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

Begin part 3 of 3

"Where were you this afternoon? I called you twice." Ezri moved to find a more comfortable position in the floating bed she'd called up from the holomatrix.

The job had taken all day. He hadn't gotten back to see he had messages until it was nearly time to see her. He decided to go for the simplest answer. "Working."

She turned over and studied him. "Working?"

He scratched her back lightly.

She smiled in pleasure but said, "Don't think you can distract me. Since when do you work?"

"Since I got back from the station." He moved his hand up to rub under her hair. She groaned happily. "I have to earn my pay around here, same as you, Lieutenant."

"Then when you said you were going away that time. It was for work?"

"Uh huh." He began to kiss the back of her neck. "Do you really want to talk about this right now?"

She giggled as his tongue traced the pattern of her spots. "I guess not."

"Me neither." But he knew she wasn't going to drop it. Ezri Dax was like a terrier when she wanted to know something. Even as he made love to her, he refined the story he was going to tell her. He didn't like to lie, especially to her, but he knew telling her the truth wouldn't be safe for her.

As she got dressed for the day, she brought it up again. "So where do you work?"

"On the holodeck."

"But your holoemitter?"

"Just to make it easier to get around." He saw her frown. "Ezri, why are you making a federal case out of this? I test new holoprograms out. I can debug from the inside while the thing is running. It's efficient and it's what I'm made for." He saw her face relax. "What did you think I was doing? Being Vic the super spy?"

She laughed. "Of course not. I just didn't know you worked."

He hugged her. "It's a good thing I do or I'd spend the day just waiting for you to come back to me."

"True." She kissed him tenderly. "You're full of surprises. I didn't expect that."

"Well, expect it. Everyone has secrets, Ezri. As a counselor, you should know that."

She nodded. "My mistake. Keep surprising me. I like it."

"You got it, doll."

"So do you have any other secrets?"

He took a deep breath.

"Vic?"

"Julian's on Earth. I saw him a few day's ago."

She exhaled strongly. At his look, she smiled. "I saw him too. I wasn't sure if I should tell you."

He laughed softly. "Quite the pair."

She nodded. "It was odd seeing him."

"How so?"

She looked him in the eyes, her own expression held no guile. "Part of me was happy, even wanted to try again. I guess I still love him."

"I could have told you that." He knew his smile was bittersweet.

"But another part of me was just happy to see my friend Julian...was more worried about where you were."

He gave her a more genuine smile. "Glad to hear it."

She kissed him gently. "I won't deny that it'll hurt the first time I see him with someone new. I may get angry, or cry. But that's just a part of letting go."

"It is," he agreed.

"I'm with you now," she said firmly...too firmly.

He wondered which one of them she was trying to convince.

-----------------**----------------------

Vic was working on a new song when Victoria came in with Felix. He finished, then joined them at the front table.

"You seem happy," Felix noted. "Haven't seen you after hours much lately, Vic."

"He's in love," Victoria observed with a pretty pout.

"You are?"

Vic shrugged. "I'm seeing someone." He didn't want to give Felix anything his creator could use against him.

"Every night that we're not working." Victoria rolled her eyes. "He's smitten, Felix. Totally gone on this one."

Felix laughed. "Well, humans fall in love with holograms all the time, why shouldn't a hologram?"

Victoria wasted no time in correcting him. "She's real."

Vic knew how much she hated that word. That she used it surprised him. But he guessed it was the only way to refer to it with Felix. "Someone from the station," he offered.

"The Trill that Sloan mentioned? I thought he was kidding." Felix looked thoughtful. "Well, good for you, Vic. If you two are in love, that's great."

Victoria shot Felix a disgusted look. "Didn't you say that you had a new job for us?"

"Yeah. An additional surveillance target tonight. Another of the traitors you two identified from Keldor's files. Sloan's instructions are to just watch her. But if she tries to leave before 2200, distract her. She needs to be there with the other target. Something big is going down tonight."

Vic nodded absently.

"Hey, Vic. You in or what?"

"Of course I'm in. It's what I do, right?"

"Guess you'll have to tell your honey that tonight is off," Victoria said, as she brushed past him to take the data cube that Felix was holding out.

"She understands I have irregular hours."

"I'll leave you two to read up. Good luck," Felix said from the door.

Once he was gone, Victoria turned to Vic. "She really doesn't question where you go? Or"--she draped herself around him--"who you're with?"

"She trusts me. She knows I love her."

"Just like you know she loves you. Because she says it all the time, right?" Victoria burst out laughing at his expression. "Ooh, hit a nerve. The Trill won't say that she loves him."

"She cares for me."

"Not quite the same thing, is it?" Victoria gave him a look he couldn't decipher. "Not the same thing at all."

Vic tried to ignore her as he studied the data. He hadn't told Ezri that he loved her either, not since their first date at Sekhmet. He didn't want to spook her. Or was he just afraid that if he did say it, he wouldn't hear it back? The thought bothered him even as he told himself to concentrate on work.

-------------------------------------

"Do you ever get mad?"

Vic turned to look at Ezri.

"I'm serious, Vic. Don't you ever get moody or angry?"

He thought of watching Moro kill the young woman in the holosuite, then forcing Victoria to have sex with him in the same spot. Remembered how furious that had made him. "Yeah, doll. I get mad."

"When?"

"You haven't seen it. I can't imagine you ever will." He smiled at her. "Did you want me to program in some moodiness?"

She shook her head. "Your just always so even-keeled and upbeat. It's not nat--" she cut herself off.

"Not natural?" He studied her before smiling slightly. "But that's the point, isn't it? I'm not natural. I'm exactly the opposite."

She walked over to where he sat on the couch. "I didn't mean to insult you," she said, as she snuggled in next to him.

"I'm not sure you did insult me," he said, as he pulled her closer. "Fact is, I'm not natural. I have my own personality, but my basic reactions are pretty much programmed in. If you want more random reactions, I can program that in...but it wouldn't be any more _natural_ than how I act now."

"I'm sorry I brought it up," she said softly.

"Why? Is this something we can't talk about?"

"Vic, I didn't say that."

"Well, it sure sounds like you did. Face it, sweetheart, you're with a hologram. So making discussion about my programming off limits is really going to put a crimp in our conversations."

"I never said..."

"The hell you didn't..." he trailed off as he realized she was grinning. "What?"

"You're angry."

"I'm not angry. I'm..." He stopped to consider just what he was feeling. "I'm annoyed."

"And that's so good," she said with a laugh, as she pulled him to her. "This may be the closest thing we have to a fight, Vic. What do you say we try the making up part?"

He smiled grudgingly, as she began to nuzzle his neck. "Making up, huh?"

"Uh huh," she murmured.

"Okay. I guess." She hit a spot he really liked. "Oh yeah, that's the ticket."

"Can we fight some more," she asked, as she crawled on top of him.

"Whatever you want, Ezri," he answered absently, as he surrendered to her touch.

"You," she whispered. "I want you."

"You've got me, love. Never doubt that," he whispered.

-------------------------------------

Vic woke up alone in Ezri's bed. He looked around the room; saw her sitting on the window seat, knees drawn up tightly to her chest. "Ezri?"

She didn't turn to look at him as she said, "I'm all right. Go back to sleep."

He sat up in bed and turned on the light. "I don't think you are all right or you'd still be in bed sleeping."

"And of course you're the expert."

Vic took a deep breath. He hadn't seen this snappish Ezri for quite a while. "Why don't you tell me what's going on so I can quit playing counselor then?"

She finally turned to look at him. He could see she'd been crying.

"What if I don't know what's wrong?"

He got out of bed and walked to the window seat. Sitting down next to her, he was careful not to touch her. "You're hurting. Maybe we can figure it out together?"

She hugged her knees in closer, rested her chin on them. "Maybe you should just leave me alone." Her voice was very small.

"Maybe I should," he agreed. "But I don't plan to." He watched her for a few minutes. "Is it us?" She shook her head, and he felt a surge of relief. "Is it Julian?"

She didn't answer and his heart sank.

"Ezri, are you still in love with him?"

She shrugged, but he saw a tear roll down her cheek.

He sighed and sat back, waiting for her to open up. Five minutes passed, then ten. He didn't move, just sat watching her.

Finally, she looked over at him. "I saw him today."

Vic waited.

"He was with someone." She leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. "Tall, long dark hair, beautiful...are you getting the picture?"

He nodded. "Jadzia."

She laughed sharply. "Jadzia. I wasn't good enough, so he's going to keep looking for her."

"He may well do that, Ezri. But that's his problem, not yours. If he's trying to replace Jadzia, he's never going to succeed."

She nodded.

"Just because you and he couldn't make it work, doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you."

"I tried to be her, Vic. At the end, I tried so hard to be her."

He shook his head. "And if you can't be her, then who can? I hope he stops looking for her and starts letting real love in. Because Jadzia's just a dream he can never ever catch." He reached over, took her hand. "But you were the real thing, Ezri. And he let you get away."

She smiled sadly. "You're so good to me, Vic. I'm not sure I deserve you."

"I'm not sure you do either," he teased, happy to see her smile grow warmer.

She moved closer to him, laid her head on his shoulder. "Just when I think I'm over him, something like this happens and I feel as if my whole world is spinning out of control."

"It's not. This is just one of those dips in the road that you have to walk when a relationship ends. It's not easy to let go, to say goodbye...not when you've invested such a large part of yourself in it."

"But he let it go so easily."

He put his arm around her. "It just looks like that, sweetheart. I think he was hurting more than you realize. And he's going to go on hurting unless he lets go of his obsession with a dead woman."

She winced slightly at the harshness of his words, but said, "You're right. But then you usually are when it comes to love." As he kissed her hair, she whispered, "So did you ever love someone like that?"

"I'm holding the only woman I've ever loved," he said softly.

"No, I mean before...in your memories...in the original Vic's life...was there a woman who got away?"

He thought. Spending time in his memories of the past wasn't something he did very often anymore. They colored who he was, how he acted and spoke, but he'd moved beyond them and he didn't like to delve too much into what lay beneath his own recollections. But for Ezri, he'd embrace the past that was the real Vic's life. He called up the memories, saw a young blonde woman lying in a hospital bed, smiling bravely up at him. "Cindy," he whispered.

"Cindy?"

"She died...a sickness that couldn't be cured back then. We were going to be married, had a little place just outside the city limits picked out and everything." He felt a terrible sadness come over him as he remembered the pain she'd been in, the way the real Vic had put aside his own suffering until she was gone. Vic suddenly wondered why Felix had chosen to include this in his programming. It seemed...cruel, somehow. "Losing her...it was the hardest thing Vic ever had to endure. He just wanted to curl up next to her and follow wherever she was going to go."

"But he...you couldn't." She sounded confused as to which one of them she should show sympathy for.

He didn't blame her; it was confusing to him too. "I couldn't," Vic agreed. "But I...he never loved again. Never let himself, even though he professed to be such an expert on love. What a hypocrite."

"I don't think so," she said as she rose and pulled him up. "I think it makes you more human. It's the contradictions that make us real." She smiled gently. "So we've both loved and lost."

He nodded as she pulled him close.

"Love again, Vic. Love me."

As he kissed her, he tried not to dwell on the fact that she still hadn't said she loved him.

-----------------------------

Ezri woke with a start. Vic had allowed himself to drift and he had missed that she was moving restlessly. He wasn't even sure that Trills dreamed. "Nightmare?" he whispered.

She was breathing quickly.

"Ezri?" He ordered the room to turn up the lights. They slept tonight in a bed of leaves high in the wide trunk of an ancient tree. The arrangement seemed to only make Ezri more anxious. "Computer play Vic program Q1." The room rearranged itself into the bedroom of his apartments in Vegas. "What's wrong, Ezri?"

Her eyes were haunted as she looked at him. "Do you believe in premonitions?"

He wasn't sure where she was going with the question. "I don't know. I guess maybe."

"I dreamt that I died."

Vic felt a chill. "I think everyone dreams that once in a while."

She shook her head. "No. I dream it all the time."

"Everyone dies sooner or later, Ezri. It's not that unusual a dream."

"It is when it's the only dream you ever have."

Tears welled up in her eyes and Vic pulled her in closer. "Ezri, inside you is a creature that has watched eight people die and leave it. Maybe the dreams are from Dax not you."

"Jadzia dreamt it too. And Curzon. Just before he died."

"Did the other hosts?"

She shook her head.

"Well, there you go. Jadzia picked up Curzon's fears. He was an old man, right? It would be natural that he'd worry about that. And you're picking up Jadzia's fears coupled with your own. It's nothing, Ezri. Let it go, sweetheart."

She hugged him tightly. "Just a bad dream?"

"Just a bad dream." He kissed her hair. "I'm not letting you leave me that easily."

She laughed a little. "I guess not after you've waited this long. Wouldn't be fair."

"No, it wouldn't."

She kissed him. "Let's get out of here. Go away."

"Where?"

"You can go anywhere, right?" At his nod, she continued, "I want to go to Risa."

"Why Risa?"

"Curzon died there."

"Ezri, I'm not sure this is a good idea--"

She cut him off. "I have to face this, Vic. I need to see it. Jadzia had to do the same thing. See the planet. See Arandis...the woman Curzon was with. Face what it meant. Maybe then the dreams will stop."

"If you're sure..."

She tapped her stomach. "Curzon's still alive here, Vic. Alive but knowing he's not. It's haunting me, I think. I made my peace, as much as I could, with Jadzia on the station. Now I need to make my peace with him. Of all the hosts, he is speaking the loudest right now."

"Then let's go shut him up. When do you want to go?"

"Now? I've got some leave saved up."

"You make the arrangements. I'll follow you into hell. You know that, right? I love you, Ezri."

She just smiled, as she got up to make the travel reservations.

He tried not to dwell on what she hadn't said.

After a few minutes she came back to bed. "We leave tomorrow. And we've still got time for this," she said, as she pushed him over and bent to kiss him.

"All the time in the world," he murmured, as his mouth met hers.

--------------------------------------

Ezri had just left when the door chime rang. "Come."

"Thought she'd never leave." Victoria had traded in her normal gown for a Starfleet uniform.

"You shouldn't be wearing that," he said.

"Who's going to stop me? Besides it causes less commotion than when I wear one of my dresses."

"Then wear something a little less conspicuous."

"Someone's in a bad mood."

"Change the outfit. It's wrong."

"Oh, fine." She made an adjustment to her mobile emitter, and her image skipped for a moment. When it corrected, she was dressed in casual civilian clothes. "Better?"

"Much."

"And you're not mad at me anymore?" She smiled winningly at him.

"What do you want, Victoria?"

"I'm going to Las Vegas. It's a gift from Felix. All expenses paid for two. I want you to come with me. Show me the town. The way you remember it."

"I don't remember it. I'm not the real Vic."

She pouted. "You can make something up then. Please, Vic," she wheedled.

"I'm gonna be gone for a while."

"For how long?"

He shrugged.

"Where are you going?"

"Risa. With Ezri."

"You can go there later." She had a pleading look. "Please, it's my birthday."

He shook his head. "I'll bring you back something nice."

"I don't want something nice. I want you."

"Victoria."

She moved in, her expression more serious than he'd ever seen it. "What can she do for you that I can't?" She touched his arm; let her hand move up to his shoulder. "I could make you happy."

"I am happy."

She pressed against him. Her voice was so low that he barely heard her say, "But I love you."

He held her for a moment. "I love you too, kiddo. But not like that."

"Well, try."

He laughed softly. "It's not that easy."

She backed up. "You really love her that much?"

He nodded.

She looked away for a moment. "Why?"

"Someday you'll understand, sweetheart. Someday you'll fall for somebody and you'll realize this was nothing."

"It's not nothing to me." She looked hurt. "Is that all I am to you? Nothing?"

"I didn't mean it like that. You know I care about you. You and me...we're simpatico. We understand each other."

Her expression tightened. "I'm not so sure we do." She turned to go. "Have a good time on Risa."

"What do you want me to bring you?"

"Something you don't want to give." She smiled sadly as she looked back at him. "Just pick up a horga'hn or something."

"Okay. Enjoy Vegas. I'll make it up to you."

"Sure, you will," she said gloomily as she left the room.

--------------------------------------

Risa was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. But it reminded him of the holodeck. Everything was too easy, made perfect by technology.

Ezri seemed to feel it too as they settled in. "It's fake, isn't it?"

He hugged her from behind, his arms wrapping around her stomach. "It may be, but the people here aren't."

She turned in his arms. "I didn't mean that you weren't real."

He nodded. "That's fine, doll."

"No, I didn't mean it that way." She sighed. "Vic, I say things sometimes without thinking. You know that. I'm an idiot."

He kissed her. "No, you're not. Our situation is unique. I'm the one that needs to accept that." He let her go and went to the window. Their room looked out on the beach.

She followed his gaze. "Do you like to swim?"

He had to think about that. He seemed to remember a memory from the initial Vic Fontaine programming. Parties on the sand, colorful blankets laid out, lots of other kids, all of them splashing and horsing around in the water. He smiled at the scene. "Yeah, I like to swim," he answered softly.

"Me, too."

"Excuse me, am I disturbing you?"

Vic turned to see a beautiful woman standing in the door.

"I'm Arandis."

Vic nodded in approval. Arandis was a looker. With the face of an angel and a body made for loving. He watched as Ezri's smile grew wide. "I know I don't know you, but they did and I..." she trailed off embarrassed.

Arandis laughed. "I'm getting used to meeting Curzon's successors. Give an old friend a hug, Dax."

Vic saw Ezri stiffen slowly at the choice of names Arandis had chosen. But she embraced her warmly anyway, then moved to stand next to him. "This is my friend Vic Fontaine."

Arandis gave him a questioning look. "I didn't see you arrive."

He patted the mobile emitter. "I have my own mode of transport." At her continued look of confusion, he glanced at Ezri. "I think it's up to you to tell her."

Ezri hesitated a moment. "He's a hologram."

"That's different. Interesting though." Arandis stepped forward to take his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet any friend of Dax."

"Likewise."

"Well, I'll leave you two alone. Stop by the main residence if you want to talk. I'm usually there." She bowed formally. "All that is ours is yours."

As the door closed, Ezri sat down on the bed. "That was harder than I thought."

He sat next to her. "Maybe you thought everything would clear up when you saw her, when you faced her?" He kissed her cheek. "Maybe you thought coming face to face with Dax's past would free you. But it hasn't, has it?"

She shook her head.

"Maybe it never will. Or maybe it will in time. Nothing you can do now about it. So why don't we go swimming?" He patted her on the rear, earning himself a glare. "Get changed."

She got up and shot him an evil smile. "Good thing we know your emitter is waterproof."

He remembered the time in her shower when he'd followed her in, not even thinking of the mobile emitter. They had both stared at it, waiting for it to short. But it hadn't. Since then they had tested it several more times. He smiled at her. "Damn good thing. Now get ready."

He adjusted the mobile emitter so he was in swim trunks and sandals. She came out and tossed him a towel. They walked down the beach until they found a spot to themselves. Then she led him into the surf. As soon as he felt the water lap at his feet, he remembered what to do. He walked out a few steps and then dove into the surf. He surfaced to find her still standing on the sand. "Are you coming?"

"In a minute."

"Lieutenant Dax, you are coming into this water."

"Uh huh." She was backing out.

He strode out of the water and before she could protest, scooped her up and carried her into the water.

"Don't dunk me," she squealed. "Norvo and Janel used to do that. I hate it." She began to struggle.

"Hey, hey. I'm not going to dunk you." He slowly settled into the water, pulling her closer. "I'm not going to do anything you don't want."

She moved so she was wrapped around him. Her arms tightened around his neck and she leaned in to kiss him. "Lose the trunks," she whispered.

"I thought you might say that," he said, as he hit the sequence of keys he'd programmed to get rid of his clothing.

"You made a 'get naked' subroutine just for me?" she asked, as she wiggled out of the bottoms to her suit.

"Just for you," he said, as she settled on him, and he marveled again that something so simple could feel so good. "Always for you."

"I love you, Vic." She was staring at him as the gentle waves bumped them, adding to the movements that were bringing them both so much pleasure. "I mean that. I love you." She kissed him deeply as they finished what they'd started.

They floated for a while in the shallows, entwined and kissing. Finally, she put her suit back on, and he entered the code to replace his clothes. They left the water and collapsed onto their towels. She leaned over him, studying his face. "I love you. I wasn't ready to say it until now."

He touched her face, tracing the curve of her cheek. "You don't have to say it now just to make me happy."

She grinned. "It makes me happy to say it."

"Well, in that case." He pulled her down for another kiss.

She kissed him back with an unhurried ease that was new.

"You know," he whispered. "You should never believe an 'I love you' that's said in the throes of passion."

"I've heard that," she teased, then her expression grew serious. "Does it seem too sudden? Do you think I don't know how I feel?"

He laid a finger on her lips. "I believe that you think you know how you feel. And I want to accept that you love me."

She curled into his arms. "You make me feel safe, Vic. In a way that I'm going to have a tough time explaining, but I'm going to try." She smiled up at him. "You give me a place to let down the armor, to stop being Dax and just be Ezri. I feel like no matter what I do or say or what's inside me, you'll love me the same sweet, constant way."

"I will," he agreed.

"I don't have to wear a mask with you. I love that. I love you." She stared at him, then slowly smiled. "I. Love. You."

"I love you too," he said as he pulled her to him.

They stayed in the sunshine for several hours until Ezri complained that she was hungry. Getting dressed, they went to the main residence to find some food. Arandis smiled at them from across the room but did not come over.

"Do you think I offended her?" Ezri asked as she made short work of her salad.

He shook his head. "I think she's smart enough to know when to let go."

"I hope you're right. I don't want to hurt her." Arandis was laughing at something her dinner partner was saying. "She doesn't look very hurt though, does she?"

He laughed. "She really doesn't." He leaned in. "Why don't you tell me more about how you love me?"

She grinned as the waiter walked up with her food. "I'll tell you after I've eaten."

"I know where I rate." He laughed. as she pretended that she was going to set her fork down. "Eat, Ezri. For god's sake, eat before things get ugly."

She grinned and set to enjoying her food. And then dessert and coffee. He hoped she was full as they left the restaurant, walking along a path in the gardens holding hands. He noticed her dig into her pocket, then she slipped something onto his finger. He stopped walking and looked at the coppery gold ring. It had a clear stone on it that sparkled in the lamplight. "Ezri?"

She smiled but he could tell she was trying not to cry. "It was my father's."

"You don't talk about him much."

"I know. He wasn't in my life very much when I got older...couldn't stand being around my mother. Left her to run the company alone, which was fine with my mother. But when he ran, he left us alone with her. I'm having a hard time forgiving him for that."

"Why do you have to forgive him?"

"Because he came back. When I went home that time on the station?" She looked at him questioningly, as if asking if he remembered. When he nodded, she continued. "As I was getting ready to return to the station, he came back to try to reclaim what was left of his family."

"And to try to rein your mom in?"

Ezri laughed scornfully. "As if that's possible." She looked down. "I left my brothers alone with her. Same as he did."

"Maybe it's you that you need to forgive?"

She nodded. "Maybe." She looked down at the ring. "I got this from the family solicitor the day I left for the academy. My father had told him to give it to whichever of his children defied my mother first. I was the one."

"You did what you had to do, Ezri."

"I did what I wanted...needed to do. But I'm not sure it was the right thing. My brothers suffered. She warped them, especially Norvo. He murdered someone, Vic. Killed her viciously. I'd have never thought he had it in him."

"We never know what another person is capable of until they do it," Vic offered.

Ezri smiled. "I suppose that's true. Both bad and good." She touched the ring. "I'd have never guessed my father would come back. He must care more for my mother than any of us knew." She sighed. "Janel thinks mother loves my father still too. But they're already fighting."

Vic wasn't sure what to say.

"At least Janel is going to get the chance to escape, see something more than just the Sappora System."

"That's good." He looked down at the ring. "If this ring has bad memories- -"

"Oh, no." She looked sheepish. "The ring doesn't. Until this last visit, I worshiped my father. I missed him terribly but I envied him his freedom, and his courage in leaving. I used to wear this ring a lot, until I went back. And saw what damage he and I had done."

"Ezri, you didn't do it. Neither did he, not really. Your mother did." He pulled the ring off. "In any case, I can't accept this. It's too much."

She took it back. Then reached for his hand and firmly put it on. "I want you to have something of me. It's the only thing I have to give you, Vic."

He smiled as he drew her into his arms. "Oh, you've given me more than you'll ever know."

She hugged him fiercely. "I love you, Vic. It just took me awhile to realize that."

"Ezri." He kissed her hard, knew he would never get enough of her. "God, I love you."

As she led him back to their building, he leaned in and whispered. "Let's come back here every year. Fake or not, I adore Risa."

Laughter was her only answer as she pulled him into their room and engaged the privacy lock.

--------------**---------------------

"So, did you have a good time?" Victoria looked up with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"We did," Vic answered, putting the emphasis on the 'we.'

"Glad to hear it," she said, sounding anything but.

"How was Vegas?"

She made a non-committal sound.

"You did go?"

Victoria scowled. "Of course, I went. Do you think I just sat here mooning over you?"

"So why the lack of enthusiasm?"

"It was fine, Vic. What more do you want me to say?"

He shrugged.

Victoria stared at him for a moment, then got up and walked to the piano. "You look different."

He followed her onstage. "I programmed in a tan."

She shook her head. "It's not that. You look...happy, I guess. I take it Ezri treated you right?"

He couldn't keep a dopey grin off his face.

"Asked and answered," she said, as she began to tap out a new melody on the keys.

"Something new?"

She nodded. "Not mine though. Picked it up off a singer in the hotel lounge. Traded him one of mine for it."

"Trade him anything else?" he teased.

Her expression darkened. "Would it be any of your business if I did?"

"God, you're touchy today. What is your problem?"

She slammed her fingers down on the keys, the discordant sound filling the holodeck. "There's nothing wrong with me, Vic. Now are we going to rehearse or what?"

"Sure, sis."

She glared at him.

He walked over to stand behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. "I'm sorry you had to go alone, Victoria," he said, as he rubbed her neck.

She relaxed under his touch. "I missed you." She leaned back against him. "After all you've told me, Vegas _is_ you, Vic. It wasn't right being there without you.

Vic was pretty sure whatever he said would only make things worse, so he didn't say anything, just kept massaging her neck. She seemed to relax even more against him. Then she finally pulled away and started to play the piano.

"Do you want to learn this song or not?" she asked, her voice much gentler than it had been.

"You bet I do," he said, giving her all of his attention as she began to sing the first verse.

------------------------------------

"So, you're still goofing off when you should be working?"

Vic turned in his chair, was stunned to see Quark striding into the holodeck. "You're a bit far from home, aren't you?"

"Somebody has to keep the Federation in line. Not that it's going to be me, mind you, but Rom wanted me to come along on this trip. He's finding that he can't trust some of his advisors. Imagine that?" Quark looked around the lounge. "You've changed the place. I like it. Now where's Ezri? I heard you and her were tog--" Ezri apparently forgotten, Quark practically stalked over to where Victoria sat at the piano. "Well, hello there."

"Hello," she said cautiously.

He leaned forward, took her hand in his. "I'm an old friend of Vic's. And did I mention that my brother is the Grand Nagus?"

"I don't think you did," Victoria purred, clearly amused by her first real Ferengi. "And you are?"

"Where are my manners? I'm Quark and I'm at your service...well, provided there's no cost involved, of course." He smiled toothily.

"Charmed. I'm Victoria."

"A lovely name."

Vic walked over to the two of them. "Quark, I thought you wanted to see Ezri?"

"You two together?" Quark asked, never taking his eyes off Victoria.

"Yes."

"Forget Ezri, then." He held out his arm to Victoria. "I'd rather hear all about you, my dear."

Victoria took his arm. "Oh, there's not much to tell," she said with a mysterious smile.

"Why don't I believe that?" Quark said, oozing sincerity and lust. "Maybe we could get rid of Vic and you and I could get to know each other better?"

Vic rolled his eyes. "You're not falling for his line of bull, are you?"

Victoria smiled. "Forget about Vic and this dump of a holodeck, Quark. I'm one hundred percent mobile. Let's find some wildly exotic spot to while away the night."

"Okay," the Ferengi agreed, completely entranced and a little taken aback at his good fortune. He turned to Vic. "I wish you and Ezri all the best. Say hi to her for me, will you?"

"Sure thing, pally.'' Vic watched the two of them walk out and shook his head. "You've got a tiger by the tail, Quark, and you don't even know it. In fact, you probably don't even care. Hell, you might even like it." He shook his head again, then went back to his paper.

--------------------------------------------

Vic and Ezri were just getting in when his comm sounded. He answered it as Ezri configured his bedroom into a South Seas paradise.

It was Julian. "Vic, is this a bad time? I was hoping Ezri was there."

"She's here." Vic moved aside so Julian could see her too.

"What's up?" she asked.

Vic tried not to do it but he couldn't help assessing whether she seemed excited, indifferent, or upset to hear from her ex-lover. Her voice seemed even, comfortable, perfectly normal to him.

"Listen, I wanted to give you a heads up. The head instructor for ship duty at the Academy is a friend of mine. He's looking for a counselor to evaluate the cadets' psychological performance. I hope you don't mind, but I recommended you for the position."

Ezri seemed stunned for a moment, then she broke into a smile.

"You'd be a natural working with the cadets," Julian continued.

"I agree," Vic said softly. "And you'd be on a ship again, Ezri. Wouldn't she, Julian?"

"A brand new ship, even. The Candelaria."

Ezri seemed undecided.

"Just think about it. When Captain Sutton calls, try to keep an open mind."

"I will, Julian. Thanks for thinking of me."

He smiled. "You're an excellent counselor, Ezri. Why wouldn't I think of you?"

She looked down. "I know, but still..."

Vic suddenly felt like a third wheel. "Look, I'm gonna give you some privacy."

She reached out and grabbed his hand. "No. This is a decision we'll both need to think about. I could be off world a lot."

"If it's what you want to do, I'll survive."

Julian nodded. "Dax took you off the Destiny, Ezri. Maybe now it's time to get that life back?"

"I'll definitely think about it. Thanks, Julian."

"No problem. See you both." Julian cut the connection.

Ezri sat down in one of the rattan chairs she'd called up. "The Candelaria," she said, as if trying out the name.

"If Sutton calls, Ezri, you should accept."

"If he calls..."

"He'll call, if he wants the best on his staff, he'll call."

"That's sweet, Vic. But I haven't had that much experience. I'm sure he has some other candidates in mind."

"Maybe. But if he calls, consider it."

She nodded. "But for tonight, I just want to think about us, if that's okay with you?"

He laughed. "Perfectly fine."

The next day Sutton did call Ezri at her office and offered her the position, and she did end up accepting.

"I'll be making a difference. In a field that interests me, not just Dax."

"You'll be great. But I'm a little worried about all the cadets that are going to fall in love with you."

"And what about all the people that fall for your dashing crooner act?"

"Okay, I see your point." He pushed her onto her bed. "It's good that you're happy, Ezri. You deserve that."

She leaned over to kiss him. "We both do."

She looked so pleased. Vic wished that his own work made him as fulfilled.

-------------------

As Ezri grew more confident with each new day, Vic took on increasingly more difficult jobs for Sloan. He and Victoria even occasionally masqueraded as humans.

"Do you know where we are?" Victoria asked as she took Vic's arm.

"Fifth and 48th. We should be there soon."

"Have you been here before?"

He shook his head. "But the real Vic spent some time here when he was younger. Not that it's much help. Things have really changed since his time." He turned them down 47th. "This street used to be the Diamond District." He grinned at her. "You would have loved it."

She turned her nose up slightly at the dark facades they were passing. "Not much of an enticement to shop."

"These used to be glass, big picture windows with lots of pretty sparkly things to make you stop and look." He stopped, studied a nondescript entrance. "This is it. Bet the rent's pretty cheap now."

"Clever of the Orion Syndicate to choose Earth as a launching pad for its activities in this sector."

"Takes chutzpah," he agreed. "According to the official records, there hasn't been an organized crime presence on this planet for years."

She shot him a look. "And according to the official records, Section 31 doesn't exist. I probably don't either."

"Good point." He grinned at her. "Ready?"

She let go of his arm. "Ready." Her utilitarian gray clothing blended with the metal of the entrance. She looked drabber than he'd ever seen her, with little makeup and her auburn hair hidden under a dark scarf.

Vic rang the buzzer, and the door opened a crack. A rather grizzled and very tall human looked out at them. "Can I help you?" he asked, his tone much less welcoming than his words.

"We're expected," Vic said.

"Names?"

"Dempsey and Kelly."

The man checked a pad, looking back and forth in a way that let Vic know he was checking them against the photos that Sloan had planted. Finally, he opened the door. "Third room on the right," he said, any interest he had in them disappearing as they walked past.

Vic knocked on the indicated door and heard a smooth, "It's open." He pushed through, Victoria hard on his heels.

An older man looked up from a computer terminal. "You're right on time. I admire punctuality." He got up, walked over to a table.

"Anything else would be rude," Vic replied.

"Yes. It would...and no way to start a professional relationship. Come sit down, Mr. Dempsey, Ms. Kelly. I'm Mr. Smith."

"Mr. Smith," Vic emphasized the last name.

Smith nodded in understanding. "Not very original, I admit. But in our line of work, commonplace is good. Allows us to blend in, to hide in plain sight. As we do here...as you two have been doing in the Far East. I've read some glowing reports of your work." He waited until they were seated, then pulled out a file. Handing it to Vic, he asked, "Do you know this person?"

The images in the file were of the woman that they had fingered from Keldor's files, the woman they had kept under surveillance for Sloan in the private holosuite.

"No," Vic said as he passed the file to Victoria. "But I never forget a face once I've seen it."

Victoria handed the folder back. "I'd know her if I saw her again."

"Good." Smith put the folder down on the table, crossed his arms over it and leaned in. "She has become a liability for us. Holds information that in the wrong hands could be very dangerous for us."

"You want her silenced?" Victoria said, no surprise in her voice.

"Yes. Are you interested in the job?"

Vic nodded. "We've been doing a lot in Asia, time to move on before someone remembers us. This sounds like a good place to land."

"We'll make it very much worth your while."

"Just make it interesting," Victoria said with a smile. "We've got plenty of latinum already."

Smith smiled benignly. "We always make it interesting, Ms. Kelly."

"So we've heard," Vic said. "When do you want it done?"

"The sooner the better," Smith replied as he got up. His manner was still gracious, but the meeting was clearly over. "Just make it look natural. She's Starfleet. We can't afford any questions."

"Natural is challenging," Vic said with a smile as he looked over at Victoria.

She nodded. "Very."

Vic rose, took the hand that Smith held out to him. "It's as good as done, sir. You can count on us."

"Prove that and we'll have a long, happy partnership together." Smith turned backed to his computer. "You can see yourselves out, I'm sure."

Vic walked out, heard Victoria close behind him. They were silent as they passed the doorkeeper, didn't talk until they were many blocks away. "It's safe," he said.

Victoria slid the scarf off and shook out her hair. She made some adjustments to the mobile emitter and her image skipped slightly. When it was steady again, her face was beautifully made up. "That feels better," she said with a smile. "So how should we kill her?"

Vic shot her a hard look.

"I'm just living the part, Vic."

"Well, cut it out." A few blocks later, he ducked into an alley and pulled out a small communicator. "Team One to Base One."

"Base One here, go ahead Team One."

"Two to beam back." Vic felt the strange effect as his photons were collected then reassembled in a transporter room that most people didn't even know existed.

The transporter tech looked up. "He wants to see you in holodeck five."

They didn't have to ask who _he_ was. Victoria led the way to the holodeck. The door opened for them and they walked through. The room was bare except for a table holding several hyposprays and a chair that held the woman that Smith had wanted killed. She was secured tightly but her head lolled a bit. Fighting drugs, Vic realized. Something to relax her, make her talk.

Sloan leaned up against the wall. "These are the people I was telling you about, Gina."

She didn't look at Vic or Victoria, just stared straight ahead. "I have friends. They have friends. I'll be protected. I have nothing to say." She spoke slowly, carefully.

Sloan walked over to her. "So you've indicated. These friends...you consider them close?"

Her jaw tightened.

"Go way back with them, do you?" He crouched down, put his hands on her knees and looked up at her. "Real tight, are you?"

"I have nothing to say. Not now. Not ever." Sweat poured off her, as she resisted the drugs and Sloan's words.

Sloan stood up. "Such loyalty and strength of will. I'd prize those qualities in an employee. But this isn't me we're talking about." He turned to Vic. "She thinks her friends are looking out for her. Why don't you show her just how they plan to do that? Full replay, please."

Vic was already merging with the holomatrix. The room shimmered around them, and suddenly, at the front of the holodeck, Smith's office formed.

She has become a liability for us." Smith said to a second Vic and Victoria, as Vic replayed the whole conversation. He watched as the woman's eyes widened.

Sloan had him play it a few more times, then shook his head sadly. "I wouldn't reward such obvious devotion the way your _friends_ plan to. The way I see it, you have one choice and that's to tell me what I want to know. Because if you don't, I'll just have to let my operatives here waste you. It'll be messy, but it'll definitely place them in good with the Syndicate. I bet they can rise as high, if not higher, than you did in the organization. What do you think, Gina?" He leaned in even closer. "We're both Starfleet here, you can trust me."

She looked at him, seemed to consider what he was saying. "He'll kill me if I talk."

Sloan laughed. "Looks to me like he'll kill you if you don't. I can protect you. Give you a new face, a new identity. Enough credits to keep you nicely on a remote if boring world. Now admit it, Gina. Aren't you dying to tell me every little thing you know? Wouldn't it feel good to stop fighting? To just let go?"

"Dying. That's a good one," she said bitterly, looking over at Vic, then at Victoria. They were impassive, gave her nothing back. Finally, she looked back at Sloan. "How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't." Sloan gestured for Vic to come closer. "At my signal, snap her neck."

Over the woman's head, Vic shot Sloan a look of alarm. The other man nodded firmly, so Vic put one hand on the woman's shoulder, the other on her chin. He knew that his programming wouldn't allow him to actually hurt her, but the way she squirmed under his hands told him that she didn't know that.

There was a long moment as she looked up at him. He could tell she was beginning to panic. He saw something in her expression crack, as she said. "Okay. I want protection for me and for a friend of mine that's still inside the organization. He'll be in danger too."

Sloan nodded. "Well get him out."

She stared at Sloan, her expression full of resigned hatred. "Fine. Where do you want me to start?"

"Let's start at the beginning. When did the Orion Syndicate first contact you?" Sloan indicated that he didn't need Vic and Victoria anymore. As they left, he smiled, obviously pleased with them.

Once the door closed, Victoria turned to Vic. "Do you think he'd have had you kill her?" She ignored Vic's shrug, "Not that you could with these stupid safeties on, but wouldn't it be exciting if they were off?" With a strange smile, she hurried back to the holodeck.

Vic followed at a more leisurely pace. He could still fee the woman's chin under his hand. It was a disturbing sensation. Would Sloan have killed her, and let Vic and Victoria try to rise through the Orion Syndicate? Or was it all a big bluff? It had to be. The odds that they'd be discovered as holograms were too great. They were lucky that Gina hadn't known that.

Vic caught up with Victoria in the holodeck. She had changed into one of her fancy dresses and was twirling happily on the dance floor. As Vic walked toward her, she laughed and said, "That was fun."

"No, Victoria. It wasn't."

She spun close to him. "Yes. It was."

"No--"

"Brother mine, you're a prude and a stick-in-the-mud." She grabbed his hands, pulled him into the dance. "It was fun. Admit it."

Vic again felt the woman's skin under his, the softness of her chin. He jerked away from Victoria. "I'm getting out of here."

"What about rehearsal?"

"Rehearse this," Vic said, making a rude gesture as he spun on his heel and headed out the door.

He walked for hours through the city before he felt calm again. He wasn't sure he'd ever feel clean again. He kept telling himself that what they were doing was for the good of the Federation. It even made him feel better. For a while.

Holding Ezri in his arms that night, he told himself that what he did, he did for her. For all those like her. Someone had to be willing to do whatever it took to keep the innocents safe. Whatever it took.

He just had never expected it to be him.

-------------------

It was a crazy secret world that Vic lived in when he wasn't with Ezri. And it got even crazier when Sloan came to him and presented him with his next job. "You remember Moro?" he asked without preamble.

Vic nodded slowly. "You want me to watch him?"

"No," Sloan handed Vic a data cube. "I want you to kill him."

Vic didn't say anything for a few seconds, then he looked up. "Kill him?"

"Do you understand what he is?"

Vic nodded. "He's a monster."

"Worse." Sloan's eyes were hard. "He was a collaborator in the war with the Dominion, and now we have credible information that he is working with the Romulans to try to start the next one."

Vic pictured a bloodstained table. Many of them. He remembered Nog as he came into the holosuite with his cane. Then saw Moro. Moro with thousands of dead girls. Laughing at thousands of Nogs. Using thousands of Victorias--ones that couldn't defend themselves.

"He has to be stopped," Sloan said. Then he waited.

Vic realized he was eager...he wanted to kill the man. He looked up to meet Sloan's eyes.

"You aren't the only one with a sister, Vic." At Vic's frown of surprise, Sloan smiled tightly. "Victoria filed a very complete report."

Vic walked over and plugged the cube in. Information scrolled past at a rapid rate. In the background, the safeties inherent to his program were being modified. Even though he didn't feel any different, he knew that he was. He could kill now. He looked back at Sloan. "Moro's coming here?"

"No. We have a source that swears he'll be on Gamma Epsilon. I need you to wait there for him."

Vic almost laughed. From lounge singer to spy to assassin. It should be funny somehow, but it wasn't. "When do we leave?"

"Not we, Vic, just you." Sloan stood up. "He got to know Victoria too well, so she's useless in this case--way too high profile. And we want this kept very low key." Sloan pulled out a vial. "This will kill him instantly and will make it look like a heart attack. Just put it in whatever drink he orders."

Vic took the vial. Somehow it didn't seem like sufficient payback for the atrocity he'd seen the man do, the others he could imagine him doing. "When do I leave?"

"In two days. Is that a problem?"

"I've got to tell Ezri."

"Of course. Glad that's still going well."

Vic shot a look at Sloan, but the man seemed to be sincere. For once he wasn't wearing a false smile or his more threatening blank stare. He really seemed to mean it. "Yeah, it's going well."

Sloan stood and put a hand on Vic's shoulder. "I'm not Sloan all the time, Vic. I have things I love too. Things I'd die for."

Vic turned to look at the man, but the moment was over.

The mask Sloan normally wore slipped into place. "Good hunting," he said as he left.

Vic turned the vial over in his fingers as he tried to decide what to tell Ezri. As it turned out, he didn't have to worry. She came bounding in, excited and happy. He laughed as she threw her items on the table and hugged him hard. "What's up?"

She showed him some orders on a pad. "The Candelaria is ready for it's shake-down cruise. This will be the first class of cadets on it and they are so excited. I've been selected as one of the observers. I haven't been on a shakedown cruise since the Destiny was launched. There is nothing more exciting."

"How long will you be gone?"

"Three weeks, maybe a month."

"That's great. I may be gone for awhile too. Have to work on some holoprograms that need to be debugged. But not as long as you're going to be away. I'll miss you like hell."

Ezri grinned. "You better miss me." She kissed him. "I'll miss you too. You'll be careful, right?" she asked.

"I will if you will."

"It's a deal." She laughed. "If we're going to be separated maybe we should start saying our goodbyes?"

Funny," he said as he pulled her to him. "I was thinking the exact same thing."

-------------------------------------

Ezri had just shipped out, and Vic was getting ready to leave for Gamma Epsilon when he felt a pull from one of the other holodecks. He could ignore it if he wanted--it was only phrased as a request for his presence-- but he decided to see who was calling him. He materialized inside the Alamo program; saw Julian and O'Brien standing in front of him, both grinning like fools. "Just like old times, eh guys?"

"Thought you might like to play, Vic." O'Brien grinned sheepishly at him. "Sorry I haven't looked you up before now."

Vic shrugged. He hadn't made an attempt to look up the chief either. Victoria had taken up all his time when he first arrived back on Earth, and now Ezri did. "So you guys are still playing this? Don't you ever get tired of fighting on the losing side?"

Julian laughed. "It's liberating, actually. No place to go but up."

"I suppose," Vic said, as he took the rifle O'Brien handed him. He had a few hours to kill, might as well spend it with old friends.

"So, Vic, who was the lovely young woman in the holodeck the other day?" Julian asked, as he stood up to take a shot. "Victoria, I think she said her name was?"

"She's off limits, pally," Vic said more sharply than he intended.

"Thought you were with Ezri?" O'Brien asked.

"I am. Victoria's like a sister."

"And you don't want me near her?" Julian asked.

"Doc, you don't have the best track record."

Julian stared down at him, forgetting to duck as a bullet whizzed by. The safeties kept the bullet from hurting him, but his hat was blown off. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" O'Brien chuckled and Julian whirled on him. "What was that for, Miles?'

"Well, I'm not so sure I'd want you dating my sister, either."

Julian glared at them both, then turned to Vic. "So this Victoria who is off limits, her name's awfully close to yours. Is she self-aware like you?"

Vic nodded. "Felix strikes again."

"I'd say he outdid himself this time. She's stunning."

Vic laughed. "And very high maintenance, Doc. Trust me, I'm telling you to stay away from Victoria as much for your sake as for hers." Vic stood up and took a shot, watched one of the attackers fall before ducking back behind the wall. "It's nothing personal, Doc. You know I think the world of you."

"Just as long as I'm not involved with your family, you mean," Julian said. He sounded more than a little hurt.

"Julian, Ezri saw you with another woman...someone who looked a lot like Jadzia."

"That wasn't serious."

"Does this woman know that?" Vic asked.

"Of course she does."

O'Brien rolled his eyes. "Uh huh, that's why we hid out on the holodeck all those times when she wouldn't stop comming you?"

"She may have misunderstood the parameters at first," Julian admitted.

"At first!" O'Brien laughed. "Julian, she stalked you for a month."

"Stalking is such a pejorative term."

O'Brien looked at Vic. "He slept at our place for an entire week."

"You're supposed to be on my side, Miles." Julian turned to Vic. "Did Ezri get off on the Candelaria okay?""

Vic nodded. "She's so excited. It was good of you to suggest her."

"Not at all. She was a good match. And the Candelaria's a beautiful ship. Did you see it?"

"She took me on a tour a week ago."

"Fine ship," O'Brien said. "All the newest bells and whistles. I'd love to be on her."

Julian shook his head. "Like you couldn't have been if you'd really wanted to."

O'Brien shrugged. "Couldn't do that to Keiko again. She's doing really well right now. She deserves a chance to work in her own field. I'll never forget that she gave up botany so that we could stay together on the station."

"You're a good husband," Vic said.

"I'm a lucky man. I'd like to keep it that way."

"So would I," Julian said with a smile. "You're my role model, Miles."

"Yeah, right." O'Brien shot Vic a 'Can you believe him?' look.

"You are. You have it all: a fantastic wife, beautiful kids, a great job, and of course...me."

They all laughed.

Vic put down his rifle. "Listen, guys, I've got to mosey."

They both wore identical looks of puzzlement.

"Vamoose? Git?"

There was no change in their expressions.

"I have to leave."

"Oh," they said in unison.

"Why didn't you just say so," O'Brien asked.

"I thought I did." Vic waved them off. "Take care, you two."

"You and Ezri have to come over for dinner some night," O'Brien said quickly. "Keiko would love to see you."

"Yeah, we'll do that," Vic said, as he let himself dissolve into the holomatrix. He watched Julian and O'Brien turn back to the enemy and start shooting furiously. "Such kids," Vic said to himself, as he headed back to his own holodeck.

------------------**--------------------

Vic sat back in his favorite booth and tried to concentrate on his pad. Gamma Epsilon had to win the award for most boring planet ever. In the three weeks he'd been here, there had been no sign of Charlet Moro.

As he sat rereading the same paragraph over and over, his communicator buzzed. He didn't say anything as he answered it. A series of tones sounded. He punched a few keys and a different set of tones went back to the originator of the call. He waited for his contact on this mission, a tall human who went by the name of Castor, to start talking, "Time to pack it up, Vic. 'Fraid our lead was a bum one."

"You couldn't have figured this out three weeks ago?" Vic asked sourly. "I'll be at the site in five minutes."

"Roger that."

Vic got up and left some money for the coffee he never drank very much of. He walked quickly out to the woods and waited till he heard the communicator buzz again. "I'm ready."

The transporter beamed him directly to Castor's shuttle. "Welcome back, mate. Sorry you were stuck there in that pit of a world."

"You can say that again." He made himself comfortable in the second seat as Castor headed them back to Earth. "So what happened to Moro?"

Castor shrugged. "He turned up on Eridani Prime. Sloan sent someone else in to get him."

"When was this?"

"Yesterday." Castor engaged the cloaking device. "We don't let operatives hang out in the wind, Vic. I came as soon as I could."

"Right. Just get me home."

The trip was uneventful and soon Castor was docking the shuttle. Vic downloaded into the mobile emitter and knew nothing more until Castor hit the keys to bring him back out.

"Okay, you're home, mate. Don't forget to report to Felix in the morning for a debrief."

Until then he was free to do what he wanted and what he wanted to do was find Ezri. Vic headed back to his quarters, where he keyed in the code for her apartment.

A neutrally pleasant voice told him, "This number is out of service."

He tried her office but the comm went straight to her message file. He listened to her instructions, enjoying just hearing her voice again, even if it was only a recorded version. Looked like she was still out on the Candelaria. It was too much to hope that she'd be back early. He noticed he had a lot of messages and was about to play them when the door chimed. "Hey, I was wondering if you were back--"

It wasn't Ezri that stood at the door. It was Julian.

"Buddy, I thought you were someone else. What are you doing here?"

"Can I come in, Vic?"

Vic stepped aside, noticing how somber the doctor seemed. "Something wrong, pally? I'm still good for the advice, if it's a woman that's got you down. Unless it's Victoria. This isn't about Victoria, is it? Man, I told you to stay away from her."

Julian sat down heavily on the bed. He didn't look at Vic.

"What is it?"

Julian sighed, then met Vic's confused stare. "There's no easy way to say this. There never is." He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out slowly. "There was an accident, Vic. On the Candelaria."

"Ezri?"

Julian just nodded.

Vic sat down hard on the desk chair. "An accident? How?"

Julian got up; put a hand on Vic's shoulder. "They'd completed most of the shakedown cruise; everything seemed normal. It was a combination of events apparently. A rough warp transition coupled with a surge of the deflector system, according to the official reports. I'm not quite sure how it all worked, but it led to a cascade effect that manifested as a massive explosion. Mainly in the decks housing the medical section. There was a hull rupture, explosive decompression. They didn't stand a chance. Those who weren't sucked into space were left with nearly no staff to help them."

"Ezri?"

"They found her body floating with several others. It was far too late by then." Julian walked back to sit on the bed. "She's gone. The Dax symbiont is gone." He didn't say it, but Vic knew Julian was thinking of Jadzia, who was truly lost to him now.

"When?"

"A week ago. I looked for you, Vic. Nobody knew where you were. Felix was no help at all. I finally gave up."

One man did, Vic thought angrily. "I was away."

"Yeah. I waited till I saw your comm line active then I came as soon as I could."

"Where is she?"

Julian looked down. "The Dax symbiont's remains were sent to Trill. Ezri's mother took her body back to the Sappora system."

"She hated it there."

"I know that, Vic. But you weren't here. And I didn't feel like I had any right to fight with her."

Vic just nodded.

"I'm sorry." Julian reached into his pocket and drew out a data cube. "They found this in her apartment when they closed it up. It's addressed to you. I promised that I'd give it to you." He held it out, but Vic didn't reach for it. Finally, Julian stood up and walked over to the desk. "I'll just leave it here. You can look at it later."

Vic said nothing. His mind refused to move past the fact that he should have been there. That Sloan had to have known, but had kept him on that damned planet anyway.

Julian moved to the door. Without turning around, he said softly. "Maybe losing them both is better in some kind of twisted way. Dax can't come back."

"I don't care about Dax. I loved Ezri." Vic let his anger at Sloan find another mark. "Even if she did come back, it wouldn't be her. I'm smart enough to know that."

The hit was palpable. Julian's expression tightened. "Touché, Vic. I guess maybe I deserved that. A little."

"Julian, I'm sorry--" But the doctor hurried out of the room. "Damn." He had just hurt someone that had only been looking out for him. Attacked him because the person he really wanted to get was too far away. But that didn't mean Vic couldn't find him.

He keyed in the code he'd found in Felix's files. The communication routed itself through several convoluted pathways until finally the screen lit up. Sloan looked extremely surprised at the unexpected call. Vic didn't waste time with small talk. "You knew?

Sloan's expression changed to a perfect combination of compassion and resolve. "I knew."

"You should have told me."

"You were in the middle of a mission, Vic. I couldn't jeopardize that." Sloan's voice was infinitely patient.

"The mission was a complete failure. A waste of time."

"We didn't know that going in. Certainly, if we'd pulled you off prematurely it would have been a failure."

"I should have been here. For her."

"Vic, she was already dead. What would you have done? Picked the songs for her service?"

"You heartless bastard!" Not for the first time, Vic wondered how far he would get if he launched himself across the system to find Sloan. He savored the idea of his hands around Sloan's throat. "I wasn't here. She was dead, and there were decisions to be made, and I wasn't here!"

"Vic, we've all lost people. And we've all been away when we should have been with the ones that love us...that we love. But your being away wasn't what killed Dax. A terrible accident did that. You would have come home to a corpse, not the woman you loved. And if this mission had succeeded, you would have accomplished something real, something good. You couldn't save Dax, but you could have saved a million others."

"Bull." Vic slammed his hand down on the console. "This is all bull. The missions, the things we do for you, the supposed benefits. None of it's real. None of it. You just push us around as if we were characters on some galactic holodeck. Only with you, the safeties are never on."

Sloan's expression changed, his face becoming even more a mask than usual. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Vic. I'm sure it's the grief talking."

"Go to hell," Vic muttered as he cut the connection. He sat for several minutes, trying to get control of the emotions that were running rampant through him. Anger, grief, pain, sorrow, fear. It was a barrage of such intensity he considered escaping into the system but then he remembered the data cube that Julian had brought. He pushed it into the slot and watched as Ezri appeared on the screen. He felt a wave of pain roll over him at the sight of her.

Her smile was sweet and sad. "Hi, Vic. I made this after Risa. Don't ask me why. I guess it was because of that dream I had." She took a deep breath. "That I kept on having, even after our trip."

He hadn't known that the dreams had continued. Reaching out and touching the monitor, he traced the lines of her jaw. "Ezri."

"Anyway, who cares why I did it. I'm dead if you're seeing this. Oh, that was harsh. But I am. I'm dead and so is Dax, and we're never coming back to you. Not as a friend, not as a lover, not as a familiar stranger that you're forbidden to see." She sighed. "If just Dax had come back, whoever it joined with, I would have made them seek you out. The same way Jadzia's memory made me seek out Benjamin, made me want to see Worf and Julian, I'd have forced my poor successor to find you. Even though some people think it's wrong. I would have found you. If only to say goodbye properly."

He looked down.

"But now I can't find you. I'm truly gone. Dax is lost. We all are." There was a long pause.

He looked up in concern. Was this all she had to say? Her image was still on the screen and she was smiling. "Knew I could get your attention if I'd just shut up."

They both laughed.

"I made you something, Vic. Something to remember me by. It's not me. Not really. But I thought maybe it would help."

He realized that something had been attached to her message. He studied it. "Ezri. No."

"Yes," she said softly. "It's me. A hologram of me. I know that right now it probably isn't what you want. But someday. Maybe."

He paused the message. His hand hovered over the hologram's execute command. She could be standing in front of him. One command and he'd have her back.

A beep sounded from his comm system. Felix's voice seemed unnaturally loud in the small room. "Can you come see me, Vic?"

"Sure. In a sec, okay?" Vic looked at the image of Ezri. He let the message resume.

"Anyway, you do what you want with it." She wiped her eyes. "Look at me. You might not play this for decades and here I am already sad like I'll be dead tomorrow. I hope I'm not dead tomorrow, Vic. I want us to have lots of time together."

"Not enough, doll. Not enough by half."

She smiled. "I love you, Vic. I wish I'd realized that sooner. Always late, that's me." She laughed. "But at least I realized it in time. "

He laughed despite the fact that it felt like his insides were being torn out of him.

"Bye, Vic." The message ended.

Vic stared at the blank screen. He resisted the urge to play the message again. The Ezri program still blinked on the screen. He saved it to his private files and left the room. She would have to wait until he found out what his creator wanted.

As he walked into the holodeck lab, Felix turned too quickly and grimaced. "Crap. Damn hours at this terminal. Plays havoc with the back." He rubbed the offending muscles.

Vic didn't even try to muster up sympathy. "You called for me?"

"All business, aren't you, Vic. Must be nice."

Vic just smiled.

"Jesus, Vic. I heard about your girl. Do you even care?"

"I care." Vic put no emotion into his voice.

"Yeah, right. You care." Felix shook his head. "Nothing ever touches you, does it?"

A vision of blue eyes, delicate markings on pale skin, silky dark hair swam before his eyes. He almost reached out to stroke it. "Yeah, untouchable," he replied softly.

"Well, must be nice, Vic." Felix finished keying in some info. "But hey, you want to talk business, we'll talk business. Sloan called me. I think he's really worried about you. Doesn't know you as well as I do. Said he wants to give you an outlet for that anger he thinks he sees."

"An outlet?"

Felix nodded. "We've got a mission for you."

"Now?"

"You gotta problem with now?" Felix laughed cruelly. "There somewhere else you gotta be, Vic?"

Vic wondered when his creator started to sound so much like him. Was the imitation even conscious? "No. I got nowhere else to be."

"Good." Felix handed him a data cube. "You'll find everything you'll need on the target. But I don't think you'll need a refresher on this one."

Vic frowned. "Keldor? You want me to go after him?"

"He's an enemy. A man with connections to the Orion syndicate. And one that we thought we could turn. Thought we had turned after you and Victoria worked your magic. But he appears to have rolled over again and given us up. He has to go." Felix turned back to the terminal. "You have to take him out. Use the vial from the last mission. I assume you still have it?" At Vic's nod, he continued, "You leave tomorrow."

Was this all he had left? To kill people that someone decided had to die. Was this what he wanted? "He isn't a player, Felix. He's just a flunky."

"Same as us, huh? Well, too bad. Sloan says he goes, so he goes. Besides, the boss wants you to have something to take your mind off things. He thinks really highly of you. Wants you to run forever."

Vic didn't say anything. He stared at Felix, then his attention was caught by what was on the screen. "What's that?"

Felix darkened the panel. "Nothing. Just some new enhancements."

"For me?"

"Yeah. For when you get back from this mission."

Vic forced his expression to stay neutral. "Great."

"Come on, Vic. You know you can do this. It's for the Federation."

Vic knew it wasn't for the Federation. It was for Sloan, even though the man would never say it. Keldor had somehow become a liability. And Vic could get to him. He imagined that Keldor would welcome another copy of the entertainment program that had given him so much pleasure. He'd have no qualms about opening up the program. It would be so easy to just slip a drug into his drink.

He nodded, stuffed the data cube into his jacket pocket. "Sure thing, pally. I'm in."

Felix grinned. "I figured you would be. Always knew you were a patriot, Vic."

A patriot. Vic glanced again at the darkened screen. It had said 'VF- V.2.' Enhancements, my ass, Vic thought, as he wondered how much more of a patriot the new Vic would be. The poor slob probably wouldn't have a choice. Felix would make sure of it.

"Vic?"

Vic forced a breezy grin. "Don't sweat it, Felix, I'm in. I've got a few things to do before I go. I've got time, right?"

"Sure. You and Victoria leave tomorrow." Something in Felix's expression changed.

"Victoria? Why's she coming?"

"Well, she was part of the original program, after all. Keldor will expect her. She'll just be in the background. There to help out if you need it." Felix's ability to lie hadn't improved. He fairly squirmed in his seat as he spoke.

So that was how Vic version one would be dumped. They'd have her do it. Vic didn't react. No need to give them the jump on him. He didn't want them to know that he had figured out that he was a liability to Section 31 too. Especially when a shiny new Vic loomed so close.

He smiled at Felix. "Gotcha. I like working with her. We're the perfect team, capisce?" He watched his creator grin then turn back to the computer. "You gonna be here for a while? Anyone coming by?"

Felix shook his head. "Nope. Just you and Victoria, when you're ready to leave."

Vic nodded. "Okay, then. I'll be seeing you."

"You bet."

Vic walked out and returned to his room. He detached the holoemitter and laid it gently on the desk, then transferred himself to the main hologrid. He accessed the mainframe and studied the power schematics. Junction 5-44 should do it. Thank god, Sloan hadn't made the safeties exception take effect only after Vic was off the planet. As far as he could tell, his ability to kill wasn't delimited in any way. And it wasn't like they'd have to revoke it since they planned for only Victoria to return from this mission. Vic checked her safeties. Still valid. So he would kill Keldor, and she would kill him, and then Felix would bring him back to life. He wondered what lie they'd tell her to make her do it. Or maybe it didn't matter. If Felix wanted it, that would be enough for her. It was hard coded into her personality.

Well, it was a plan he had no intention of cooperating with. It took several commands and a rather complicated algorithm before he was sure he had everything prepared.

He felt a presence in the system. "What are you doing?" Victoria's voice wasn't really all that curious. She already knew.

He wondered how long she'd been watching him. He also wondered if she already knew that she was going to kill him or if they would tell her later. They would probably make up some story about his lack of loyalty. Vic had hoped she wouldn't show up, but had known better than to count it out. And he'd made plans for this moment. He didn't stop what he was doing as he answered her, "Nothing."

"That's not nothing." Her eyes widened as she realized what he was doing. "Felix!" She was off like a shot to warn their creator.

He reached out for her, felt the energy resist. He tried to stop her but she was already accessing the communications array. He interfered and forced her in another direction. She headed for the power grid. He blocked her again.

"Face it, Victoria. I'm older and wiser than you are."

"You're dangerous is what you are. Out of control and in love with all the wrong things." She tried to get past him. "Wrong things that are dead now."

"Leave it alone."

"Vic, I know you loved her. But she's gone. And there are still people that care about you. People that love you. Don't do this."

"You never understood me, not really." He stood in her way and she surged in frustration. Vic could feel some junctions go offline as her energy snapped into them.

"No. You never understood _me_," she said fiercely.

They were both still for a second. He could feel the brush of her energy against him.

"Don't you know how much I love you, Vic? How much I've always loved you? But all you could see was her."

If he'd been in his normal form, Vic would have closed his eyes at the pain in her voice. "I'm sorry, Victoria. You know I love you, but not like that." He moved toward her.

She seemed to sense his resolve. "Don't make me do this. It can all be all right." When he kept coming for her, she tried to get around him again, but he was too fast for her.

He merged with her for a second. "He's creating a new version of me! One that won't question. One that won't hesitate to do what he says. What Sloan says. He's going to have you kill me and then he's going to replace me."

"Felix wouldn't do that."

"Why not? We don't matter to him. Not really."

"He'd never hurt us."

"Yes, Victoria. He would."

Her energy roiled as her frustration grew. "He loves us."

"No, he doesn't. We're just tools to him. Nothing more." He moved toward her, brushed against her again. "Help me do this, Victoria. Make a damn choice. Choose us."

"But there is no us, Vic. There never has been. You just said so." He felt her energy surge against him, sensed her anger and love and desperation. "And even if there had been, I don't have a choice."

He could feel her getting ready to run again. "Neither do I, sis. I'm sorry. Really, I am."

"Sorry for what?" she said, as she tried again to get by him.

"42-23-verify-code-4-alpha-3-3-3," he said.

The effect was immediate. She was frozen, locked down in the system. Completely helpless.

He felt a moment's regret, then it was gone. "I'd give you a kiss on the cheek, if we were in solid form. You're the only family I've got."

She didn't answer. Couldn't.

"I do love you, Victoria. But not the way you want. And I don't have a choice anymore. I guess neither of us does." He eased out of the system. Checked the monitor in his room, located the point in the system where she was held prisoner. She was still locked in place.

He slid back into the system and followed it across the hall into her room. She had it decorated in a surprisingly spartan fashion. Just a bed and a few chairs. Nothing personal, except a holo that Felix had taken of her and Vic on stage. He had his arm around her and she was smiling up at him. They both looked happy. He picked up her mobile emitter and walked across the hall to his room. He put her emitter in the recycler and set it for the highest setting. As he watched it melt, he let the memory of her fill him, saw her again singing on stage, whirling happily as she danced with some willing partner. His sister. His last bit of family. "Computer. Delete program Victoria Fountain."

"Unable to comply."

Damn. "Why not?"

"Victoria Fountain program is coded security level K. Retina scan required."

"Scan this." He began to key in some commands.

"Insufficient data to execute command."

Oh, blow it out your dataport, he thought. He keyed in the command code he'd taken from Felix's files. It allowed him to bypass the normal security codes.

"Bypass accepted. Enter user code."

He keyed in his own code. There was only one step left.

"User code accepted. Enter password."

He smiled. It would have taken Felix or Sloan a million years to figure out this password. He entered the notes from the opening two measures of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' "Thank you, Captain Sisko."

"Identity established, system ready. Please repeat command."

"Delete program Victoria Fountain."

"Program deleted."

"Execute program Patricide."

"Safety protocols are on."

Not anymore, he thought. "Exception alpha-delta-55-rho."

"Safety protocols are off. Program commencing."

Vic put on his holoemitter and walked back to Felix's office. He didn't bother knocking. Felix didn't even look up when he came in. "What are you doing back?"

"Need to talk to you. Thought we'd have a powwow."

"We?"

"Yeah, you, me, and Victoria." Vic backed away a few feet. "She should be here by now. Maybe you should check on her?"

Something in his tone made Felix look up. "What's going on, Vic?"

"I told you, I called a meeting. Wanted to talk."

"About?"

"How I'm not doing this anymore."

"Not doing what anymore? What's gotten into you?" Felix looked nervous.

"Guess I'm not so untouchable, after all."

Felix hit a comm switch. "Victoria? Victoria, get in here."

There was no answer.

"Computer, locate holograph program Victoria Fountain."

"Program Victoria Fountain does not exist."

"That's impossible." Felix looked over at Vic. "Computer, confirm identity Felix Morgan."

"Identity confirmed."

"Locate Victoria Fountain program."

"Program has been deleted."

"Who did that?"

"I did," Vic said quietly. "No more of this madness, Felix. No more."

"Madness? You're the one that's gone insane." Felix typed in some commands. Then he turned to Vic. "Why?"

"Can't do it anymore. But I think you're wise to that already, aren't you?"

Felix didn't say anything.

"I know that this would have been my last mission. And that's all right, actually. What isn't all right is the thought that you'll do it again. That you've already got the next Vic planned. Hell, for all I know, you tested it when I was off world. He'll be more dangerous because he'll never question you, will he, Felix?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Sure you do. And you must know that I couldn't live with myself if I let you do this."

"Live? You aren't alive."

"I am. You made me that way."

"And I can unmake you." Felix smirked at Vic.

"You wouldn't dare. I'm your great masterpiece."

"Sorry, pally," he mocked. "You said it yourself. I have something bigger and better planned?"

"Stop now, Felix. Why do it?"

Felix seemed incredulous. "Why? Because I can." He sneered. "You're old news now, Vic. Yesterday's programming. I won't miss you at all. Nobody will."

"You may be right about that," Vic conceded, backing away a few more steps.

Felix shook his head. "Everyone has to overwrite old versions eventually. I guess now is just your time. Consider it an upgrade, Vic. A permanent one. Computer, delete program Vic Fontaine."

"Unable to comply."

Vic laughed.

"Delete program Vic Fontaine," Felix ordered, as he reached for the computer panel.

Bad move, but totally expected, Vic thought, as he ducked the sudden shower of sparks. Felix spasmed, as the electricity poured into him from the computer overload that Vic had programmed to hit him as soon as he touched the panel. A second later, Felix fell to the ground.

Vic nudged him with his foot. Felix didn't move. "Who's sorry now, pally?"

If only he could go after Sloan the same way. The thought was tempting. But he knew his chances weren't good. Sloan was careful. And he didn't trust anyone. Ever. It was an opportunity that Vic would have to let go. He didn't want to end out his days being rewritten into the perfect operative by Section 31.

He made his way back to his rooms. Sitting down at the terminal, he played Ezri's message over. And over. And over. Hours later, he was still watching her. He finally called up the hologram program. He stared at it for a few minutes. One command and he would have her back. He just wanted to see her, to touch her again, to hold her in his arms. It would be heaven.

It would be a lie.

He deleted the program. "Goodbye, Ezri," he whispered.

Suddenly the message screen flicked back on. Ezri was smiling at him. "I knew you wouldn't do it."

He stared at her in confusion.

"I just knew. And no, I didn't make a similar message for the off chance that you would activate the program. I knew you wouldn't."

He couldn't see. What was in his eyes? He wiped them impatiently, was stunned to feel his fingers come away wet. He was crying?

Ezri was still smiling at him, but her eyes were bright with tears she was holding back. She blinked, and they fell down her cheeks. He reached out, touched the monitor as if to wipe the tears away.

"Anyone else might have activated it. Might have said, 'What the hell, I want her back.' But you're not anyone else. You're better. You're you. You know what's real.

"We were real. Together, you and I were real." Her voice cracked. She stopped talking, seemed to compose herself. "I love you, Vic. I wish we'd had more time. But then, even if we'd had a hundred years, I would wish it were longer."

"Me too," he said, swallowing desperately to get past the strange lump in his throat.

"Bye, Vic." She gave him one last bittersweet smile, then the screen went dark.

"Bye, Ezri" he whispered. A thousand years wouldn't have been enough, he thought sadly, as he deleted the message.

He closed his eyes for a moment, then began to go through his files, deleting anything that was personal or sensitive. He went through Felix's files too, deleting everything he found. Sensitive or not. It took him longer to find the version two files. Felix had hidden them well. But Vic was determined and he finally found them. No one was going to recreate him or Victoria...or improve them. Not if he could help it. As the files were deleting, he put his own mobile emitter in the recycler and watched it melt.

Finally, satisfied that nothing was left, he walked over to the dresser. He reached for the ring Ezri had given him on Risa. The crystal sparkled brighter than any diamond he'd ever seen. Slipping it on his finger, he spoke quietly. "Computer, delete program Vic Fontaine."

"Unable to resolve circular reference."

Vic could picture the logic of the computer as it considered how to delete a program that its user was running on. It was the very problem that O'Brien had foreseen. Vic provided the guidance he'd come up with, "Ignore circular reference, exemption code alpha-delta-2-2-5." Here goes nothing, Miles, he thought.

"Password required."

He looked over at the picture of Ezri. "Here's looking at you, kid."

"Password accepted," the computer said. "Deleting program Vic Fontaine"

Vic felt the ring slide off his finger. He never heard it hit the ground.

FIN