Chapter Thirty-four

Julian sat, knees to chest, on the fire escape and watched as the sun disappeared over the horizon. He had made arrangements to meet up with Hessayon and Lilienfeld later on, but, right now, he had a lot to think about and time to kill.

Julian was looking forward to practising medicine again. He'd fought so hard to be allowed to do that! But, everything else... The idea of trying to rebuild the rest of his life was daunting.

Julian told himself that he wanted to go back to Deep Space Nine, but he couldn't help remembering how uncomfortable he'd felt during his last few weeks there. He'd been assaulted and insulted, avoided and despised, and his old quarters had been vandalised. Did he really want to go back to that?

The USS Defiant was due to arrive anytime now, Sisko would be returning to the ship within the next few days, and Julian had still not decided whether he was going to go with him.

Julian and Sisko both agreed that getting Julian emancipated was a high priority, and Julian knew, until that was done, staying together would be the most convenient option. However, the fact that it was convenient didn't make it right. Then again, did he have any practical alternative? And, even if he could find somewhere else to go, would it be any better?

For a moment, the lure of somewhere fresh and bright and perfect and new caught him, but Julian knew that it was a mirage, nothing more than a fantasy vision of his own personal utopia.

He doubted any such place existed. Plus, starting over would mean leaving friends and allies behind. At least on Deep Space Nine, he'd have Sisko and O'Brien, Jadzia and Garak, and all the others. So...maybe Deep Space Nine wouldn't be so bad. And maybe he had never had a choice to make, just the wish for one.

Nonetheless, something still held Julian back from committing himself, and, although Sisko hadn't hurried him, Julian knew that time was running out. He would need to give his answer soon.

He sighed.

Julian would miss New Orleans. Sisko's restaurant had been a haven, a refuge, when he'd needed one most. But, that wasn't a good enough reason to prolong his stay, and he couldn't hide forever.

Joseph had mentioned earlier in the day that he was going to close the restaurant for a private function that evening, and then he'd muttered something about short notice and needing to do the best they could.

Julian had helped to prepare the buffet, but, once the food was ready and waiting in the refrigerators, Joseph had thanked him for his help, had told him that he wouldn't be needed again, and had banished him from the kitchen.

After all the time he'd spent in the restaurant, it felt odd not to be wanted, and Julian's current idleness was making him feel restless. He supposed that he could catch up on his medical journals, but he'd rather be helping out, if he could. Surely, it wouldn't hurt to offer to serve or wash up?

He clambered to his feet and dusted off his derriere. He took a final look at the darkening sky and the first of the evening's stars, and then he made his way downstairs.

-=o=-

Julian walked into the dining room and stopped abruptly. The room was full of familiar faces, all looking his way, all beaming. Then they shouted, "Surprise!" and burst into applause.

"I knew you wouldn't be able to keep away," said Joseph, clapping him on the back.

Julian stared, his mouth hanging open in astonishment. There was the captain, Nathan, Shanna and Patti. They'd been joined by Loews and Magnusdottir. Lionel and most of Lionel's family were there, too. Even Patrick, Lauren, Jack and Sarina had been allowed to come.

And there were his friends from Deep Space Nine: O'Brien; Kira; Odo; Jadzia; even Garak. Jake Sisko and Nog were both there, too.

Julian blinked, but the image didn't fade away. They were really here. On Earth. In New Orleans.

Weakly, Julian turned to Joseph and said, "I just came down to see whether you needed any help..."

Joseph patted him lightly on his shoulder and replied, "No, you're fine. As you can see, we've got things pretty much under control."

The private function was for him. These people were here for him. He'd known that they had rallied around to help, but seeing them all together like this, in one place...

Flustered, he said, "But...I'm supposed to be meeting Professor Hessayon and Elizabeth Lilienfeld later. We made arrangements..."

Joseph grinned. "Don't worry. The professor is over there, and Lilienfeld will be along later, although she's sent a message to say that she's been held up and that she'll be a little late."

"Oh," said Julian, letting himself be reassured. "That's all right then." He looked around the room again and felt himself relax. His smile widened. "This is...incredible."

"It's a party!" exclaimed Patrick enthusiastically, from across the room. His excited comment provoked a lot of good-natured laughter.

"Yes," said Joseph. "It is."

Julian wanted to talk to everyone, but he had no idea where to start. Garak, Odo and Jadzia solved his dilemma for him when they honed in on him and demanded his attention. Jadzia wrapped her arms around him, squeezed, and said, "It's good to see you."

Julian squinted to look at Odo, who nodded, and at Garak, who smiled a closed-mouthed, slit-eyed smile and tilted his head in agreement.

Jadzia's embrace was cool and comfortable, and Julian would have been happy to linger in it. However, mindful that she had a boyfriend, he pulled away and asked, "Where's Worf?"

"He stayed on the Defiant. Somebody had to, and parties really aren't his thing."

Nor, thought Julian, was spending unnecessary time with someone who had been genetically altered as a child. To his surprise, while the thought saddened him, he realised that it barely hurt. He could live with Worf's disapproval.

Julian looked around again, still struggling to believe what was happening. He knew and trusted everybody here, and he knew that they accepted him as he was, in a way that many people never would. These were the people who were nearest and dearest to him, and, surrounded by them all, he felt safe and loved in a way he'd never before experienced. He felt a lump swell in his throat and a tightness in his chest, and he wondered how joy could feel so painful.

Patrick sidled up to Julian and pulled on his sleeve to attract his attention. Julian smiled at him, and at the other mutants, who were clustered close behind.

"All these people like you," said Patrick, full of wide-eyed wonder. "You said people hated people like us."

"You said that?" asked Garak, raising one eyebrow, as though he found the idea vaguely surprising.

"Well, some people do," said Julian, justifying himself. He glanced around the room, at Garak, and then back at the four mutants. "Then again, some people don't hate us at all." His smile expanded into a grin.

"You're happy!" said Patrick.

"I guess I am," said Julian.

"We've never seen you happy before," said Lauren. She reached out and stroked his arm, and Julian gathered that she approved.

Jack made some kind of derisive snort, but didn't say anything.

Patrick changed the subject abruptly. "Did you hear? Jack's got a name and a sister."

"She came to visit us," said Lauren.

"She said she'll come again. Yes. Yes," said Jack.

"She says she's going to write a book about Jack. Isn't that nice?" said Patrick.

"It's going to be a sequel to Penumbra," said Lauren.

"We're all going to be in it," said Patrick. "We'll be famous."

"Penumbra won an award," said Lauren.

"Have you read it?" asked Patrick.

"I can't say that I have," said Julian.

"Don't bother," said Jack. "It's not very good."

The others, except for Sarina, nodded their agreement.

"They're pretty tactless, aren't they?" observed Garak, a while later, after the mutants had wandered off.

"They speak as they find. Now I've got used to it, I find it rather refreshing," said Julian.

"Really?" asked Garak doubtfully.

"When I'm talking to them, I don't have to worry about hidden meanings, veiled hints, or what they're not saying. Compared to a lot of people, I find them very restful."

"Ah, but where's the challenge in that?"

Julian considered who he was talking to, and found himself saying, "I suppose you might have a point."

-=o=-

Julian finally managed make his way over to say hello to O'Brien. However, Julian was distracted and, within five minutes, and sounding a little put out that he didn't have Julian's undivided attention, O'Brien asked, "Why do you keep looking towards the door? You waiting for someone?"

"What? Oh, yes. Sorry. I arranged to meet a couple of people this evening, before I found out about this." Julian gestured vaguely, taking in the whole room with a sweep of his arm. "One of them is here, but the other... I wonder what's keeping her?"

"Her?" asked O'Brien, waggling his eyebrows and nudging Julian with his elbow.

"It's nothing like that. She's a journalist. Besides, she's old enough to be my mother!"

"So?"

"Miles!" Julian found himself laughing at the teasing. Then he sighed happily and said, "It was good of you all to come."

Miles harrumphed and said, "You don't think I came all this way just for you, do you? I wanted to see my family before war breaks out. I might not get another chance."

"Oh."

Maybe Miles detected a touch of hurt or doubt in Julian's voice or expression, because he dropped all pretence and mockery, and he said, "From what the captain's father told us, now that you've got your licence back, there were a lot of people on Earth who wanted a chance to say goodbye, and we wanted to come and take you home." O'Brien stared intently into Julian's eyes. "You are coming home, aren't you?"

"Home?"

"Back to Deep Space Nine."

"Ah, well...I... I still haven't quite decided yet. I want to. At least, I think I do. But..."

"It'll be different this time. You'll see."

Julian wished he could believe that.

"Look at it this way... You can always leave. But come back. Try. At least for a little while. If things don't work out, we won't stop you going again. But at least give us a chance. It hasn't been the same without you. I need my dart's partner back, and I've missed you in the squadron. Don't you miss blasting the jerries?"

"Yes," said Julian. "But, if I come..."

"Yes?"

"I was wondering... Could I sometimes choose the programme?"

O'Brien raised his eyebrows, as though Julian's request had taken him completely by surprise.

"I was thinking...I have that spy programme, which might be fun to play in a group, or maybe...have you ever been fishing?"

"As a kid, back in Ireland, yeah. All that waiting around and being quiet. God, it was boring!" said O'Brien. "But I'll go spying or fishing with you, if it means you'll come back."

Julian looked at O'Brien, then at everyone else in the room, then inside himself, and then at O'Brien again. Slowly he nodded.

O'Brien's face split into a grin and he slapped Julian's back so hard that Julian winced. "You won't regret it! You'll see! You bloody won't!"

Just then, Kira joined them. "What won't he regret?" she asked.

"Julian's just agreed to come back with us. What d'you say to that?"

Kira looked at Julian. Then she said, a small smile playing around her lips, "I think, now everything's out in the open, that I look forward to getting to know the real you."

"Thank you, Major. That means a lot to me." Then, shyly, he admitted, "Not everyone has been so...generous."

-=o=-

Julian was listening in on the enthusiastically argumentative discussion that Garak and the mutants were having about Cardassian literature when Lilienfeld finally arrived.

Wrapped in her usual whirlwind of activity and clatter, and apologising loudly and excitedly for her tardy appearance, she said, "I'd have been here sooner, but I couldn't miss Fischer's arrest now, could I!" She forced her way through the crowd to get to Julian, and then she hugged him exuberantly.

"Arrest?" asked Julian.

Lilienfeld laughed, apparently still on a high from the scoop she'd managed to engineer. "Extortion. Fraud. Aiding and abetting the falsification of records. Attempting to pervert the course of justice...murder. And that's just for starters! My message service is going into overload, even as we speak. You should hear the accusations... What he did to you and to Jacques Giradot is just the tip of the iceberg! If you think the scandal is big now, just you wait!"

Delon, Julian realised, had made his decision, and had elected to do the right thing. Then, with her trademark determination and efficiency, Lilienfeld had produced results.

The news of Fischer's arrest spread around the room like wildfire and was suddenly the hottest topic of conversation at the party. Julian saw Jonas and Felicia having a lively discussion with Lilienfeld, while Jake watched and listened, inspired and awed to be in such exalted company.

"I think he hopes that some of her expertise will rub off on him," said Sisko, as he walked past.

-=o=-

Some time later, Sisko managed to drag Lilienfeld and Hessayon upstairs, to where Julian was waiting for them. Together, Julian and Sisko explained about the data chip.

"These are copies," Julian said, holding out replicas of the chip McCauley had given to Sisko. Looking at Lilienfeld, Julian said, "I hope you can make good use of the information on it, although, given what you've managed to do already, you mightn't need it."

Lilienfeld's face lit up. "I assume you'd like my source to remain anonymous?"

"Yes. Although certain people in Starfleet will know exactly where it came from."

"Don't worry. I'll make sure that nobody will be able to tie what I come up with back to you. Not for sure, anyway. The hardest part of my job is knowing where to go looking in the first place. But once I'm on the scent of a scandal, if there's muck to be raked, I'll find it." She smiled gleefully. "I won't implicate you. And I'll make sure Fischer goes down! Even further down than he is already. If that's even possible."

Julian nodded. "Thank you."

"No. Thank you!" She stepped forward, leaned in, and to Julian's astonishment, she pecked his cheek. "Believe me when I tell you, it's my pleasure." She pulled back and said, "I'm going to miss you when you're gone. You've kept me in work these last few weeks!"

"You've got plenty to keep you going," said Julian lightly, matching her tone. "And, after you've exhausted the Fischer story, well... Didn't Professor Hessayon tell you? We plan to take on the establishment, one law at a time. If we manage to keep to our schedule, I'll regain my Federation citizenship by the time I'm forty!"

"I'd wish you luck," said Lilienfeld, "but I have a feeling you won't need it. Either of you."

"And me?" asked Hessayon. "What do you want me to do with this?" He held his own chip up in the air.

"Nothing much. Just keep it safe. It's...insurance."

Hessayon nodded.

Hessayon and Lilienfeld headed downstairs, but Sisko held Julian back to say, "You didn't tell them about the hidden folder."

"No," agreed Julian. "But it is on the copies I gave them."

"Do you think they'll find it?"

"I doubt it," said Julian. "I was more worried that, if I deleted the folder, they would notice the tampering. I thought the risk of someone noticing something was missing was greater than anyone noticing it was there in the first place. And I don't want to implicate any of the people whose details are in it."

"I see," said Sisko.

"And, if anyone else does ever find those files, they'll have no reason to suppose that we knew of their existence. I think that's safer both for us and for Fischer's 'recruits'."

Sisko nodded.

"The chip, alongside whatever evidence Delon provided, and everyone who is rushing forwards to accuse him, means that we have enough material to discredit Fischer, once and for all. I don't think anyone else needs to know the rest."

"But you'll keep an eye on the 'recruits'?"

"Yes. From a safe distance."

"Aren't you curious? Wouldn't you like to know them?"

Julian shook his head sadly. "It's too dangerous. I won't jeopardise their lives just because I might like to meet more people like me. And... Sir, it helps simply to know that they're out there. Maybe I can't know them, but I know of them, and I know I'm not alone in the universe. Plus, when Professor Hessayon and I fight to get the laws changed—with your help, of course—I'll know that I'm doing it to make their lives safer and better, as well as my own and Lauren's, Jack's, Patrick's and Sarina's."

Sisko considered Julian carefully then said, "And you can live with that?"

Julian nodded. "More than that, Captain. I think I'm happy with that. Besides..." Julian smiled. "All those people downstairs. They—all of you—are all the people that I need."

"Then let's go back and join them, shall we? Before anyone comes looking for us?"

-=o=-

Shanna had taken Patti home by the time Julian got back downstairs, and Lionel and his family were more than ready to say their goodbyes, pleading exhaustion and blaming the time difference. Lionel held Julian in a tight embrace and told him not just to write, but to write regularly.

Julian hugged him back and promised that he would.

-=o=-

Julian and Loews stood together, leaning against the kitchen counter, watching the mutants mingle.

"You're gorgeous," Lauren was saying to Sisko. Next to them, Sarina stood staring at nothing, maybe or maybe not listening.

"Well, thank you," said Sisko in response to Lauren's overture. "But, just so you know, I'm already seeing someone."

"Too bad."

"There's going to be a war," said Jack.

"We've calculated the probabilities," said Lauren.

"People will die," said Patrick, his face screwing up in instant sadness.

"Why don't you tell me about it?" said Sisko.

"I've never seen them like this," said Loews. "They seem..."

"Normal?" asked Julian, with a trace of defensive bitterness.

"No," said Loews. "They'll never be that, and why should they be? I was going to say that they seem reasonably socially adept. Almost at ease. More than I would have anticipated. Like I said, I haven't seen them like this."

"Have you ever given them an opportunity to be like this before?" Julian asked. "Maybe that's why you haven't seen it."

"Touché, Doctor," said Loews, emphasising his title. She smiled, and he felt himself smiling back.

"If I can arrange things at my end," said Julian, "would you let them visit me? On Deep Space Nine?"

Loews nodded, "I'll see what I can do. Assuming, of course, that they want to. I won't force them."

Julian's smile widened. "There's a lot to be said for giving someone the freedom to choose."

"And you would know."

-=o=-

Much later, as Joseph, Sisko and Julian tackled the clear up, Sisko said, "I got more out of a ten minute conversation with your genetically enhanced friends than out of weeks with the Starfleet brass. They've got some very interesting ideas, which I'm going to pass on."

Julian smiled. "I think they could contribute a lot, if they are given a chance." He looked around the empty restaurant, and said, "This was great, by the way." He wanted to remember this evening for the rest of his life. Thanks to his enhancements, he probably would.

"It was Dad's idea," said Sisko.

Julian looked at Joseph and said, "Thank you."

Joseph looked up from his task of stuffing garbage sacks full of the detritus left over from the party and said, "Any time, son. Any time. Now, why don't you put these bags out while I put the coffee on?"

-=o=-

The Governor of the New Zealand penal facility relented and allowed Julian to visit his father on the day that the Defiant was due to leave Earth. Julian wondered who had pulled strings to make the visit possible, but he didn't ask, settling instead for being quietly grateful.

New Zealand was seven hours behind New Orleans, so it was still early morning when Julian materialised at the penal facility.

The prison officer at the transporter controls stared at Julian, making it obvious that, even if he didn't know what to make of him, he knew exactly who, and what, Julian was. Julian looked back at him, and waited patiently for the officer's curiosity to burn itself out.

Finally, the officer said, "You're clear. You may step down."

Julian stepped off the transporter pad. Then, when the officer went back to staring, he said, "I'm here to see my father."

"Oh! Yes. Of course! I knew that. Go down the corridor and wait in the room at the end. Someone will bring him to you."

"Thank you," said Julian.

He followed the instructions he'd been given, and he found himself in a large, impersonal space, which was set out with tables and chairs, all of which were currently standing unused. He walked past them all, and came to a stop next to a large plate glass window that offered a view over some well-maintained flowerbeds.

After five minutes, he heard two sets of footsteps approaching, and he turned around, just in time to see his father being escorted into the room.

"Dad," said Julian.

"Jules..." Richard Bashir realised his mistake and tried again. "Julian."

"It's all right, Dad. You can call me Jules, if you want to."

Richard looked Julian up and down, and he broke into a broad smile.

Richard's escort said, "Remember the rules and enjoy the visit." He gave Julian the once over, but didn't speak to him. He didn't need to; his expression was proof enough of his disdain. Richard opened his mouth to protest, but Julian shook his head fractionally, and Richard closed it again.

The escort left and, for the first time in years, Julian and Richard were alone. Julian looked at his father and realised that he had absolutely no idea what to say.

"Come on," said Richard, taking control of the situation. "I'll give you the grand tour."

Julian nodded, offered his father a vague smile, gestured, and said, "Lead on."

Richard guided Julian through a door that took them outside and past the flowerbeds that Julian had noticed before.

They strolled through the manicured landscape of the New Zealand facility. The grass was closely mown and green, and the lawns were punctuated by trees.

"It's not bad, for a prison," said Julian, after a while, partly to fill in the silence, and partly because it was true. Maybe he wouldn't have minded being locked up by the Dominion so much, had their prison looked like this. Then again, incarceration was incarceration, no matter how gilded the cage. The Institute was, physically at least, a pleasant environment, but he had had no desire to end up there, either.

"What would you know about prisons?" asked Richard.

Julian looked at his father. How easily people forgot! Then again, they hadn't talked about Julian's time in Internment Camp 371 while Julian's parents had been on Deep Space Nine. Once they'd stopped shouting at and avoiding each other, they'd had too many other things to think about.

Julian kept his voice deliberately bland as he said, "I was kidnapped by the Dominion. Their prison wasn't anything like this."

"What was it like?" Richard asked.

Julian shrugged. "Grey. Uncomfortable. And the food was terrible."

They meandered their way further into the grounds, finally coming to a stop when they found a bench in a grove of trees.

They sat down, and Julian tilted his head backwards, enjoying the play of light through the leaves. Then he lowered his head, turned to his father, and finally addressed the sehlat in the garden. "I'm sorry about Mother."

Richard blinked, nodded jerkily, and said, "Me, too. God knows what I'm going to do without her. We completed each other. She told me once that she didn't know what real happiness was, until she met me. And then we had you."

That could be taken in a number of ways, Julian thought, but when he saw the expression on his father's face he knew that Richard Bashir wasn't bitter. Julian could see no traces of regret, disappointment or recrimination. All he saw was remembered joy and love.

"We met in a park. In London. She was looking up into the branches of a magnolia. It was a perfect spring day, and there she was, standing beneath the tree, staring up at its flowers. The sunlight dappled her face, and she was smiling. She was beautiful."

Julian looked at his father. His eyes were closed, and his face looked serene, sad and happy all at once, in a way that Julian had never seen before. This wasn't the Richard Bashir he'd known growing up. This was the man his mother had fallen in love with.

Julian didn't move, and he barely dared to breathe, not wanting to shatter the moment.

Richard said, "She caught me staring at her, and I tried to apologise. I didn't think I did a very good job of it, but somehow we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon together anyway." He sighed and opened his eyes.

Now, Julian supposed, was as good, or bad, a time as any to tell his father what had happened to Amsha, and he said, "Her parents claimed her body and held the funeral while I was still in the coma."

Richard nodded, showing no surprise at the news. Presumably Lionel had already told him that much.

Then Julian told Richard about his visit to the cemetery and about the gravestone.

When Julian had finished, Richard swallowed noisily, reached over to pat Julian's hand, and nodded. Then he cleared his throat and said, "Sounds like them. Amsha always said her family was dysfunctional. I just thought they were all crazy. She was the best of the bunch, by far."

Julian said, "I'm sorry, Dad. I'd have done things differently, if I could've."

They lapsed into silence again, and then, finally, Richard said, "Samil always was a bastard, but I never expected him to do anything to hurt her. Or you."

"You knew him?" said Julian. Then he wondered why he was surprised. Samil had been at his parents' wedding, after all.

"Yes. You wouldn't believe it now, but at one time he and Amsha were quite close. Of course, she was a lot older than him. She doted on him when he was small and she loved having a little brother to make fuss of. She always had a blind spot where he was concerned. It almost killed her to leave him behind when we...well. You know." Richard shrugged. "But we made our choice, and the rest of her family understood."

Julian started and he exclaimed incredulously, "They understood? You mean... Mother's family knew about Adigeon Prime?"

Richard nodded and, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, he said, "Of course they knew. We couldn't have done it without their help."

Julian suddenly felt light-headed, and he was relieved that he was sitting down. "I thought... Grandmother and Grandfather... Your parents... They said they had no idea where you'd gone."

"They didn't. Your mother's family only knew because we needed Jamil to arrange the transport for us. He also provided us with the forged documents we used when we re-enrolled you back in school."

"My God..." breathed Julian. "I thought Samil killed Mother to hide the fact that we were related. But it was more than that, wasn't it?"

Richard touched Julian's arm in something that approximated a comforting gesture, and said, "I think so, yes. Being related to you wouldn't have been much of a scandal, if they really hadn't known anything about the enhancements. But being part of a family that had aided and abetted...? That would have destroyed his career." Richard sighed. "Maybe he never forgave her for leaving and that twisted him. More likely, he was twisted already. He resented me for marrying her and taking her away from him, and that was years before we left Earth. And then, when we actually did go off-planet... Well. You can imagine."

The intensity of the conversation had taken its toll, and Julian and Richard found themselves standing up, needing to move on.

"The grounds here are very Capability Brown," said Richard, as they walked.

"What?"

"Capability Brown. He was a famous English landscape architect, back in the eighteenth century, old calendar. He didn't like the formal gardens of his period. Instead, he went in for smooth, rolling grass, trees and lakes. His designs were very naturalistic."

Julian listened to his father, heard the enthusiasm in his voice, and the rather unexpected thought crossed his mind that maybe Richard knew what he was talking about. "Are you getting a chance to work on your landscaping plans?" he asked, remembering the last conversation they had shared on Deep Space Nine.

"Some of the time," said Richard. "I'm also getting to put some of my ideas into practice. See those beds over there?" He pointed. "They're mine."

"They're beautiful," said Julian honestly.

Richard looked delighted. "I've had an idea. It's for a memorial garden. For Amsha. Would you like to hear about it?"

Julian nodded and then he listened as Richard painted pictures with words, and Julian felt closer to both his parents than he'd ever felt before.

-=o=-

They were back in the reception room, and it was time for Julian and Richard to say goodbye.

"Julian... There's going to be a war, isn't there?"

"Yes."

"And you're going to be in the thick of it, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Promise me that you'll take good care of yourself. I've already lost Amsha. I couldn't bear to lose you, too."

Julian looked at his father, touched by his sincerity. He wondered how to reassure him and how to lighten the mood. He knew the odds weren't good of anyone on the frontline coming out of the conflict unscathed, but he also knew that that wasn't what Richard wanted or needed to hear. He forced himself to smile and said, "I think, if I've survived this far, after all I've been through in the last few months, I'll survive the rest. There has to be a reason why I'm still here."

Julian's words hadn't been eloquent, but his father teared up on hearing them. He hugged Julian tightly, as if his life depended on it.

Julian hugged back until a guard cleared his throat and made them step away from each other.

-=o=-

Julian materialised on the Defiant's transporter pad. The ensign at the control panel smiled at him and said, "Welcome aboard, Dr Bashir."

Julian smiled tentatively back as he stepped forward. "Thank you, Ensign...?" She was young and unfamiliar.

"McCauley, sir. Louise McCauley."

His eyes widened as he recognised her name. "I understand that you're new here, too, so...welcome aboard, yourself."

"Yes, sir. I came aboard three days ago."

"I...well... I understand that I have a lot to thank you for. I know it's inadequate, but...thank you."

Her smile broadened. "You're welcome, sir." Then she said, "The captain requested that you report to him as soon as you came aboard."

"Thank you, Ensign." Julian nodded his head at her in a gesture of goodbye and made his way out of the transporter room.

A couple of crew—again unfamiliar to him—nodded in greeting as he made his way towards the turbolift.

Less than two minutes later, Julian stepped onto the bridge. Sisko turned around in his chair and said, "Glad you could join us, Doctor."

"It's good to be here, sir," said Julian. He found himself surprised at how easily the words came.

"I take it you had no problems?"

Julian wondered whether Sisko was talking about New Zealand, or coming aboard, or both. It didn't matter, because the answers were the same. "No, sir."

"Good."

No doubt, Sisko would ask for more details later, but for now the captain seemed content to be reassured that all was well. "Now that everyone is here, let's be on our way."

Jadzia said, "Course laid in, sir, and we have been given clearance to depart."

Julian stood behind the captain's chair, listening to the routine ebb and flow of conversation. He watched as Earth swung away beneath them, and then reduced in size as the Defiant headed towards the edge of the solar system.

Julian wasn't sure how he felt to be leaving Earth. When he'd left to take up his posting on Deep Space Nine, he had been eager to get away, impatient to put as much distance between himself and home. This time he felt more ambivalent.

Parts of this most recent visit had been terrible, but there had been some good bits, too. Meeting Joseph Sisko and everyone else at the restaurant and the mutants and Uncle Lionel's family had been positive experiences. He had made friends with Professor Hessayon, Karen Loews and Magret Magnusdottir, and he'd mended bridges with his father. He wouldn't delay so long before coming home again.

As the ship passed through Jupiter's orbit, O'Brien interrupted Julian's thoughts when he said, "How does it feel to be going back to Deep Space Nine?"

"Good. Really good," said Julian, hoping that it was true. He still felt nervous about going back to the station, unsure exactly what waited for him there. He glanced around the Defiant's bridge. The rest of the bridge crew, including Worf, was in earshot. Now was as good a time as any to make an announcement. "I decided something," said Julian to O'Brien, knowing that everyone else would hear. "I don't care what anyone else thinks about me."

"Meaning what, exactly?" said O'Brien.

"Meaning, I'm done hiding from, and avoiding, people. I'm still not happy about what was done to me, but I'm not going to apologise for it any longer."

O'Brien looked as though he thoroughly approved of the sentiment.

And if Julian thought he heard Worf grunt in disgust...Well, he could live with that.

-=o=-

Julian felt more comfortable on the Defiant than he'd felt anywhere, other than in Sisko's restaurant, in a long time. He wondered what had changed.

One day, over lunch in the mess, he broached the topic with O'Brien, "There are a lot of new faces on board."

"You've noticed, huh?"

"H'm. And a lot of the old faces are missing."

O'Brien nodded.

"What happened?"

O'Brien shifted uncomfortably and started to play with his food, pushing it around the plate with his fork.

"What?" asked Julian. "I know something's happened. I can feel the difference."

O'Brien put the fork down and looked at him. "What do you mean, you can feel it?"

Julian shrugged. "People are looking at me, but it's different to before. It's not..." He hunted for a word that was more benign than "nasty". Finally, he said, "It's not unfriendly. People aren't making me feel uncomfortable. Plus, people are coming to see me in the infirmary. They're letting me treat them, rather than asking to see one of my staff instead."

"Ah," said O'Brien. "There might be a reason for all of that."

Julian nodded. "I thought that there had to be. I just want to know what it is."

O'Brien took a deep breath, and Julian could tell that he would have preferred someone else to be having this conversation. He was doubly grateful, therefore, when O'Brien began to speak. "When you got your licence back, the captain got in touch. He said that he wanted to offer the personnel on Deep Space Nine a 'one time only' deal. He told Major Kira and Dax to make it clear to everyone that he would expect anyone who stayed on the Defiant or on the station to work with you, and then he gave everyone a choice: put up and shut up, or transfer somewhere else. He said he'd allow anyone who wanted to transfer out to do so without prejudice, but he wasn't prepared to tolerate any further actions or behaviours that would make anyone on the station feel unwelcome."

Julian stared. "But...but I hadn't decided... Nobody knew that I'd be coming back then..."

"The captain knew. At least, he was pretty confident you would."

Julian stared as O'Brien continued his tale. As an act of faith, Sisko's actions were remarkable. Julian had never told him about the mutants and the power of positive thinking, but it seemed as though Sisko had figured it out for himself, anyway.

O'Brien said softly, "Quite a few people voted with their feet."

"Oh," said Julian. He'd thought he'd become hardened to his situation in the last few weeks, but it still hurt to know that people he'd worked with closely with had walked away. Then again, it had hurt him to have them turn against him on the station. Perhaps things were better this way.

"There's something else I need to tell you. Counsellor Telnorri was one of the people who left."

Julian felt as though someone had sucker punched him. Julian had struggled hard to cooperate with Telnorri and, thanks to their sessions together, Telnorri had known more about him than anyone else on the station. Julian couldn't help but feel that, by leaving, Telnorri had let him down, betrayed him, kicked him in the teeth and stabbed him in the back, all at the same time.

"To be fair," O'Brien said, "I think you were an excuse. Telnorri never much liked Deep Space Nine. I mean, he never went to Quark's. He didn't have much of a social life. So, when Sisko offered everyone the chance to leave, he leapt at the opportunity. He didn't go because of you."

But he hadn't cared enough to stay, either.

Worf had stayed. Probably he'd stayed because of Jadzia, but nonetheless he'd stayed.

Sounding slightly happier, now that he'd got the bad news out of the way, O'Brien continued. "Sisko insisted that anyone who transferred to the Defiant or the station must be willing to work with you. He had Dax and Kira vet all the transfers."

Julian's mouth opened in amazement. They'd gone to all that bother, not knowing for sure that he'd be coming back. As a gesture of faith and support, it took his breath away. "Then...all these people...everyone on this ship... They don't mind...me?"

O'Brien gave him a perfunctory smile, which he combined with a single huff of laughter. "No, Julian. They don't mind you. In fact, one or two of the medical staff wanted to transfer to the Defiant, just so that they had a chance to work with you."

"I don't know what to say," said Julian.

"Then don't say anything."

-=o=-

War was inevitable. Maybe not today or even tomorrow, but sometime soon. For now, however, Sisko was determined to take a break from the worry and preparations. Maybe he was trying too hard to appear relaxed and to be having fun. Maybe the others would be able to see through his veneer of unconcern.

Maybe not. After all, it wasn't as though the news was all bad. The Admiral Fischer scandal looked set to run and run, as more people crawled out of the woodwork to denounce him, and Sisko couldn't help but smile at that. Lilienfeld had found people going back decades who were prepared to accuse Fischer of coercion, extortion and blackmail.

Starfleet couldn't cover up for him any longer. Nor did it seem to want to, and Admiral Nechayev had gone on record to promise that there would be a full investigation into Fischer's activities.

Julian had shared Lilienfeld's off the record account of the announcement Nechayev had made to the baying press corps with Sisko. It had been even more colourful and entertaining than the official version that Lilienfeld had filed with the FNS, which was saying something.

Sisko sat on the balcony of Quark's, looking down into the morass of people below, and he smiled. He watched Julian lift a dart, aim and throw. The dart hit a small area somewhere between the bulls-eye and the outer ring of the board.

Sisko didn't know much about the game, or about how it was scored. However, from the way Julian was grinning, he could tell that Julian was doing well.

Another dart. Another throw. The second dart nestled next to the first.

A third dart joined the others.

Then Julian's grin grew even bigger, and Sisko thought that he heard him crow, "Beat that, Chief!" Maybe Sisko had just imagined it, but he certainly wasn't imagining the scowl on O'Brien's face.

Sisko turned as he heard someone pull the seat next to him away from the table. Jadzia sat down. "One hundred and eighty!" she said. "The chief doesn't look too happy, does he?" She sounded amused.

Sisko and Jadzia watched as O'Brien threw his darts and Julian bounced happily on the balls of his feet as he awaited his next turn.

"He's come a long way over the last few months," Jadzia said. "Julian, I mean."

Sisko was sure that Jadzia had no idea exactly how far Julian had come. True, Julian still suffered from doubts and dark moods, and he had bad days, but they were becoming less frequent.

"Yes," said Sisko. "He has." He let his eyes slide over the crowd that was watching and applauding the match and then over the even larger throng of people who couldn't have cared less about what was going on in a dark corner of the bar. "And he's not the only one."

Julian must have won the match because O'Brien clapped him on the back as they exchanged a few words. Then O'Brien handed his darts over to Ensign McCauley.

Julian and the ensign began to play.

-=o=-

The End

-=o=-

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

Wow. I'm done. I still can't quite believe it.

Thank you so much for reading this monster. Over the months I have been posting this, I have appreciated every hit, view, review, favouriter and follower.

I started out writing this story just for myself but eventually, when I'd already done much of the writing and I knew how the story was going to end, I decided to share it. Perhaps it is a little odd, then, just how much I have appreciated all the support and cheerleading that my story and I have received. So, again, thank you all.

I've also appreciated all the suggestions readers have made (some of which I've used, and some of which are lodged in the back of my brain for possible use at some very vague future date), and all the typos Manuflipt has pointed out...which means that I am now leaving a more polished version of the story behind for any future readers.