V. Wrongs Darker than Death or Night

Meru was, as both her friends and enemies would agree, a gentle woman. She had not known what it was to hate until she was given the news about Taban's death. Oh, she believed she had hated the Cardassians in her old life, and the man who had scarred her face, but it had been an almost perfunctory feeling when compared with the rage that consumed her when she heard about Taban, hanged in that newly regained home, with the letters "The rewards of collaboration" written on the wall next to him.

Her hate was fuelled by guilt. Someone in the Resistance must have managed to find out where the money for food and medicine Taban was receiving came from, must have investigated his story about her death at the camp and tracked her to Terok Nor. Given the attempt to kill Dukat and herself only a few weeks ago, she should not have been surprised. She knew all too well that what Luma, her white face stricken with disgust, had told her was what most people would think. But she had never, not even in her wildest nightmares, imagined that someone would hold Taban responsible.

His message, his kind, loving words, telling her he and the children owed their life to her, that he was proud of her and understood, had both broken her heart and soothed the pain. And now he had paid for this kindness with his life. "You killed him, you bitch," his sister had said, who had only learned that Meru was still alive when Meru in her panic had contacted everyone she knew to find out where the children were. Of course, she refused to tell Meru about the children.

"You don't deserve to be their mother. Do you want to ruin their lives as well?"

Once, she would have taken this as she had taken Luma's condemnation, as a judgement from the Prophets. But Taban's death changed everything. She did not believe the Prophets walked with the Resistance any longer. Anyone who killed a good man like Taban, anyone who approved of such an action, had lost their right to pass judgement on her.

When Meru trusted her voice again, she went to Dukat and asked that the children be brought to her, by force, if necessary.

"Are you sure that's wise, Meru?" he replied gently. "I have two children, I know how you must miss yours, but if they were living with me here, they would be targets as well. And this would be true of your children, too."

"Maybe," Meru said, feeling the salt of her dried tears burning on her face. "But they are not safe on Bajor, either, and I do not want them with these people anymore."

Sometimes, she was still shy about touching him on her own initiative. Not now. She stretched out her hand and let it linger on his cheek.

"Please," she said. "I want my children."

For a moment, there was something measuring her in his eyes, but then he turned his head, caught her hand and kissed it.

"Whatever makes you happy, my dear."

The children were afraid and confused at first, of course. Taban had not exaggerated in his message; with the regular food, they had already grown. They looked blessedly healthy, but losing their mother and then their father had left their marks. When the Cardassian soldiers brought them to her, they cried. Meru showered them with kisses, but it took hours to calm them down. Pohl and Reon were not able to speak yet; Nerys, though, was.

"The 'oonheads made Aunt go still, so still," Nerys finally whispered in her ear. Meru could find no pity in her heart for the woman who had danced at her wedding.

"It's alright, pet," she soothed. "It's over."

"Will Dada come back, too?"

A comforting lie was on her lips, something like "one day", or that the Prophets would reunite them eventually. But there was something in her little daughter's gaze that demanded to be told the truth.

"No, Nerys," Meru answered.

The child's lips trembled, but she did not cry again.

"Why not?"

"Bad people took him from us", Meru declared with renewed bitterness. She hadn't heard Dukat entering behind her, but now she heard his voice saying:

"That's right. Bad people did. But that will not happen again."

He knelt down next to her, so his face was on a level with hers. Some part of her wondered whether his own family had taught him that speaking to children from a great height only intimidated them, or whether it was intuition.

"Your mother will be safe, and your brothers, and yourself. This I promise."

"Safe" wasn't a concept any one of them was familiar with, and Meru doubted her little Nerys had learned the word yet. But the girl stared at Dukat in fascination. She had seen Cardassians before, though Meru and Taban had always taken care to keep their children as far from them as possible. Meru was almost certain that no Cardassian had ever been that close. Nerys squinted.

"Bring Dada back!" she demanded.

"Ah," Dukat said in that low, calm voice which had been the first thing that she had liked about him, which had stopped the frightened terror in her own heart when she met him and started to kindle hope as well as fascination. "That is the one thing which I cannot do, I'm afraid."

The child scowled at him.

"But I did bring your mother back, didn't I?" he said, smiling at the girl. Nerys looked confused, but slowly, the scowl vanished and made room for curiosity. She tilted her head, and her arms, which had been clasped around Meru's neck, relaxed a bit.

"What is her name?" Dukat asked Meru. Before Meru could reply, the girl said:


Meru was amazed. Nerys was usually so shy about talking to strangers; it hadn't been so many weeks ago that the girl had not dared to address Luma directly but had whispered her questions into her mother's ear. Dukat really was good with children.

"Kira Nerys," Dukat said, "you and I are going to be the best of friends."

When Pohl and Reon grew older, they had no memories of Taban, though Meru took care to tell them about the good man their father had been. Nerys, on the other hand, did remember, but when she was ten, she told Meru she didn't want to talk about him anymore. This saddened Meru, and yet she understood. Nerys loved Dukat with a fierce, jealous devotion that made the girl resent each time Dukat went to Cardassia to visit his other family. She wanted to imagine herself as his only daughter, and him as her true father, and did not want to remember a time when this had not been so.

"Why does he have to go back to *them* all the time?" she once asked Meru. "They are not really his family. We are. It's not fair!"

Maybe if Nerys could have had friends and a larger family, she would have been better at sharing. But as things were, Meru and her children were envied by the other Bajoran women who were kept by Cardassians. Most of them would never have dared to bring their children to their fathers' attention, let alone live with them. As for the other Bajorans, the workers in orb processing and *their* families, the only thing that kept them from spitting at the sight of Meru *or* the children was fear of punishment.

Then there was the constant, nagging threat of assassination. Nerys might not want to talk about Taban, yet she knew very well who had been responsible for his death.

"I hate being a Bajoran," she told Meru, after there had been yet another bombing which led to Dukat being summoned to Cardassia and a series of reprisals after his return. Walking through Terok Nor afterwards was walking through a thick, heavy silence.

"They are not all terrorists, Nerys," Meru replied, and distantly wondered when she had started to automatically speak of "terrorists" rather than to call them the "Resistance", and of "them" instead of "us".

"They might as well be," Nerys declared darkly. "All they can do is kill Cardassians and other Bajorans, and then even more of them die. It's so...*stupid*!"

Meru made an effort.

"It will be over one day, Nerys. And Bajor has a heritage we can be proud of."

Nerys hugged her. Soon, she would turn eleven. She wore her long, red hair in a complicated braid, Cardassian-style, with needles Dukat had given her as a surprise after his last journey.

"I know you think so, Mother. And I love your icons, I really do. But I'm sorry, I don't think that superstition about the Prophets is anything to be proud of."

"They walk with us," Meru said, somewhat shocked though she only visited the temple very rarely these days. The silent accusations in everyone's eyes when she did were not easy to bear.

"If they walk with us, they haven't done anything for us, have they?" Nerys said fiercely. "The only one who ever did that was Father."

She did not mean Taban.

"I'm worried about Nerys," Meru confided to Dukat when they were in bed that night, which by itself was an amazingly regular event, even after all these years. She knew that, leaving his wife aside, he wasn't completely faithful to her, but she also knew he would not dream of installing another woman in her place. When she had first become his mistress, one of the other women, who had been on the station for a longer time without ever managing to get one Cardassian officer to keep her for more than a few nights, had told her she was lucky.

"Not just because he's the prefect," the other woman had declared, hungry envy in her voice. "That one absolutely wants to be loved and believe himself to be in love. He'll never kick you out; that would destroy the game."

Years later, as he held her in his arms and she felt enveloped by the only warmth and security she had ever been able to trust, she couldn't say the woman had been wrong. And yet it had been too easy an assessment. There was a saying in Dakhur province about seeing someone's true face if his life was threatened. During the first weeks with Dukat, she had been afraid, attracted and desperately eager to believe, but she had not started to love him until Luma, the woman she had trusted as her friend, had tried to kill both of them. When the bomb exploded, Dukat had not sought to save himself first. He had cried out her name and covered her with his body, and afterwards, he had checked on her before doing anything else. In a way, Meru supposed that Luma had sealed their union.

It had been a long time since then; she had seen him go from the young prefect who believed he could make a difference to a more cynical man who had repeatedly stated it would take a miracle to end the ongoing cycle of attacks and retribution. She had seen him show weaknesses; she had experienced him make mistakes. But she had never known him to stop caring about her or her children, and for that, she would always love him.

He could still manage to surprise her, though. She had expected him to tell her not to worry, that Nerys was a fine girl. Instead, he murmured:

"So am I."

„You are?"

„I'm not blind, Meru,"Dukat said. "Nerys and her brothers are not really part of Bajor *or* Cardassia. Now as long as they are children, that will not matter. But only a few more years, and Nerys will be grown up. With her spirit, she will not be content to live as a Bajoran on Bajor. Yet on Cardassia, they would only ever see her as one. They would see the ridges of her nose and think of the terrorism, instead of valuing her as she should be valued."

"What can we do for her, my love?" Meru asked, feeling his hand stroke her hair. His voice came floating to her in the darkness as he replied, thoughtfully, slowly:

"Your daughter is the embodiment of the new Bajor, Meru. Bajor as it should be, Bajoran beauty married to a Cardassian soul. Why not give her the freedom to reflect that?"

"What do you mean?"

He explained it to her. She had not known Cardassian surgeons were capable of something like this, but Dukat told her that the Obsidian Order prided itself on far more difficult transformations, and that one of their agents owed him a debt he would be only too glad to call in for Nerys' sake. Still, Meru could not help her first instinctive reaction, which was to be revolted. It went against everything she had ever been taught about the will of the Prophets.

Then again, as Nerys had put it with the blunt cruelty of youth, the Prophets had never done anything for her.

Meru resolved on leaving the decision to Nerys. They did not tell her immediately; obviously, eleven was not nearly old enough to make such a choice. But when Nerys was close to completing her thirteenth year, Meru felt a knot in the stomach which turned out to be far more serious than she had believed at first. After several diagnoses and operations by the best physicians Dukat could find, it was obvious that this was something she would not escape from. There would not be much more time to watch Nerys grow; she would have to tell her now.

"Do you understand what this would mean?" she asked Nerys, after Dukat, who was always better at these things, had finished explaining. "Do you think you could do it?"

Nerys, who did not know yet about Meru's own fate, beamed at her and in her impulsive way threw her arms around both of them.

"Oh Mother, Father, of course I could! It's what I've always wanted. Thank you! Oh, thank you!"

She was so young. But what had been said two years ago was still true, and this way, at least one world would be open to her.

"I will miss your red hair," Meru said wistfully, and took the long braid into her hands.

The boys were somewhat disturbed when they saw their sister again. But the doctor treating Meru, a Bajoran scientist named Tora Naprem, quickly distracted them by offering to show them the new discovery of Dr. Mora's everyone was talking about, a strange substance that could change its shape. When they were gone, Meru, the pain in her body somewhat lessened by all the medication and the sight of Nerys and Dukat smiling at her, stretched out both hands to them, and they knelt down beside her.

"Are you happy, Nerys?" Meru asked, looking at her daughter's gray face with the faint blue spot in the middle of the girl's forehead, the black hair falling down, elegantly braided, the neck ridges forming a curve as Nerys laid down her head in her mothers' lap.

"It's Iliana now," Nerys murmured. "But yes, I am. If you get better soon."

Over her head, so familiar and yet so strange in its Cardassian shape, Meru's and Dukat's eyes met.

"It might not be possible, my darling," Meru said gently. "But you will have your father to look after you."