When Time Is Stolen

It was 9 am station time and Quark preparing to open his bar earlier than usual. There were rumors of a delegation due to arrive on Deep Space 9 for some kind of negotiations. At hearing an animated conversation on the Promenade, he glanced out and noticed a group of people on their way towards the docking ring.

They look excited, no doubt are expecting someone of importance; Kira is among them as is the Security Chief with his most experienced men. He stroked his right lobe, smiling to himself. This means business later on today. Quark looked around his establishment. It paid to remain here, whatever the trials. There were times when I feared for my accounts and investments, but we came through safely, and the Blessed Exchequer is rewarding my tenacity...

He turned to see his staff looking out too and shouted, "Get to work instead of standing around gawping. Some of the chairs are still on the tables, what about the Dabo tables? Still inactivated! Do you call this ready for business? See to it that everything is spotless, perfect! I pay you for work, not for standing around doing nothing!"

He looked over at the barkeeper he was training, "When you stretch the drinks, Kel, see that no one notices. Any complaints, expect a pay cut."

Seconds later, he saw Jake Sisko running to catch up with the others, padd in hand.

Whoever it is must be important. The Commander is wearing dress uniform, and seems to be looking forward to something or another.

One of his staff arrived by a secondary entrance, rushed over and whispered to him excitedly.

"What?" He grabbed Endara by the shoulders, "Whom did you see?"

"Natíma Lang, one of the three leaders of the New Detapa Council."

The Ferengi stared at her, speechless.

Thinking he had not understood her, she repeated more slowly, "Natíma Lang, of Detapa, a Cardassian official."

"I heard you the first time. Do you think I'm deaf?" Much as he tried to disguise his shock and elation, he could not quite manage, but muttered to cover up his reaction, "Great. Just what I needed. Damn Security will be swarming all over the place. Try and make a decent day's profit with that lot poking and prying at everything. As bad as Odo or that Gul at SFHS."

As soon as his employee had left, Quark hurried into the storage room to switch on his own surveillance system which permitted him to see the area around the docking ring. Trying for calm, he watched the doors to the airlock roll aside. Just in time. He didn't realize he was holding his breath, waiting for the one person he so desperately wanted to see…

Finally, accompanied by three impressive Cardassian guards in dress uniform who took up position at either side of the airlock, the third observing the area just outside, he saw her, a tall, slender Cardassian woman. She set foot on the station, slowly looked around as though remembering. Bajoran guards took up position next to their Cardassian colleagues.

Natima, you have not changed... you are as alluring as you were when you left after Withdrawal, as you were when you had to flee for your life with your students… He could recognize however that she had subtly changed in manner. Spent five years off-world as a political refugee, only to return to ruins and the task of rebuilding a Union with all of the others...

He tenderly touched her image on the screen, You can stay with me now, here, on Deep Space 9. Cardassia is free….. you are free to entrust someone else with your work.

"The area around Ops and SFHS are off-limits to all except essential Starfleet and Bajoran personnel for the next three days," was the advisory transmitted throughout the station.

Quark had found out that, for security reasons, final negotiations for the return of the sacred objects removed during the Occupation would be effected on station as some Cardassians resented the idea of giving back objects for which they could have demanded a high price. In a month, the documents were to be signed in the Kai's residence, under the strictest of security measures.

Quark was delighted. Perhaps … only perhaps…. Suddenly his anticipation turned into irritation at himself. Rule 94….Females and finances do not mix…. He switched off the connection to prepare for what would hopefully be a hectic day and evening in his bar.

None of the guests appeared at his bar. Orders were transmitted, sent to the ready room. Their quarters? Kept secret and strictly guarded at all times.

Two days later, Kai Ungteh's aides attended the last session which took place in the ready room, Commander Kira, the Cardassian delegation with Lang and her aides, Gul Berak and his adjutants and Nadroy of the New Order were present to discuss last details of the wording of the document. The signing was scheduled to take place in a month at an as yet undisclosed date, both as a hardcopy document destined for the Kai's residence, and digitized for Bajor's, Cardassia's and the Federation's archives.

When the Commander marched into his establishment Quark was apprehensive for some moments but to his surprise, she smiled at him, "You look worried. Did you think that we've discovered another of your shady deals?"

"One?" he shook his head, "That's all you discovered besides those Melset traced in the past couple of months?"

She ignored his comment. "My staff and I have decided that you will be catering the celebration we are planning for tomorrow afternoon. Find some dishes both Cardassians and Bajorans as well as humans can enjoy, and select the drinks. Of course, champagne for the toast. Your most recent efforts were praised, by the way."

"So you've signed the document."

"Wrong, Quark."

He grinned, "No doubt on Bajor, Kai's residence."

How did he find out about that? "No matter. Just see that you produce something worthy of the occasion… and if you water the springwine as you routinely do in your bar…" she left the threat unsaid.

"I'll take it up with my source… you just cannot trust anyone not to try to make extra money out of things. Don't care that this gives me a bad name…."

Much in contrast to his usual custom, he did not cut corners with anything this time, went all out with service by sending in his best and most attractive staff and supervised everything personally.

In the conference room, he looked around surreptitiously while arranging the buffet and finally managed to make eye contact with Lang. He raised his hand in Ferengi greeting, palm turned inwards. To his pleasure, she responded with a barely perceptible nod.

Overjoyed, he left for his bar, There will be a break of some hours afterwards, time enough for you to come, and I'll be waiting….. At getting back, he mixed himself a drink to steady his nerves. Seeing Natíma again… it feels like a winning streak at Tongo.

Station evening, shortly before closing time, Natíma entered but, much to his disappointment, she was accompanied by two guards, a Bajoran and a Cardassian. The three of them had a short, barely audible conversation which Natima ended with the words, "Lt Ekos and Glinn Saikol, there is no need for concern as I am quite safe here. I only have to attend to some unfinished business with the owner of this establishment."

Quark came over and added, "There aren't many customers here now as it is nearly closing time. We won't be out of your sight for a moment. Why don't you order something for yourselves? We cater to both Bajorans and Cardassians; I have a selection of non-intoxicating drinks, considering you are on duty."

"Go ahead," Natíma stated, "I give you permission, so enjoy. I'll pick up the tab."

The men thanked her, placed their orders….

The same intonation, the same timbre…. Her very presence and the few words she had said seemed intoxicating to Quark. I never realized how much I'd missed her…..

He pulled out a chair for her, then sat down at a respectful distance, gazing at her with yearning for some moments. "I never thought I would see you again after you left that day, thanks to Garak's help." He fell silent, then whispered, "I've been waiting for so long, dreamed of meeting you again, but did not dare hope, Natíma." He pronounced her name softly, as if it was an endearment in its own right.

Her eyes were warm, gentle, when she told him, "I could not forget you either, dearest. When reports came in that the Dominion had taken the station ...," she moved a little closer to him, adding, " I feared for your safety, hoped you had managed to leave in time to escape."

He laughed a little, "Couldn't leave my bar. Remember, love, I'm a survivor, may suffer losses, but a Ferengi does not let fate discourage him; we are resilient. Finances are not for the faint-hearted." In a very low voice, he said, "I feared for you, even though you were on a safe world, but the Order…"

Natíma made a gesture, cautioning him. "Even there, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid I'd been traced. Before the debacle of the Tal Shiar's and the Order's plans,..."

"...you knew you were always in danger," he completed the sentence in a low voice.

She nodded, inclined her head, looked away, remembering her constant apprehension, her frequent clandestine changes of residence on the world that had granted her sanctuary.

"I would have been prepared to do anything to keep you safe, my treasure," his voice was husky with feeling.

"And my students? They were important to me as they were and are important members of the movement, I was responsible for them," she reminded him gently.

"They could have moved on. And you, you could have found safety on Ferenginar; no one would ever have expected a Cardassian to seek protection on my world."

"No, they were my responsibility," she met his glance, "and now, we are fighting for Cardassia's survival."

Curious in spite of himself, Quark asked, "Where are they now?"

"Back on Cardassia, helping in the rebuilding effort."

Natima quickly touched his hand as if by chance, "Would I have truly been safe there? For some time your world was in danger of being invaded, too, and under circumstances, my presence would have been revealed for the sake of … profit," she said with a hint of distaste.

There is no bribe I wouldn't have paid to keep you safe, my very own treasure."

"I had to get as far away from Cardassia as I possibly could, and you know that." Her voice a low whisper, she continued, "My fate would have been in Garak's hands, and who makes the mistake of ever trusting him…" she fell silent.

Looking at her with an expression of longing, he answered, "But now, my prize, Cardassia is free, there is no more Order. Your people has chosen for the first time in history…"

She shook her head, "Not free yet, not as long as the situation is still critical and may encourage extremist factions." She looked away, "Vast areas still in ruins, villages where cities once were; we are impoverished, dependent on aid…. Everyone doing his or her part in our collective effort."

"But conditions are improving, even we are involved in assistance!" Quark said with a sense of urgency. I cannot let her slip away again, or she'll be lost to me… The very idea was unbearable.

"And your every movement, each detail of your contracts is being observed, you little toads," she pronounced the insult with an intonation of great tenderness.

He smiled back at her, full of hope, "Natíma, please, when the last part of the negotiations has been concluded, the documents have been signed,…"

"You think I should return here, stay with you, think of myself, no longer of Cardassia…" she ended the sentence for him.

"Yes." He looked at her, eyes pleading, "You have done your part. Natíma, think of yourself for once. Think of us and the joy we once shared!"

"Not quite yet, not for a long time yet; think of this, my love: I am not a Ferengi female, born and bred to your culture, cannot live in seclusion, unclothed, silent, in servitude."

"You can live here, on the station, with me! My quarters are large enough for the two of us! I would never think of placing the same restrictions on you which I would place on a Ferengi woman accustomed to them. Believe me! You are too valuable to me." I have to convince her to stay ; we can make this work...

"And what kind of a life would I have here?" Gently, she took his hands in hers, met his eyes, her own longing yet resigned. "We did love one another, and passionately, so intensively. I have never felt anything like that before, nor will I in future."

Her quiet laughter revealed so much affection, awakened so many memories in Quark. "Remember our times together?"

She could not suppress a smile, remembering. "Is such passion meant to last? Will it not fade? Do you honestly think it can endure an entire lifetime?"

"Natíma, I am certain of it. I have been waiting so long for you to return, still have the holosuite programs we shared, have revisited them, but … they are not the same without your presence, your warmth. They are only illusions, cold, a shadow of what we once shared."

Her eyes widened slightly, hinting at how his words touched her. "No, Quark, they wouldn't be the same for me either, and not only because you would be missing. Those times are past. We have crossed our respective bridges, but time and circumstances have made it impossible for either of us to ever recross them. The Dominion War, the Defeat… All of the losses..."

"But I swear by all I believe in: my feelings for you have not changed. When you were here last, you admitted yours for me were still the same and would last forever!" He reached out to touch her neck ridges; Natíma gently but determinedly kept out of reach, a look of regret in her eyes.

"Quark, you are in love with a memory, as was I and … as I still am," she said with an undertone of sorrow. "The Occupation confronted me with so much brutality and misery and yet I was forced to write positive reports, to lie about what I was seeing or else be accused of treason. You had to accept it as part and parcel of your world or give up your work here. Everything we saw made our relationship appear a safe haven, a refuge, an escape to a better, happier world, one in which we could love each other without fear." Her glance became distant as she added, "We always had to hide our feelings in public lest we be discovered, were in danger every time we met."

"The butterfly," Quark whispered, "so fragile in its beauty." That program had been enchanting, beautiful, had spoken to his senses and his dreams alone, even, for moments at a time, carried him beyond the dreams of profit, of a moon of his own. And you were and are so lovely, so spontaneous in your reactions, ….

"Did you ever find out what happened to that young officer we saw, the one who had spoken for the Bajorans, and was brutally mistreated, sentenced to death …" her voice faded when she saw Quark's expression of disbelief.

Quark stared at her. "Haven't you realized you are working and cooperating with her, that she opened negotiations…"

Natíma stared at him, stunned.

"Ask her someday. For now, forget about her, she is not important, my treasure." He murmured, leaning towards her, "We can have it all again, everything we shared, but without being afraid of discovery."

The Cardassian woman shook her head once, sadly. "My beloved Quark, it has to become part of the past. I do not deny that I still feel love for you and always will, remember our times together with regret because they are over. It was your affection that made my time as a war reporter more bearable. But times have changed as have we. Both of us are embedded in our cultural norms, you a Ferengi in constant search of profit, I a Cardassian with my duty to the Union and all this means."

She is repeating her words as though trying to convince herself that they are the truth. "Is there nothing at all that I could offer you to tempt you to stay? Nothing at all?" He moved towards her, took her hands in his, in despair, refusing to believe it was over forever, "Everything, each single moment, past, irretrievable?"

Her voice was but a whisper when she replied. "Yes, and it must remain a part of the past. I have joined with a fellow Cardassian who lost his entire family except for his son before Withdrawal. He is a good man and we share duty and a feeling of togetherness." She looked at Quark for some moments before adding, "I know what you would like to share with me one last time, but I would never go against my people's norms in an attempt to relive something that cannot be recreated." She could not quite disguise her regret.

Crushed by her words, Quark could only watch her get up, was unable to fully conceal his unhappiness, his eyes reflecting his emotions.

She moved to stand at his side and murmured as she passed her hands over his lobes, then kissed the top of his head, "I promise I will never forget you and our time together, Quark, and thank you for every moment. We stole some time to escape reality; our sentence is to remember, knowing this time can never be revisited again. My dearest friend Quark, find lasting love, a good mate, and serve Ferenginar well."

"Be strong, Natíma," he said, adding in a whisper, "Good-bye, my love."

He remained where he was for some moments, dejectedly watched Natima go over to the guards who had kept their back turned to him and Natima during the entire discussion. They were finishing their meal; he heard her ask whether they'd liked it and their reply which praised his efforts. At leaving, Ekos and Saikol left him tips as did Natima. Better get over there before one of my employees gets there first and pockets the lot! 'Never let feelings interfere with profit' should be another Rule.

For a moment, he watched the three walk along the Promenade.There she goes, walking out of my life, just like that….

Turning to look at his establishment, he called out, "Close the bar and polish everything so that I can see my face in it. I want to have everything ready to go for tomorrow." After a final glance around, he settled at the bar to begin his accounting …

To whoever has read and perhaps even enjoyed my first effort at writing something romantic: Help Quark find happiness of his own, ideally with Pel. There is only one condition: my OC is off-limits.