It Wouldn't Be Make-Believe by Djinn

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.

Feel?

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."

"Fantastic!"

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?"

Felix nodded absently.

"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."

"Sees me?"

"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?"

"Why not."

"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.

Julian nodded.

"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?"

She shrugged.

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?"

"What?"

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."

"Ouch."

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."

"Congratulations, Ezri."

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.

"Hi, Vic."

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?"

"Sure, thanks."

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."

"Where?"

"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.

"What is?"

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.

"Ferenginar?"

"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."

"Human?"

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.

"You okay?"

"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."

"But I--"

"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.

"Dying."

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.

"Ezri."

Ledgers forgotten, Vic said, "What do you mean she's gone?"

"She went after that...Klingon."

"Worf?"

"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."

"Worf approves?"

"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."

"An antidote?"

Julian nodded.

"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?"

"Nothing."

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."

He nodded.

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.

End part 1 of 3