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Physcian Heal Thyself

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Physician Heal Thyself
By JJJunky

 

Doctor Julian Bashir knelt next to the crude cot and placed his hand on the forehead of the little girl who occupied it. Though the skin was cool and dry to the touch, he still was not satisfied. The disease that had attacked the children of this remote Bajorian village had proven to be tenacious. Once before, he had thought he had eradicated it, only to have it reappear stronger than ever. He would not be deceived again.

Talking softly to his young patient, he extracted a blood sample. Handing it to Talma, the young nurse he had brought with him from Deep Space Nine, he gently massaged the small puncture. "I told you it wouldn't hurt, Nema."

"But it did hurt," the small girl plaintively protested.

"That's because you watched," Julian gently chastised her. "I told you not to. It'll always hurt more if you look."

"I can't see what you're doing if I don't look," Nema pointed out.

Realizing he couldn't argue with the little girl's logic, Julian kissed her on the forehead. "You just keep looking then."

"Doctor Bashir?" Talma beckoned from the small room they had set up as a lab.

Almost regretting duty called him away, Julian rose. "I have to go, Nema."

"Back to the station in the sky?"

"If the tests show that you're free of the parasite." Bashir nodded.

A tear rolled down Nema's cheek. "Then I hope I'm still sick."

The faces of the children he had not saved danced in front of Julian's eyes. "Don't say that," he quietly admonished, "don't even think it."

Afraid he might say something he would regret, Julian hurried away. She was only a child. She didn't understand how close to death she had come.

"The results are the same as the last test, Doctor," Talma said, indicating the readout and moving away so Bashir could check it for himself.

A tired smile curving his lips, Julian quickly reviewed the data. "It's over, Talma," he said, slapping the young man on the shoulder. "We did it."

"You did it, Doctor," Talma shyly corrected.

"We," Bashir emphasized. "It was a team effort."

Unwilling to argue with his superior, Talma asked, "What now?"

"We go home," Julian sighed, looking at the equipment filling the room. "See if you can find someone to give us a hand packing this stuff. I wonder how we got it all in the runabout in the first place."

"We didn't," Talma reminded him, "Jabara did."

The reference to his senior nurse filled Julian with contentment. He couldn't have asked for better assistants than Jabara and Talma. The older woman was efficient and steady, with quick hands and a logical mind. Sometimes, he wondered if a Vulcan hadn't sneaked into her Bajorian ancestry.

Talma, while young, had proven his worth more than once, which was why Julian had chosen him for this mercy mission. Epidemics tended to be long and arduous. Just when you thought your exhausted mind and body couldn't go on any longer, you had to find the reserve to do just that. Performing the job he loved, Talma was inexhaustible.

Yawning, Julian began to carefully pack the smaller instruments. He would need help with the heavier ones. Once he got back to the station, he had every intention of sleeping the clock around. Fie on anyone who dared to disturb him.

***

His nose twitching a warning, Benjamin Sisko turned his chair away to protect his second in command. Covering his mouth with his hand, he sneezed.

"May the Prophet's look favorably upon you, sir," Major Kira Nerys blessed him, barely able to suppress a smile.

His eyes narrowing suspiciously, Sisko absently played with the baseball holding a place of honor on his desk. "When will Dr. Bashir be returning?"

"That's what I came to tell you, Captain," Kira explained. "We were just notified his runabout left Bajor. He should arrive in approximately ten minutes."

"Good," Sisko sniffed, seeing a light at the end of his tunnel of misery. "Inform me as soon as he docks."

"Aye, sir." The edge of her lips curving slightly, Kira turned on her heel and returned to Ops.

Leaning back in his chair, Sisko closed his aching eyes. In the last century alone, medical science had eradicated diseases as diverse and deadly as pneumonia, trimenathinie, even cancer. So why didn't they have a vaccination to fight the flu? He could hardly wait for Bashir's return and an end to his suffering.

"Benjamin, you better get out here," Jadzia Dax tersely suggested.

Alerted by the unusually solemn tone of his science officer's voice, Sisko quickly rose and marched into the space station's operations center. Between the wormhole, the Cardassians, the Jem Haadar, and the numerous other dangers that inhabited the vast universe, hardly a day went by without one crisis or another. He could only hope they would weather this one as successfully as they had the others.

"What is it, Dax?" he asked, leaning on the railing surrounding the pit.

"Sensors have picked up the leading edge of an ion storm."

"How close will it come to the station?"

Looking up from her instruments, Dax said, "It's going to pass right over us, Benjamin."

Unlike a starship, Sisko didn't have the option of moving the station to avoid the powerful storm. "How long before it hits?"

"Ten minutes, maybe twelve."

His nausea all but forgotten, Sisko ordered, "Warn off any ships headed our way. O'Brien, start shutting down all systems the ions can feed on. We don't want things blowing up in our faces." Confident his orders were being obeyed, Sisko continued, "Major, notify the captains of the docked ships. Inform them of the danger."

"Yes, sir." Kira nodded, turning to her board.

"Worf?" Sisko looked around for his Klingon security officer.

Rising from beneath his panel, Worf answered, "Here, Captain."

"You and Odo get everyone into the Promenade. It'll be the safest place on the station. Check with the infirmary. Make sure there's enough medicine on hand in case of radiation poisoning."

Worf's acknowledgement was drowned out by Dax's cry. "Benjamin, Julian's runabout is five minutes away."

"Turn him around," Sisko ordered, realizing there wouldn't be enough time to dock the small ship and evacuate its passengers.

Her fingers flying over her console, Dax shook her head. "The runabout doesn't have enough speed to make it back to the safety of Bajor's atmosphere."

"Tell the doctor to dock on the nearest pylon. They better not risk going through an airlock," Sisko decided, shuddering as he realized what one of the heavy doors could do to a fragile human body if they suddenly slammed shut as someone was walking through. "The runabout has stronger shielding than a pylon. If they batten down the hatches, they should be able to ride it out."

Dax nodded reluctant agreement as she relayed the information.

As his crew efficiently and calmly completed their tasks, Sisko crossed to a window. He could see the storm moving quickly toward them. Had he overlooked anything? Somebody could die if he had.

"Benjamin?"

Dax's soft voice loosened the knot twisting his stomach. He had a good crew. If he had forgotten something, they wouldn't hesitate to tell him. "What is it, Old Man?" he asked, his eyes never wavering from the multi-colored cloud looming ever larger in the port window.

"It's time we got to the Promenade ourselves."

"Did you contact Dr. Bashir?"

"They just completed docking."

"The Santa Ana is a good ship," Sisko said, more to reassure himself than her. "She'll keep them safe."

"Yes, she will," Dax hesitantly agreed. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she tugged gently. "Now it's time we got to safety."

Nodding agreement, Sisko waved his hand at the turbolift. "Lead the way, Old Man."

***

Punching in the last few commands to complete the docking, Julian finally looked up from the console. He and Talma had a ringside seat for one of the most beautiful and deadly phenomenon in the galaxy. He wished they didn't. If only they had been a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later. If he hadn't insisted on testing Nema's blood one more time, they could be sitting in relative safety on the station. He hadn't known, couldn't have known the delay would put them in jeopardy.

Forcing a smile, he put an encouraging hand on Talma's shoulder. "We're in for a wild ride, but we'll make it."

"Yes, sir," the young Bajorian agreed, his voice lacking the confidence of his superior's.

For the first time since he had chosen Talma to accompany him on the mercy mission, Julian regretted his decision. Unhooking his safety harness, he said, "I better get the medkit. We're going to need some Zylamkta to counteract the radiation."

The small ship rocked, almost knocking Julian off his feet. Taking the hint, he grabbed the medkit and hurried back to his seat, snapping on his safety harness. Opening the kit, he took out a hypospray and inserted a vial of the medication. Pressing it to Talma's neck, he explained, "You might feel a little nauseous. I gave you an extra strong dose. Better to feel a little sick than to take chances."

Popping out the empty vial, Julian reached for a full one to treat himself. The runabout lurched, sending the medkit flying.

"I'll get it," Talma offered, unhooking his safety harness.

"No!" Bashir shouted, raising his voice so he could be heard above the roaring wind. Reaching over, he tried to restrain the young man, but his fingers couldn't find a purchase in the slippery fabric of the Bajorian's medical uniform.

Holding on to his chair with one hand, Talma grabbed the medkit with the other. Smiling triumphantly, he handed it to Bashir.

Already feeling the nauseating effects of radiation poisoning, Julian quickly snapped a vial into the hypospray and injected it into his neck. He had barely finished his task, when the tiny ship was struck hard along the port side. He heard Talma scream just as something slammed into the back of his chair. Pain radiated up his spine. Torn from its moorings, his chair scrapped along the deck before crashing into the control console. He scarcely had time to catch his breath, when the runabout tilted sending the chair screeching to the other side of the ship. A panel slammed into his chest, breaking several ribs. A sensation, likened to his insides being torn out, told Julian that he had sustained internal injuries.

Every painful breath made him want to scream. He knew he was badly hurt. There were times when it wasn't a blessing to be a doctor. Dizzy and disoriented, he tried to assess his situation. His eyes were drawn to Talma's damaged chair. Its emptiness shouted at him. "Talma?" The only response to his call was the fading whistle of the wind as the storm moved past.

Even as he wondered if he could stand the pain, Julian forced himself to turn his head so he could get another view of the cabin. Every nerve ending screamed in protest, but he gritted his teeth and ignored them. Finally, his eyes rested on the body of his young nurse. He didn't need to check for a pulse to know Talma was dead. Sightless eyes stared into his own. Accusing him? Powerless, he stared into those eyes, guilt and pain his only companions.

Voices eventually penetrated his stupor, reminding him he was still alive. Reluctantly lifting his gaze, he saw Sisko, Dax, and Jabara had entered the shuttle. While the two women quickly crossed to Julian, Sisko bent over Talma. Putting two fingers to the boy's throat, he searched for a pulse.

"You won't find one," Julian dispassionately informed him. "He's dead."

A sad sigh escaped Sisko's lips as he rose. "Are you hurt, Doctor?"

"I'm dying, Captain," Julian tonelessly revealed.

Shock momentarily robbing him of speech, Sisko angrily denied, "You're not going to die."

"I'm bleeding internally," Bashir explained. "If I'm not operated on in the next thirty minutes, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disobey you, sir."

"Julian," Dax whispered, unshed tears making her eyes shine, "we can contact a starship; you won't die."

"The closest doctor is at least two hours away," Julian advised. "I won't last that long."

Jabara's skilled hands gently inspected the battered body of her superior. "We can put you in stasis until a doctor arrives."

"The stasis units won't function for at least another twenty-four hours," Julian gently reminded. "The ion particles the storm left behind will see to that."

Jabara's pain-stricken eyes rose to meet Dax's, seeking confirmation.

The Trill unhappily nodded. "Any system that requires plasma energy will be useless. Worse," she amended, "if the plasma energy and the ions meet, it would cause an explosion."

"Think of something, people," Sisko desperately ordered. "I refuse to sit here and watch a member of my crew die."

"If I could, Captain," Julian apologized, "I'd operate on myself."

"Why can't you?" Sisko asked.

Puzzled, Julian inquired, "Why can't I what?"

"Operate on yourself?"

"I thought I was the one who got radiation poisoning," Bashir mumbled.

Excited, Sisko elaborated, "O'Brien could set up a monitor. You could watch and tell Jabara exactly what she has to do to repair the damage."

"I'm not a doctor," Jabara protested. "I can't operate."

"According to Dr. Bashir, you're an exceptionally skilled nurse," Sisko argued.

Tears rolling down her cheeks, Jabara swallowed the lump in her throat. "I could kill him."

"I'm dying already," Bashir quietly reiterated.

"It would be extremely painful. You couldn't be anesthetized," Dax pointed out.

"We can use a local that would not only numb my lower body, but would also prevent me from going into shock," Bashir thoughtfully planned. "It would deaden some of the pain."

"Do you really want to take the chance?"

Julian smiled. "I don't seem to have a lot of options. Do I?"

Covering her face with her hands, Jabara appealed, "I can't do it."

"It's all right," Julian soothed. "I understand. No one's going to force you."

When Dax started to protest, Julian quickly hushed her. He wasn't just speaking platitudes. He really did understand. He knew what it was like to be entrusted with a life. He only had to look across the runabout to see his own failure. Jabara was a good nurse. He had no desire to inflict on her the same guilt that made dying almost a welcome ending for him.

"Captain," Jabara's voice was soft, but firm, "ask Mr. O'Brien to set up that monitor."

***

Peering through the infirmary viewport, Sisko anxiously studied the readings flashing on the board above the biobed. He didn't know what most of the settings represented. The only one he did know was the diagnostic measuring the amount of pain the patient was in. The red light hovered near the top indicating that despite medication, Dr. Bashir was in extreme pain. Sisko hadn't really needed a machine to tell him, he could hear it in the young voice.

"You're doing fine, Jabara," Bashir encouraged, speaking through clenched teeth.

Sweat rolled into the anguished eyes of both doctor and patient. A nurse wiped Jabara's face, while Dax performed the same service for Bashir.

"I've closed the artery," Jabara breathlessly noted. "What next?"

"Watch it for a minute," Julian instructed. "Make sure there's no leakage."

The minute seemed to last forever. Like everyone else, Sisko couldn't take his eyes off the monitor. When they had opened the doctor, there had been more damage than expected. A whole section of the left coronary artery had been close to collapsing. This had required an arterial graft, a procedure much more complicated than they had anticipated under current conditions.

When no blood seeped through the repaired vein, Sisko allowed himself a sigh of relief.

A quiver in her voice that could be attributed to exhaustion as well as fear, Jabara repeated, "What now?"

"Dax," Bashir requested, "could you move the camera a little to your left?"

"Of course," the Trill quickly agreed, doing as requested.

Brown eyes, dulled by pain, studied the screen. "Now move it to the right," Julian enjoined.

Sisko felt a little queasy as he studied the internal organs. His admiration for his doctor had grown throughout the operation. This man was so different from the boy he had met when they had first been assigned to DS9. Then he would never have believed that Dr. Julian Bashir could have so much courage. Sisko knew he would never again let a first impression color his judgment concerning a fellow officer. It was embarrassing to have been proven so wrong.

"You can close," Bashir said, addressing his nurse.

"Close what?" Jabara wearily inquired.

"The incision," Julian gently directed. "You did it, Doctor Jabara."

Tears welled up in the Bajorian's eyes. "You're going to be all right?"

"An operation like this is very intricate," Bashir warned, unwilling to get his subordinate's hopes up. "There can always be complications."

Brown eyes widened in fear. "What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing," Julian instantly reassured her. "If I have a setback, I just don't want you to think that you're responsible. You performed perfectly. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Jabara shyly smiled, returning to her task.

Sisko's gaze rested on the worn face of his medical officer. Had Julian been trying to tell them something? Was there damage that couldn't be repaired? Turning away from the infirmary's viewport, he walked with purposeful steps toward Ops. He had to find out how much longer it would be before a starship would reach the station. And, if possible, get them here even sooner.

***

Julian stared out at the stars, refusing to give in to the weakness making his legs tremble. The view, that in the past had always given him solace, now, only intensified his pain. Talma's dream of visiting those stars would never be realized. He had died while his murderer had lived. What kind of justice was that?

"Jabara said you might be awake," a familiar accented voice called from the entrance. "Do you feel up to having visitors?"

Quickly composing his face, Bashir carefully turned. "Glad to see you, Chief," he glibly lied.

"Should you be out of bed?" O'Brien asked, frowning at the pale, wobbling figure.

"I won't regain my strength lying in bed."

"It won't help if you re-injure yourself either."

Feeling betrayed by his own body, Julian reluctantly took a few shaky steps back to the bed. He had to bite his tongue when O'Brien quickly crossed to his side to assist him. In an effort to extinguish the anger burning inside him, he turned the conversation to a more pleasant subject. "How's Molly?"

"Full of energy," O'Brien wearily supplied. "She wanted to come, but it was time for her nap."

"Too bad," Julian absently replied, concentrating on getting back to bed without falling flat on his face and proving the chief right. Sweat beaded on his brow, soaking his hair. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his gown.

"I don't know how Keiko keeps up with her all day," Miles continued, unaware his audience was less than attentive.

"Who?" Bashir panted, trying to refocus on the conversation.

"Molly!" O'Brien impatiently reminded him.

Finally reaching the bed, Julian lay on his side, leaving his leaden feet hanging over the edge. "Sorry," he whispered, "I seem to be having trouble concentrating."

"No wonder," O'Brien gasped, lifting his friend's feet onto the bed, "your pain monitor is almost off the scale. I'll get Jabara to give you something."

"No!" Bashir ordered. A flaying arm caught the chief's sleeve. "I don't need anything."

"You've got to be kidding," O'Brien angrily returned, pulling away. "A Vulcan would have difficulty enduring that kind of pain. I'm getting Jabara."

Indignant, Julian pointed out, "I'm the doctor. Only I can authorize the medication."

"You can't want to be in pain."

"I'm tired," Julian whispered, closing his eyes. "Would you mind leaving?"

Bashir didn't need to see the Irishman's face to know he was angry. The waves of emotion rolled over him like water on a beach. O'Brien didn't understand. There was a penance that needed to be paid for killing Talma.

***

Sisko leaned back in his chair, absently tossing his baseball from hand to hand. The crisis with the ion storm and Bashir's subsequent operation had made him forget his own discomfort. As if in retaliation, the nausea and aching muscles had returned with a vengeance. Swallowing the bile rising in his throat, he wondered if the doctor felt up to prescribing medication.

The buzzer on his door chimed as someone requested admittance. Sighing unhappily, Sisko flicked a switch unlocking his office door. "Come in."

The worried look on O'Brien's face forced Sisko to sit up straight. Putting the ball back in its holder, he probed, "What is it, Chief?"

"It's Julian, sir."

Frowning, Sisko said, "I just received a report from Jabara. She says he's doing fine."

"Physically, that might be true, Captain," O'Brien reluctantly conceded. "Mentally, I'm not so sure."

"Explain," Sisko ordered, clasping his hands on top of his desk.

"He's in a lot of pain--"

"Given the circumstances that's understandable."

". . . but he won't take anything for it," O'Brien continued, as though he hadn't been interrupted.

Rising, Sisko pressed, "What are you saying?"

"The pain diagnostic is almost off the scale," O'Brien explained. "Yet, Julian won't prescribe any medication for himself."

"He can't want to be in pain," Sisko protested.

"I think that's exactly what he wants, sir."

"But that's crazy!"

"I tried to get him to talk to me." O'Brien shrugged his shoulders in defeat. "He just asked me to leave."

While he was mildly surprised by the revelation, Sisko didn't let it stop him. Leading the way to the entrance of his office, he growled, "I'd like to see him try to throw me out."

Walking briskly through Ops, Sisko barely noticed the activity as his officers worked to return the station to normal. The look on his face warning everyone off, he climbed onto the elevator that would take him below. As he entered the infirmary, he was surprised to see Jabara sigh with relief. Sisko's steps momentarily faltered. Could he fulfill the hope he saw in the brown eyes? Sometimes, being the Emissary had its drawbacks. Utter faith that he could accomplish any task was one of them.

His head high and his shoulders back, Sisko entered the ward to confront his medical officer. "Doctor, I understand you have a problem."

Bashir's initial surprise at the identity of his visitor turned to wariness. "It's nothing I can't handle, Captain."

"That seems to be the problem. You're not handling it. Why won't you prescribe a pain killer for yourself?"

Rising stiffly from the bed, Bashir said, "I don't need one."

"The readings I just saw," Sisko contradicted, pointing to the monitor, "say you do."

"I'm the doctor," Bashir chastised. "I decide who needs what medication and when."

Sisko hadn't expected such resistance. "I could order you to take something."

"No, sir," Bashir ruefully smiled, "you can't."

His deep voice dropping an octave lower, Sisko shook his head and said, "I don't understand. Why would you want to be in pain?"

His steps slow and uneven, Bashir crossed to the window and stared out at the stars. "You wouldn't understand."

"Try me," Sisko gently offered.

For a few minutes silence was the only answer. Just when Sisko thought he would have to regroup and press his attack from another direction, Bashir spoke.

"I'm a doctor. I'm supposed to save lives."

"You do," Sisko hastily agreed. "You've saved my life several times over."

"But I killed Talma," Bashir bluntly revealed, starring blindly out at the stars.

"The ion storm killed him," Sisko quietly contradicted.

Bashir didn't seem to hear him. Staring at his hands with a look of betrayal, he whispered, "If only I'd hung on to the hypospray, he wouldn't have released his harness."

"The ion storm--"

"If I hadn't insisted on one more blood test," Bashir cried, "we would've been safe on the station when that storm hit."

Sisko's throat tightened, making it difficult to swallow. As a captain, he understood the young man's feelings. When you're responsible for someone's life and that person dies, you question your actions. You blame yourself and look for answers that don't exist. He was embarrassed. How pompous of him to think that only commanding officers could feel such guilt. "Your pain won't bring Talma back."

"Maybe he'll rest easier."

"He was a nurse. Like you, he cared more about his patient's welfare than his own. Are you really honoring his memory by making yourself suffer?"

Bashir choked back a sob. Startled eyes rose to meet Sisko's. "No," the young doctor reluctantly admitted. "He would be very angry with me."

"As well he should," Sisko pointed out.

"I guess I blew it," Bashir sheepishly declared, smiling sadly.

"Only if you continue to deny yourself medication." Putting a hand on Bashir's shoulder, Sisko said, "We all make errors in judgment, Doctor. As long as we learn from them, they don't remain errors. Talma's death wasn't your fault. It was a result of a sequence of coincidental events that you had no power to control."

Gratitude shone from the expressive brown eyes, even as a new pain twisted the young face. Gasping, Bashir choked, "I . . . may have . . . learned . . . too late."

Sisko caught the limp doctor before his head hit the ground. As the body in his arms squirmed in agony, he tapped his combadge, "Sisko to Ops."

"Kira here."

"How long before the Yorktown arrives?"

"She's docking now, sir."

"Have their medical officer beamed directly to the infirmary. We have a medical emergency."

Kira's acknowledgement was barely audible as Dax came on the line. "Is something wrong with Julian, Benjamin?"

"I think he's dying," Sisko softly revealed.

***

Sisko clenched his fists so tight his knuckles ached. For the second time in as many days, he stood at the viewport to the infirmary watching Julian Bashir fight for his life. This time, however, Sisko wasn't alone in his vigil. Instead of being integral participants in the operation, Dax, O'Brien, and Jabara had been relegated to observers. Sisko knew from experience it wasn't a satisfying role. It made you feel so useless.

He wished he knew more about the Yorktown's Chief Medical Officer. To have reached such a position Dr. Aleta Szalai had to be extremely competent. So why, Sisko wondered, was he so scared? He didn't want to believe that his talk with Bashir might not have been effective. Would the young man let his guilt regain control? Did death still offer a welcome escape?

Unable to watch the life and death struggle, Sisko backed away from the viewport. To satisfy his need for action, he paced. His thoughts took him back in time. Back to the early days on Deep Space Nine. How often had he been tempted to transfer Bashir? Let someone with more energy deal with the youthful enthusiasm. As the years passed, he had discovered he had never been so wrong about anyone in his life. Yet, though he had matured, Bashir still retained much of his wonder and love of life. It was one of the attributes that made him an exceptional doctor and an exceptional human being.

"I think the operation's over, Benjamin," Dax said, putting a hand on his arm to stop his pacing.

Sisko shifted his gaze. Szalai was backing away from the operating table. Her features were worn and tired. It was difficult to read her face. To Sisko, she seemed to be moving in slow motion as she crossed to talk to them. It was only when he started to feel light-headed and dizzy that he realized he was holding his breath in anticipation. Forcing himself to take deep, even breaths, he waited for the verdict.

The doors swished open. Pulling off her surgical gown, Szalai stepped through. "Dr. Bashir will be all right," she quickly informed them.

Sisko allowed himself a sigh of relief. Turning, he wasn't surprised to see Dax and O'Brien embracing. Though he knew they would deny it later, he saw tears in their eyes. He couldn't blame them. He almost felt like crying himself.

"What did I do wrong?" Jabara asked, not yet ready to join the celebration.

"Nothing," Szalai gently told her. "There was another section of the artery that was weakened in the accident. It would've been difficult to find, even for a seasoned doctor with full medical facilities."

"I didn't almost kill him?" Jabara pressed, seeking reassurance.

Smiling, Szalai shook her head. "He owes you his life." Taking the older woman by the arm, she suggested, "Why don't I show you what I did. Then, you'll see you did nothing wrong."

"I'd like that," Jabara shyly agreed.

Grateful the Yorktown's doctor had been so understanding, Sisko turned to his subordinates. "Anyone else need a drink?"

"Make it a double." O'Brien sighed, glancing into the operating room at his sleeping friend.

Leading the men out into the promenade, Dax asked, "Do they make triples?"

"If they haven't before," Sisko said, "they will now."

***

Bashir's hand protectively cupped his recently healed incision. Though Dr. Szalai had released him from sickbay, he still hadn't regained his strength. Pain seemed to linger on the edge, waiting to pounce the minute he let his guard down.

Throwing back the blanket covering his legs, he cautiously rose. His hand shook where it rested on the arm of the couch, reminding him of his weakness. Stubbornly ignoring the signs, he shuffled over to the window, hoping to lose himself in the view. He'd always found comfort in the stars.

He had almost succeeded in his quest, when his door buzzer sounded. Sighing with disappointment, he called, "Come in." When he saw the identity of his visitor, he straightened in surprise, and pulled his robe tighter around his waist.

"Should you be up?" Kira demanded, joining him at the window.

"I can't regain my strength staying in bed all day," Bashir defensively argued. "What can I do for you, Major?'

Solemnly taking one of Bashir's hands in her own, Kira respectfully laid a Bajorian earring on the trembling palm.

"What's this?" Bashir asked, curling his fingers to keep from dropping it.

"It was Talma's."

Panic shone in the big brown eyes as Bashir tried to force Kira to reclaim the earring. "Isn't it traditional for someone in the family to get it?"

"His family was wiped out during the occupation. He was the only survivor."

Bashir moaned in mental agony.

A worried frown creasing her brow, Kira put a hand under his elbow. "Talma listed you as his next of kin."

"No."

Insulted, Kira snapped, "It's a great honor."

"Which I don't deserve. When he chose me, he didn't know I would be responsible for his death." Pulling his arm free, Bashir leaned against the wall needing its support. Pounding his fist against the window, he cried, "If he'd had time, he would have changed his mind."

Kira stilled the hand with her own. "When I had lunch with Talma, all he talked about was you. He decided to become a nurse when his own mother died from lack of medical attention. We just didn't have enough trained medical personnel during the war. As a result a lot of people died needlessly.

"He wasn't able to get a formal education. You accepted him on your staff, when no one else would. Believe me, you did nothing in these last few days that would've changed his mind. The Prophets, through Talma, saved you for reasons of their own. You mustn't dishonor their gift with self-pity."

A different kind of pain stabbed at Bashir's heart. Believing that a doctor should be almost a god to his staff, he had kept himself aloof from his co-workers. He had respected Talma for his skills, he had never even tried to learn about his personal life. He had never told the young man how he valued him. Now, he never could. His voice cracking, Bashir asked, "How often did you have lunch with Talma?"

"Maybe once every other week or so," Kira said, shrugging her shoulders. "His parents and I were in the same resistance cell. We look out for our own."

The doorbell chimed announcing another visitor. Relief visible on her face, Kira used the excuse to make her escape. "I better go. I don't want to tire you out your first day home."

"Thank you for coming, Major," Bashir graciously replied. Raising the hand holding the earring, he quietly added, "And thank you for this."

Practically running as she crossed to the door, Kira nodded. "Let me know if you need anything." In her haste, she almost crashed into the tray Jabara was carrying. Trying to hide her embarrassment, Kira sniffed appreciatively of the odors wafting from the food on the tray. "That smells good."

"There's enough for two," Jabara offered.

"I . . . I . . . I," Kira stuttered as she looked for an excuse to decline the invitation. "I'm . . . due in Ops."

"Maybe next time?" Julian suggested, a smile on his face.

"Yeah," Kira absently agreed.

Bashir's smile grew broader as soon as the major disappeared. He knew she would panic once she realized what she had agreed to. He would have to pick just the right moment to remind her of her promise. Preferably when most of the senior officers were present. He would enjoy watching her squirm.

"I thought you might be hungry," Jabara shyly explained, setting the tray on the table.

Shifting his attention, Julian was surprised when his stomach growled. "I am," he admitted, crossing to the table. "But I hate to eat alone."

"Would you like me to call Lieutenant Dax or Chief O'Brien?" the Bajorian nurse quickly suggested.

"No . . ."

"Garak?" Jabara anxiously interrupted.

"No," Bashir calmly refused. "I was wondering if you would do me the honor of joining me?"

"Me?!"

"You," Julian nodded, a hand pointing to the chair next to his. As his nurse nervously slid onto the chair, Bashir probed, "Tell me about yourself."