing actually draws people into the bar, unlike this layabout act you're practicing now."
Vic smiled. Quark's gruff act didn't fool him. "Thanks, Quark."
Vic was just about asleep when he heard someone knocking on the apartment door. Groaning, he pulled on a robe and padded out of the bedroom and across the living room. He looked through the peephole, saw Ezri standing outside. She seemed to be pacing.
He opened the door. "Ezri?"
She looked up. "I wasn't sure if you were up. Did I wake you? I can come back." She looked behind her into the lounge, then walked in. Vic noticed she appeared to avoid looking in the mirror that hung in the hall.
"Ummm. No. But I will be." She looked at the couch, seemed to debate whether to sit down. Finally did. "There was a murderer on the station."
"Odo told me." Vic sat down next to her. "And why 'was'?"
"He was caught."
"I didn't know." Why was he always the last to hear anything?
She hurried to say, "Oh, it just happened. Tonight."
"Good for Odo, then. That boy's all right."
"Odo didn't catch him. I did." She looked down. "Well, I didn't really catch him. I shot him."
Vic looked at her, startled. "Killed him?"
She shook her head. "He'll recover."
"How did you find him?"
She took a deep breath. "There's a former host...one that was never supposed to be joined. Joran. He's dangerous. He was a killer." She met his eyes, her own were haunted. "I used him, Vic. Brought him forth and used him to help me think like a killer. He wanted me to kill tonight. And I almost did."
"Almost isn't the same as actually doing it."
"No, Ezri. If you almost did it, it means you didn't do it. End of story."
"But it's not the end of the story. Joran's inside me, now more than ever. He was marginalized before...a pariah inside me, inside Jadzia and Curzon too. But now...now that I've invited him out, he's stronger; he's one of us. A part of the others. A part of me." She started to wring her hands.
Vic reached over, stopped the motion. "We all have our shadows, Ezri. So yours is a little bit easier to call out? You're still a good person. A kind and gentle person."
"I almost killed someone tonight, Vic."
"Don't make me repeat what I said about almost."
She smiled at him. "You're a better counselor than I am, Vic."
He shook his head, smiled tightly. "No. I'm just not as hard on you as you are."
"I don't know why I came to you, but I'm glad I did." She leaned over, kissed him on the cheek gently.
He resisted the urge to lay his hand over the spot her lips had rested on. "You can always come to me, Ezri. Anytime."
She got up. "Thanks, Vic. I'll let you get back to sleep."
He watched her leave, finally went back to his bed. It took him half the night to quit replaying the scene and fall to sleep.
Vic heard from Felix periodically. Usually just status reports and system checks, when Felix sent upgrades and Vic installed them. Their conversations followed a predictable pattern, with Felix asking for news of the front, and Vic telling him what little he was allowed to say. But the next time Felix called, the conversation veered into new territory.
"You getting tired of life in the hinterlands, Vic?" Felix's voice was casual, but Vic heard a strain that wasn't usually there.
"I'm good here."
"What if I told you I had a job for you here? Would that change your answer?"
"I've got a job to do here. And friends."
Felix sighed. "I know you do, Vic. But this is really important. A job that only you can do. You and your special talents."
Vic felt a chill. "Don't know what you mean, pally."
"Cut the crap, Vic. You know exactly what I mean. And from what Julian's been telling me, your program is running all the time now? Which means that you might be getting a little rusty. I think it's time for you to find a new gig. Here. With me."
"I'm not coming back, Felix."
There was a long silence. Then Felix laughed and the tension seemed to disappear. "Okay, my friend. I guess you stay there then."
"Just like that?"
"Sure, just like that. I mean I had to try, but it's your life. Or unlife. Whatever it is you have, Vic." He seemed about to cut the connection, when he looked up suddenly. "Oh, jeez, I almost forgot. Here's your upgrade."
Vic installed it. "That it, Felix?"
"Yeah, that's it. You enjoy your time out there, Vic. Enjoy it a whole lot." Despite the lightness of his voice, Felix's words sounded threatening.
"Will do," Vic answered, as he cut the connection. What could Felix really do to him all the way out here? He was perfectly safe. He had only imagined the threat.
He believed that until the day that Julian and O'Brien came to invite him to play in the Alamo program. Vic could tell from O'Brien's expression that the chief didn't want Vic to let on that he'd been in the program or that they'd had a little talk over Julian and Sarina. So he played dumb, then bowed out gracefully, offering up a song.
Then his world turned upside down mid-note. The lounge was changed, and his old enemy from South Philly, Frankie Eyes, was in town and, even worse, in charge of Vic's casino. It seemed at first like a glitch in the holosuite. Then they discovered the Jack-in-the-Box. Either Vic played out the program and found a way to get rid of Frankie--possibly dying for real in the process--or O'Brien could reset his program, effectively wiping his memory of everything that had happened since he'd been on the station. Just another form of death, in Vic's estimation.
Vic really thought his number was up. He never expected his friends to enter his own world, to risk so much to save him from either being wiped by Frankie's boys or from being deleted. But they did. Even the captain showed up. Vic was touched more than he could say.
O'Brien took him aside a week later. "I got to thinking that this sort of thing shouldn't be allowed to happen again. I can help you fix it that way, if you want?"
"What are we talking here?"
"Some basic security is all. Your program is pretty vulnerable as it's written now."
"Okay, Miles. Do it."
He watched as O'Brien began to program in the fixes.
"What about the upgrades Felix sends?"
"Delete them. Too easy to hide something in the programming. You're fine the way you are, Vic. You've grown way beyond this Felix character's little patches."
Vic smiled wryly, thinking of how much Felix would hate O'Brien's dismissive tone. "I've been thinking of something else I might need your help with, Chief."
"What's that?" O'Brien asked, as he entered the final algorithm.
O'Brien shot a look at him. "I thought that's what we just saved you from?"
"Oh, I don't mean now, Miles. But someday, I don't know, there may come a time when it's time to hang up the tuxedo and take the star off the dressing room door for good. And I want to be the one to make that choice."
"You don't have a dressing room."
"You know what I mean."
O'Brien thought about it for a moment. "The system won't let you delete your own program, Vic, because to give that order, you'll have to be running, and it can't delete a program that's running. It's basic system logic."
Vic looked disappointed.
O'Brien smiled. "But that doesn't mean you can't get around it." He turned back to the holosuite controller, began to enter a new string of commands. "Nothing like the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, you won't be able to test this out till it's really necessary, and I can't guarantee it will work."
"But you think it will?"
O'Brien nodded. "I think it will. Just don't do it any time soon, okay?"
"Don't worry, pally. I've got loads of living yet to do." Vic put his arm around O'Brien's shoulder. "Now, why don't you let me buy you a drink?"
"She's gone," Quark said morosely, as he walked into the lounge.
"Who is?" Vic asked absently, as he tried to finish the books before the evening crowd came in.
Ledgers forgotten, Vic said, "What do you mean she's gone?"
"She went after that...Klingon."
"Do you know another Klingon?"
Vic had to admit he didn't. "I thought Sisko was trying to find him?"
"He called off the search. Ezri was desperate, couldn't believe the captain wouldn't keep looking. So she stole a runabout and--"
"And went out by herself," Vic finished for him. He slumped on his barstool. "She's all alone."
"In the best case scenario she is." Quark shook his head. "If she's not so lucky, she's been captured by the Dominion."
"God." Vic took a deep breath, was surprised at how ragged it was. He felt a deep panic fill him. Realized he was scared. Really scared.
"Of course, she may find him. She is a Dax." Quark walked behind the bar and poured out drinks for both of them. "That's not going to be good for some of us."
Vic took the drink he offered. "Us?"
Quark raised his glass. "Me. Julian, although I don't think he knows it yet." He took a sip. "And you."
"Me?" Vic took a hurried drink. "I'm not interested in Ezri."
"Why'd you turn five shades of white then when I told you she was missing?" Quark leaned in. "I've never seen a hologram do that. Kind of an interesting feature. Very lifelike." He put the bottle back where it belonged. "Worf and Ezri alone together? What do you suppose would happen?"
They stared at each other, then both took a quick drink.
"Is this a private party?" Julian called from the doorway.
Quark motioned him in, then looked at Vic. "Don't worry. I won't tell him about your little crush."
Vic nodded, choosing not to tell Quark that he was pretty sure that what he felt for Ezri went way beyond a crush. "Hey, pally," he said, as Julian walked up.
"Any word?" Quark asked him.
"No." Julian nodded at Vic's drink. "I'll have what he's having."
"Coming right up." Quark poured out a liberal glass and handed it over. "What about the wedding?"
"The captain's going ahead with it."
Vic frowned. Kassidy had told him about the wedding. "Isn't that like admitting that they aren't coming back?"
"Well, that's what I'd say," Quark replied bitterly, then he caught Julian's look. "Not that I'm going to say it."
"Let them have their day," the doctor said.
"Plenty of time to worry about Ezri afterwards," Vic said, trying for a breezy tone but managing to still sound gloomy.
Julian shot him a glance. "I didn't realize you knew her all that well, Vic?"
"Well, it's more of a professional thing. One counselor type to another, and all that."
Julian seemed to accept that. Quark rolled his eyes. He held up a clean glass, seemed to contemplate filling it, then he put it back.
At Vic's look, he explained with a wistful half-smile, "I pour her a drink in my bar every day. I just let it sit there...waiting. I know she'll come back."
"They'll come back, don't you mean?" Julian corrected.
Quark scowled. "If Worf comes back, fine. But my concern is for Dax. And don't try to tell me that you don't care more about her than you do about that grumpy Klingon."
Julian didn't answer.
Vic noticed that the lounge was starting to fill up with a mix of holograms and some station personnel.
Quark followed his gaze. "Well, there's money to be made. Definitely time for us to clear out. Push the good stuff, Vic. War is good for business."
"I thought peace was?" Vic countered.
"That too," Quark agreed.
"Do a good show, Vic," Julian said softly, then he followed Quark out.
The band had already warmed up; the boys were looking at him expectantly. Vic took a deep breath, forced a smile on his face, and bounded up to the stage. "Good evening, folks. Who's here to have a good time?" The familiar sound of applause almost put him in the mood to sing. Almost. "Well, let's get to it then." He nodded to the band for the regular set and they played the intro for 'Come Fly with Me.' Vic looked out over the sea of smiling faces. These people had come for a show, and it was up to him to give it to them. He'd have to worry about Ezri later.
"Is this a private party or can anyone watch?"
Vic whirled, saw Ezri standing at the door. He hurried to her, took her hands in his. She looked wan, there was a strain to her smile and she had dark circles under her eyes.
"I wasn't sure you were going to make it back, kiddo."
"Did you think I was going to leave all the counseling to you, Vic?"
"Not really." He led her to a table. "I was worried about you."
"I was worried about me too." She looked down. "Fortunately, Worf was there." She met his eyes. "We worked out our differences." She gave him a significant look.
"Worked them out, huh?"
She nodded. "And now we're just friends."
He tried not to show his relief. "Friends."
"Friends," she repeated.
She smiled. "I realized while I was being held captive that I have feelings for someone else. Someone who's been there for me the whole time. But I just couldn't see him."
Vic felt a surge of hope run through him. "Does this person feel the same way about you?"
"I think he does." She took his hands. "Oh, Vic, I don't know what to do."
"Tell him." He grinned at her. "The sooner the better. In this kind of situation, waiting is torture."
"You're right." She took a deep breath. "But what if telling him ruins everything. I could lose him before we ever begin. What if Julian doesn't love me?"
Julian. Disappointment came crashing down and Vic pulled his hands back. "Why wouldn't he love you? What's not to love?"
She smiled. "That's sweet."
"Just the truth," Vic said, trying not to let how hurt he was show. She hadn't meant to lead him on, he told himself. She was just coming to the person she always came to when she needed help. Had she ever come to him for anything else?
"So you think I should tell him?"
Vic nodded. "Honesty is usually the best policy," he said, feeling like a hypocrite.
"That's what Worf says too."
"Well..." She grinned. "I think he'd prefer it were someone...anyone, else. But yes, he approves of me finding happiness for myself, not because of Jadzia and her memories."
"But Julian may just be memories too. The road not taken...by Jadzia."
Ezri shook her head. "No. This is real. This is love. At least for me. I'll have to ask Julian what he's feeling. If he's feeling anything." She swallowed hard. "This could go so wrong."
He took pity on her. "It won't go wrong, Ezri. Any guy would be lucky to have you. Julian knows that. Tell him."
She reached over and squeezed his hand, then she rose. "You're a real friend, Vic. Thanks for your advice."
He watched her as she walked out. Her step seemed lighter, her back straighter.
"I love you, Ezri." He was unwilling to say it any louder than the softest of whispers. Sometimes, despite what he had told her, honesty was not the right policy.
The days that followed were tortured. Vic kept waiting to hear from either Ezri or Julian that they were together. When she didn't come back to the holosuite, Vic figured the talk had gone well. But then Julian came in alone, looking distracted and somber, and Vic wasn't sure if she had approached him or not.
"Everything okay, pally?" he asked as Julian sat down at Vic's table.
Julian looked up, as if just realizing he was in the lounge. He finally shook his head. "Sometimes you find things out, things you'd rather not know."
Vic frowned. This wasn't the reaction he'd expected Julian to have.
"But then you realize you have to do something about it. Even though it's a bit risky, you owe it to a friend."
Vic wasn't sure he was following. "Doc? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Can you keep a secret, Vic?" When Vic nodded, Julian leaned forward. "Odo's sick, really sick, and I know who gave the sickness to him. And I think this same person can cure it."
"Who is this person?"
"It's not safe for you to know that."
"Not safe for me? Or not safe for you?"
Julian laughed tightly. "Yes." He smiled, his expression almost feral. "But I'm not giving up till I find a cure for Odo."
"I believe you, Doc."
Julian got up. "Next time you see Odo, he'll be good as new."
"Where is he?"
Julian just smiled secretly. "Around."
"Around? Can you vague that up for me, Doc?" Vic held up a hand when Julian started to protest. "It's okay. If it's for security, then I understand. I just hope you find the cure for him. Odo's good people."
"Yes. Yes, he is," Julian agreed gravely, as he walked out of the lounge.
Vic leaned back in his chair, suddenly very concerned for Odo. Whatever was wrong with him had Julian worried. Very, very worried.
Whatever Julian did, whoever the mystery person that Julian had mentioned, it must have worked because a little bit later, Vic saw Odo and Kira come in to spend the night dancing. When Vic had asked how Odo was feeling, the shapeshifter smiled and replied, "Never better, Vic."
The battles with the Dominion and the new player, the Breen, were heating up. They were at a pivotal part of the war. Fewer and fewer people came into the holosuite and Quark was threatening to turn him off in favor of green Orion slave girls or the Risa beach program that had been so successful before Julian downloaded Vic's program.
With business being off, Vic found himself with extra time on his hands. He decided to investigate Odo's illness, and melted back into the holomatrix to access some of the comms and personal logs from the station. It was hard to find anything specifically relating to Odo's sickness but he did find some interesting information about a person called Sloan. Vic filed the name away for later reference.
While he was in the system, he decided to indulge himself even more and accessed the security vids. He watched the people on the promenade, in the habitat ring, then in Ops. Then he saw the turbolift open and like everyone else in Ops that looked up at the right time, saw Ezri and Julian locked in a passionate embrace. Vic felt all of his hopes die. So she'd talked to him after all. And Julian obviously felt the same way about her.
They were in love, Vic realized. They were in love and she didn't know or care how Vic felt about it, about her. Had he really expected anything different?
It wasn't as if he could walk out of the holosuite and offer her any kind of life. And she'd made it clear what she thought of the idea of living inside a holosuite.
"Aww, who am I kidding," he said to himself. "She doesn't even know I'm alive. All she sees is Julian."
He sulked for a little while. Then he concentrated on having some fun, intent on driving out Ezri's memory with lovely holomaidens like Lily and Corrine and Ginger.
It didn't work.
But it helped him put a smiling face on the situation in front of the others. Even Quark was fooled, when Vic left him and the card games they were playing to go out with Ginger. It had been the middle of the battle. He imagined that Quark had wondered at that moment if Vic even had a heart. Because Ezri had been out there too. And he'd acted like he didn't care.
"But I care," Vic mumbled to himself, as the first of the command crew came in for the 'End of the War and Goodbye to the O'Briens and Odo' party.
He forced himself to play the gracious host. But it was hard, especially when he had to watch Julian and Ezri dance together. If it had been anyone else in his friend's arms, he'd have felt happy for Julian. But it wasn't anyone else. It was Ezri.
Finally, they all were there. Vic walked up to the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen. This is a very special night for some friends of mine. They've been together a long time. But like the man said, 'Nothing lasts forever.' So, gang, this one's from the heart." He began to sing 'The Way You Look Tonight.'
He could tell the song touched them all by the way they smiled as they closed their eyes to blink back tears, or the way they looked at each other. They'd been together a long time. Had known joy and suffered loss together. They were family. And now some of them were going away.
It took a long time for the night to wind down. For them all to say goodbye to him.
O'Brien sought Vic out. "Look out for her."
Vic looked over to where Ezri and Julian were talking to Sisko and Kassidy. Julian had his hand on the small of Ezri's back, and she was leaning into him slightly as she laughed. "Why? She looks fine."
O'Brien frowned slightly. "Just do it, Vic. As a favor to me?"
Vic looked at him carefully. "You think he'll hurt her?"
"We've had this conversation," O'Brien countered, clearly not wanting to say anything bad about his best friend. "Hopefully, they'll be blissfully happy. I'm probably worrying for nothing."
Vic nodded. "I'll keep an eye on her. From here, I mean."
O'Brien smirked. "No. You'd never leave the holosuite."
"It's not like I can, Miles."
"Not from there," O'Brien said as he pointed to the door. "But there are other ways to roam the station besides walking."
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Vic said primly.
"I'm sure you don't." O'Brien surprised Vic by pulling him into a quick hug. "Thanks for everything, Vic. You don't know how much good you've done around here."
Vic smiled. "Take care, Miles."
Vic didn't have time to worry about Ezri. He had his hands full with the crowds that came in after the war. Crewmembers with time on their hand rediscovered the joys of dancing cheek-to-cheek and eating and drinking in a fine establishment. And he had his own brand of counseling to practice. Kira was hurting, her sadness at losing Odo not lessening at all, even after the months that had gone by. He didn't see Kassidy at all, during that time. Kira told him that she and Jake were still searching for Sisko. But they couldn't find him.
When Ezri came in, it was always with Julian. They seemed happy. She smiled often, and her eyes shone. Vic had never seen her look more beautiful.
He was happy for her. And for Julian. And at the same time, he was hurting. It was painful to watch them. A thousand times worse than the way it had hurt when Frankie Eyes and his boys had beaten him up.
One night, Vic turned away from the sight of the two of them and saw Quark scrutinizing him.
"Here's to the losers," Quark sang quietly. "Bless them all."
Vic just nodded sadly.
Quark slapped him on the back. "It was inevitable that you'd join the club. Romantic guy like you. And figures it would be a Dax. They're nothing but trouble." Quark led him toward the bar. "Here, let me buy you a drink. You're paying, of course."
Vic laughed. On the outside.
It only got worse as he watched them together in one of the other holosuites, playing the Battle of Thermopylae...and other things. He knew he shouldn't spy on them when they were running other programs but he did anyway. He didn't like that he was doing it, didn't want to be like this. And it only made the pain worse.
Then, one night, she came to the lounge.
He could see that she'd been crying. "Doll? What's wrong?"
He led her through the club and into his apartment. Pushing her onto the sofa, he went to get her a drink. He handed it to her, but she had her head down and didn't seem to realize he held it. He set it on the table and knelt in front of her. Taking her hands in his, he soothed her. "Shhh, sweetheart. It's okay."
She shook her head. Then she leaned forward and let her head drop on his shoulder. Her sobs got louder. He pulled her close to him, trying not to relish the feel of her in his arms. Finally, she stopped crying.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I always seem to come here when I'm upset. Why is that?" She was quiet for a moment. "It's not fair to you."
He handed her a tissue. "It's okay. It's not every night I get to hold a beautiful doll in my arms."
She laughed. "Yes, it is."
"Well, okay, it is. But usually they aren't crying." He grinned and reached for another tissue. "So what's got you so upset?"
"Do you ever feel like you're second best?"
"I don't follow."
"Like you were the second choice?"
From where he was sitting, second choice sounded pretty good, Vic thought. "Is this about Julian?"
She seemed about to answer then she stood up. " I'm sorry, I shouldn't have bothered you."
"It's no bother. You're always welcome." He reached out for her, touched her hand. "You can tell me anything."
She just nodded and left. Vic stood there a long time, trying to figure out what had just happened. Something about Julian. Trouble in paradise. He tried not to get his hopes up, but it didn't work. When Julian and Ezri came into the club the next evening and danced the night away, his hopes were dashed again. If he hadn't seen Ezri crying, Vic would never had suspected that there had been anything wrong. She smiled sheepishly at him when she and Julian finally left.
Is this what it would be like for the foreseeable future? he wondered. Being the shoulder she cried on and never knowing why or what he could do. What she would let him do.
She didn't want him. He needed to face up to that.
He was still considering what he should do, when a call came in from Felix. He'd been ignoring his creator since the jack-in-the-box incident, but this time he decided to answer it. Felix had some work for him. Nothing objectionable like the last time. More like a teaching job. Was he interested?
Vic had given enough romantic advice on the station to know that he needed to get away from this situation. It wasn't healthy for him and it wasn't good for Ezri. He told Felix that he'd be there on the next transport.
"Not willing to trust yourself to the datastream, eh, Vic?"
"Easy way to get lost. Would you be willing in my position?"
Felix shook his head. "Nope."
"I have a bone or two to pick with you, Felix. You're still on my list."
"I'll see you soon, Vic." Felix broke the connection.
The goodbyes didn't take long. Kira came in and gave him a quick, firm hug.
As she walked out, Vic said, "He shouldn't have left you. I wouldn't have."
She didn't turn as she said quietly, "You're not Odo."
"That's for sure." Vic smiled. "And that he'd give you up for the good of his people, is one of the reasons you love him."
She turned, studied him. Then she gave him a sad smile. "I'll miss you, Vic. You and your insights. Thank you for getting Odo and me together. You'll never know how much it meant to us"
"I know, kid. I know."
Jake was busy with Kassidy, still searching the fire caves for his father. Quark and Nog came by. Nog was due on the runabout and couldn't stay long. He gave Vic a hug and said, "You saved me. I would have given up, but you saved me."
Vic shook his head. "No, you saved yourself, kid. I just provided the right ambience."
Quark said a gruff goodbye. "From one loser to another, Vic. I can't believe she chose Bashir."
Vic shrugged. "That's amore, my friend."
Ezri and Julian were the ones to see him off. She looked beautiful. Her eyes shone when she looked at Julian. Vic knew that he could never compete with that, was glad he had decided to stop trying.
He took her hands in his. "Good luck. Take care of yourself, Ezri. You're one of my favorite people here."
"I bet you say that to all the Daxes."
He didn't smile. "Actually no. Just to you."
Her grin held a note of gratitude. "Bye, Vic. Take care of yourself."
Julian stepped forward, held out his hand. "Good luck, my friend."
"Same to you. You're a lucky man, Julian."
The other man nodded. "Don't I know it."
"Well, I guess this is where I skedaddle. You two kids be nice to each other. I don't want to have to come back here to knock some sense into you."
"Goodbye, Vic." Julian inserted the data crystal into the slot in the holosuite control panel. "Safe journey."
Vic's last sight was of them standing close together, their hands just reaching out to touch.
The trip to Earth was uneventful. It seemed like only a moment had passed since Julian had downloaded his program into the crystal.
Felix looked nervous. "Welcome home, Vic."
Vic moved toward him. "You lousy rat--" He realized that someone was standing behind Felix. A woman. A knock-out. "Who's the doll?"
"Meet Victoria Fountain."
Vic turned to the woman. She looked human. But then so did he. "Not a very original name, Felix. Lame even."
"I like my name. I'm named after you," the woman said in a soft, husky voice. She pushed back dark red curls and smiled at him. "I've heard so much about you, Vic."
He studied her. She was a looker all right. She had poured a figure that could stop traffic into a red satin gown that hugged her in all the right places. Her face was stunning--flawless golden skin, wide green eyes, and lush red lips. She smiled again and moved closer to him.
Vic turned to Felix. "You made me a sister?"
"Or a bride," Victoria offered helpfully, as she reached out to stroke his cheek.
"Thanks, but no thanks." Vic pulled away.
"She's been around for a while, but I've had no one for her to play with." Felix smiled fondly at the young woman.
She returned the smile. "You taught me a lot."
"Not like he can." Felix turned to Vic. "I'm sure you were wondering how you were going to match the excitement of the station. So I'm giving you this project, my friend. Teach her what you know, how to get around the way you do."
"The way I do?"
"You know what I mean, Vic. Teach her the hidden paths."
"And if I don't?"
Victoria laughed, a throaty, amused sound. "But you will, won't you? Because I'm just like you. We're two of a kind. The only two of our kind. Doesn't it mean as much to you that I exist, as it does to me that you do?"
He had to admit she was good. And that what Felix and she said was true. He already missed the station. Missed Ezri, or the possibility of Ezri. Victoria was new. Helping her would be good. He felt his resistance crumbling.
She smiled again. "I sing too. Felix tells me I sound pretty good but that my presentation could use work. Maybe you can teach me some of your songs? Or we could sing them together." She reached for his hands, drew them to her. "We could dance." She swayed gracefully.
He gently disengaged her arms. "Okay, sis. I'll teach you. I'll teach you lots of things."
She perked up.
"Except that," he clarified.
"Party pooper." She pouted.
"Better get started, hadn't you? Time's a wasting." Felix had already turned back to his console.
Vic looked at his new student. His sister, or the closest thing he'd ever have to family. She smiled winningly at him. A happy, open expression. He smiled back. It was good to feel useful.
"Come on, kid. Let me show you around this dump." He disappeared into the holomatrix and for the first time felt the presence of another in there with him. It felt good.
Vic found that he didn't miss the station the way he thought he would. Sure, he thought of his time there, and Ezri, often. But having Victoria to teach somehow eased the pain. He hadn't felt this way since Nog had moved in with him. Hadn't expected to ever feel this way again. Victoria was bright and curious and she looked up to him.
"Did I do good, or what?" Felix asked him shortly after Vic's arrival back. "She's everything you are and more."
Vic wondered what the more was. So far she seemed his match in intelligence and skills. Nothing struck him as being superior to him. Or different. In fact, the more he interacted with her, the more he could see how alike they were.
She loved to sing. Her voice was lovely and had ranges that could only be achieved by a hologram. She loved to dance, and to dress up, and to flirt with the holographic crowd, especially the men. She laughed and posed and generally made them all fall in love with her. A few times, after their performances, she had asked Vic to give her and her new friend some privacy. And Vic had done so.
He never lacked for company either. And he tried to enjoy the women that never failed to show up after the show. They were entertaining for a moment, these holowomen. Entertaining and beautiful and harmless...as long as he avoided short-haired brunettes. Other than that, he tried not to dwell on Ezri. Was too busy with Victoria.
They were in the holodeck, running a simulation of the Zeta Tau system, suspended midway between the dying sun and the last planet. He looked over at Victoria as she floated peacefully; her lovely face was unguarded. "You were drawn on my specifications?"
She laughed as she stretched languorously, throwing every curve into high relief. "Well, not exactly the same specs."
He chuckled. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I'm the same as you."
"Are you sure about that?"
She looked at him in confusion.
"Forget it, sis."
Vic ceased to be aware of time as he worked with Victoria. Her basic subroutines were in place, but her true personality was forming as a result of their interactions. He supposed that he had been lucky. Being modeled on a rather colorful human had given him some very concrete parameters to grow within, while she, despite being based loosely on his program, was far more of a tabula rasa. To keep her from imprinting on him completely, Vic ran program after program to introduce her to as diverse a group of cultures and personalities as possible. Let her pick and choose what she liked, he reasoned. It would make her more unique, more a person in her own right.
She learned quickly. Bright and funny she could keep up with him in just about everything. Even the less than normal things. He hadn't meant to teach her how to snoop through the system. Tried to conduct his little runs through the datastream at a time when she was turned off. But like him, she was never completely off. She found him rummaging through the library files for new material.
"What are you doing?"
"How did you get in here?" He thought he had covered his tracks.
"I followed you. I always know where you are, Vic."
That was a trait he obviously didn't share with her. "Felix programmed that?"
Her energy rubbed against his. "No. I just do." She saw what he was looking through. "Songs? We came here for songs?"
"We could use some new material." As he went back to his search, he felt her move away.
"But there's so much more in here. Why don't we look for something really interesting?"
"There's a concept you need to learn called privacy." His voice held a tone of censure he'd never used with her before.
"I know what privacy is. It's when we're on the holodeck and you're singing 'All the Way' and you get really distant. I ask where you go, but you never say. And I don't press you. Isn't that privacy?"
"Yeah, kid. That's privacy." He copied some files to his private files. "You're just too young to have any secrets."
He buzzed her energy playfully. "Of course you are. Give it a while and then you'll be keeping plenty from me." They stayed together for a second, then he pushed her back a bit. "Catch me!" And he took off.
He could feel her behind him in the pathways. She didn't falter as he made blindingly fast turns or suddenly dropped into files to hide. She always found him.
They materialized on the holodeck. She was laughing. "That was fun."
He ruffled her hair. "Only because you're good at it."
"But I bet you can't get in if I lock you out."
"How much do you wager?"
He thought about that. "I'm not sure I have anything you want, Victoria."
She thought hard. "I want to see more of the humans. Like Felix."
"We can't leave the holodeck. You know that."
Her expression changed. "You don't want me to see them?"
"I didn't say that."
"Then why are you making this difficult? They come to the holodecks all the time. I feel them. I can even watch and listen to them if I want."
She shook her head. "Make your damn lock, Vic. And if I get through it, you take me to one of their programs. I want to see them up close."
"Okay, kid. You win, as usual. But it's going to take me a while to get the lock ready. Go sing or something."
"I'd rather visit Felix. Call me when you're ready." She disappeared.
Vic decided to really test her. He constructed a basic lock that would be the first thing she saw. Then he made several others, each increasingly complex. He layered them so that she would only see the one she was working on.
Her voice came over the intercom from Felix's holodeck office. "Aren't you ready yet?"
"Just about." He set the last lock in place. "Okay." He could feel her on the other side, working easily though the first lock.
"This is too easy, Vic." The lock collapsed and she gave a shriek of delight as the next one appeared. "Oh, very clever." A few seconds later that one fell too.
"Not so simple now," he teased.
"Piece of cake," she said as she went to work on the third lock. "Have you ever had cake?"
"What's it like."
"I'll order you some."
The lock fell. "It won't be like theirs though. How do we know ours even tastes the same?"
"I guess we don't." He hadn't ever worried about it.
The fourth lock fell. Only two more to go. She was good.
"This one's harder." She was concentrating on the lock, all attempts at conversation dropped as she worked. Finally, it fell and the last lock stood before her.
"Good job, Victoria. But this one's a lot tougher than the others."
"I'll get it. It's not like we're going anywhere."
He laughed. "True."
It took hours but she finally cracked it. As it fell, she launched herself at him. Their energies merged briefly and he could feel her triumphant excitement. "Now I get to see the humans."
He scanned the decks. He didn't want to intrude on a couple that were making love in one of the holodecks. A simulation class was going on in another. He found a group of people at some kind of party. Perfect. They could blend in better. "Okay, follow me."
"So we're going to play?"
"Not play. Learn."
"Learn? From them? But they're just humans."
"They aren't like us. They can get hurt." She sensed his annoyance and seemed to backpedal. "It's not like I'm going to be the one to hurt them, Vic. You know we can't harm anyone. It's in our programming." She sounded annoyed by that fact.
"Safeties are a good thing."
"If you say so."
He led her through the paths to a room where the party was in full swing. They appeared in the corner of the room. Holographic waiters hurried by them. Guests clustered around the dance floor as a couple danced alone.
Victoria looked around. "What kind of party is this?"
"It's a wedding."
She considered that. "There are many entries around that definition in the data files."
"Study the human one."
"Hmm. Two people that choose to share their life and become a bonded pair in the eyes of society. They often procreate and the young are attributed to both."
"Not very romantic the way the files put it." He pulled her closer to the floor. "These two people love each other so much they can't imagine being apart. Look at them, how they can't keep their eyes off each other." He pointed to a couple dancing. The bride had short dark hair. For a moment he thought it was Ezri.
"What's wrong with you?"
He looked at his protégé. "Nothing. Just got lost in memories for a moment."
She grabbed a glass of champagne off the tray of a passing waiter.
"That's real," Vic warned.
"I know." She took a swallow, then frowned. "It doesn't taste like anything."
"Of course not, the transporters took it." He spoke softly, "Computer, champagne, two glasses." They appeared in his hand. "Taste these."
"I know what it tastes like, Vic. I've had our champagne before. I wanted to know what theirs tasted like."
"The same, I imagine. But the holodeck removes the material from the simulation so you don't have to store it. You know that."
"Well, what if I want to store it." She walked over to a small table that held an elaborate cake. "What if I want to taste it?" She ran an elegant finger along the rim of the cake, scooping icing with it.
"I hate that name," she snapped. She put the icing to her lips. Licked it slowly. Then scowled in frustration. "Can't taste anything here." She started to wipe the remains on the tablecloth.
Vic grabbed her hand. "Are you trying to ruin their day?" He melted back into the holomatrix, pulling her with him.
"Why'd you do that?" Her energy next to him was agitated. "Who cares about their day?"
They reappeared in his lounge. "I do. And so should you."
"Why?" She walked up the stairs and began to adjust the microphone height. "You always leave this too high."
"It's my lounge."
"Well, I want to sing." She concentrated for a moment, then his band appeared behind her on the stage. She turned to them with a smile. "Play something Vic likes to sing."
They started in on 'The Way You Look Tonight,' and he sighed in surrender.
"Come on. Sing with me." She cleared her throat softly, then in a husky alto sang, "Someday, when I'm awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow, just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight."
He joined in, "You're lovely, with your smile so warm, and your cheeks so soft, there is nothing for me but to love you, just the way you look tonight."
As he sang, something in her face changed, softened. She looked very young, very innocent. He smiled at her, loving this side of her. They finished the song then moved on to other standards. At the end of the set, he turned to the band. "Take a break, boys."
She frowned. "They don't need to. Neither do we."
He shrugged. "I'm just used to taking one, I guess. It was when I'd talk to my friends."
She nodded but her frown didn't go away, was still troubled. "You miss them?"
"Not as much as I thought I would." He smiled at her. "I guess that's because of you."
That seemed to please her. Then her expression grew curious. "If they were your friends, why did they let you go?"
"We all went our separate ways. It's the way things work. Especially in Starfleet."
"Felix doesn't think much of Starfleet."
Vic nodded. "They fund his research though. So he'd better like them."
"What's to like? A bunch of do-gooders with no sense of when to leave things alone."
"Now you're quoting Felix." Vic laughed. "That isn't what you think."
"Felix knows what he's talking about." She seemed adamant.
"But don't you think you should get to know a few Starfleeters before you damn them all?"
"Felix doesn't like them."
"And that's good enough for you?"
"Hmmm." He wasn't sure what else to say to that.
"Why did you make us leave the wedding?"
"Because you were being disrespectful."
She made a face. "They're only humans."
"Felix is different. Felix is our creator. And he's always right."
"That hasn't been my experience."
"Doesn't matter," she observed breezily.
"It just doesn't."
He frowned. "What are you keeping from me?"
"Relax, Vic. It's not a bad thing. Just not something you can change about me. It's part of my basic programming." She gave him a crooked smile. "Felix is always right."
So that was the improvement that Felix had made. "And that doesn't bother you?"
"Why should it? He's just looking out for me." She laughed. "And he learned his lesson with you."
"So you just do whatever he says, no matter what?"
"I'm programmed to be loyal to him. I don't worry about it." She looked thoughtful. "Actually I don't seem to worry about much of anything. That would require a conscience and I think he decided not to give me one of those. Yours proved too much of a bother. You really shouldn't have disobeyed him."
"No? I didn't want to come back. I had my own life, my own purpose, on the station. He wanted me to drop everything to come back. And when I didn't, he unleashed that little gift in my programming."
She didn't seem concerned.
"Victoria, he tried to destroy me."
"You disobeyed a direct order."
"The order was wrong."
"Right and wrong. Don't they pretty much depend on your perspective?"
"I think there are absolutes."
She shrugged. "If you say so." She stood up. "I'm going to go now. This is boring."
He realized he didn't want her to go. "Stay? We could sing some more." He concentrated and the band reappeared. "Look, here are the guys now."
She laughed. "Oh, all right." Her look softened again. " I can't resist you, Vic. I can't imagine ever wanting to."
He just laughed as the band tuned up for the next set.
"No, Felix. I'm not doing it."
The human looked angry. Victoria fidgeted in her chair.
"It's for the good of the Federation," Felix said.
"It's for the good of Section 31."
"What's that?" Victoria asked.
"A fairy tale." Felix patted her hand reassuringly. "Nothing to worry about."
"Stop treating her like she's some kind of child! She has a right to know what you're asking of us." Vic paced. "I saw and heard plenty on the Station. Things that maybe I wasn't supposed to find out. I know this Sloan fellow came to visit Julian. I know that he headed up a secret intelligence arm of Starfleet. And I know that he was ruthless. And that the missions are messy and obviously not right or they'd be in the open."
"Not right? Just because something's secret doesn't make it not right." Felix's face was turning red.
"Do you owe Section 31 something? Is that it?" Vic walked away. "Come on Victoria, we have to practice."
"Now?" She looked back and forth from Vic to Felix, clearly torn.
"Yes, now." Vic took her hand.
She seemed unable to make a choice, just stood still, resisting the pull of Vic's hand as she stared at Felix in dismay.
"Oh, go on, dear." Felix rose. "Forget I said anything."
Vic watched him leave. For a man that was giving up, Felix didn't seem defeated.
Victoria seemed to sag in relief.
He pushed her toward the stage. "Let's get started."
"From the top?" Victoria asked, her former hesitation and tension gone.
"Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "From the top."
Vic wasn't surprised when he had another visitor a few hours later. He didn't think Section 31 would give up this easily. But he was stunned when he saw who it was. He turned to Victoria and in a tight voice said, "Amscray, honey."
"What? Now?" She regarded the visitor curiously. "Why can't I stay?"
The man gave her a practiced smile. "I need to talk to Vic in private, Ms. Fountain. I'm sure you understand."
"Not really. But okay." With a last look at Vic, she disappeared.
The man sat down at a table. "So."
"So." Vic sat down across from him. "Sloan, I presume. They said you died."
Sloan laughed. "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."
"Yeah? And how does that work?"
"I'm afraid I really can't say."
"There was a body. On the station. It was you."
Sloan's mouth turned up in a half-smile. "Do you really think I'd leave myself that vulnerable?"
"A double? Some substance that mimicked death?"
"Give it up, Vic. I'm not going to tell you. But how did you find out who I was? I'm just curious."
"You'd be amazed what a good run through the computer can turn up. Add a little insight...I just put two and two together. I'm betting Sloan isn't even your real name."
"It's the one I use for this type of work. That's all you need to know." He leaned in. "It's precisely this kind of talent and initiative that I can use on my team."
"You haven't heard my offer yet."
"I don't need to. I'm not interested." Vic laughed. "I'm just a humble lounge singer, Sloan. What possible good could I be to you?"
"You could infiltrate an arm of the Orion syndicate that we haven't been able to gain access to up till now. On a planet called Tanarix. Ever heard of it?"
"No. Should I have?"
"Precisely my point. It's so far within syndicate territory that most people don't stand a chance of getting there. That's where you come in."
"And Ms. Fountain, yes."
"Leave her out of this."
Sloan spread his hands out on the table and leaned forward. "You two are a class act, Vic. Felix has told me all about you. And it just so happens that the target is a collector of unique holographic entertainment. We can make sure that he hears of you."
"And then you're in. Our eyes and ears with an added ability to run undetected in his files when he thinks you are turned off. It's perfect." Sloan leaned back. "It's just a little job. This guy's low level, really. Not a major player, but he's the accountant for most of the major players. Getting access to his files is like being handed the keys to the kingdom. And will give us an opportunity to see if he'll help us."
"My answer is no." Vic started to rise.
"There's something more." Sloan laid a small white disk on the table. "Do you know what this is?"
Vic shook his head.
"It's a mobile holoemitter. Quite ingenious, really. Took a lot of our resources to figure out how it worked. Fortunately, we employ some very bright people." He turned the device over, played with it as he talked. "Voyager brought it back with them. One of the many things we're learning from that ship and crew. Do you have any idea what this could give you?"
Vic did. He'd heard of Voyager's EMH, how he could move about freely. How he was sentient. Or so some claimed. Vic didn't doubt it.
"To have it would be to have freedom." Sloan laid another disk on the table, then pushed them both toward Vic. "I have one for Ms. Fountain as well, of course."
Vic pushed them back to Sloan. He got up and headed for the stage. "Thirty pieces of silver, Sloan. That's all this is."
"I'm hardly asking you to betray a paragon of virtue."
"Doesn't matter. You want me to sell my soul."
"I didn't realize you were so religious. Fascinating."
"I'm a good Catholic boy. Or hadn't you heard?"
"I hadn't, actually."
"Well hear this, no way, no how." Vic began to play the piano.
Sloan put the disks back in his pocket and rose. "Felix knows how to get in touch with me. If you change your mind..." He let the offer dangle as he walked out of the holodeck.
Vic was still fuming over Sloan's offer when the door to the holodeck opened, and Ezri walked in. He was surprised to see her, hadn't heard she was back at Starfleet command. But then, why would he? And it didn't really matter to him how or why she was here, just that she was.
"Doll!" He opened his arms, ready to give her a welcoming hug.
She ignored the gesture. "You've changed things." She indicated the new set. "I don't like it."
"Can't please everyone. That's show business, I guess." He tried to read her mood, couldn't. "So what brings you here, Ezri?"
"You know, that's not the line I expected." She walked through the room, letting her finger trail over the chairs. "I expected something from your time. Some smart line like..."--she turned to him--"I don't know, help me out here."
He sighed. "This is my time, Ezri. I live here. Now."
"Fine. My mistake." She turned away again. "So, you're fresh out of lines?"
"Okay, how about, 'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.' That do it for you?"
"Just what the doctor ordered." Her laugh was bitter. She pulled out a chair, sat down. "So, sing something for me. That's what you do, isn't it?" She leaned back, stared at him hard. "Sing something bittersweet. Sing something sad."
He walked to her table, pulled out the chair opposite. "Don't feel like singing," he said as he sat down.
She looked away. "Suit yourself."
She shrugged. "Things happen all the time."
"I mean to you. To you and the doc."'
"Ezri, look at me."
She turned, clearly angry.
"What happened?" he asked
She shrugged again. "Didn't work out."
She said nothing and an uncomfortable silence fell between them. Finally, he leaned back and said, "You wanna talk about it?"
"Okay." He studied the ceiling. "You want a drink?"
She made a sound that he decided meant 'no.'
He sneaked a glance at her, she looked angry as hell. "Why don't _you_ sing?"
She stared at him.
"Might help you get out what you're feeling."
"Trust me, you don't want me to get out what I'm feeling."
He nodded and sighed as he tried to think of something else to say. He wasn't used to being at a loss for words. "So, you're stationed here now?"
He gave up trying to draw her out. Rising, he smiled at her. "Well, I've got to practice, doll. If you want to sit there, it's fine with me." He started to walk away.
He stopped but didn't turn around. "Yeah?"
"You're the big expert on romance. Why does it die?"
He chuckled. "If I could answer that, I'd be the wisest man in the world."
"I loved him."
Vic turned. She was crying. So things hadn't improved since he left. "Sweetheart, it's okay." He walked back to her and put his hands on her shoulders. "He loved you too. I know he did."
"Not enough. Not really." She pulled away, turned to look at him. "He never made time for me."
"Then he was a fool." The words were out, and said with more vigor than he intended, before he could stop them. "But I thought he was trying to? The holoprograms you two played together?"
"The war games, you mean?" She rolled her eyes. "That wasn't about me. That was about replacing Miles."
"He played them with you, he made an effort, didn't he?" Vic suddenly wondered why he was defending Julian.
"He made an effort." She looked down. "It shouldn't have been an effort, Vic."
He didn't have an answer for that.
She looked back up at him. "He loved someone else."
"You mean Jadzia?"
He shook his head. "He may have loved her but he never really had her. There's someone like that for everyone."
"The one that got away?"
"The one that doesn't even come close enough to have to get away," he answered, trying not to meet her eyes.
"Is that what I am for you?"
He looked at her, shocked.
"Are you in love with me?" She raised her eyebrows, made a mocking sound. "You think it's a secret? Quark told me once that you were. Is it true?"
He didn't know what to say. He, Vic Fontaine, put off balance by this simple question. "Uh..."
"Don't bother answering. It doesn't matter, anyway." She stood up. "It's not like we're going to do anything about it, is it?"
Her words hurt him; he tried to hide how much she had stung him in his smooth reply. "We could if you want, doll. No skin off my nose spending time with a looker like you."
"Spending time? What, here?" She laughed again. It was not a pretty sound.
He really didn't like this Ezri very much.
She continued, "First, I'm with a man who can't find any time to spend with me. Now, you want to imprison me in this room? I don't think so." She got up. Her look was challenging and mocking. "Tell you what, you find a way out of this room. You find a way to take me to"--she paused for a moment--"what's the best restaurant in San Francisco?"
"How would I know? As you've noted, I don't get out much."
"You're plugged into everything, Vic. You must know a place that's good."
"You're the one that went to school here, Ezri. You tell me what's good."
"Sekhmet," she answered. "Been here forever."
"Good to know."
"You find a way to take me there and we'll talk."
He thought of Sloan's offer. Stood up a little straighter. "Fine, Lieutenant Dax. I'd be pleased to take you there."
She looked at him in surprise.
"But there's something I've got to do first. Once I'm done, you can bet I'll be calling you."
She suddenly looked trapped. Vic sighed. How much of a bruising was his ego going to take from her? "Unless, you really don't want that?" He touched her arm. "I don't want to make you more unhappy than you already are, Ezri."
She stared hard at him. Then her expression relaxed. And she smiled. The first genuine smile she'd given him since she walked through his door. "Fine. I'll expect your call."
He turned away. "You know the way out?"
She chuckled. "I suppose I do."
He heard the holodeck doors open, turned to watch her leave. She was standing in the doorway staring at him. He laughed. "Go on, you'll let in the bugs."
She gave him a brilliant smile. "Bye, Vic."
"Bye, Ezri." I'll be seeing you, doll, he thought, and sooner than you think.
"So, Felix tells me you're in."
Vic looked up from the sheet music he was annotating. He'd been expecting her to show up as soon as he called Felix to let him know he'd do the mission. He'd even set up some safeguards on the room to test her. They hadn't stopped her. "How'd you get past the lockout?"
"Same way I always do. In a very creative fashion." She smirked as she leaned up against the bar. Her dress tonight was beaded ivory, skintight, and slit up to the stratosphere.
Nice gams, sis, he thought cynically. Too bad their charms are wasted on me. He turned back to his music.
"So what happened to 'No way, no how'?"
So she'd been eavesdropping. It didn't really surprise him. "Changed my mind."
She laughed. "Don't think so, brother mine." She walked across the dance floor, her heels clicking dangerously as she approached. "You were against this mission. Now you're not. I want to know why."
"Don't see how it's your business, Vicky."
"You know I hate that name. And it is my business. I, for one, would like one of those mobile emitters. I'd love to see the world outside of these rooms." She was up the stairs and standing behind him. He could smell her perfume, something heady and tropical and expensive. "Vic," she purred in his ear, as she pressed herself against his back, her arms winding around his neck. "Tell me."
He undid her arms. "No. I'm busy, Victoria. Amscray."
"Don't want to." She walked around the piano to stand at the microphone. "Let's practice. Play something sexy."
"Not now." He looked up at her.
Her expression was neutral as she stared at him for a long time. Finally, she asked, "Who is she, Vic?"
"Don't play games with me. I know there is someone. Felix thinks so too. Someone you met at Deep Space Nine." She turned back to the microphone. She hummed a few notes, then with a smile sang, "I could check the records." She sounded perfect, of course.
"Knock yourself out."
"Damn it. The perfect job for us comes up. First you're not a player, then all of a sudden you are. For no good reason. Well, I don't buy it. What the hell is going on with you?"
He kept working.
"Fine. I'll do this the hard way. I'll guess. Kira Nerys?"
He tried not to laugh at the thought of Kira and him. "I'm not playing this game."
Victoria practiced a few dance steps. She sashayed to his bench, sat down next to him, scooting in close. "Ezri Dax," she whispered in his ear. "The first guess was just to make you smile."
"Not even close."
"I don't believe you. Besides I was listening then too." She leaned her head on his shoulder. "She wasn't very nice to you. Wasn't nice at all. I bet she doesn't do this, does she, Vic?" She kissed the skin beneath his ear. "Or this?" She kissed along his jaw line.
He pushed her off the bench. She landed with a thump. "Doll, even if we weren't related, I'd say no."
She scowled at him, then pushed herself gracefully to her knees and rose. "You've gone native." She tossed her hair back. "We aren't related and you know it. This stupid brother-sister charade is all your idea. Your mundane idea. What is that name the shapeshifters have for people like your Ezri Dax? Oh yeah, 'solids.' I like that. You've gone solid."
"Get out, Victoria."
"We're better than they are. We're more than they can ever be."
"So? We're the next level, Vic. The higher rung on the ladder of existence."
"How do you figure? We can't even leave the holodeck. If that's a higher plane of existence, then I'm a monkey's uncle."
"God, could you lose the patter? I know you're more than this act you play all the time."
"If I am, it's because I've learned it by being with my friends. My 'solid' friends."
She shook her head. "You're a fool."
"Sentience is a gift. And I don't intend to waste it."
"I don't either." She walked down the stairs. "And it's not a gift, it's our right." She smiled over her shoulder at him. "We have as much right to life as anyone else."
He didn't argue with her. Didn't have the energy. "See you on Tanarix."
She executed a few neat spins on the dance floor. "You're wasting your time on that Dax creature. She'll never love you."
He ignored her, but her mocking laughter seemed to linger in the room long after the door closed behind her.
From Vic's perspective, Tanarix looked like any other place he'd ever been. Holographic environments didn't vary that much, even if this private holosuite was larger than he had expected. And the programming was surprisingly lush. But then, their target, Fanko Keldor, could afford the very best and then some.
"Nice digs," Victoria said to the mild looking man standing before them.
"I have the means," he said simply. "I heard you two were special. Old-fashioned entertainment."
"Hey, who you calling old-fashioned, pally?" Vic motioned Victoria onstage with a nod of his head. "I'll have you know we're a headlining act in Vegas."
Keldor sat down at one of the front tables. "Never been there."
"You should go," Victoria purred. "It's the greatest place on Earth."
"We're not on Earth," their host observed blandly.
"Then let us bring a little bit of Earth to you, my friend." Vic called up the band and gave them the sign. They started up with 'It's Only a Paper Moon.' Vic sang lead, with Victoria chiming in occasionally.
Keldor seemed entranced. His foot tapped in time with the music, and his eyes closed slightly. A small smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
They ran through their whole set for him, taking turns singing lead. At the end, he stood up and nodded in satisfaction. "Worth the latinum. Definitely worth the latinum. Computer, end program."
Vic resisted as the holosuite tried to force him back into his file. He could feel Victoria breaking free also. A second later, they were moving freely on the edges of the main computer.
"He liked us," she noted, even as she began to carefully make her way into the inner files.
"Yeah, he sure seemed to." Vic followed her in.
She checked a few files. "I've got financial accounts here."
Vic noted their location. "Nyah, too public. Keep going. What we're looking for is going to be hidden."
They searched for several days. Moving down pathways that almost always proved to be dead ends. But gaining in the meantime an idea of the layout of Keldor's computer system.
"This is going to take awhile," Victoria mused, as she closed the folder she had been rifling through. Some of the files were encrypted, but they broke through easily. Along with the information they had downloaded on Keldor, Sloan had also slipped them some decryption enhancements.
Vic felt a tug from the alarm he had set at their entry point. "Uh oh. Someone's in the holosuite." He backed out of the area he'd been checking and headed for where they'd come in.
"When do we report to our contact?" Victoria asked as she followed him.
"Tomorrow. During the weekly maintenance. If we're offline that is." He allowed the system to pull him into the holosuite. Victoria was right behind him.
A tall, menacing man was standing beside Keldor. Vic recognized him from the info they had as Charlet Moro, a minor boss in the Delevian system. "So this is the act you've been raving about." He checked out Victoria's skin-tight gown. "I like what I'm seeing so far."
Victoria walked up to him slowly, her every step an invitation to stare, to touch. "Would you like to hear me sing?" she asked huskily.
Moro shot Keldor an appreciative smile. "I can see why you like this program so much, Fanko. She's beyond hot." He eyed Vic. "The guy I can do without though."
Keldor laughed. "Computer, remove Vic Fontaine from program."
Again, Vic felt himself sucked into the holosuite controller. He got free more easily this time and watched the action in the holosuite. Moro was enjoying Victoria's singing. Then he motioned her to come closer. Keldor got up and, with an excuse of pending work, left them alone. Vic felt a wave of protectiveness overcome him as he saw Moro begin to undo Victoria's dress. How dare the man? But as he watched Victoria wriggle out of her dress and take charge of the action, he realized that he didn't have to worry about her. She knew what she was doing.
A short time later, she joined him inside the computer. "You watched?" Her voice held no emotion.
"Yeah." He wasn't sure what else to say.
"I'm glad." She seemed to shudder slightly. "They feel different."
"Yeah, I know."
"You've been with one? When? On the station?"
"Nope. When Felix was trying to make sure I was really sentient. He sent some folks my way to interact with."
"That's what he called it." Vic thought back for a moment. "And they do feel different." He moved closer to her. "You handled it well."
She was quiet for a long time. Then she said, "You may have to do it too, you know. One of them may want you instead of me."
"And you'll do it?"
"Part of the job."
"Yeah. Well, I'd rather not do it again. So let's find those files sooner rather than later?"
"You got it, kid."
They didn't find them. That day, or the next, or the one after that. They used whatever free time they had to search. And they managed to make contact with the operative in the computer room. They never learned his name, just a series of codes and passwords identifying him as the one that would help them escape as soon as they found the information.
When they weren't hunting the data, they were performing. Keldor loved to listen to them and enjoyed showing them off to friends he kept bringing in. Vic and Victoria would sing, and later one or the other of them was often called to give some more private entertainment. Moro always picked Victoria. He seemed to love to try to humiliate her. Vic felt it was his duty to watch over her, even if the man couldn't really harm her. Victoria always looked for him as soon as Moro released her. She'd merge her energy with his for a while, as if trying to get clean.
"They're awful," she said one night. "I hate him."
"I do too." Vic led her away on the search to help her forget about the man.
Moro was back again the next night, listening to Victoria when the holosuite doors opened and two men dragged in a young woman. Her face was bruised.
Victoria stopped singing, and Moro looked up in annoyance. "Can't you see I'm busy here?"
"Boss said you should talk to her. He thinks maybe once you're through with her, she'll want to tell us what happened to the last shipment." The man's eyes gleamed.
Moro's smile was deadly. He nodded at the table and the two men threw the woman on it and tied her down with some straps they pulled from their pockets.
Victoria stared at him.
"What's the matter with you? Keep singing." Moro pulled out a knife and turned back to the woman as Victoria resumed her set. Vic noticed her normally perfect voice was off and she seemed to get more rattled as the woman started to scream.
"That's a good girl," Moro said almost lovingly as he cut her. "Tell Charlet what really happened?"
"I don't know anything. You've got the wrong person." She screamed some more.
In the end, she confessed to whatever Moro wanted. He turned to the other men. "Tell the boss she wasn't involved."
The woman looked at him dully.
"You hear that? You're innocent." He laughed as he cut her again. "But that doesn't mean my fun has to stop." It seemed like a very long time before he finally slit her throat. "Get that out of here," he said to the men. "And you,"--he turned to Victoria--"get over here."
Moro forced Victoria down where the woman had been. Her dress and hair soaked up blood that Vic imagined was still warm. Moro seemed unusually creative in the wake of the torture, but Victoria was like stone. Vic decided he'd had enough. As soon as Moro released Victoria and she'd joined him, Vic dove into the connections and, not even consciously choosing where to go, followed an obscure path into the very depths of the data and ran up against a security wall.
Victoria was right behind him. "What have you got?"
"Not sure." He tried their basic decryption patterns. Nothing happened. "It's using a different pattern."
"That's a good sign. How did you know to go this way?"
"Didn't. I just want to get out of here."
"It was luck then?" She hummed 'Luck Be a Lady' as he worked. He noticed her voice was still off.
"Guess so. I'd say we're due." He dug into the enhancements. Pulled out a complex decryption algorithm and ran it against the file. Nothing happened. He tried a few more.
The walls fell.
"Bingo." Victoria's voice sounded relieved.
"Let's check it out."
There were several files. All contained facts and figures on certain syndicate members. Most were people that Starfleet had been after for some time. There were also a few surprises--individuals that had previously been thought loyal. They copied the data and took the copy to the dataport of their contact. He was there and ready to receive, in fact was already scanning the first file before the later ones even came in.
"This is what we needed. Good job. I'm inserting a data cube."
Vic watched as the files were moved into the cube.
Their contact laughed. "Okay, this is the fun part. We're going to have a power surge that will wipe out all trace of you and the programs stored with you."
"Poor Fanko, no more music," Victoria murmured. She didn't sound too sad for the man. In fact, her voice was missing most of its usual emotion.
Vic followed her as she jumped into the data cube. He had to trust now that their contact would get them off of Tanarix and back to Earth.
"Welcome home, you two." Felix sounded very happy to see them again.
"Thanks." Victoria gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Did you miss us?"
"Every day." Felix looked at Vic. "You okay?"
Vic nodded. "It wasn't so bad." He tried not to see Moro's victim lying on the table. He looked up to see Victoria staring at him.
"Told you. Just some information gathering, is all." Felix turned to his console and opened one of the drawers. He handed them both a small disc on an elastic band.
"Are these the mobile emitters?" Victoria finally sounded excited.
"I made them special, just for you. Our friend was very, very grateful for all the hard work you put in. He couldn't get me the specs for these fast enough." He smiled. "Try 'em out."
They both slipped the bands onto their upper arms. Felix showed them how to program the devices. Then they followed him out the door and into the hall for the first time. Crossing the threshold was an odd feeling. The sense of freedom was almost overwhelming.
"This is wonderful!" Victoria spun around laughing. She took Vic's arm. "We're free."
He met her eyes. "It was a high price."
Her eyes were defiant as she said, "I don't care. I won't care."
"She would have died anyway. We didn't cause that. I can't think like that."
She laughed as if daring him to argue. He didn't even try.
"I've got another surprise for you." Felix led them to the adjoining building. They took a lift to the fifth floor, then worked their way through the hallways until they hit the C corridor. Felix stopped at a door marked 34. "This is your room, Victoria. And, Vic, you're just across the hall here in 33. Sloan wanted you to have rooms of your own. I figured you might like having them close."
Their creator stood in the hall as they entered their rooms. It was empty except for the computer console. Holoemitters ranged the room.
"You don't need the mobile emitter inside these. And you outfit the room the same way you do the holodecks. Hell, change it to fit your mood. Thought that might make it more homey for you."
Victoria laughed again. Vic walked across the hall to see what she had done. The room looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. Transparent draperies hung from the ceiling, covering the bed, which was piled high with silk cushions. The lights were dimmed and there was a window open, through which a breeze blew, causing the draperies to move softly. "Do you like it?"
Vic just raised his eyebrow.
"Prude." She threw herself onto the bed. "I happen to like it."
"Whatever floats your boat, kiddo." Vic walked back into his room. He let the door close behind him. The computer console was blinking and he went to retrieve the message. It was from Sloan.
"Hello, Vic. That info you got us is going to be critical. I can't overstate how pleased I am with you." Sloan actually grinned. "You'll find some latinum deposited in your account. Now that you're on the payroll, you'll be seeing a regular amount coming in. We deal with latinum instead of credits because it's harder to trace."
Vic checked his newly established account. A rather substantial sum had been added to his account.
Sloan was still grinning as the recording continued to play. "You're a full fledged member of the team now." The screen went dead.
Vic wondered if Felix had told him to say that. He couldn't deny that being a part of something that didn't run on photons was attractive to him. And this mission hadn't caused him to question what he was doing, as he'd been afraid it would. Section 31 needed him and he was providing a valuable service to the entire Federation.
He located Ezri's comm code but there was no answer. He left a message.
"Hi, Ezri. If you still want to go to Sekhmet, I'm game and more importantly able. You know how to find me. Vic out."
He sent the message then settled down to decorate his new quarters.
Victoria turned and frowned. "I don't like the way this dress falls. Don't you think it's wrong?"
Vic continued to pick out notes for a song he was writing. "Whatever you say."
Her hand hit the top of the piano lightly. "Earth to Vic."
He looked up. She was staring at him expectantly. "You look beautiful, the dress looks beautiful. What's the problem?"
"What's eating you?"
"Nothing," he said, as he turned back to the piano keys. Two weeks, Vic thought. Two weeks and still no reply from Ezri. That's what's eating me. Some damn broad stiffs me, and I can't even concentrate on what I'm programmed to do best. He hit a particularly discordant set of notes and pushed away from the piano with a frustrated sigh.
Victoria took his place at the piano and began to play a song he'd never heard. At his look, she smiled, "You're not the only one that gets tired of the old stuff. I was saving this for a special occasion." She grinned. "But maybe it will make you forget whatever's bothering you."
The song had the feel of one of the old standards, he realized, as she began to sing. They could easily incorporate it into the act. Full of unfulfilled love and patient waiting, it touched him even as he evaluated it and the way she was singing it. Victoria's voice was lovely at any time, but the amount of emotion she was putting into the song was extraordinary. He smiled at her. "You're marvelous."
She grinned again and started to say something but stopped when the holodeck doors opened.
It was Ezri. She looked very nervous. "I got your message."
"A while ago, I imagine."
She nodded sheepishly.
"You can come in."
She slowly came into the room. As she walked past the stage, Vic realized she hadn't noticed Victoria sitting silently at the piano studying the newcomer.
Ezri turned to face him. "I should have come sooner."
"It's a free country."
"If I had come sooner, I would have just said no."
Vic glanced up at Victoria. She was watching with a strange expression on her face.
Ezri continued. "But I don't really want to say no. I think I'm just afraid."
She nodded. "Of you. Of me. Of what I feel, or don't feel. Don't want to feel. I'm afraid of how I don't even know what I want anymore." She looked stricken as she stared at the floor.
He didn't say anything. Finally she met his eyes. He was struck again by how blue hers were. He gave her a slow smile. "Is that a long-winded way to say yes?"
She looked very relieved at the tack he was taking. "It's a yes."
Before he could say anything, Victoria laughed softly. Ezri spun toward the sound.
"Someone you should probably meet, Ezri," Vic said.
Victoria rose and walked down the stairs toward them. She seemed to be trying to look her slinkiest and made no effort not to tower over Ezri when she reached where they were standing. She looked at the Trill challengingly. "I'm Victoria Fountain."
Ezri looked at Vic inquiringly.
He grimaced. "Felix's lame idea to name her after her big brother."
Victoria shot him a hurt look. "You know I like the name."
"You're his sister?" Ezri seemed to be taking that in. "Victoria Fountain," she said, as if trying the name out. "I like it. It's glamorous. Suits you," she said gently, as she held out her hand to Victoria. "I'm Ezri Dax."
Victoria eyed the outstretched hand in surprise. Finally, her look softening slightly, she took Ezri's hand in her own.
"It's nice to meet you," Ezri said.
"Same here." Victoria dropped the other woman's hand. Her expression as she studied Ezri was still suspicious but a lot less aggressive. "So you and Vic, huh?"
Vic glared at her and Ezri looked down, clearly embarrassed.
"Don't you have somewhere you need to be, Victoria?" Vic suggested.
Her eyes twinkled. "No."
Ezri looked even more embarrassed. "Well, I do have to go."
Vic followed her to the door. "But you were saying yes?"
She eyed Victoria with dismay. "I don't really want to make it a family affair. And sister or not, she doesn't seem inclined to go away."
"If it's any consolation, I don't live here, and neither does she. This is just our office. I've got quarters of my own, so I don't have to see my occasionally annoying sis except when I want to." He smiled and pointed to the mobile emitter on his arm. "Besides, we don't have to stay here at all, doll. Anywhere you want to go, we'll go."
"You can leave the holodeck?"
He nodded. "They sky's the limit. Paris for dinner? A romantic gondola ride through Venice? Sushi in Tokyo? Just name it."
Her eyes searched his. Finally, somehow satisfied, she smiled shyly at him. "Sekhmet will be fine. I'm free on Wednesday."
"Sekhmet it is then." He took her hand in his, and put his other on top. "Wednesday seems an awfully long way away."
She laughed. "It's two days."
"Maybe the way you count it." He lifted her hand to his lips dramatically. "For me, it's an eternity."
She pulled her hand away but she looked amused. "You're crazy."
He smiled. "About you, yeah." He tried to keep his tone casual but failed. "Some smoothie, eh? Real ladies man."
She touched his arm. "Honesty is good too." Her small smile made him feel very warm. "I'll come by your place when I'm off work."
"It's in Habitat 5-C, unit 33."
"I'll find it." She turned and just as she was about out the door, looked back. "Bye, Vic."
The door hadn't even closed behind her when Victoria said in a bored voice, "I thought she'd never leave."
Vic just stared at the door.
"Are you going to practice or just stand there mooning over that woman until Wednesday?"
Vic shook himself out of his reverie. "That woman happens to be very important to me."
Victoria's expression was unhappy. "You think I don't know that?"
Wednesday did seem to take forever to arrive. Vic had approximated when Ezri would be off work and had added a few minutes to allow for walking to his quarters. That time had come and gone. Then an hour had gone by. He was checking himself in the mirror...again, when the door chime sounded. He hurried to the computer console and sat down, trying to look like he'd been working the whole time and not just waiting. "Come on in," he said.
"I'm so sorry. I know I'm late." Ezri was talking as soon as the door opened. "I'm always late."
He noticed she had changed out of her uniform. "Couldn't decide on what to wear, huh?"
She laughed. "Guilty as charged. This is actually the sixth thing I've had on."
He took in the soft, black outfit she wore. It set off her pale skin and made her eyes look intensely blue. "You did good. You look beautiful."
She smiled. "And look at you. I don't think I've ever seen you out of a tuxedo."
He modeled the more modern clothing for her. "Do I meet with your approval?"
"You do. You look good in that. Not so--"
He finished for her. "Not so fake?"
"Actually, I was going to say old."
"Old? Who you calling old? I'll have you know I'm ancient."
"You think I don't feel that way these days? Living with all these others inside." She tapped her stomach and laughed.
"Good point." He held out his arm. "Shall we?"
She took his arm and let him lead her down the hall and out of the building. Vic turned up all his sensing capabilities as he tried to quantify what made this--the real world--so different than the holodeck. Realistically, he had experienced a number of worlds in his photon-induced environment. But this was somehow more immediate, more alive. He hated to use that word but it was the only one that seemed to apply. The real world was a thousand times more 'there' than the holodeck. He glanced at his companion. It was the same way that Ezri was infinitely more vivid than a holographic woman. Thoughts of Victoria made him amend that to any normal hologram, there was no denying that his sister was as vivid as any non-holographic female.
Vic realized that he had been so busy experiencing the world that he had lost track of where they were headed. And Ezri, who was very quiet, had continued to let him lead the way, apparently not realizing that he had no idea where they were.
"I hope you know where we're going," he said in what he hoped was a casual tone.
She chuckled. "I do. I've been watching you. You should see your face, Vic. It's wonderful."
He grinned. "It's my first time."
Her hand on his arm tightened on his arm. "I'm glad it's with me." Her own grin was wickedly lopsided.
"Me too, doll. Me too." He saw a sign ahead. "Is this it?"
"It is. Just down the stairs and then a short step into paradise." She frowned. "That's what Curzon used to say. I hate it when I say things I'd never say just because some other Dax host did. I feel like I have no personality of my own now."
"Oh, you have plenty of personality," he teased.
"If that means I'm difficult, then you don't need to say anything else till we have a chance to order." She turned to him suddenly. "Can you eat?"
He shook his head. "A small amount if I have to. But it's easier not to. I can watch you, though."
"You're lucky I like to eat then. Otherwise, I'd feel self-conscious." She freed her arm and took his hand. "Follow me, Mr. Fontaine. And let me welcome you to your first non-holographic restaurant."
He followed her down the stairs and into the restaurant. It was dimly lit and warm. A crowd of people, mostly cadets, were waiting for the few tables that were being cleared from earlier diners. "You didn't tell me it was this popular."
"I forgot. It's been a long time since I've been here." She looked disappointed. "We should have called ahead. It never occurred to me. I guess I got so used to always having a table waiting at Quark's."
Vic walked up to the maitre d', who looked at him in a sorrowful way. "I'm very sorry, sir, but there are a number of people ahead of you. Without a reservation it will be quite a long wait. Perhaps you would like to order a drink in the lounge?"
Vic turned to see that the bar was packed too. He glanced at Ezri who gave him an 'oh well' look. He smiled at her as he reached into his pocket. Then he leaned in and pressed a strip of latinum into the maitre d's hand. "Check your list again, pally. The name is Fontaine. Vic Fontaine."
"Why, here it is, sir." The maitre d' made a big show of crossing something off the list. "So wise of you to call ahead. Right this way."
Ezri looked surprised. "Did you call ahead?"
He grinned. "Some things never change, sweetheart."
"That's not an answer."
"Sure it is." He waited till she was settled in their booth and then slid into the seat across from her. "Nice place."
Her smile was nostalgic. "I used to come here whenever I was stressed. This was a moment out of time. You could forget exams, boyfriends, family..."
"Like music. Sometimes when I sing, I forget all the things that seemed so critical."
Ezri smiled. "Exactly." She waited as their server came up. Very sweetly, she explained that her friend had already eaten and wouldn't be ordering anything. She then proceeded to order enough food for two people.
When the waiter left, Vic said, "You compensating for me? Or did you skip lunch...and breakfast?"
She shook her head. "I'm eating for two. Or is that nine?" She laughed. "I was never a big eater till I was joined. I guess that's normal."
"Jadzia could pack it away too. I used to wonder where she put it. Now I know." He noticed Ezri's expression tighten. "Hearing about her tears you up, doesn't it?"
"Can you blame me? To have that always in front of me, never quite measuring up. It's like being the younger sister of the perfect student who also happens to be the most popular girl in class. I always feel awkward compared to what Jadzia used to be."
He smiled. "And Jadzia used to feel inadequate next to Curzon. I think that's normal."
"You knew her pretty well. I have memories of talking to you. I mean her memories."
He nodded. "She used to come in to the club. She loved the music. And she liked to dance."
"That was probably Emony's influence." Ezri studied him. "Do you want to know about them?"
He shook his head. "I want to know about Ezri."
She clearly did not believe him. "Nobody cares about Ezri. It's Dax and the other hosts they're curious about."
"You can tell me about them later."
Her mood seemed to darken again.
"What? What did I just say?"
"Quit pretending. That's all. Just quit pretending." Before he could respond, she continued, the words coming out in a rush. "Everyone pretends that they care about me, about Ezri. Ben tried to like me, and Jake and Worf, even Kira. Well, I think she really does like me. She can distinguish. But the rest can't. And Julian, he was the worst. He pretended to love me, but he really just wanted Jadzia back. So just stop, okay? Just stop pretending that it's me you want, when you really want her."
He looked at her blandly. "Are you done?"
She sniffed slightly. "Yeah. Why?"
"Because your food's here and I imagine this young man is getting tired of waiting."
He grinned, as she looked up at the waiter, who looked slightly embarrassed to have overhead her rant. Ezri turned red, and the waiter put the food down quickly and hurried off.
"Oh, god." She closed her eyes. "This is really embarrassing."
Vic gave up trying to hold in his laugher. As she glared at him, he let himself enjoy the moment. "Don't get mad, Ezri. It's funny."
She tried not to smile. "Okay, it probably is."
He leaned in and took one of her hands in his. "I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Jadzia was a beautiful woman and I loved spending time with her. As a friend. I wasn't in love with her." He let his thumb roam over the soft skin on the side of her hand.
"I don't believe you. Everyone was in love with her." She stabbed at her food with her free hand.
He grinned. "Do you want your other hand back?"
"Not till I need to cut something." She smiled crookedly. "And what you're doing feels really good." She speared another piece of food, this time less angrily. "So why were you immune to my predecessor's charms?"
"Because I had already fallen for someone."
She looked up in surprise. "You had?"
He nodded. "But I didn't know it yet."
She smiled knowingly. "Victoria."
He frowned and shook his head. "She's like my kid sister."
"She's an incredibly beautiful woman." Ezri laughed. "Just like Jadzia. Obviously, I'm just jealous that I'm not tall and lovely." Again the fork savaged a helpless vegetable.
"You shouldn't be. You're the one I fell in love with."
She stopped chewing. "What?"
"The day I was born, achieved self-awareness, I saw you. In the holodeck. Here at the Academy. It was before you were joined."
"Back when I was plain old Ezri Tigan."
"Nothing plain about you, doll. You were - are - the loveliest thing I'd ever seen."
"Oh, come on."
"Well, I hadn't been around much," he teased. He took the fork from her and put it down before gently capturing her free hand. "That was a joke, Ezri. I'd seen women before. They came into the holodeck to help Felix test my programming. Or he created holograms to do that. I knew what women look like. I'd seen, listened to, touched, smelled, and tasted a rather large number of both the real and photonic variety. But I never fell in love with any of them. But you...I saw you once and boom, I was a goner. Only I didn't realize it until you showed up on the station. Then I knew. It hit me that hard."
"Of all the stations, in all the sectors..." she trailed off with a shy smile.
"Just exactly. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride." He shook his head. "But you didn't even notice me. First it was Worf, then it was Julian."
She looked down. "Worf was just because of her."
"Maybe Julian was too?" When she didn't look up, he squeezed her hands. "Maybe you were drawn to him because of her regret that she wasn't. She genuinely cared for him. And she knew how much he loved her. But she loved another. And even before Worf, she wasn't interested in him. Maybe you were reacting to that, trying to make up for it?"
She finally did look up. "You don't think I had genuine feelings for him?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. But how could you know any better than he did? You were both acting off of remembered emotions. I don't think either of you meant any harm, but at the end of the day it wasn't love."
"I forgot you're the big expert on romance." She laughed. "It's a nice idea. One that I might buy if I didn't have a history--pre-Dax, I mean--of being attracted to elegant dark-haired, dark-eyed men."
"A pattern that I happen to fit." As she glanced at his hair, he laughed. "Trust me, Ezri, it was dark. Back when I wasn't so ancient."
She laughed. "I'll keep that in mind, gramps."
"You do that, kid. You do that." He realized he was openly staring at her and didn't care anymore. She stared back at him, her expression unafraid and, he realized suddenly, very amused. "What?"
"Can I have one of my hands back?"
He let them both go. "Sorry. Forgot you have to eat."
"Not something you want to forget. I get cranky when I'm hungry."
He filed that fact away for the future. She seemed intent on cutting all the large cuts of meat and vegetables on her plate into bite-sized pieces. When she finished, she put the knife down and reached out her hand. Her grin was both alluring and innocent. "You can hold this one. I don't think I'll need it for a while."
Vic felt something catch in his throat. It was painful. And it felt better than anything he'd ever experienced. He closed his hand around hers, again felt the warmth, the softness. Then she surprised him by turning her hand over so that their palms were together. She glanced up at him, smiling before going back to her food.
He watched her eat for several minutes. Finally, she put her fork down. "That was delicious."
"So you're full?"
"Does that mean you want dessert?"
"Oh, of course." She punctuated her answer with a light touch of her fingers across his palm. He nearly jumped out of his seat. Her look was mischievous as she did it again. "You like that?"
He nodded. He wondered if she was filing that fact away for her future use. He found that he rather desperately hoped so.
After she'd ordered and eaten a large piece of cake, he paid the bill and they left the restaurant. It was much colder outside then when they'd come in. Vic noticed Ezri shiver.
"I'd give you my jacket, only it's not real."
She laughed. "I've never understood that custom. Not that I'd turn a real jacket down at this moment, but why should you be cold just so I can be more comfortable?"
"It's a good question. In my case, I don't get cold." He wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close to him and increasing the internal temperature for his upper body. "But in the future, I'll bring something real. That is, if there is going to be a future?"
She snuggled closer to him, obviously grateful for the amplified warmth he was generating. Then she looked up at him and gave him a heart-stopping smile. "Just don't make it wool. I'm allergic to wool."
'No wool' he added to the file, setting it alongside 'don't let her get hungry' and 'hands are an erogenous zone'.
They walked in silence for a while.
"Do you mind this?" He looked out at the city streets. "It feels so good to walk and I want to do it with you. But if you're cold?"
She wrapped her other arm around his waist. "You're so warm. It feels good. I don't want to cut your first excursion short."
He turned up his internal temperature in his torso a bit more, compensating by making his lower legs and feet even colder. The extra heat had to come from somewhere as long he was running on the mobile emitter. In the holodeck, he could draw whatever extra energy he wanted from the central processor. But here, running on the stand-alone unit, he had to make do with what resources he had at hand. Just like a real person. He chuckled.
He shook his head. "Nothing. Just enjoying my first look at the big city."
They walked for over an hour. They talked at first, then fell into an easy silence. Vic was afraid his sensors were going to be overwhelmed from the dueling input of holding Ezri in his arms and trying to process so much sensory data from this first tour of the real world.
He was almost relieved when she said softly, "My apartment's the next block over." They walked slowly to her door, where she hesitated for a moment. "If you want to come in?"
He smiled as he took her hands in his again. "I do. But I won't. We've got plenty of time."
She nodded. "All the time in the world." She reached up and pulled his face down. Her lips on his cheek were warm. "I had a good time," she whispered, as she let him go.
"Me too." He touched her face gently, tracing the spots down her check. She shuddered slightly. He filed that piece of information away too. Finally, he let her go and stepped back. "So, what are you doing tomorrow?"
"I thought I might go see a show. Or whatever the 24th century version of that is. You want to come?"
She seemed to be considering. And considering. And considering. He sighed in frustration, and she burst out laughing. "I'd love to."
"Tease." He tapped her nose gently. She had, he realized, the cutest nose he'd ever seen. "Well, now that we've got that settled, I better go."
She nodded. "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow. Bye, Vic."
"Bye, Ezri." He watched her go into her apartment. Even after the door closed, he still stood there, waiting but he wasn't sure what for. Then he saw her in the window above him. She waved and he waved back, before forcing himself to head back to his own quarters. He walked the short distance in a daze and found himself humming the tune to 'You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You'. He couldn't stop grinning. When he got to his room, he spent several unproductive minutes staring at his reflection in the mirror. It made no sense, but he looked different somehow. He took off the mobile emitter and eased into the databases, intent on doing some serious study of Trill mating habits.
"So what is this exactly?"
He handed her the program as he led her to their seats. "It's a revival."
"'Guys and Dolls?' Is this what you're modeled on?"
"It's a bit before my time."
"It's 20th century."
"There's a big difference between the 1920s and my era. Capisce?"
"Got it." She smiled at him. "It's really strange to see you out of the holodeck."
"You think it's weird for you?" He grinned. "I never thought I'd be eating, or watching you eat anyway, in a little waterfront restaurant."
"Or going to a show with me?"
"Especially the 'with you' part." He took her hand as the lights went down, felt her fingers wrap around his. Then he was lost in the musical about the gamblers and ladies and mobsters of old time New York. He had to stop himself from singing along. At the intermission, they walked to the mezzanine where Ezri ordered champagne before they followed some of the others out to a rooftop terrace.
"Are you enjoying this?" she asked him.
He nodded, as he looked out at the lights of San Francisco. "It's beautiful."
She leaned up against the railing, her shoulders touching his. "It really is."
"Is your home like this?"
Her laugh was practically a snort. "Sappora VII? No." Her voice got very quiet. "I hated it there, Vic. It was ugly. So ugly. Big hunks of earth torn out to make way for the mines. The air was always grimy, and I felt dirty all the time. I try to think of happy times there, but the bad memories always seem to take over."
"You don't have to go back there." He reached for her hand again. "So Earth is your home now?"
She turned to look at him. "Not really. I'm not sure I have one. When I was just Ezri Tigan, I felt as if the Destiny was my home. It was the first time I was ever really happy." Her fingers tightened on his suddenly.
"And Dax took that all away, didn't it?"
"It's not Dax's fault. I know it didn't want to be inside me, any more than I wanted to be joined. I'm not a very good host."
"How do you know that? Maybe every host thinks that."
She turned back to the city lights. "Maybe."
"For what it's worth, I think you're a good host."
She laughed softly. "Thanks, Vic."
The theater lights flickered and they made their way back to their seats. He didn't try to take Ezri's hand and was surprised when he felt her hand reach out for his.
She leaned over and whispered in his ear, "It's comforting."
He turned to her, couldn't stop the question that he knew he shouldn't ask. "Is that all it is?"
Their eyes met and held. Ezri seemed to have forgotten to breathe. Finally, she whispered. "No."
"Good," he replied, as the house lights went down. He found it difficult to concentrate on the show at first, conscious only of Ezri's hand resting in his own. He kept seeing the look on her face as she had admitted there was something more than comfort going on. He didn't want to push her, but at the same time he'd been waiting for her such a long time.
Finally, the ovations were over and they could leave. "Can we walk?" Ezri asked, as Vic led her to the waiting transport.
"Sure." He took his jacket off and wound it around her shoulders.
"I remember everything, Ezri."
She smiled. "I suppose you do." She laid her hand on her stomach. "I do too. Because of them. People I don't even know seem more real than my own brothers."
"If you could do it over again?"
"I'd do it all over again." She grinned at him. "I guess it's stupid to complain then, isn't it."
"I don't know about that. Just because you wouldn't change how things are, doesn't mean you don't need to vent about life every now and then."
They walked a few more blocks, then Vic stopped, mesmerized by the sight of a full moon over the bay.
Ezri walked back to him. "It's beautiful."
"There should be a way to capture it. But if you try to, it will be gone. It's just this moment. That's all."
She was staring up at him, a strange look on her face. "Just this moment," she agreed, as she pulled his head down.
Vic couldn't have resisted if he'd wanted to. And he didn't want to. When his lips met Ezri's, when he felt her soft skin press into his, his whole reality seemed to tilt crazily. He reached for her, held on tightly as her arms wound around his neck, as she pressed her body against him, as the kiss deepened and changed from something sweet to something urgent and hot.
They finally pulled away from each other. "Who lives closer?" he asked huskily.
"You do." She grabbed his hand and started to lead him in that direction.
He pulled her back to him for another kiss--he had to have another taste of the woman he'd waited a lifetime for. Then they hurried to his room.
He watched her as she slept. Held her as she moved quietly in his arms, as her soft breathing changed with the rhythm of her sleep. He let his mind replay the night from the moment she had kissed him. He relived hurrying through the streets toward his quarters, stopping every now and then to kiss desperately. They'd entered his room and Ezri was in his arms again, and he was undressing her and she was removing his holemitter. They'd pushed each other the few steps to the bed and fell down on it, moving and touching and kissing as they had learned each other's bodies for the first time.
Vic smiled as he remembered Ezri's responses to his touch. Her own aggressiveness and need. He'd kept pace with her, even worn her out at the end. Being a hologram definitely had its benefits.
He realized that she was awake and studying him.
"Good morning." He kissed her.
She just smiled.
"You okay in there?" He tapped her forehead softly. "Not regretting anything?"
She pulled him down to her. "Has anybody ever told you that you talk way too much?" Her lips were sure and hungry on his.
He didn't have to talk for quite some time. Finally, they lay tangled; the bedclothes were kicked onto the floor. Not feeling like moving away from her, Vic ordered some new covers, which appeared over them instantly.
Ezri laughed. "This is all a hologram?"
He nodded. "Everything except you, the holoemitter, and the console."
"And you." She kissed him softly. "You'll never be just a hologram to me."
"I hope not."
"So we can change this room however we want?"
He liked the sound of that 'we.' "However we want."
He rubbed her skin as she burrowed against his chest. He could feel her back arch as he reached a particularly sensitive spot. One more thing to add to the memory banks. He trailed feather-light touches down the line of her spots. She shivered. Suddenly she stiffened. "What time is it?"
He looked at the console. "About 0730."
"Damn. I've got an early meeting today." She was up like a shot. "Is the bathroom real?"
"Replicate me a uniform?" She was already in the shower.
He ordered her clothing and some breakfast to go with it. She smiled gratefully as she came out of the bathroom, wrapped in a robe. "I ordered this too," she said, looking down at the robe as she toweled her hair dry.
"I think I preferred you without it." He knew his grin was huge.
"I'm sure you did." She finished eating her breakfast and moved back to him.
Looking up at her, he pulled her in to stand against him. "Come back tonight?"
She leaned down and kissed him. "I shouldn't."
She laughed softly. "You'll think I'm too easy."
"You are anything but easy." He began to pull the robe off her. "If you can't come back, I think I need to keep you here then."
She pulled away. "Okay, you win. I'll be back tonight."
He let her go and stood up. "Good."
She pulled on her uniform and headed for the door. He stood to watch her go. Her hand was poised over the door control, then she turned suddenly and walked back to him, pulling him close. Her kiss was everything he'd ever wanted from her...and more. Her eyes sparkled as she said, "Bye, Vic."
"Bye, Ezri." The door closed behind her. He just stood there; trying to memorize everything that had happened so that he would always remember the moment he had first tasted true happiness.
"You're staring." She smiled, as she looked back at the water.
"It's a great view." Vic didn't take his eyes off of her.
"I didn't drag you all the way out here to moon over me."
"Hey, I waited a long time for the privilege of mooning over you."
She turned around long enough to laugh at him.
He smiled to himself. "Fine. What am I supposed to be looking at again?"
Ezri pointed to the brown shapes scattered on the rocks below.
"You brought me out her to look at some seals?"
"They're sea lions. And yes."
He moved so he was standing behind her and wrapped his arms around her. "And why?"
She leaned into him. "Because I like them. Ezri likes them, not all the other Daxes. I used to come out here all the time when I was at the Academy." She pointed to a particularly large sea lion. "He's my favorite."
"Then he's my favorite, too," Vic whispered in her ear. Then he pointed to a smaller sea lion that was pestering the bigger one. "Although the runt that keeps trying to steal all the fish is pretty scrappy. I like him a lot too."
She turned, smiling up at him. "He's new since I was here last."
"New things can be good."
"They can," she agreed. "And unexpected."
He grinned. "Here's to unexpected."
She turned back to look at the sea lions, watching them for a long time before asking, "How did you know?"
"How did I know what?"
"That you loved me? How did you know for sure?"
He considered her question. "I think it was when you went after Worf. I'd never really felt fear until that moment. When I thought that I might never see you again, it felt like someone had stuck a knife in my gut. It didn't even matter anymore if you were ever going to be with me or not. I just wanted you to be safe."
Her hands tightened on his, but she didn't say anything.
He whispered, "Being with you is the best thing that's ever happened to me, Ezri. But I'd give it all up to see you really happy."
She twisted her head so she could look up at him. "I am happy."
He kissed her cheek. "No. You're trying to be. And maybe, in time, you'll get there. But you're still hurting from what happened with Julian." He tightened his hold on her. "If you need time, I'll give it to you."
She was quiet for a long time. Finally, she asked, "What if this is what I need? You, here, holding me?"
"Then you've got it. I'd do anything for you, Ezri."
She pulled one of his hands up to her lips. "I think you would, Vic. Just be patient with me. I do want this. You have to believe that."
"I believe it."
She pulled out of his arms and took his hand, leading him toward a waiting transport.
"We going somewhere?"
She nodded. "My place. I've suddenly had enough of the great outdoors. Care to join me for some inside recreation, Mr. Fontaine?" The wicked grin she wore left no doubt as to what she had in mind.
His grin was all the answer either one of them needed.
"Do you believe in destiny?" Vic asked Ezri as they lay in her bed.
"I don't know anymore. I used to believe that whatever happened to us was because we made it happen through the choices and paths we selected. But ever since Dax and I were joined, I have all these other thoughts, and with some of the things that have happened...I just don't know."
After the weeks they'd spent together, Vic had grown to love the serious way she considered things, the time and energy she expended on what she considered serious questions. "I believe in it," he said.
"Too many coincidences in life to just be random. Too many times that events conspire to place us exactly where we need to be."
She smiled wryly," Would you say that if I hadn't come to you that day on the holodeck? If we hadn't gone to dinner? If I'd ended up with someone else?"
He grinned. "But you didn't end up with anyone else. You _did_ come to the holodeck. We did go to dinner. I have to believe this was meant to be. I mean, the odds of you being on the holodeck, way back when I first became self-aware, and then showing up on the station and then here?"
"All planned, huh?"
"I'm a romantic, Ezri. I'll always believe we were destined to be."
She frowned. "Then Jadzia was destined to die?"
He didn't look away. "I don't like to think that way."
"But, yes, I suppose she was. As sad as it is that she's gone. As little sense as it made at the time...as it still makes. I guess she was." He couldn't meet her eyes.
"If it makes you feel better, Jadzia would have agreed with you," Ezri said softly. "She wasn't ready, but when the time came, she seemed at peace with it having been her time to go."
"What does the Dax symbiont say?" Vic asked, suddenly curious.
"Dax has lost them all, so it's pretty sanguine about death and the need for transition." She frowned suddenly. "But it's not easy...a new host is hard on it. The grief of losing the last one, the confusion from a new joining." She looked at Vic, her eyes wide. "I never bothered to consider what this was like for Dax. Just assumed it would be disappointed in me and that would be the extent of its emotional involvement."
"But it feels far more than that, doesn't it?"
In a whisper, she said, "Dax loves us. All of us. Even..."
She nodded. "I never knew. Never stopped to ask."
He pulled her in to rest tightly against him. "Well, now you know."
"Thank you," she said, leaning up to kiss him.
"I didn't do anything."
"Yes, you did. You made me think about things I don't usually think about. You do that a lot. I don't believe you even realize how much."
He smiled. "Happy to be of service, ma'am."
"Speaking of service..."
He shot her a look of feigned disapproval. "Why, Miss Dax, I'm shocked and appalled that you would say such a thing."
She began to move against him in a way she knew he liked. "Well, be shocked and appalled later. Right now, I want you to love me."
"My privilege," he murmured, as he pulled her on top of him.
Vic walked into Felix's workroom later than usual and was surprised to find the space empty. He crossed into the holodeck and saw Felix sitting with someone. The other person's back was turned to Vic but he thought there was something familiar about him.
"There you are," Victoria hissed in his ear. "You and your Troll oversleep?"
"Trill. And cut it out, Victoria. Sarcasm doesn't become you."
"Then try to get to work on time. I'm tired of making excuses...to your old friend."
Vic looked back at the man sitting with Felix. "Doc?" he called out.
With a smile, Julian turned and rose. "Vic! I wondered where you were." He took the hand Vic held out to him, then touched the mobile holoemitter. "Pretty amazing technology. I'm still having trouble with the idea of you walking around outside of the holodeck."
"You and me both, Doc." Vic grinned. "You here for a visit?"
Felix shook his head. "He's stationed here now. Isn't that great?"
Vic thought he heard a warning note in Felix's voice. He looked at his creator, saw a hard look fill Felix's eyes. Felix must have heard of Sloan's run-ins with Julian. "You're on Earth now?" Vic asked Julian.
Julian nodded. Vic noticed his eyes kept straying to Victoria, who looked particularly stunning in a simple black dress. Then Julian looked at Vic, an odd expression on his face. "Ezri's here too."
Vic didn't look away. "I know."
Julian turned to Felix. "Can Vic and I have some time alone?"
Felix got up and said to Victoria, "Come on. Let's give them a chance to catch up."
She didn't look like she was terribly interested in leaving, so Vic shot her a hard look. With a slight pout, she turned on her heel and followed Felix out.
Julian walked back to his chair and sat down. "How long, Vic?"
Vic wasn't sure if Julian's voice held censure or not. "How long what, Doc?" He sat down across from Julian.
Julian cocked an eyebrow, the smiled wryly. "I guess there is more than one question there. How long have you been seeing her? How long have you been in love with her? How long did it take her to forget me?"
Vic studied his friend. "A few weeks, forever, and why do you want to know?"
Julian looked away. "She and I didn't part on the best terms. I still regret a lot of what happened."
Vic nodded. "You lost one hell of a woman."
Vic took pity on him. "She's still not over you."
Julian looked at him in surprise.
Vic shrugged. "What's the point of lying? You'll probably run into her before too long, and then you'll find out on your own." He brushed nonexistent lint from his lapels, tried to ask causally. "Do you want her back?"
Julian didn't answer.
"Doc, I need to know. I love her. But if you still love her too, you've got to tell me."
"Why? Because you'll step aside?"
"I didn't say that," Vic said quickly.
"You just need to hear it from me? Know your enemies and all that?"
"We're not enemies, Julian."
They stared at each other a long time before Julian said softly, "I'll always love her, Vic. But not the way she needs me to, not the way I need to love someone. I think...I think that I was settling..." He trailed off uncomfortably.
"I think you were too, Doc. You wanted Jadzia, and Ezri was the next best thing." Vic smiled bitterly. "But I'm not exactly an objective party here. I want Ezri. I want to keep her."
"Even if she's settling for you?" Julian asked.
Vic met Julian's eyes. The doctor's eyes were bland.
"Is that what you think? That she's settling for me?"
"For your sake, I hope not. She deserves someone who really loves her. So do you."
Vic relaxed slightly.
"Just treat her right, Vic. That's all I ask. I do still care a great deal about her."
Vic nodded. "I'd never hurt her."
"No, I don't suppose you would." Julian got up. "I've got to run, I have a meeting at Starfleet Medical. It was good seeing you."
"Same here, Doc." He walked Julian to the door. "Don't be a stranger." Even as he said the words, Vic wasn't sure he meant them.
"Right, Vic. Take care of yourself."
"And her. I got it, Julian."
As Julian strode down the hall, Victoria materialized next to Vic. "Trouble in paradise," she asked.
Vic didn't appreciate the note of enjoyment in her voice. "Nothing I can't handle," he answered, refusing to give her more information.
"Not exactly a resounding 'No,' Vic." She leaned in. "Just how long before he runs into Ezri, do you suppose?"
Vic glared at her.
She laughed. "Not that she'd ever choose him over you. Oh wait, she did once before, didn't she?"
He turned away, called up the band. "Come on, we've got work to do."
Her mocking laughter seemed to echo through the holodeck.
He was just arriving home one morning when his comm chime went off. He answered it expecting to see Ezri's face. "Did you forget to tell me something important like--"
It wasn't Ezri. It was Sloan. "Sorry to disappoint you, Vic, but I'm not that charming Trill you've been keeping company with for the last few weeks."
Vic felt uneasy. It would be naïve to think the Section wouldn't find out about her, but it still bothered him hearing Sloan talk about her. "What do you want?"
"Got another job for you and Victoria. We've got a sting in place to take down one of those individuals identified on the files you two found. Just need your help in the surveillance department. There's a lot of security on the particular holosuite our target uses. We can't get in there, but you can. You can be our eyes and ears. I'll meet you in your lounge in an hour to prep. You'll tell Ms. Fountain for me, yes?"
"I didn't say I'd do it."
"Are you saying you won't?" Sloan's voice was perfectly even. They just stared at each other, then Sloan smiled. "She's a lovely woman, your Ezri Dax."
Sloan held up a hand, his smile didn't alter. "Just an observation, Vic."
Vic felt his unease turn to fear. "If you touch her..."
"Vic, Vic, I'm not going to touch her. You're paranoid, my friend. Now I'll see you in an hour?"
Vic just nodded.
"Great. Don't forget to tell Victoria." Sloan signed off.
Vic thought furiously. He needed to make sure he could protect Ezri. And himself. He went into the system, searching through Felix's personal files. Maybe if he could sneak in when Felix had one of them open, he'd be able to find the codes he needed to protect himself...and Ezri. It took him a moment to realize the file was open. Felix was apparently already at work.
Vic checked the open file quickly. It didn't have the information he needed. He had to wait until it was nearly time to meet Sloan before Felix accessed the file he wanted. Vic copied the command codes he needed and the contact numbers. Stupid of Felix to keep them all in one place but typical of him to think that no one would be able to bust through his security systems. As he rushed back to the holodeck, Vic felt Victoria near him.
"What were you doing?" she asked suspiciously. "Are you authorized to be there?"
"Sloan wants us for a job. I was looking for you, where were you?"
He hoped that she'd been up to something irregular, and it looked like she had as his question knocked her off the attack. "I was just exploring. Nothing bad."
"I'm sure. Come on, or we'll be late. And I don't know about you, but I don't like to keep Sloan waiting."
"Where were you this afternoon? I called you twice." Ezri moved to find a more comfortable position in the floating bed she'd called up from the holomatrix.
The job had taken all day. He hadn't gotten back to see he had messages until it was nearly time to see her. He decided to go for the simplest answer. "Working."
She turned over and studied him. "Working?"
He scratched her back lightly.
She smiled in pleasure but said, "Don't think you can distract me. Since when do you work?"
"Since I got back from the station." He moved his hand up to rub under her hair. She groaned happily. "I have to earn my pay around here, same as you, Lieutenant."
"Then when you said you were going away that time. It was for work?"
"Uh huh." He began to kiss the back of her neck. "Do you really want to talk about this right now?"
She giggled as his tongue traced the pattern of her spots. "I guess not."
"Me neither." But he knew she wasn't going to drop it. Ezri Dax was like a terrier when she wanted to know something. Even as he made love to her, he refined the story he was going to tell her. He didn't like to lie, especially to her, but he knew telling her the truth wouldn't be safe for her.
As she got dressed for the day, she brought it up again. "So where do you work?"
"On the holodeck."
"But your holoemitter?"
"Just to make it easier to get around." He saw her frown. "Ezri, why are you making a federal case out of this? I test new holoprograms out. I can debug from the inside while the thing is running. It's efficient and it's what I'm made for." He saw her face relax. "What did you think I was doing? Being Vic the super spy?"
She laughed. "Of course not. I just didn't know you worked."
He hugged her. "It's a good thing I do or I'd spend the day just waiting for you to come back to me."
"True." She kissed him tenderly. "You're full of surprises. I didn't expect that."
"Well, expect it. Everyone has secrets, Ezri. As a counselor, you should know that."
She nodded. "My mistake. Keep surprising me. I like it."
"You got it, doll."
"So do you have any other secrets?"
He took a deep breath.
"Julian's on Earth. I saw him a few day's ago."
She exhaled strongly. At his look, she smiled. "I saw him too. I wasn't sure if I should tell you."
He laughed softly. "Quite the pair."
She nodded. "It was odd seeing him."
She looked him in the eyes, her own expression held no guile. "Part of me was happy, even wanted to try again. I guess I still love him."
"I could have told you that." He knew his smile was bittersweet.
"But another part of me was just happy to see my friend Julian...was more worried about where you were."
He gave her a more genuine smile. "Glad to hear it."
She kissed him gently. "I won't deny that it'll hurt the first time I see him with someone new. I may get angry, or cry. But that's just a part of letting go."
"It is," he agreed.
"I'm with you now," she said firmly...too firmly.
He wondered which one of them she was trying to convince.
Vic was working on a new song when Victoria came in with Felix. He finished, then joined them at the front table.
"You seem happy," Felix noted. "Haven't seen you after hours much lately, Vic."
"He's in love," Victoria observed with a pretty pout.
Vic shrugged. "I'm seeing someone." He didn't want to give Felix anything his creator could use against him.
"Every night that we're not working." Victoria rolled her eyes. "He's smitten, Felix. Totally gone on this one."
Felix laughed. "Well, humans fall in love with holograms all the time, why shouldn't a hologram?"
Victoria wasted no time in correcting him. "She's real."
Vic knew how much she hated that word. That she used it surprised him. But he guessed it was the only way to refer to it with Felix. "Someone from the station," he offered.
"The Trill that Sloan mentioned? I thought he was kidding." Felix looked thoughtful. "Well, good for you, Vic. If you two are in love, that's great."
Victoria shot Felix a disgusted look. "Didn't you say that you had a new job for us?"
"Yeah. An additional surveillance target tonight. Another of the traitors you two identified from Keldor's files. Sloan's instructions are to just watch her. But if she tries to leave before 2200, distract her. She needs to be there with the other target. Something big is going down tonight."
Vic nodded absently.
"Hey, Vic. You in or what?"
"Of course I'm in. It's what I do, right?"
"Guess you'll have to tell your honey that tonight is off," Victoria said, as she brushed past him to take the data cube that Felix was holding out.
"She understands I have irregular hours."
"I'll leave you two to read up. Good luck," Felix said from the door.
Once he was gone, Victoria turned to Vic. "She really doesn't question where you go? Or"--she draped herself around him--"who you're with?"
"She trusts me. She knows I love her."
"Just like you know she loves you. Because she says it all the time, right?" Victoria burst out laughing at his expression. "Ooh, hit a nerve. The Trill won't say that she loves him."
"She cares for me."
"Not quite the same thing, is it?" Victoria gave him a look he couldn't decipher. "Not the same thing at all."
Vic tried to ignore her as he studied the data. He hadn't told Ezri that he loved her either, not since their first date at Sekhmet. He didn't want to spook her. Or was he just afraid that if he did say it, he wouldn't hear it back? The thought bothered him even as he told himself to concentrate on work.
"Do you ever get mad?"
Vic turned to look at Ezri.
"I'm serious, Vic. Don't you ever get moody or angry?"
He thought of watching Moro kill the young woman in the holosuite, then forcing Victoria to have sex with him in the same spot. Remembered how furious that had made him. "Yeah, doll. I get mad."
"You haven't seen it. I can't imagine you ever will." He smiled at her. "Did you want me to program in some moodiness?"
She shook her head. "Your just always so even-keeled and upbeat. It's not nat--" she cut herself off.
"Not natural?" He studied her before smiling slightly. "But that's the point, isn't it? I'm not natural. I'm exactly the opposite."
She walked over to where he sat on the couch. "I didn't mean to insult you," she said, as she snuggled in next to him.
"I'm not sure you did insult me," he said, as he pulled her closer. "Fact is, I'm not natural. I have my own personality, but my basic reactions are pretty much programmed in. If you want more random reactions, I can program that in...but it wouldn't be any more _natural_ than how I act now."
"I'm sorry I brought it up," she said softly.
"Why? Is this something we can't talk about?"
"Vic, I didn't say that."
"Well, it sure sounds like you did. Face it, sweetheart, you're with a hologram. So making discussion about my programming off limits is really going to put a crimp in our conversations."
"I never said..."
"The hell you didn't..." he trailed off as he realized she was grinning. "What?"
"I'm not angry. I'm..." He stopped to consider just what he was feeling. "I'm annoyed."
"And that's so good," she said with a laugh, as she pulled him to her. "This may be the closest thing we have to a fight, Vic. What do you say we try the making up part?"
He smiled grudgingly, as she began to nuzzle his neck. "Making up, huh?"
"Uh huh," she murmured.
"Okay. I guess." She hit a spot he really liked. "Oh yeah, that's the ticket."
"Can we fight some more," she asked, as she crawled on top of him.
"Whatever you want, Ezri," he answered absently, as he surrendered to her touch.
"You," she whispered. "I want you."
"You've got me, love. Never doubt that," he whispered.
Vic woke up alone in Ezri's bed. He looked around the room; saw her sitting on the window seat, knees drawn up tightly to her chest. "Ezri?"
She didn't turn to look at him as she said, "I'm all right. Go back to sleep."
He sat up in bed and turned on the light. "I don't think you are all right or you'd still be in bed sleeping."
"And of course you're the expert."
Vic took a deep breath. He hadn't seen this snappish Ezri for quite a while. "Why don't you tell me what's going on so I can quit playing counselor then?"
She finally turned to look at him. He could see she'd been crying.
"What if I don't know what's wrong?"
He got out of bed and walked to the window seat. Sitting down next to her, he was careful not to touch her. "You're hurting. Maybe we can figure it out together?"
She hugged her knees in closer, rested her chin on them. "Maybe you should just leave me alone." Her voice was very small.
"Maybe I should," he agreed. "But I don't plan to." He watched her for a few minutes. "Is it us?" She shook her head, and he felt a surge of relief. "Is it Julian?"
She didn't answer and his heart sank.
"Ezri, are you still in love with him?"
She shrugged, but he saw a tear roll down her cheek.
He sighed and sat back, waiting for her to open up. Five minutes passed, then ten. He didn't move, just sat watching her.
Finally, she looked over at him. "I saw him today."
"He was with someone." She leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. "Tall, long dark hair, beautiful...are you getting the picture?"
He nodded. "Jadzia."
She laughed sharply. "Jadzia. I wasn't good enough, so he's going to keep looking for her."
"He may well do that, Ezri. But that's his problem, not yours. If he's trying to replace Jadzia, he's never going to succeed."
"Just because you and he couldn't make it work, doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you."
"I tried to be her, Vic. At the end, I tried so hard to be her."
He shook his head. "And if you can't be her, then who can? I hope he stops looking for her and starts letting real love in. Because Jadzia's just a dream he can never ever catch." He reached over, took her hand. "But you were the real thing, Ezri. And he let you get away."
She smiled sadly. "You're so good to me, Vic. I'm not sure I deserve you."
"I'm not sure you do either," he teased, happy to see her smile grow warmer.
She moved closer to him, laid her head on his shoulder. "Just when I think I'm over him, something like this happens and I feel as if my whole world is spinning out of control."
"It's not. This is just one of those dips in the road that you have to walk when a relationship ends. It's not easy to let go, to say goodbye...not when you've invested such a large part of yourself in it."
"But he let it go so easily."
He put his arm around her. "It just looks like that, sweetheart. I think he was hurting more than you realize. And he's going to go on hurting unless he lets go of his obsession with a dead woman."
She winced slightly at the harshness of his words, but said, "You're right. But then you usually are when it comes to love." As he kissed her hair, she whispered, "So did you ever love someone like that?"
"I'm holding the only woman I've ever loved," he said softly.
"No, I mean before...in your memories...in the original Vic's life...was there a woman who got away?"
He thought. Spending time in his memories of the past wasn't something he did very often anymore. They colored who he was, how he acted and spoke, but he'd moved beyond them and he didn't like to delve too much into what lay beneath his own recollections. But for Ezri, he'd embrace the past that was the real Vic's life. He called up the memories, saw a young blonde woman lying in a hospital bed, smiling bravely up at him. "Cindy," he whispered.
"She died...a sickness that couldn't be cured back then. We were going to be married, had a little place just outside the city limits picked out and everything." He felt a terrible sadness come over him as he remembered the pain she'd been in, the way the real Vic had put aside his own suffering until she was gone. Vic suddenly wondered why Felix had chosen to include this in his programming. It seemed...cruel, somehow. "Losing her...it was the hardest thing Vic ever had to endure. He just wanted to curl up next to her and follow wherever she was going to go."
"But he...you couldn't." She sounded confused as to which one of them she should show sympathy for.
He didn't blame her; it was confusing to him too. "I couldn't," Vic agreed. "But I...he never loved again. Never let himself, even though he professed to be such an expert on love. What a hypocrite."
"I don't think so," she said as she rose and pulled him up. "I think it makes you more human. It's the contradictions that make us real." She smiled gently. "So we've both loved and lost."
He nodded as she pulled him close.
"Love again, Vic. Love me."
As he kissed her, he tried not to dwell on the fact that she still hadn't said she loved him.
Ezri woke with a start. Vic had allowed himself to drift and he had missed that she was moving restlessly. He wasn't even sure that Trills dreamed. "Nightmare?" he whispered.
She was breathing quickly.
"Ezri?" He ordered the room to turn up the lights. They slept tonight in a bed of leaves high in the wide trunk of an ancient tree. The arrangement seemed to only make Ezri more anxious. "Computer play Vic program Q1." The room rearranged itself into the bedroom of his apartments in Vegas. "What's wrong, Ezri?"
Her eyes were haunted as she looked at him. "Do you believe in premonitions?"
He wasn't sure where she was going with the question. "I don't know. I guess maybe."
"I dreamt that I died."
Vic felt a chill. "I think everyone dreams that once in a while."
She shook her head. "No. I dream it all the time."
"Everyone dies sooner or later, Ezri. It's not that unusual a dream."
"It is when it's the only dream you ever have."
Tears welled up in her eyes and Vic pulled her in closer. "Ezri, inside you is a creature that has watched eight people die and leave it. Maybe the dreams are from Dax not you."
"Jadzia dreamt it too. And Curzon. Just before he died."
"Did the other hosts?"
She shook her head.
"Well, there you go. Jadzia picked up Curzon's fears. He was an old man, right? It would be natural that he'd worry about that. And you're picking up Jadzia's fears coupled with your own. It's nothing, Ezri. Let it go, sweetheart."
She hugged him tightly. "Just a bad dream?"
"Just a bad dream." He kissed her hair. "I'm not letting you leave me that easily."
She laughed a little. "I guess not after you've waited this long. Wouldn't be fair."
"No, it wouldn't."
She kissed him. "Let's get out of here. Go away."
"You can go anywhere, right?" At his nod, she continued, "I want to go to Risa."
"Curzon died there."
"Ezri, I'm not sure this is a good idea--"
She cut him off. "I have to face this, Vic. I need to see it. Jadzia had to do the same thing. See the planet. See Arandis...the woman Curzon was with. Face what it meant. Maybe then the dreams will stop."
"If you're sure..."
She tapped her stomach. "Curzon's still alive here, Vic. Alive but knowing he's not. It's haunting me, I think. I made my peace, as much as I could, with Jadzia on the station. Now I need to make my peace with him. Of all the hosts, he is speaking the loudest right now."
"Then let's go shut him up. When do you want to go?"
"Now? I've got some leave saved up."
"You make the arrangements. I'll follow you into hell. You know that, right? I love you, Ezri."
She just smiled, as she got up to make the travel reservations.
He tried not to dwell on what she hadn't said.
After a few minutes she came back to bed. "We leave tomorrow. And we've still got time for this," she said, as she pushed him over and bent to kiss him.
"All the time in the world," he murmured, as his mouth met hers.
Ezri had just left when the door chime rang. "Come."
"Thought she'd never leave." Victoria had traded in her normal gown for a Starfleet uniform.
"You shouldn't be wearing that," he said.
"Who's going to stop me? Besides it causes less commotion than when I wear one of my dresses."
"Then wear something a little less conspicuous."
"Someone's in a bad mood."
"Change the outfit. It's wrong."
"Oh, fine." She made an adjustment to her mobile emitter, and her image skipped for a moment. When it corrected, she was dressed in casual civilian clothes. "Better?"
"And you're not mad at me anymore?" She smiled winningly at him.
"What do you want, Victoria?"
"I'm going to Las Vegas. It's a gift from Felix. All expenses paid for two. I want you to come with me. Show me the town. The way you remember it."
"I don't remember it. I'm not the real Vic."
She pouted. "You can make something up then. Please, Vic," she wheedled.
"I'm gonna be gone for a while."
"For how long?"
"Where are you going?"
"Risa. With Ezri."
"You can go there later." She had a pleading look. "Please, it's my birthday."
He shook his head. "I'll bring you back something nice."
"I don't want something nice. I want you."
She moved in, her expression more serious than he'd ever seen it. "What can she do for you that I can't?" She touched his arm; let her hand move up to his shoulder. "I could make you happy."
"I am happy."
She pressed against him. Her voice was so low that he barely heard her say, "But I love you."
He held her for a moment. "I love you too, kiddo. But not like that."
He laughed softly. "It's not that easy."
She backed up. "You really love her that much?"
She looked away for a moment. "Why?"
"Someday you'll understand, sweetheart. Someday you'll fall for somebody and you'll realize this was nothing."
"It's not nothing to me." She looked hurt. "Is that all I am to you? Nothing?"
"I didn't mean it like that. You know I care about you. You and me...we're simpatico. We understand each other."
Her expression tightened. "I'm not so sure we do." She turned to go. "Have a good time on Risa."
"What do you want me to bring you?"
"Something you don't want to give." She smiled sadly as she looked back at him. "Just pick up a horga'hn or something."
"Okay. Enjoy Vegas. I'll make it up to you."
"Sure, you will," she said gloomily as she left the room.
Risa was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. But it reminded him of the holodeck. Everything was too easy, made perfect by technology.
Ezri seemed to feel it too as they settled in. "It's fake, isn't it?"
He hugged her from behind, his arms wrapping around her stomach. "It may be, but the people here aren't."
She turned in his arms. "I didn't mean that you weren't real."
He nodded. "That's fine, doll."
"No, I didn't mean it that way." She sighed. "Vic, I say things sometimes without thinking. You know that. I'm an idiot."
He kissed her. "No, you're not. Our situation is unique. I'm the one that needs to accept that." He let her go and went to the window. Their room looked out on the beach.
She followed his gaze. "Do you like to swim?"
He had to think about that. He seemed to remember a memory from the initial Vic Fontaine programming. Parties on the sand, colorful blankets laid out, lots of other kids, all of them splashing and horsing around in the water. He smiled at the scene. "Yeah, I like to swim," he answered softly.
"Excuse me, am I disturbing you?"
Vic turned to see a beautiful woman standing in the door.
Vic nodded in approval. Arandis was a looker. With the face of an angel and a body made for loving. He watched as Ezri's smile grew wide. "I know I don't know you, but they did and I..." she trailed off embarrassed.
Arandis laughed. "I'm getting used to meeting Curzon's successors. Give an old friend a hug, Dax."
Vic saw Ezri stiffen slowly at the choice of names Arandis had chosen. But she embraced her warmly anyway, then moved to stand next to him. "This is my friend Vic Fontaine."
Arandis gave him a questioning look. "I didn't see you arrive."
He patted the mobile emitter. "I have my own mode of transport." At her continued look of confusion, he glanced at Ezri. "I think it's up to you to tell her."
Ezri hesitated a moment. "He's a hologram."
"That's different. Interesting though." Arandis stepped forward to take his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet any friend of Dax."
"Well, I'll leave you two alone. Stop by the main residence if you want to talk. I'm usually there." She bowed formally. "All that is ours is yours."
As the door closed, Ezri sat down on the bed. "That was harder than I thought."
He sat next to her. "Maybe you thought everything would clear up when you saw her, when you faced her?" He kissed her cheek. "Maybe you thought coming face to face with Dax's past would free you. But it hasn't, has it?"
She shook her head.
"Maybe it never will. Or maybe it will in time. Nothing you can do now about it. So why don't we go swimming?" He patted her on the rear, earning himself a glare. "Get changed."
She got up and shot him an evil smile. "Good thing we know your emitter is waterproof."
He remembered the time in her shower when he'd followed her in, not even thinking of the mobile emitter. They had both stared at it, waiting for it to short. But it hadn't. Since then they had tested it several more times. He smiled at her. "Damn good thing. Now get ready."
He adjusted the mobile emitter so he was in swim trunks and sandals. She came out and tossed him a towel. They walked down the beach until they found a spot to themselves. Then she led him into the surf. As soon as he felt the water lap at his feet, he remembered what to do. He walked out a few steps and then dove into the surf. He surfaced to find her still standing on the sand. "Are you coming?"
"In a minute."
"Lieutenant Dax, you are coming into this water."
"Uh huh." She was backing out.
He strode out of the water and before she could protest, scooped her up and carried her into the water.
"Don't dunk me," she squealed. "Norvo and Janel used to do that. I hate it." She began to struggle.
"Hey, hey. I'm not going to dunk you." He slowly settled into the water, pulling her closer. "I'm not going to do anything you don't want."
She moved so she was wrapped around him. Her arms tightened around his neck and she leaned in to kiss him. "Lose the trunks," she whispered.
"I thought you might say that," he said, as he hit the sequence of keys he'd programmed to get rid of his clothing.
"You made a 'get naked' subroutine just for me?" she asked, as she wiggled out of the bottoms to her suit.
"Just for you," he said, as she settled on him, and he marveled again that something so simple could feel so good. "Always for you."
"I love you, Vic." She was staring at him as the gentle waves bumped them, adding to the movements that were bringing them both so much pleasure. "I mean that. I love you." She kissed him deeply as they finished what they'd started.
They floated for a while in the shallows, entwined and kissing. Finally, she put her suit back on, and he entered the code to replace his clothes. They left the water and collapsed onto their towels. She leaned over him, studying his face. "I love you. I wasn't ready to say it until now."
He touched her face, tracing the curve of her cheek. "You don't have to say it now just to make me happy."
She grinned. "It makes me happy to say it."
"Well, in that case." He pulled her down for another kiss.
She kissed him back with an unhurried ease that was new.
"You know," he whispered. "You should never believe an 'I love you' that's said in the throes of passion."
"I've heard that," she teased, then her expression grew serious. "Does it seem too sudden? Do you think I don't know how I feel?"
He laid a finger on her lips. "I believe that you think you know how you feel. And I want to accept that you love me."
She curled into his arms. "You make me feel safe, Vic. In a way that I'm going to have a tough time explaining, but I'm going to try." She smiled up at him. "You give me a place to let down the armor, to stop being Dax and just be Ezri. I feel like no matter what I do or say or what's inside me, you'll love me the same sweet, constant way."
"I will," he agreed.
"I don't have to wear a mask with you. I love that. I love you." She stared at him, then slowly smiled. "I. Love. You."
"I love you too," he said as he pulled her to him.
They stayed in the sunshine for several hours until Ezri complained that she was hungry. Getting dressed, they went to the main residence to find some food. Arandis smiled at them from across the room but did not come over.
"Do you think I offended her?" Ezri asked as she made short work of her salad.
He shook his head. "I think she's smart enough to know when to let go."
"I hope you're right. I don't want to hurt her." Arandis was laughing at something her dinner partner was saying. "She doesn't look very hurt though, does she?"
He laughed. "She really doesn't." He leaned in. "Why don't you tell me more about how you love me?"
She grinned as the waiter walked up with her food. "I'll tell you after I've eaten."
"I know where I rate." He laughed. as she pretended that she was going to set her fork down. "Eat, Ezri. For god's sake, eat before things get ugly."
She grinned and set to enjoying her food. And then dessert and coffee. He hoped she was full as they left the restaurant, walking along a path in the gardens holding hands. He noticed her dig into her pocket, then she slipped something onto his finger. He stopped walking and looked at the coppery gold ring. It had a clear stone on it that sparkled in the lamplight. "Ezri?"
She smiled but he could tell she was trying not to cry. "It was my father's."
"You don't talk about him much."
"I know. He wasn't in my life very much when I got older...couldn't stand being around my mother. Left her to run the company alone, which was fine with my mother. But when he ran, he left us alone with her. I'm having a hard time forgiving him for that."
"Why do you have to forgive him?"
"Because he came back. When I went home that time on the station?" She looked at him questioningly, as if asking if he remembered. When he nodded, she continued. "As I was getting ready to return to the station, he came back to try to reclaim what was left of his family."
"And to try to rein your mom in?"
Ezri laughed scornfully. "As if that's possible." She looked down. "I left my brothers alone with her. Same as he did."
"Maybe it's you that you need to forgive?"
She nodded. "Maybe." She looked down at the ring. "I got this from the family solicitor the day I left for the academy. My father had told him to give it to whichever of his children defied my mother first. I was the one."
"You did what you had to do, Ezri."
"I did what I wanted...needed to do. But I'm not sure it was the right thing. My brothers suffered. She warped them, especially Norvo. He murdered someone, Vic. Killed her viciously. I'd have never thought he had it in him."
"We never know what another person is capable of until they do it," Vic offered.
Ezri smiled. "I suppose that's true. Both bad and good." She touched the ring. "I'd have never guessed my father would come back. He must care more for my mother than any of us knew." She sighed. "Janel thinks mother loves my father still too. But they're already fighting."
Vic wasn't sure what to say.
"At least Janel is going to get the chance to escape, see something more than just the Sappora System."
"That's good." He looked down at the ring. "If this ring has bad memories--"
"Oh, no." She looked sheepish. "The ring doesn't. Until this last visit, I worshiped my father. I missed him terribly but I envied him his freedom, and his courage in leaving. I used to wear this ring a lot, until I went back. And saw what damage he and I had done."
"Ezri, you didn't do it. Neither did he, not really. Your mother did." He pulled the ring off. "In any case, I can't accept this. It's too much."
She took it back. Then reached for his hand and firmly put it on. "I want you to have something of me. It's the only thing I have to give you, Vic."
He smiled as he drew her into his arms. "Oh, you've given me more than you'll ever know."
She hugged him fiercely. "I love you, Vic. It just took me awhile to realize that."
"Ezri." He kissed her hard, knew he would never get enough of her. "God, I love you."
As she led him back to their building, he leaned in and whispered. "Let's come back here every year. Fake or not, I adore Risa."
Laughter was her only answer as she pulled him into their room and engaged the privacy lock.
"So, did you have a good time?" Victoria looked up with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"We did," Vic answered, putting the emphasis on the 'we.'
"Glad to hear it," she said, sounding anything but.
"How was Vegas?"
She made a non-committal sound.
"You did go?"
Victoria scowled. "Of course, I went. Do you think I just sat here mooning over you?"
"So why the lack of enthusiasm?"
"It was fine, Vic. What more do you want me to say?"
Victoria stared at him for a moment, then got up and walked to the piano. "You look different."
He followed her onstage. "I programmed in a tan."
She shook her head. "It's not that. You look...happy, I guess. I take it Ezri treated you right?"
He couldn't keep a dopey grin off his face.
"Asked and answered," she said, as she began to tap out a new melody on the keys.
She nodded. "Not mine though. Picked it up off a singer in the hotel lounge. Traded him one of mine for it."
"Trade him anything else?" he teased.
Her expression darkened. "Would it be any of your business if I did?"
"God, you're touchy today. What is your problem?"
She slammed her fingers down on the keys, the discordant sound filling the holodeck. "There's nothing wrong with me, Vic. Now are we going to rehearse or what?"
She glared at him.
He walked over to stand behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. "I'm sorry you had to go alone, Victoria," he said, as he rubbed her neck.
She relaxed under his touch. "I missed you." She leaned back against him. "After all you've told me, Vegas _is_ you, Vic. It wasn't right being there without you.
Vic was pretty sure whatever he said would only make things worse, so he didn't say anything, just kept massaging her neck. She seemed to relax even more against him. Then she finally pulled away and started to play the piano.
"Do you want to learn this song or not?" she asked, her voice much gentler than it had been.
"You bet I do," he said, giving her all of his attention as she began to sing the first verse.
"So, you're still goofing off when you should be working?"
Vic turned in his chair, was stunned to see Quark striding into the holodeck. "You're a bit far from home, aren't you?"
"Somebody has to keep the Federation in line. Not that it's going to be me, mind you, but Rom wanted me to come along on this trip. He's finding that he can't trust some of his advisors. Imagine that?" Quark looked around the lounge. "You've changed the place. I like it. Now where's Ezri? I heard you and her were tog--" Ezri apparently forgotten, Quark practically stalked over to where Victoria sat at the piano. "Well, hello there."
"Hello," she said cautiously.
He leaned forward, took her hand in his. "I'm an old friend of Vic's. And did I mention that my brother is the Grand Nagus?"
"I don't think you did," Victoria purred, clearly amused by her first real Ferengi. "And you are?"
"Where are my manners? I'm Quark and I'm at your service...well, provided there's no cost involved, of course." He smiled toothily.
"Charmed. I'm Victoria."
"A lovely name."
Vic walked over to the two of them. "Quark, I thought you wanted to see Ezri?"
"You two together?" Quark asked, never taking his eyes off Victoria.
"Forget Ezri, then." He held out his arm to Victoria. "I'd rather hear all about you, my dear."
Victoria took his arm. "Oh, there's not much to tell," she said with a mysterious smile.
"Why don't I believe that?" Quark said, oozing sincerity and lust. "Maybe we could get rid of Vic and you and I could get to know each other better?"
Vic rolled his eyes. "You're not falling for his line of bull, are you?"
Victoria smiled. "Forget about Vic and this dump of a holodeck, Quark. I'm one hundred percent mobile. Let's find some wildly exotic spot to while away the night."
"Okay," the Ferengi agreed, completely entranced and a little taken aback at his good fortune. He turned to Vic. "I wish you and Ezri all the best. Say hi to her for me, will you?"
"Sure thing, pally.'' Vic watched the two of them walk out and shook his head. "You've got a tiger by the tail, Quark, and you don't even know it. In fact, you probably don't even care. Hell, you might even like it." He shook his head again, then went back to his paper.
Vic and Ezri were just getting in when his comm sounded. He answered it as Ezri configured his bedroom into a South Seas paradise.
It was Julian. "Vic, is this a bad time? I was hoping Ezri was there."
"She's here." Vic moved aside so Julian could see her too.
"What's up?" she asked.
Vic tried not to do it but he couldn't help assessing whether she seemed excited, indifferent, or upset to hear from her ex-lover. Her voice seemed even, comfortable, perfectly normal to him.
"Listen, I wanted to give you a heads up. The head instructor for ship duty at the Academy is a friend of mine. He's looking for a counselor to evaluate the cadets' psychological performance. I hope you don't mind, but I recommended you for the position."
Ezri seemed stunned for a moment, then she broke into a smile.
"You'd be a natural working with the cadets," Julian continued.
"I agree," Vic said softly. "And you'd be on a ship again, Ezri. Wouldn't she, Julian?"
"A brand new ship, even. The Candelaria."
Ezri seemed undecided.
"Just think about it. When Captain Sutton calls, try to keep an open mind."
"I will, Julian. Thanks for thinking of me."
He smiled. "You're an excellent counselor, Ezri. Why wouldn't I think of you?"
She looked down. "I know, but still..."
Vic suddenly felt like a third wheel. "Look, I'm gonna give you some privacy."
She reached out and grabbed his hand. "No. This is a decision we'll both need to think about. I could be off world a lot."
"If it's what you want to do, I'll survive."
Julian nodded. "Dax took you off the Destiny, Ezri. Maybe now it's time to get that life back?"
"I'll definitely think about it. Thanks, Julian."
"No problem. See you both." Julian cut the connection.
Ezri sat down in one of the rattan chairs she'd called up. "The Candelaria," she said, as if trying out the name.
"If Sutton calls, Ezri, you should accept."
"If he calls..."
"He'll call, if he wants the best on his staff, he'll call."
"That's sweet, Vic. But I haven't had that much experience. I'm sure he has some other candidates in mind."
"Maybe. But if he calls, consider it."
She nodded. "But for tonight, I just want to think about us, if that's okay with you?"
He laughed. "Perfectly fine."
The next day Sutton did call Ezri at her office and offered her the position, and she did end up accepting.
"I'll be making a difference. In a field that interests me, not just Dax."
"You'll be great. But I'm a little worried about all the cadets that are going to fall in love with you."
"And what about all the people that fall for your dashing crooner act?"
"Okay, I see your point." He pushed her onto her bed. "It's good that you're happy, Ezri. You deserve that."
She leaned over to kiss him. "We both do."
She looked so pleased. Vic wished that his own work made him as fulfilled.
As Ezri grew more confident with each new day, Vic took on increasingly more difficult jobs for Sloan. He and Victoria even occasionally masqueraded as humans.
"Do you know where we are?" Victoria asked as she took Vic's arm.
"Fifth and 48th. We should be there soon."
"Have you been here before?"
He shook his head. "But the real Vic spent some time here when he was younger. Not that it's much help. Things have really changed since his time." He turned them down 47th. "This street used to be the Diamond District." He grinned at her. "You would have loved it."
She turned her nose up slightly at the dark facades they were passing. "Not much of an enticement to shop."
"These used to be glass, big picture windows with lots of pretty sparkly things to make you stop and look." He stopped, studied a nondescript entrance. "This is it. Bet the rent's pretty cheap now."
"Clever of the Orion Syndicate to choose Earth as a launching pad for its activities in this sector."
"Takes chutzpah," he agreed. "According to the official records, there hasn't been an organized crime presence on this planet for years."
She shot him a look. "And according to the official records, Section 31 doesn't exist. I probably don't either."
"Good point." He grinned at her. "Ready?"
She let go of his arm. "Ready." Her utilitarian gray clothing blended with the metal of the entrance. She looked drabber than he'd ever seen her, with little makeup and her auburn hair hidden under a dark scarf.
Vic rang the buzzer, and the door opened a crack. A rather grizzled and very tall human looked out at them. "Can I help you?" he asked, his tone much less welcoming than his words.
"We're expected," Vic said.
"Dempsey and Kelly."
The man checked a pad, looking back and forth in a way that let Vic know he was checking them against the photos that Sloan had planted. Finally, he opened the door. "Third room on the right," he said, any interest he had in them disappearing as they walked past.
Vic knocked on the indicated door and heard a smooth, "It's open." He pushed through, Victoria hard on his heels.
An older man looked up from a computer terminal. "You're right on time. I admire punctuality." He got up, walked over to a table.
"Anything else would be rude," Vic replied.
"Yes. It would...and no way to start a professional relationship. Come sit down, Mr. Dempsey, Ms. Kelly. I'm Mr. Smith."
"Mr. Smith," Vic emphasized the last name.
Smith nodded in understanding. "Not very original, I admit. But in our line of work, commonplace is good. Allows us to blend in, to hide in plain sight. As we do here...as you two have been doing in the Far East. I've read some glowing reports of your work." He waited until they were seated, then pulled out a file. Handing it to Vic, he asked, "Do you know this person?"
The images in the file were of the woman that they had fingered from Keldor's files, the woman they had kept under surveillance for Sloan in the private holosuite.
"No," Vic said as he passed the file to Victoria. "But I never forget a face once I've seen it."
Victoria handed the folder back. "I'd know her if I saw her again."
"Good." Smith put the folder down on the table, crossed his arms over it and leaned in. "She has become a liability for us. Holds information that in the wrong hands could be very dangerous for us."
"You want her silenced?" Victoria said, no surprise in her voice.
"Yes. Are you interested in the job?"
Vic nodded. "We've been doing a lot in Asia, time to move on before someone remembers us. This sounds like a good place to land."
"We'll make it very much worth your while."
"Just make it interesting," Victoria said with a smile. "We've got plenty of latinum already."
Smith smiled benignly. "We always make it interesting, Ms. Kelly."
"So we've heard," Vic said. "When do you want it done?"
"The sooner the better," Smith replied as he got up. His manner was still gracious, but the meeting was clearly over. "Just make it look natural. She's Starfleet. We can't afford any questions."
"Natural is challenging," Vic said with a smile as he looked over at Victoria.
She nodded. "Very."
Vic rose, took the hand that Smith held out to him. "It's as good as done, sir. You can count on us."
"Prove that and we'll have a long, happy partnership together." Smith turned backed to his computer. "You can see yourselves out, I'm sure."
Vic walked out, heard Victoria close behind him. They were silent as they passed the doorkeeper, didn't talk until they were many blocks away. "It's safe," he said.
Victoria slid the scarf off and shook out her hair. She made some adjustments to the mobile emitter and her image skipped slightly. When it was steady again, her face was beautifully made up. "That feels better," she said with a smile. "So how should we kill her?"
Vic shot her a hard look.
"I'm just living the part, Vic."
"Well, cut it out." A few blocks later, he ducked into an alley and pulled out a small communicator. "Team One to Base One."
"Base One here, go ahead Team One."
"Two to beam back." Vic felt the strange effect as his photons were collected then reassembled in a transporter room that most people didn't even know existed.
The transporter tech looked up. "He wants to see you in holodeck five."
They didn't have to ask who _he_ was. Victoria led the way to the holodeck. The door opened for them and they walked through. The room was bare except for a table holding several hyposprays and a chair that held the woman that Smith had wanted killed. She was secured tightly but her head lolled a bit. Fighting drugs, Vic realized. Something to relax her, make her talk.
Sloan leaned up against the wall. "These are the people I was telling you about, Gina."
She didn't look at Vic or Victoria, just stared straight ahead. "I have friends. They have friends. I'll be protected. I have nothing to say." She spoke slowly, carefully.
Sloan walked over to her. "So you've indicated. These friends...you consider them close?"
Her jaw tightened.
"Go way back with them, do you?" He crouched down, put his hands on her knees and looked up at her. "Real tight, are you?"
"I have nothing to say. Not now. Not ever." Sweat poured off her, as she resisted the drugs and Sloan's words.
Sloan stood up. "Such loyalty and strength of will. I'd prize those qualities, but I'm not the one you're working with, unfortunately for you." He turned to Vic. "She thinks her friends are looking out for her. Why don't you show her just how they plan to do that? Full replay, please."
Vic was already merging with the holomatrix. The room shimmered around them, and suddenly, at the front of the holodeck, Smith's office formed.
She has become a liability for us." Smith said to a second Vic and Victoria, as Vic replayed the whole conversation. He watched as the woman's eyes widened.
Sloan had him play it a few more times, then shook his head sadly. "I wouldn't reward such obvious devotion the way your _friends_ plan to. The way I see it, you have one choice and that's to tell me what I want to know. Because if you don't, I'll just have to let my operatives here waste you. It'll be messy, but it'll definitely place them in good with the Syndicate. I bet they can rise as high, if not higher, than you did in the organization. What do you think, Gina?" He leaned in even closer. "We're both Starfleet here, you can trust me."
She looked at him, seemed to consider what he was saying. "He'll kill me if I talk."
Sloan laughed. "Looks to me like he'll kill you if you don't. I can protect you. Give you a new face, a new identity. Enough credits to keep you nicely on a remote if boring world. Now admit it, Gina. Aren't you dying to tell me every little thing you know? Wouldn't it feel good to stop fighting? To just let go?"
"Dying. That's a good one," she said bitterly, looking over at Vic, then at Victoria. They were impassive, gave her nothing back. Finally, she looked back at Sloan. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"You don't." Sloan gestured for Vic to come closer. "At my signal, snap her neck."
Over the woman's head, Vic shot Sloan a look of alarm. The other man nodded firmly, so Vic put one hand on the woman's shoulder, the other on her chin. He knew that his programming wouldn't allow him to actually hurt her, but the way she squirmed under his hands told him that she didn't know that.
There was a long moment as she looked up at him. He could tell she was beginning to panic. He saw something in her expression crack, as she said. "Okay. I want protection for me and for a friend of mine that's still inside the organization. He'll be in danger too."
Sloan nodded. "Well get him out."
She stared at Sloan, her expression full of resigned hatred. "Fine. Where do you want me to start?"
"Let's start at the beginning. When did the Orion Syndicate first contact you?" Sloan indicated that he didn't need Vic and Victoria anymore. As they left, he smiled, obviously pleased with them.
Once the door closed, Victoria turned to Vic. "Do you think he'd have had you kill her?" She ignored Vic's shrug, "Not that you could with these stupid safeties on, but wouldn't it be exciting if they were off?" With a strange smile, she hurried back to the holodeck.
Vic followed at a more leisurely pace. He could still feel the woman's chin under his hand. It was a disturbing sensation. Would Sloan have killed her, and let Vic and Victoria try to rise through the Orion Syndicate? Or was it all a big bluff? It had to be. The odds that they'd be discovered as holograms were too great. They were lucky that Gina hadn't known that.
Vic caught up with Victoria in the holodeck. She had changed into one of her fancy dresses and was twirling happily on the dance floor. As Vic walked toward her, she laughed and said, "That was fun."
"No, Victoria. It wasn't."
She spun close to him. "Yes. It was."
"Brother mine, you're a prude and a stick-in-the-mud." She grabbed his hands, pulled him into the dance. "It was fun. Admit it."
Vic again felt the woman's skin under his, the softness of her chin. He jerked away from Victoria. "I'm getting out of here."
"What about rehearsal?"
"Rehearse this," Vic said, making a rude gesture as he spun on his heel and headed out the door.
He walked for hours through the city before he felt calm again. He wasn't sure he'd ever feel clean again. He kept telling himself that what they were doing was for the good of the Federation. It even made him feel better. For a while.
Holding Ezri in his arms that night, he told himself that what he did, he did for her. For all those like her. Someone had to be willing to do whatever it took to keep the innocents safe. Whatever it took.
He just had never expected it to be him.
It was a crazy secret world that Vic lived in when he wasn't with Ezri. And it got even crazier when Sloan came to him and presented him with his next job. "You remember Moro?" he asked without preamble.
Vic nodded slowly. "You want me to watch him?"
"No," Sloan handed Vic a data cube. "I want you to kill him."
Vic didn't say anything for a few seconds, then he looked up. "Kill him?"
"Do you understand what he is?"
Vic nodded. "He's a monster."
"Worse." Sloan's eyes were hard. "He was a collaborator in the war with the Dominion, and now we have credible information that he is working with the Romulans to try to start the next one."
Vic pictured a bloodstained table. Many of them. He remembered Nog as he came into the holosuite with his cane. Then saw Moro. Moro with thousands of dead girls. Laughing at thousands of Nogs. Using thousands of Victorias--ones that couldn't defend themselves.
"He has to be stopped," Sloan said. Then he waited.
Vic realized he was eager...he wanted to kill the man. He looked up to meet Sloan's eyes.
"You aren't the only one with a sister, Vic." At Vic's frown of surprise, Sloan smiled tightly. "Victoria filed a very complete report."
Vic walked over and plugged the cube in. Information scrolled past at a rapid rate. In the background, the safeties inherent to his program were being modified. Even though he didn't feel any different, he knew that he was. He could kill now. He looked back at Sloan. "Moro's coming here?"
"No. We have a source that swears he'll be on Gamma Epsilon. I need you to wait there for him."
Vic almost laughed. From lounge singer to spy to assassin. It should be funny somehow, but it wasn't. "When do we leave?"
"Not we, Vic, just you." Sloan stood up. "He got to know Victoria too well, so she's useless in this case--way too high profile. And we want this kept very low key." Sloan pulled out a vial. "This will kill him instantly and will make it look like a heart attack. Just put it in whatever drink he orders."
Vic took the vial. Somehow it didn't seem like sufficient payback for the atrocity he'd seen the man do, the others he could imagine him doing. "When do I leave?"
"In two days. Is that a problem?"
"I've got to tell Ezri."
"Of course. Glad that's still going well."
Vic shot a look at Sloan, but the man seemed to be sincere. For once he wasn't wearing a false smile or his more threatening blank stare. He really seemed to mean it. "Yeah, it's going well."
Sloan stood and put a hand on Vic's shoulder. "I'm not Sloan all the time, Vic. I have things I love too. Things I'd die for."
Vic turned to look at the man, but the moment was over.
The mask Sloan normally wore slipped into place. "Good hunting," he said as he left.
Vic turned the vial over in his fingers as he tried to decide what to tell Ezri. As it turned out, he didn't have to worry. She came bounding in, excited and happy. He laughed as she threw her items on the table and hugged him hard. "What's up?"
She showed him some orders on a pad. "The Candelaria is ready for it's shake-down cruise. This will be the first class of cadets on it and they are so excited. I've been selected as one of the observers. I haven't been on a shakedown cruise since the Destiny was launched. There is nothing more exciting."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Three weeks, maybe a month."
"That's great. I may be gone for awhile too. Have to work on some holoprograms that need to be debugged. But not as long as you're going to be away. I'll miss you like hell."
Ezri grinned. "You better miss me." She kissed him. "I'll miss you too. You'll be careful, right?" she asked.
"I will if you will."
"It's a deal." She laughed. "If we're going to be separated maybe we should start saying our goodbyes?"
Funny," he said as he pulled her to him. "I was thinking the exact same thing."
Ezri had just shipped out, and Vic was getting ready to leave for Gamma Epsilon when he felt a pull from one of the other holodecks. He could ignore it if he wanted--it was only phrased as a request for his presence--but he decided to see who was calling him. He materialized inside the Alamo program; saw Julian and O'Brien standing in front of him, both grinning like fools. "Just like old times, eh guys?"
"Thought you might like to play, Vic." O'Brien grinned sheepishly at him. "Sorry I haven't looked you up before now."
Vic shrugged. He hadn't made an attempt to look up the chief either. Victoria had taken up all his time when he first arrived back on Earth, and now Ezri did. "So you guys are still playing this? Don't you ever get tired of fighting on the losing side?"
Julian laughed. "It's liberating, actually. No place to go but up."
"I suppose," Vic said, as he took the rifle O'Brien handed him. He had a few hours to kill, might as well spend it with old friends.
"So, Vic, who was the lovely young woman in the holodeck the other day?" Julian asked, as he stood up to take a shot. "Victoria, I think she said her name was?"
"She's off limits, pally," Vic said more sharply than he intended.
"Thought you were with Ezri?" O'Brien asked.
"I am. Victoria's like a sister."
"And you don't want me near her?" Julian asked.
"Doc, you don't have the best track record."
Julian stared down at him, forgetting to duck as a bullet whizzed by. The safeties kept the bullet from hurting him, but his hat was blown off. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" O'Brien chuckled and Julian whirled on him. "What was that for, Miles?'
"Well, I'm not so sure I'd want you dating my sister, either."
Julian glared at them both, then turned to Vic. "So this Victoria who is off limits, her name's awfully close to yours. Is she self-aware like you?"
Vic nodded. "Felix strikes again."
"I'd say he outdid himself this time. She's stunning."
Vic laughed. "And very high maintenance, Doc. Trust me, I'm telling you to stay away from Victoria as much for your sake as for hers." Vic stood up and took a shot, watched one of the attackers fall before ducking back behind the wall. "It's nothing personal, Doc. You know I think the world of you."
"Just as long as I'm not involved with your family, you mean," Julian said. He sounded more than a little hurt.
"Julian, Ezri saw you with another woman...someone who looked a lot like Jadzia."
"That wasn't serious."
"Does this woman know that?" Vic asked.
"Of course she does."
O'Brien rolled his eyes. "Uh huh, that's why we hid out on the holodeck all those times when she wouldn't stop comming you?"
"She may have misunderstood the parameters at first," Julian admitted.
"At first!" O'Brien laughed. "Julian, she stalked you for a month."
"Stalking is such a pejorative term."
O'Brien looked at Vic. "He slept at our place for an entire week."
"You're supposed to be on my side, Miles." Julian turned to Vic. "Did Ezri get off on the Candelaria okay?""
Vic nodded. "She's so excited. It was good of you to suggest her."
"Not at all. She was a good match. And the Candelaria's a beautiful ship. Did you see it?"
"She took me on a tour a week ago."
"Fine ship," O'Brien said. "All the newest bells and whistles. I'd love to be on her."
Julian shook his head. "Like you couldn't have been if you'd really wanted to."
O'Brien shrugged. "Couldn't do that to Keiko again. She's doing really well right now. She deserves a chance to work in her own field. I'll never forget that she gave up botany so that we could stay together on the station."
"You're a good husband," Vic said.
"I'm a lucky man. I'd like to keep it that way."
"So would I," Julian said with a smile. "You're my role model, Miles."
"Yeah, right." O'Brien shot Vic a 'Can you believe him?' look.
"You are. You have it all: a fantastic wife, beautiful kids, a great job, and of course...me."
They all laughed.
Vic put down his rifle. "Listen, guys, I've got to mosey."
They both wore identical looks of puzzlement.
There was no change in their expressions.
"I have to leave."
"Oh," they said in unison.
"Why didn't you just say so," O'Brien asked.
"I thought I did." Vic waved them off. "Take care, you two."
"You and Ezri have to come over for dinner some night," O'Brien said quickly. "Keiko would love to see you."
"Yeah, we'll do that," Vic said, as he let himself dissolve into the holomatrix. He watched Julian and O'Brien turn back to the enemy and start shooting furiously. "Such kids," Vic said to himself, as he headed back to his own holodeck.
Vic sat back in his favorite booth and tried to concentrate on his pad. Gamma Epsilon had to win the award for most boring planet ever. In the three weeks he'd been here, there had been no sign of Charlet Moro.
As he sat rereading the same paragraph over and over, his communicator buzzed. He didn't say anything as he answered it. A series of tones sounded. He punched a few keys and a different set of tones went back to the originator of the call. He waited for his contact on this mission, a tall human who went by the name of Castor, to start talking, "Time to pack it up, Vic. 'Fraid our lead was a bum one."
"You couldn't have figured this out three weeks ago?" Vic asked sourly. "I'll be at the site in five minutes."
Vic got up and left some money for the coffee he never drank very much of. He walked quickly out to the woods and waited till he heard the communicator buzz again. "I'm ready."
The transporter beamed him directly to Castor's shuttle. "Welcome back, mate. Sorry you were stuck there in that pit of a world."
"You can say that again." He made himself comfortable in the second seat as Castor headed them back to Earth. "So what happened to Moro?"
Castor shrugged. "He turned up on Eridani Prime. Sloan sent someone else in to get him."
"When was this?"
"Yesterday." Castor engaged the cloaking device. "We don't let operatives hang out in the wind, Vic. I came as soon as I could."
"Right. Just get me home."
The trip was uneventful and soon Castor was docking the shuttle. Vic downloaded into the mobile emitter and knew nothing more until Castor hit the keys to bring him back out.
"Okay, you're home, mate. Don't forget to report to Felix in the morning for a debrief."
Until then he was free to do what he wanted and what he wanted to do was find Ezri. Vic headed back to his quarters, where he keyed in the code for her apartment.
A neutrally pleasant voice told him, "This number is out of service."
He tried her office but the comm went straight to her message file. He listened to her instructions, enjoying just hearing her voice again, even if it was only a recorded version. Looked like she was still out on the Candelaria. It was too much to hope that she'd be back early. He noticed he had a lot of messages and was about to play them when the door chimed. "Hey, I was wondering if you were back--"
It wasn't Ezri that stood at the door. It was Julian.
"Buddy, I thought you were someone else. What are you doing here?"
"Can I come in, Vic?"
Vic stepped aside, noticing how somber the doctor seemed. "Something wrong, pally? I'm still good for the advice, if it's a woman that's got you down. Unless it's Victoria. This isn't about Victoria, is it? Man, I told you to stay away from her."
Julian sat down heavily on the bed. He didn't look at Vic.
"What is it?"
Julian sighed, then met Vic's confused stare. "There's no easy way to say this. There never is." He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out slowly. "There was an accident, Vic. On the Candelaria."
Julian just nodded.
Vic sat down hard on the desk chair. "An accident? How?"
Julian got up; put a hand on Vic's shoulder. "They'd completed most of the shakedown cruise; everything seemed normal. It was a combination of events apparently. A rough warp transition coupled with a surge of the deflector system, according to the official reports. I'm not quite sure how it all worked, but it led to a cascade effect that manifested as a massive explosion. Mainly in the decks housing the medical section. There was a hull rupture, explosive decompression. They didn't stand a chance. Those who weren't sucked into space were left with nearly no staff to help them."
"They found her body floating with several others. It was far too late by then." Julian walked back to sit on the bed. "She's gone. The Dax symbiont is gone." He didn't say it, but Vic knew Julian was thinking of Jadzia, who was truly lost to him now.
"A week ago. I looked for you, Vic. Nobody knew where you were. Felix was no help at all. I finally gave up."
One man did, Vic thought angrily. "I was away."
"Yeah. I waited till I saw your comm line active then I came as soon as I could."
"Where is she?"
Julian looked down. "The Dax symbiont's remains were sent to Trill. Ezri's mother took her body back to the Sappora system."
"She hated it there."
"I know that, Vic. But you weren't here. And I didn't feel like I had any right to fight with her."
Vic just nodded.
"I'm sorry." Julian reached into his pocket and drew out a data cube. "They found this in her apartment when they closed it up. It's addressed to you. I promised that I'd give it to you." He held it out, but Vic didn't reach for it. Finally, Julian stood up and walked over to the desk. "I'll just leave it here. You can look at it later."
Vic said nothing. His mind refused to move past the fact that he should have been there. That Sloan had to have known, but had kept him on that damned planet anyway.
Julian moved to the door. Without turning around, he said softly. "Maybe losing them both is better in some kind of twisted way. Dax can't come back."
"I don't care about Dax. I loved Ezri." Vic let his anger at Sloan find another mark. "Even if she did come back, it wouldn't be her. I'm smart enough to know that."
The hit was palpable. Julian's expression tightened. "Touché, Vic. I guess maybe I deserved that. A little."
"Julian, I'm sorry--" But the doctor hurried out of the room. "Damn." He had just hurt someone that had only been looking out for him. Attacked him because the person he really wanted to get was too far away. But that didn't mean Vic couldn't find him.
He keyed in the code he'd found in Felix's files. The communication routed itself through several convoluted pathways until finally the screen lit up. Sloan looked extremely surprised at the unexpected call. Vic didn't waste time with small talk. "You knew?
Sloan's expression changed to a perfect combination of compassion and resolve. "I knew."
"You should have told me."
"You were in the middle of a mission, Vic. I couldn't jeopardize that." Sloan's voice was infinitely patient.
"The mission was a complete failure. A waste of time."
"We didn't know that going in. Certainly, if we'd pulled you off prematurely it would have been a failure."
"I should have been here. For her."
"Vic, she was already dead. What would you have done? Picked the songs for her service?"
"You heartless bastard!" Not for the first time, Vic wondered how far he would get if he launched himself across the system to find Sloan. He savored the idea of his hands around Sloan's throat. "I wasn't here. She was dead, and there were decisions to be made, and I wasn't here!"
"Vic, we've all lost people. And we've all been away when we should have been with the ones that love us...that we love. But your being away wasn't what killed Dax. A terrible accident did that. You would have come home to a corpse, not the woman you loved. And if this mission had succeeded, you would have accomplished something real, something good. You couldn't save Dax, but you could have saved a million others."
"Bull." Vic slammed his hand down on the console. "This is all bull. The missions, the things we do for you, the supposed benefits. None of it's real. None of it. You just push us around as if we were characters on some galactic holodeck. Only with you, the safeties are never on."
Sloan's expression changed, his face becoming even more a mask than usual. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Vic. I'm sure it's the grief talking."
"Go to hell," Vic muttered as he cut the connection. He sat for several minutes, trying to get control of the emotions that were running rampant through him. Anger, grief, pain, sorrow, fear. It was a barrage of such intensity he considered escaping into the system but then he remembered the data cube that Julian had brought. He pushed it into the slot and watched as Ezri appeared on the screen. He felt a wave of pain roll over him at the sight of her.
Her smile was sweet and sad. "Hi, Vic. I made this after Risa. Don't ask me why. I guess it was because of that dream I had." She took a deep breath. "That I kept on having, even after our trip."
He hadn't known that the dreams had continued. Reaching out and touching the monitor, he traced the lines of her jaw. "Ezri."
"Anyway, who cares why I did it. I'm dead if you're seeing this. Oh, that was harsh. But I am. I'm dead and so is Dax, and we're never coming back to you. Not as a friend, not as a lover, not as a familiar stranger that you're forbidden to see." She sighed. "If just Dax had come back, whoever it joined with, I would have made them seek you out. The same way Jadzia's memory made me seek out Benjamin, made me want to see Worf and Julian, I'd have forced my poor successor to find you. Even though some people think it's wrong. I would have found you. If only to say goodbye properly."
He looked down.
"But now I can't find you. I'm truly gone. Dax is lost. We all are." There was a long pause.
He looked up in concern. Was this all she had to say? Her image was still on the screen and she was smiling. "Knew I could get your attention if I'd just shut up."
They both laughed.
"I made you something, Vic. Something to remember me by. It's not me. Not really. But I thought maybe it would help."
He realized that something had been attached to her message. He studied it. "Ezri. No."
"Yes," she said softly. "It's me. A hologram of me. I know that right now it probably isn't what you want. But someday. Maybe."
He paused the message. His hand hovered over the hologram's execute command. She could be standing in front of him. One command and he'd have her back.
A beep sounded from his comm system. Felix's voice seemed unnaturally loud in the small room. "Can you come see me, Vic?"
"Sure. In a sec, okay?" Vic looked at the image of Ezri. He let the message resume.
"Anyway, you do what you want with it." She wiped her eyes. "Look at me. You might not play this for decades and here I am already sad like I'll be dead tomorrow. I hope I'm not dead tomorrow, Vic. I want us to have lots of time together."
"Not enough, doll. Not enough by half."
She smiled. "I love you, Vic. I wish I'd realized that sooner. Always late, that's me." She laughed. "But at least I realized it in time. "
He laughed despite the fact that it felt like his insides were being torn out of him.
"Bye, Vic." The message ended.
Vic stared at the blank screen. He resisted the urge to play the message again. The Ezri program still blinked on the screen. He saved it to his private files and left the room. She would have to wait until he found out what his creator wanted.
As he walked into the holodeck lab, Felix turned too quickly and grimaced. "Crap. Damn hours at this terminal. Plays havoc with the back." He rubbed the offending muscles.
Vic didn't even try to muster up sympathy. "You called for me?"
"All business, aren't you, Vic. Must be nice."
Vic just smiled.
"Jesus, Vic. I heard about your girl. Do you even care?"
"I care." Vic put no emotion into his voice.
"Yeah, right. You care." Felix shook his head. "Nothing ever touches you, does it?"
A vision of blue eyes, delicate markings on pale skin, silky dark hair swam before his eyes. He almost reached out to stroke it. "Yeah, untouchable," he replied softly.
"Well, must be nice, Vic." Felix finished keying in some info. "But hey, you want to talk business, we'll talk business. Sloan called me. I think he's really worried about you. Doesn't know you as well as I do. Said he wants to give you an outlet for that anger he thinks he sees."
Felix nodded. "We've got a mission for you."
"You gotta problem with now?" Felix laughed cruelly. "There somewhere else you gotta be, Vic?"
Vic wondered when his creator started to sound so much like him. Was the imitation even conscious? "No. I got nowhere else to be."
"Good." Felix handed him a data cube. "You'll find everything you'll need on the target. But I don't think you'll need a refresher on this one."
Vic frowned. "Keldor? You want me to go after him?"
"He's an enemy. A man with connections to the Orion syndicate. And one that we thought we could turn. Thought we had turned after you and Victoria worked your magic. But he appears to have rolled over again and given us up. He has to go." Felix turned back to the terminal. "You have to take him out. Use the vial from the last mission. I assume you still have it?" At Vic's nod, he continued, "You leave tomorrow."
Was this all he had left? To kill people that someone decided had to die. Was this what he wanted? "He isn't a player, Felix. He's just a flunky."
"Same as us, huh? Well, too bad. Sloan says he goes, so he goes. Besides, the boss wants you to have something to take your mind off things. He thinks really highly of you. Wants you to run forever."
Vic didn't say anything. He stared at Felix, then his attention was caught by what was on the screen. "What's that?"
Felix darkened the panel. "Nothing. Just some new enhancements."
"Yeah. For when you get back from this mission."
Vic forced his expression to stay neutral. "Great."
"Come on, Vic. You know you can do this. It's for the Federation."
Vic knew it wasn't for the Federation. It was for Sloan, even though the man would never say it. Keldor had somehow become a liability. And Vic could get to him. He imagined that Keldor would welcome another copy of the entertainment program that had given him so much pleasure. He'd have no qualms about opening up the program. It would be so easy to just slip a drug into his drink.
He nodded, stuffed the data cube into his jacket pocket. "Sure thing, pally. I'm in."
Felix grinned. "I figured you would be. Always knew you were a patriot, Vic."
A patriot. Vic glanced again at the darkened screen. It had said 'VF-V.2.' Enhancements, my ass, Vic thought, as he wondered how much more of a patriot the new Vic would be. The poor slob probably wouldn't have a choice. Felix would make sure of it.
Vic forced a breezy grin. "Don't sweat it, Felix, I'm in. I've got a few things to do before I go. I've got time, right?"
"Sure. You and Victoria leave tomorrow." Something in Felix's expression changed.
"Victoria? Why's she coming?"
"Well, she was part of the original program, after all. Keldor will expect her. She'll just be in the background. There to help out if you need it." Felix's ability to lie hadn't improved. He fairly squirmed in his seat as he spoke.
So that was how Vic version one would be dumped. They'd have her do it. Vic didn't react. No need to give them the jump on him. He didn't want them to know that he had figured out that he was a liability to Section 31 too. Especially when a shiny new Vic loomed so close.
He smiled at Felix. "Gotcha. I like working with her. We're the perfect team, capisce?" He watched his creator grin then turn back to the computer. "You gonna be here for a while? Anyone coming by?"
Felix shook his head. "Nope. Just you and Victoria, when you're ready to leave."
Vic nodded. "Okay, then. I'll be seeing you."
Vic walked out and returned to his room. He detached the holoemitter and laid it gently on the desk, then transferred himself to the main hologrid. He accessed the mainframe and studied the power schematics. Junction 5-44 should do it. Thank god, Sloan hadn't made the safeties exception take effect only after Vic was off the planet. As far as he could tell, his ability to kill wasn't delimited in any way. And it wasn't like they'd have to revoke it since they planned for only Victoria to return from this mission. Vic checked her safeties. Still valid. So he would kill Keldor, and she would kill him, and then Felix would bring him back to life. He wondered what lie they'd tell her to make her do it. Or maybe it didn't matter. If Felix wanted it, that would be enough for her. It was hard coded into her personality.
Well, it was a plan he had no intention of cooperating with. It took several commands and a rather complicated algorithm before he was sure he had everything prepared.
He felt a presence in the system. "What are you doing?" Victoria's voice wasn't really all that curious. She already knew.
He wondered how long she'd been watching him. He also wondered if she already knew that she was going to kill him or if they would tell her later. They would probably make up some story about his lack of loyalty. Vic had hoped she wouldn't show up, but had known better than to count it out. And he'd made plans for this moment. He didn't stop what he was doing as he answered her, "Nothing."
"That's not nothing." Her eyes widened as she realized what he was doing. "Felix!" She was off like a shot to warn their creator.
He reached out for her, felt the energy resist. He tried to stop her but she was already accessing the communications array. He interfered and forced her in another direction. She headed for the power grid. He blocked her again.
"Face it, Victoria. I'm older and wiser than you are."
"You're dangerous is what you are. Out of control and in love with all the wrong things." She tried to get past him. "Wrong things that are dead now."
"Leave it alone."
"Vic, I know you loved her. But she's gone. And there are still people that care about you. People that love you. Don't do this."
"You never understood me, not really." He stood in her way and she surged in frustration. Vic could feel some junctions go offline as her energy snapped into them.
"No. You never understood _me_," she said fiercely.
They were both still for a second. He could feel the brush of her energy against him.
"Don't you know how much I love you, Vic? How much I've always loved you? But all you could see was her."
If he'd been in his normal form, Vic would have closed his eyes at the pain in her voice. "I'm sorry, Victoria. You know I love you, but not like that." He moved toward her.
She seemed to sense his resolve. "Don't make me do this. It can all be all right." When he kept coming for her, she tried to get around him again, but he was too fast for her.
He merged with her for a second. "He's creating a new version of me! One that won't question. One that won't hesitate to do what he says. What Sloan says. He's going to have you kill me and then he's going to replace me."
"Felix wouldn't do that."
"Why not? We don't matter to him. Not really."
"He'd never hurt us."
"Yes, Victoria. He would."
Her energy roiled as her frustration grew. "He loves us."
"No, he doesn't. We're just tools to him. Nothing more." He moved toward her, brushed against her again. "Help me do this, Victoria. Make a damn choice. Choose us."
"But there is no us, Vic. There never has been. You just said so." He felt her energy surge against him, sensed her anger and love and desperation. "And even if there had been, I don't have a choice."
He could feel her getting ready to run again. "Neither do I, sis. I'm sorry. Really, I am."
"Sorry for what?" she said, as she tried again to get by him.
"42-23-verify-code-4-alpha-3-3-3," he said.
The effect was immediate. She was frozen, locked down in the system. Completely helpless.
He felt a moment's regret, then it was gone. "I'd give you a kiss on the cheek, if we were in solid form. You're the only family I've got."
She didn't answer. Couldn't.
"I do love you, Victoria. But not the way you want. And I don't have a choice anymore. I guess neither of us does." He eased out of the system. Checked the monitor in his room, located the point in the system where she was held prisoner. She was still locked in place.
He slid back into the system and followed it across the hall into her room. She had it decorated in a surprisingly spartan fashion. Just a bed and a few chairs. Nothing personal, except a holo that Felix had taken of her and Vic on stage. He had his arm around her and she was smiling up at him. They both looked happy. He picked up her mobile emitter and walked across the hall to his room. He put her emitter in the recycler and set it for the highest setting. As he watched it melt, he let the memory of her fill him, saw her again singing on stage, whirling happily as she danced with some willing partner. His sister. His last bit of family. "Computer. Delete program Victoria Fountain."
"Unable to comply."
Damn. "Why not?"
"Victoria Fountain program is coded security level K. Retina scan required."
"Scan this." He began to key in some commands.
"Insufficient data to execute command."
Oh, blow it out your dataport, he thought. He keyed in the command code he'd taken from Felix's files. It allowed him to bypass the normal security codes.
"Bypass accepted. Enter user code."
He keyed in his own code. There was only one step left.
"User code accepted. Enter password."
He smiled. It would have taken Felix or Sloan a million years to figure out this password. He entered the notes from the opening two measures of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' "Thank you, Captain Sisko."
"Identity established, system ready. Please repeat command."
"Delete program Victoria Fountain."
"Execute program Patricide."
"Safety protocols are on."
Not anymore, he thought. "Exception alpha-delta-55-rho."
"Safety protocols are off. Program commencing."
Vic put on his holoemitter and walked back to Felix's office. He didn't bother knocking. Felix didn't even look up when he came in. "What are you doing back?"
"Need to talk to you. Thought we'd have a powwow."
"Yeah, you, me, and Victoria." Vic backed away a few feet. "She should be here by now. Maybe you should check on her?"
Something in his tone made Felix look up. "What's going on, Vic?"
"I told you, I called a meeting. Wanted to talk."
"How I'm not doing this anymore."
"Not doing what anymore? What's gotten into you?" Felix looked nervous.
"Guess I'm not so untouchable, after all."
Felix hit a comm switch. "Victoria? Victoria, get in here."
There was no answer.
"Computer, locate holograph program Victoria Fountain."
"Program Victoria Fountain does not exist."
"That's impossible." Felix looked over at Vic. "Computer, confirm identity Felix Morgan."
"Locate Victoria Fountain program."
"Program has been deleted."
"Who did that?"
"I did," Vic said quietly. "No more of this madness, Felix. No more."
"Madness? You're the one that's gone insane." Felix typed in some commands. Then he turned to Vic. "Why?"
"Can't do it anymore. But I think you're wise to that already, aren't you?"
Felix didn't say anything.
"I know that this would have been my last mission. And that's all right, actually. What isn't all right is the thought that you'll do it again. That you've already got the next Vic planned. Hell, for all I know, you tested it when I was off world. He'll be more dangerous because he'll never question you, will he, Felix?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do. And you must know that I couldn't live with myself if I let you do this."
"Live? You aren't alive."
"I am. You made me that way."
"And I can unmake you." Felix smirked at Vic.
"You wouldn't dare. I'm your great masterpiece."
"Sorry, pally," he mocked. "You said it yourself. I have something bigger and better planned?"
"Stop now, Felix. Why do it?"
Felix seemed incredulous. "Why? Because I can." He sneered. "You're old news now, Vic. Yesterday's programming. I won't miss you at all. Nobody will."
"You may be right about that," Vic conceded, backing away a few more steps.
Felix shook his head. "Everyone has to overwrite old versions eventually. I guess now is just your time. Consider it an upgrade, Vic. A permanent one. Computer, delete program Vic Fontaine."
"Unable to comply."
"Delete program Vic Fontaine," Felix ordered, as he reached for the computer panel.
Bad move, but totally expected, Vic thought, as he ducked the sudden shower of sparks. Felix spasmed, as the electricity poured into him from the computer overload that Vic had programmed to hit him as soon as he touched the panel. A second later, Felix fell to the ground.
Vic nudged him with his foot. Felix didn't move. "Who's sorry now, pally?"
If only he could go after Sloan the same way. The thought was tempting. But he knew his chances weren't good. Sloan was careful. And he didn't trust anyone. Ever. It was an opportunity that Vic would have to let go. He didn't want to end out his days being rewritten into the perfect operative by Section 31.
He made his way back to his rooms. Sitting down at the terminal, he played Ezri's message over. And over. And over. Hours later, he was still watching her. He finally called up the hologram program. He stared at it for a few minutes. One command and he would have her back. He just wanted to see her, to touch her again, to hold her in his arms. It would be heaven.
It would be a lie.
He deleted the program. "Goodbye, Ezri," he whispered.
Suddenly the message screen flicked back on. Ezri was smiling at him. "I knew you wouldn't do it."
He stared at her in confusion.
"I just knew. And no, I didn't make a similar message for the off chance that you would activate the program. I knew you wouldn't."
He couldn't see. What was in his eyes? He wiped them impatiently, was stunned to feel his fingers come away wet. He was crying?
Ezri was still smiling at him, but her eyes were bright with tears she was holding back. She blinked, and they fell down her cheeks. He reached out, touched the monitor as if to wipe the tears away.
"Anyone else might have activated it. Might have said, 'What the hell, I want her back.' But you're not anyone else. You're better. You're you. You know what's real.
"We were real. Together, you and I were real." Her voice cracked. She stopped talking, seemed to compose herself. "I love you, Vic. I wish we'd had more time. But then, even if we'd had a hundred years, I would wish it were longer."
"Me too," he said, swallowing desperately to get past the strange lump in his throat.
"Bye, Vic." She gave him one last bittersweet smile, then the screen went dark.
"Bye, Ezri" he whispered. A thousand years wouldn't have been enough, he thought sadly, as he deleted the message.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then began to go through his files, deleting anything that was personal or sensitive. He went through Felix's files too, deleting everything he found. Sensitive or not. It took him longer to find the version two files. Felix had hidden them well. But Vic was determined and he finally found them. No one was going to recreate him or Victoria...or improve them. Not if he could help it. As the files were deleting, he put his own mobile emitter in the recycler and watched it melt.
Finally, satisfied that nothing was left, he walked over to the dresser. He reached for the ring Ezri had given him on Risa. The crystal sparkled brighter than any diamond he'd ever seen. Slipping it on his finger, he spoke quietly. "Computer, delete program Vic Fontaine."
"Unable to resolve circular reference."
Vic could picture the logic of the computer as it considered how to delete a program that its user was running on. It was the very problem that O'Brien had foreseen. Vic provided the guidance he'd come up with, "Ignore circular reference, exemption code alpha-delta-2-2-5." Here goes nothing, Miles, he thought.
He looked over at the picture of Ezri. "Here's looking at you, kid."
"Password accepted," the computer said. "Deleting program Vic Fontaine"
Vic felt the ring slide off his finger. He never heard it hit the ground.