"It is foolish to tear one's hair in grief, as though sorrow would be made less by baldness."
He still had a slight limp, the legacy of singed nerve endings at the base of his ankle. But Nathan Hayes had assured him that this would heal, as long as Julian kept to his strict physical therapy regime.
It was only moments ago. He'd been sitting alone in Quark's, watching the crowd from the upper level and slowly turning a half empty glass of synthale around in one hand. People moved below him, lit from above as though each of the light beams was falling like dust across their heads and shoulders.
If that round bellied Yridian would only consider doubling down, he could win himself quite a tidy sum…
And then a voice just behind his shoulder. "Come with me."
He turned around. "Dax? What are you…?"
"Come." Her expression was determined, cutting off all protests before they'd even had a chance to form. Still a little confused, Bashir threw back the remainder of his drink and followed her to the nearest lift.
It did not take long before they were stepping through the doors. "Where are we going?" he asked.
"The wardroom." She did not turn around.
His sleep had been profound, and entirely undisturbed by dreams. He was far from certain how much of the time he'd even been sleeping - or if he'd really just passed out again. Nerys' had been the first voice he heard, but the captain's had been the first face he saw. The hand-sized mask was back in position, but at least he found the strength to remove it himself this time.
"How are you feeling?" Sisko asked him.
And Bashir had managed a weary smile. "Like I'm tired of waking up in here."
The faintest hint of laughter, warm and quiet, as Sisko scratched his head and looked around him. "I can understand that," had been his reply.
They stepped through an open door, and the young man stopped when he heard the unexpected noise inside.
Familiar, beaming faces lined in uneven rows. All of them suddenly looked his way. Feeling his chest grow tight, he turned to where Dax's face also wore a broad, almost triumphant, grin. "What's going on?"
"Call it a welcome home," she whispered, and clasped his shoulder on her way into the background.
"Dax…" he protested, but she had already passed him by.
And then there was a glass in his hand, and they were all around him. An endless array of open smiles. Slapping his back. Congratulating him - for what? He tried his best to return the sentiment - they had gone to all this trouble after all. But already he sensed his own smile gradually transformed to a tight-lipped grimace. His chest hurt. Couldn't breathe…
"I'm sorry." He realised belatedly that he was backing away, recoiling as though none of the steps he took were his own. The conversation stopped abruptly, silence falling heavy and sudden like a weight upon the room.
"It's just that…" He looked around at all their expectant faces. They were watching, anticipating, waiting to hear what he would say - and he could not think of an excuse to leave. Fighting the panic that had already rendered him close to mute, he set his untouched drink aside. "Excuse me."
"Molly was asking after you." There'd been something in O'Brien's hand - a large, boldly decorated, double-folded slip of card. "She wanted me to give you this."
Bashir laughed when he saw the childishly rendered likeness of a man, with a round face, broad smile, and dark, tangled hair. The person in Molly O'Brien's portrait was brightly dressed in the recent issue lilac and navy padded uniform, and a hint of blue green protruded clearly from his collar.
At one point, somebody had decided that this figure should be surrounded by clusters of multicoloured flowers, and there was even a round-nosed orange pony watching from the background. Or was it a giraffe?
And at the top of the card, in the large and slightly too circular writing of a seven year old girl, were four words. Julian Get Well Soon.
"I had to help a bit with the spelling," confessed O'Brien. "But the rest is entirely her doing. Oh, and before I forget - and end up getting Hell for it… Keiko said to let you know. She's spoken to the leader of her research group, and the offer still stands. If you want to join them on Bajor, you're more than welcome to tag along. That's about all, really. Although I have to say there's still one good thing to have come from all of this."
He paused, and silently raised his eyebrows as though daring his friend to guess what that might be.
"Oh?" said Julian.
"Looks like I finally have the advantage at racquetball."
"Don't bet on it."
There was movement at his other side. "No-one is going anywhere near a racquetball court until I say you're good and ready." Hayes made a show of scolding them both, but there was a good humoured gleam behind his scowl.
Bashir sighed, playing along. "Aye, Sir."
"And even then," Nathan Hayes added. "Only on one condition."
Both men were suddenly watching the red-headed doctor, each face echoing the other's puzzled curiosity. "What's that?" It was O'Brien who finally asked.
Hayes grinned as he sat by the bedside and made some adjustments to his open tricorder. "I plan to be first in line to challenge the winner."
Dax followed Julian into the corridor. "What is it?"
"Nothing." Resting against the nearest wall, he was disturbed at how much the scene had troubled him. After all, this wasn't the first surprise party that she had thrown, although most times there was usually somebody around with enough good grace to warn him in advance.
He looked up, and saw her expression transformed to a near perfect copy of his own. "It was a lovely thought, Jadzia. It's just… Honestly? I don't know what I've done to deserve it."
"Apart from helping us to prevent what could well have ended up as yet another catastrophe?" He recognised that look. It was the one she bore when challenging him to fault her reasoning - one specifically reserved for when she was certain that he would not be able.
Too tired to argue with her relentless logic, Bashir gazed upwards at the darkened ceiling. But with the decision to be honest with Dax came a frustrating inability to find the right words. "I'll be fine," he told her eventually, in as steady a voice as he could manage. He was glad at least to note that she was not impatient with him. "Really. It's just… I'm just… I'm not ready for…" His voice failed. Instead of finishing, he gestured dumbly to the wardroom. Dax's party.
"I mean, don't let it keep you from enjoying yourselves. Not on my account…"
She took his hands in both of her own. "It's all right, Julian. I understand."
"Then would you be so kind as to offer my apologies?" he concluded, giving what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
As he turned away, Bashir made an effort to conceal the lack of fluency in his stride. He could feel Dax's staring gaze upon his back, and knew that she was fretting all the while. But even then, he knew also that what he'd told her was the truth. He would be all right.
Perhaps this was where it had all begun. Standing by the outer wall, tears spread paper thin across his eyes, watching the stars from far away. Or maybe they were watching him. Who could say for sure?
He imagined that he could sense the loneliness of the station, as if solitude was something that could seep up through the very floors. He'd seen it from the outside many times before. A miniscule, grey, and isolated sentinel - floating through the blackness with nothing but star light to surround it. It always looked so small, so very alone. But then he would notice that it was lit from within. And he would draw closer, and dream that it was beckoning to him - telling him, Welcome home.
A cold sensation crept along his back. It may have been little more than a slight fluctuation in the environmental controls. Perhaps it was the sudden feeling of insignificance. Or perhaps it was the barely perceptible movement of shadows at the edge of his vision. Either way, Bashir shuddered, and wrapped his arms still more tightly around his elbows.
But then he was certain. Somebody was watching him, from somewhere far, far closer than those distant stars.
He turned around. "Come to finish the job?" he challenged the man now seated at the nearest end of his sharp-edged dining table.
Sloan smiled, his expression deliberately tight. "What makes you say that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Could it possibly be the times you've already tried…?"
"I never tried anything of the kind," the smaller man pointed out. "At least, not with you."
"You will know when I am joking, Doctor."
There was something oddly predatory behind the man's steady gaze, and in the even calm of his reply. With some effort, Bashir swallowed a hot rage surging upwards from his belly.
"Well, if that's true--" He fought to keep his voice level. "Why are you here?"
"I came to thank you."
"You aided us in the capture of a dangerous man, Julian." Bashir could almost believe that the man in front of him had indeed been joking, except that now his expression was entirely serious. "We could never have done it as easily without your help."
"So. This was all about Appleton." It was not a question. "You were just using me to lure him here."
Sloan shrugged, palms upward, as if this was all the explanation he needed.
"What have you done with him? You owe me that much."
"We're no Ferengi," the intruder retorted. "This is not a matter of debt or payment. But, since you ask, you can take comfort in the knowledge that he at least won't be paying you any more unexpected visits."
Bashir shuddered coldly. He dreaded to say more. But there was still one thing he had to know.
"That virus," he continued. "It isn't for use on Jem'Hadar."
With an even tighter smile, Sloan nodded. "Very good. How did you know?"
"The RNA sequencing is all wrong - completely incompatible with Jem'Hadar physiology. Their immune systems would destroy it in less than a minute."
The intruder grinned, like a father who'd just watched his son make one of life's first clever discoveries. It chilled the young man's blood.
"What's it for, then?"
"Now that would be telling," Sloan chided him. "By all means though, I'm not about to stop you from attempting to find out. No doubt you already have everything Appleton showed you committed to memory. But trust me - if I thought you had even the remotest chance of stopping our project, then neither one of us would be having this delightful conversation we're having."
"What's that, some kind of threat?"
"Not at all." He rose to his feet. "But it is interesting, isn't it, to consider those roads we might have taken? If only. Two such small words, and yet they have the power to haunt us every waking moment. For instance, just think what a team you and I could have made… Especially now that you find yourself at something of a loose end."
Bashir shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Are you certain? This is quite an opportunity I'm offering. You may not find a better one."
"I'm already going to Bajor."
"Bajor?" Sloan repeated slowly, and for the first time his face showed what appeared to have been genuine surprise. "Really?"
The truth was, Bashir had surprised himself with his unexpected reply. But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. New adventures, Garak had told him. It was as good a place as any to start. Eyes narrowed, he tilted his head ever so slightly upwards, and met his adversary with a level stare.
He spoke confidently, with more certainty in his words than he had felt in a very long time.
"I'm going. To Bajor."
"If you say so." A soft chuckle escaped from the shorter man's chest. Bashir's wary gaze tracked every one of his movements as he strode towards the door and turned around. "Until next time."
"What makes you think there's even going to be a next time?"
Sloan paused in the doorway, his answering smile ice cold. "There will be," he promised. "It may not be for quite a while. Or it may be within a week, for all I know. But I guarantee, you will see me again."
The End. Perhaps.