A/N: If patience is a virtue, you lot are pretty saintly – even though a few of you have got annoyed with me for being so slow! To be honest you're perfectly justified in doing so, since I've been writing this story for over a year…
… but we're in the home straight now. Trust me, the torture is nearly over and things will tie up all nicely and not leave any loose ends flapping. Or that's the plan, anyway.
A/N Supplemental: To answer the dreaded "sequel" question that numerous people have asked me: unless any of you still plan on being sat here waiting for updates when you're old enough for a free bus pass (which, given the current government, would make you pretty bloody ancient), then I don't think I should do a sequel.
And I believe that we'll conceive
To make in hell for us a heaven
A brave new world, a promised land
A fortitude of hearts and minds
– VNV Nation
Holy God and Allah and Buddha and Prophets and Kahless, any deity who's listening, there are so many of them, Sisko thought grimly as the Defiant struggled past a vast smoking hulk to regroup their battered lines. They were losing, badly: the Breen were making mincemeat of the Klingons, the Jem'Hadar were like the Hydra – destroy one and three more pop up in its place – and as for the Cardassians, he didn't even know what they were doing. They just seemed to be swooping around, ducking in and out, firing a few salvoes here and there but never committing to anything; one minute they were a tight combat wedge, next minute they'd broken off into ones and twos, and he did not have a clue what they were up to. If he didn't know better, he'd suspect the use of Dukat tactics. But Dukat was most likely dead, along with Kira and Bashir and Odo and Garak, and Sisko expected the rest of them would be joining them very shortly in wherever it was that those on the wrong side of impossible odds ended up.
'Crazy Horse to Defiant,' the comm shouted. Sisko wearily hit the switch.
'This is Sisko, go ahead.'
But Crazy Horse did not go ahead; instead there was a burst of terrible noise over the comm, then nothing but static. Everyone knew what it meant. Dax cursed in Trill.
'Benjamin, we really can't keep this up much longer,' she warned, swinging them into a dizzying loop around a Breen heavy cruiser while Nog (covering tactical as Worf was on the Rotarran with Martok) fired a torpedo salvo at it, which missed narrowly. 'We're down to 16 per cent on the ablative shields!'
'We have to, Old Man! Argh, what the hell are those Cardassians playing at?' Sisko exclaimed as they had to swerve out the way of a Galor cutting them up. 'Are they fighting, or not?'
'Sir! There's a Dominion ship headed for the wormhole!' Nog shouted out. Sure enough, the sensors showed that one of the smaller Jem'Hadar cruisers had broken off from the battle and was streaking towards the co-ordinates they all knew off by heart. Sisko hailed the station.
'Defiant to Ops – Chief, are you there?'
'Here, sir,' O'Brien answered hastily, appearing on the monitor. His face was singed, his uniform was filthy and Ops looked a fright, but he was still alive. 'Those spoonheads are playing silly buggers, sir, I know it. Watch out for them.'
'Chief, according to Nog's sensor readings, there's a Dominion vessel approaching the wormhole, which means they're up to something. Can you boost the shields any further?'
'Nope,' the Irishman announced flatly. 'We're nearly out of power as it is, I daren't risk it.'
'Can you hit them from here?'
'Doubt it, and I'd risk torpedoing one of the mines as well. If they hit that field, we're going to feel it. And we can't get rid of the mines, they're the only thing blockading the wormhole.'
'Goddammit! What are they doing out there?'
'I'll find out,' O'Brien answered. 'Gimme a minute, sir, I'll have a look. Ops out.'
The comm shut off and was replaced by the screeching noise of a torpedo just missing them; it rocketed past and blew up a Bajoran ship instead, and Sisko put his head in his hands. He'd been in battles before, lots of them, but none quite as confusing and messy as this one. The Jem'Hadar were forcing the left flank further and further back towards the station, the centre ground was a maelstrom of Klingon and Breen ships, and the Cardassians were zooming around here there and everywhere without apparent purpose. Not to mention this damned ship; if they were lucky, it had just been knocked off course and would run itself onto the mines. But Sisko doubted it; if he knew anything about it, it was a last-ditch attempt to reopen the wormhole, and if they succeeded, nobody would live long enough to regret it. Prophets, he thought, if you truly give as much of a damn about the Bajorans as they do about you, then now is the time to prove it...
'Ops to Defiant! They're doing something to the minefield,' O'Brien broke in on the comm. 'I can't work it out from here, but they've got some sort of deflector beam... it looks like they're – hang on, they've disappeared! Now where the bloody hell...'
'Stop them – ' Sisko began, and then he broke off, because an ancient, battered bird-of-prey had just shot past them crazily, almost collided with another ship and had to do an abrupt nosedive to avoid crashing, then pulled up so sharply in front of them that Dax barely stopped in time. A hail came through from the ship, and Sisko whacked the comm. What was a Klingon ship doing back here? Martok had taken them all off to deal with the Breen, and it was not like the Klingons to retreat in the middle of a battle – and more than that, since when would Martok allow a rusty old garbage scow like this into battle, especially when the helmsman seemed to be totally incompetent?
To Sisko's utter astonishment, the faces that appeared on the screen were not Klingon. They were not faces he thought he'd see again, either, but there they were, and he could even hear Bashir, Garak and Odo talking somewhere off-screen amidst the chaos of their bridge. He'd forgotten about this old ship.
'Major! Dukat! You're still with us? How?' he exclaimed over Jadzia's delighted shriek of 'Nerys!'
'Not for much longer, I think,' Kira answered. Her appearance was truly startling, until Sisko realised that it must be the remains of her Iliana disguise that had been partially removed, and Dukat looked even crazier and more beaten up than last time. Kira indicated the battle.
'Where's Sloan, what's he doing?'
'Sloan? But isn't he... '
Then it hit Sisko – Sloan wasn't on Cardassia directing the attacks from some ultra-safe bunker. He was here. He was in that ship going towards the wormhole with something terrible up his gelatinous sleeve. Sisko's head reeled, it was too much to take in. Dead people were alive, there was a Founder on its way to open the wormhole for the rest of the Jem'Hadar to flood through and make alive people dead, and they'd all just been totally blindsided: that huge fleet was more or less a distraction from the real attack, which would be coming from behind them, right through the Prophets' own backyard. And what would they do about it, even at their so-called Emissary's behest? Sisko knew that one: nothing, just like they always did.
'The wormhole,' he and Dukat said at the same time, then Dukat grinned mirthlessly.
'Looks like your people are in a bit of trouble there, captain,' he remarked, even as he was forced to flip his own ship wildly out the way of a Breen disruptor blast and he and Kira staggered against the console. 'However, I think I can help,' he continued, shoving himself upright and righting the ship. 'Damar, it seems your big moment has arrived! I hope you've got a speech ready...'
'Wait – Dukat, what are you talking about? What's happening?'
'You'll see, if you match our frequency and listen to what Damar's about to say. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised – I certainly am.'
'Dukat, what the hell is going on? This is no time for one of your games!' Sisko exclaimed furiously, but Dukat only grinned in that insufferable way of his.
'Don't worry about the rest of your line, Sisko, my compatriots will take care of that for you... You have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, do you? Oh, the look on your face almost makes it all worthwhile!'
'Prophets' sake, Dukat, you're meant to be piloting, not being a smug bastard!' Kira interrupted, shoving Dukat away from the screen, then turning back to Sisko. 'Is the minefield still up?'
'In that case, we'd better move, because Sloan's here to take it down – and if those Dominion ships come through the wormhole there won't be enough left of us to bury. There probably won't be enough left anyway, but we're going to give it a damn good try anyway. Are you ready for this?'
Oh, how Sisko had missed that bold, ballsy defiance of hers as she grinned at him, then turned behind her and shouted, 'Start transmitting now, Damar!'
'Match their comm frequency, quick,' Sisko told Nog. The young Ferengi scrambled to obey, even as Sisko marvelled that Damar was mixed up in this too.
'Did she just say Damar?' Dax asked incredulously. 'I thought he'd be long dead by now!'
'So did I. God alone knows what's been happening on Cardassia, but I imagine it will make for a very interesting debrief once all this is over – '
'Got the frequency, sir!' Nog announced. 'Coming onscreen now, but it's not very clear...'
The Defiant's screen flashed up a grainy, blurred image of Damar – battered and bloody like the rest of them, but with an intelligence and a purpose on his face that Sisko had never thought him capable of. He looked like... he looked like Kira, in her more incendiary moments. Like a rebel. A revolutionary. And he sounded like one too, from the moment he opened his mouth:
'Attention all Cardassian fleets! You may have heard disquieting rumours of fighting and rioting on Prime. Or you may have heard nothing at all. You need know only this: from now on Cardassia is free once more and it is time to do things a new way. Comrades, the only proper way of announcing this to the rest of the quadrant is to show our former allies exactly what we really think of them. Fire at will.'
And so the tide turns, Sisko thought rather dazedly as the random, milling Cardassian ships moved as one for the first time in the battle, and turned on the Jem'Hadar with everything they had. Blinking himself out of his daze, he opened a line to the rest of the Federation fleet and the Klingons.
'Defiant to all personnel, Cardassian ships are no longer viable targets – repeat, Cardassian ships no longer viable targets!'
'Now the other shoe drops, eh, Sisko?' Dukat broke in cheerfully over the barrage of messages asking for clarification, which Sisko just ignored, staring at the sight of his enemies attacking each other. Now all they had to do was stop Sloan. Hah, all they had to do. First they had to find him, then work out what he was doing, then try and stop him, all before he managed whatever it was.
'Full-scale revolution? How did you convince them?'
'Me?' Dukat answered innocently, then laughed. 'Oh, you know, my impeccable skill at rhetoric and my deep-rooted and purely altruistic love of my people and my homeland, of course... Why, who in their right mind wouldn't believe me right from the get-go, with my record?'
Sisko heard Kira snort incredulously off-screen and Dukat shook his head, still smiling.
'Actually this, for once, had very little to do with me. It was all Iliana Ghemor's idea. Now, I believe we have a date with a certain Founder... I'd hate to be late, wouldn't you?'
Sisko looked into his old enemy's eyes across the grainy video link, and he grinned. Somehow, and he could only marvel that this had come about because of the Cardassians, of all people, they had a lot more of a chance now than they did an hour ago. Well, everyone else did, anyway.
'I'm game if you are. But we should only take one ship and there's no way I'm getting in that old tub, especially not if that was you driving earlier. Stand by, we'll beam you out.'
'Well,' Dukat remarked once he'd cut the comm. 'Damar, it seems to be that this is where you leave us. Sloan's my problem. You've got different things to do, like winning the battle, going home in triumph, sorting out the unholy mess that Weyoun and Broca left behind and getting Prime up and running again. Do try not to get killed, won't you? It'd be a shame for Cardassia's newest leader to die a mere ten minutes into the job.'
Kira was nearly as surprised as Damar looked. Was this Dukat, he of the endless ambition, admitting that someone else would do a better job than him at being top of the tree – and, moreover, willingly relinquishing all claims of his own to be top of the tree?
'Me? Lead Cardassia?' Damar croaked. 'You're not serious.'
'And what have you been doing recently, apart from leading? Cardassia needs to change, therefore it needs someone to change it...and that's not going to be me, is it? Besides, you've already done the hard bit, you've already won the fight, and now you just need to hang onto it.'
Damar looked at Dukat for a long, long moment, perhaps searching for one last game, one last lie, and Kira couldn't stop herself from searching too. But she couldn't see it. Either it was a really, really good one, or it wasn't there.
'What am I supposed to do with you if you survive?' Damar asked finally. Dukat laughed.
'Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something. Or you could ask Garak for advice, I'm sure he'll have lots of delightfully inventive ideas about what to do with me.'
Damar looked at Garak doubtfully, then back at Dukat, who shrugged as if his decades-long enmity with Garak had never happened. Kira could hardly believe what she was seeing.
'The way I see it, Damar, you're better off using his nasty little talents because then you're keeping him where you can see him, which was something I never managed to do.'
'You know something, Dukat? In your own rather confused and wrong-headed way, that was almost a compliment,' Garak remarked in the silence that followed, and he looked extremely surprised. Before Dukat could answer, Sisko hailed again.
'Defiant to Dukat, how many are we beaming out?'
Dukat looked at Kira, who nodded. There would be no more Iliana; she'd served her purpose. She was just a catalyst, not a reagent. Cardassia didn't need her any more. Now there was just Kira Nerys, who would be damned if she sat here and let all those Dominion ships come through the Celestial Temple into Bajoran space. She didn't have to fight for Cardassia any more, because they had Damar now. Damar, who would, by default, take his people down a different path than those who had come before him, simply by being who he was and what he'd seen and been through. She could fight for Bajor now, publicly, without hiding behind a mask. She looked over at Odo, who nodded too. Dukat considered it for a minute, head on one side looking at the pair of them.
'Well, this patch of space is where we first got mixed up in each others' lives; it seems only fitting that we leave them here too. Defiant? Three to beam out.'
Three? Kira was about to ask, then saw the look on Bashir's face and the look on Garak's. Three.
'Stand by, Dukat...'
'Good luck,' Damar blurted suddenly, the revolutionary idealism fading from his face a little; Kira noticed, perhaps for the first time, that he was really quite young for a Cardassian, and not at all sure about this vast new responsibility that had suddenly landed in his lap. Dukat shook his head as he rested his hand on Damar's shoulder briefly.
'Corat, you should know by now that luck has absolutely nothing to do with it.'
But he was smiling when he said it, a dry, gentle grin with a good deal of unhappiness behind it. Kira could barely bring herself to look at Damar or Bashir, or even Garak – because this could be the last time she ever saw them. Not that it would matter to her any more after this. So she stood still between Odo and Dukat, and tried not to think about it.
'Defiant to Dukat, we're lowering shields now. Ready when you are.'
Seeing Sisko over the comm screen was one thing, but being physically in the same room as the big, solid, commanding figure of her Emissary made her feel like a child whose father had returned to make everything alright again – not that she personally had any experience of that, but she could imagine it felt very much like the bear-hug Sisko squeezed her in as soon as she got off the transport pad. After he'd greeted Odo in similar manner, the captain exchanged a long, hard stare with Dukat.
'Oh, I'm not even going to try to understand you any more, Dukat,' he said after a pause that went beyond awkward and out the other side. Dukat chuckled.
'It's like I said before: amazing what you find yourself doing when push comes to shove, isn't it?'
'No, I just meant... well, I thought you'd be commanding the Cardassian fleets.'
'In that ship? Hah!' Dukat was grinning, but Kira saw beneath the grin, and she saw that he'd made a difficult choice. He could have taken over again, and lived, and probably won power back – and nothing would have changed at all. But this time he'd gone the other way; he'd chosen to forsake Cardassia, and fight for Bajor and the Federation. Die for them. Because he couldn't do both.
'No, that's Damar's job now,' Dukat continued. 'You Federation types will be pleased to know that he's not at all like me, which is why he's there and I'm here. If you see what I mean.'
Sisko's face, already crinkled with confusion, gave up on him – but Kira just about understood. This was shri-tal, the Cardassian ritual in which those who are about to die reveal their most precious and tightly-guarded secrets to their closest family and friends – only Dukat, true to form, was doing it in his own special way, all upside down and back-to-front. Sisko sighed.
'Dukat, if we both survive this, you're going to have some serious explaining to do...'
'No doubt. And I'll also have to pay Quark an extortionate amount for a distinctly mediocre bottle of kanar – unless, of course, I can find a way to trick the greedy little pirate. Now, hadn't we better get on with it? I'd hate to think of all our efforts amounting to nothing. And I dare say your crew's nearly as short-handed as mine was – where should I fill in?'
'Anywhere but helm,' Odo snapped, 'unless you plan on taking down Sloan by crashing right into him. But personally I'd rather you didn't.'
Sisko caught Kira's eye and grinned as Dukat's eyeridges shot up his face indignantly.
'Major, you take the helm so Dax can get down to engineering and fix the shields. Odo, you take over on comms. Dukat... ordinarily I would question the wisdom of having a Cardassian on weapons, but I'm a little short of choice. You do remember where the Fire button is, don't you?'
'I'm sure I can work it out,' Dukat answered, matching the look in Sisko's eyes. Kira was struck, as she had been once before, by the similarities between two such different men. But then again, the bond between those who are about to die has never paid much attention to things like species. As they manned their stations – once Kira had her ribs squeezed once again, this time by one of Dax's infamous hugs – she looked over at Dukat. She had to know. She had to see if he'd tell her, now, at the end when everything was so important and, at the same time, nothing really mattered any more.
'Why are you doing this? You, doing this?' she blurted. He shook his head, sighing.
'Because I've already tried all the other options, and because I'm not going to be around much longer, I can freely admit that each was worse than the last,' he answered. 'I can say that now. Nerys, are you familiar with shri-tal?'
'I heard Tekeny Ghemor's, didn't I? You should know that, you interrupted me in the middle of it!'
'Don't bring that up now!' he snapped, and she shut her mouth, astonished. His face fell a little. 'I'm sorry. But I want you to know, Nerys, that you were right.' He looked over to check nobody else was listening, then came closer to her.
'All my life,' he continued, slowly, softly, 'I've fought for Cardassia with everything I had, because I believed there was no other way. I believed I had to do things the Cardassian way, and that ultimately I could defeat the system from the inside by devising ever-more complicated plans. But you hated me, you questioned me, you refused to accept, and you made it clear that if I wanted you and what you stood for, I had to leave Cardassia behind and give up on the idea of beating the system. That's why I'm here. Because I have finally learned that I can't do both.'
She looked at him for a long time, although she already knew every feature of his face from memory. Those eyes she'd cursed for so many years, until she learned to read what was really behind them, or more correctly read what wasn't behind them, and the hate had turned to... not hate any more. And she knew all this already, of course. But what mattered was that he'd said it.
'Took you long enough,' she answered, but gently. 'That's why you saved my life, isn't it?'
'That's why I did all sorts of things. I just never followed them through all the way. Until now.'
That's when it truly hit her: they were going to die. It was a logical ending – for him, anyway. But she didn't want him to die. She wanted him to live. And she wanted to live. The brave new world that Damar would build on Cardassia would be beset with problems, but she wanted him to see it. And she wanted to see it too; her old enemies, finally admitting that the world had won.
'Alright, people,' Sisko announced, sitting down in the command chair. 'Let's get this over with. Odo, send out a hail. All languages, all frequencies.'
'Ready,' Odo announced. Sisko leaned forward into the comm screen.
'Sloan, I know you're listening. It's over. You've lost. The Cardassians are no longer your allies. Surrender peacefully and we will allow you and your people to return home unharmed.'
There was, of course, no answer. Sisko sighed.
'Well, it seems we're doing this the hard way. Let's go and find him, shall we? Major, set a course for the wormhole!'