The first time Bira had died since joining Starfleet, a Breen now allied with the Klingon Empire had fired a phaser set to kill into the Vorta's side. He cried out in surprise. He took a step forward clutching at the wound, and then another, his eyes wide with shock and pain, before he collapsed to his knees.
Candak was on him in an instant, deep voice much too loud and too urgent and muffled, a flash of black and teal and tanned skin tinted green. Bira tried to focus, to tell Candak it would be okay, but Candak was too busy waving his dermal regenerator and Bira knew he should have been able to feel the hypo being stabbed into his neck but he couldn’t. What he could feel was the heat of Candak’s hands cupping his face, and the wet slide of his own blood, slick and violet on Candak’s trembling fingers.
The Breen was dead in seconds, Rega and T’Leng panted and solemnly held out their phasers, but Bira didn’t register it at all. He was busy watching Candak’s lips, because the doctor was frantically mouthing something that Bira couldn’t comprehend but desperately wanted to. The darkness was creeping into the edges of Bira’s sight. It was both familiar and unfamiliar.
He could remember dying, but it was never like this.
There was never someone trying to save him.
Just before the darkness swallowed him entirely, Bira realized that Candak was shouting in Romulan. A singular word, sseulaiin.
“You haven’t left sickbay for two days, Doctor.” Lieutenant Commander Tadim chided. She nosily peered over Candak’s shoulder at the notes scattered on his desk before she dropped a food container on top of the papers.
“I need to make sure it works, Lieutenant. We figured out the cloning process rather quickly. Wonderful creations, the Vorta. The key to easy cloning is literally in their DNA. But there can be… complications.” Candak muttered. He ran his hands through his hair, prematurely greying at the temples, and rubbed his eyes, feeling the bags that surely must have been under his eyes. He was young for his species. Twenty-five, practically a child, but this job was getting to him. Tadim hummed in response as if she had heard his last thought and walked over to the cloning tank. Her reflection stared back at her, and she fixed her hair.
“He looks fine in there, Doctor. All in one piece.” She said as she gave her head a final once-over.
“It’s not about looks,” Candak began sharply. He steadied himself. This was not the first time he had had to explain Bira’s particular situation. “The Bira that you and I know is the defective clone of a Dominion War criminal. This is our first experience cloning him. He could be completely different.”
“If Lieutenant Bira comes out wrong, don’t we have infinite tries to get it right?” She pointed out as she perched herself on the edge of Candak’s desk. He sighed and put his head in his hands.
“I fear Starfleet would not be that patient. Is there a reason you’re in my sickbay, Lieutenant Commander?” He said into his palms. Tadim leaned over to shove her hand under his eyes.
“Burnt myself on a hyperspanner.”
When Bira woke up, he was in sickbay in a biobed. Instead of his uniform, he was wearing a standard gown that was itchy on his skin. The room was devoid of crew members except for himself.
“Hello?” Bira called out. His voice was scratchy from disuse and he fought the urge to cough. For just a second, he wondered if his time spent at Starfleet had been a dream. The Dominion War was still going on. He was still in charge of the Jem’Hadar. He still served the Founders.
“You’re awake.” The sudden voice jerked Bira out of his own mind. It wasn’t a question, but a statement. There was only one doctor aboard the Enola Gay whose bedside manner was so straight forward.
“Candak?” Bira asked, voice flooded with relief, moments before the man himself stepped into the ICU. He looked rough, curly hair wild, dark patches under his eyes, and his clothes were rumpled as though he had slept in them, though Bira doubted he looked like a dream himself. Although he looked tired, Candak was still the picture of professionalism. He carried a folded uniform in tactical red.
“I needed to make sure you were…” Candak began, but his voice trailed off. His dark eyes found their way to the floor. He changed the subject. “My colleagues and the nurses are all off duty currently. I told them they could go. If something had… gone wrong, I would have preferred to deal with it personally.” Bira listened while Candak spoke, then tenderly lifted himself off of the boibed to reach for the uniform he assumed was his. Candak released it into his hands. Bira swallowed.
“I take it nothing went wrong then?” He said hopefully. In his nightmares, Bira woke up and Candak ran away from him. Tried to kill him. Called him a monster and a killer and an imposter just like he’d been called before. Just like he’d been before.
Bira’s wide yellow eyes reminded Candak of his father’s bird-of-prey. As a young child, Candak had constantly begged to pilot it. His father had always told him the same thing, that when Candak was older, his would teach him how to fly the ship. Candak was often told that he would make a fine member of the Romulan Fleet.
That was before his father was killed in the war.
If Starfleet hadn’t acquired the cloning technology, then Bira would be dead too, much in the same way.
Never turn your back on a Breen, Candak thought hysterically. That phrase had been something of a joke in the Romulan Empire. Then it had become a deadly serious warning.
“Never turn your back on a Breen.” Candak said, out loud this time. Bira was staring at him with an unreadable expression.
“Candak. You’re crying.” He said gently, quietly. Candak frowned and reached up to brush his cheek. His fingers came back wet.
Candak had always prided himself on the professional and objective way he dealt with patients. He couldn’t even say that now. He ran a hand through his already messy hair, his palm brushing over the rough, bony ridges that barely rose above the skin. A gift from his father.
“I filled out the casualty report today. I reported your death.” Candak breathed. Bira took a step closer, his hand finding the one Candak had clenched into his hair. Bira could have sworn that Candak leaned into the touch.
“I’m alive. I promise. I’m right here.” Bira murmured. He wondered if he was reassuring Candak or himself.
The emotional catharsis was over as soon as it began. Candak pulled back from Bira’s touch and quickly straightened himself out, his mask firmly put in place. Bira wondered if the heavy green tint to Candak’s face was from embarrassment because of what had just transpired between them, or the fact that Bira was still wearing the medical gown.
“I’ll leave you to change.” Candak said, voice low. Bira nodded a little too quickly. Candak turned on his heels and began to walk calmly back out of the ICU.
“Wait,” Bira called after him, blushing when Candak immediately turned to stare intently, his head tilted slightly, “You should come to my quarters with me. We can have a meal together, watch a movie. It’ll be like a Terran sleepover.”
Candak let out a sigh like he had been holding his breath. He was silent for several seconds, and Bira was about to backtrack his offer when Candak spoke up.
“I will have Doctor Mikhailov take over for me. I’ll wait for you in my office.” Candak said. He made his exit.
That night, Candak and Bira slept curled up on Bira’s single bed. Candak was apparently a big spoon and he had his arms wrapped around Bira’s waist as he fell asleep, his face pressed against Bira’s side where there had been the open wound from a phaser shot, Bira stroking his fingers through the usually tamed curls.
“Please.” Bira whispered, though if Candak’s light snoring was anything to go by, the doctor was fast asleep. “That’s what sseulaiin means. Please.”
Bira wrote a message to K’uwar, after that.
The fourth time Bira came back, he was different. Defective. It was in the way he walked, a new way he carried himself. Candak didn’t notice. He definitely didn’t. To him, it was just Bira. Just his best friend.
This Bira stared at Candak across the bridge. At the replicator, this Bira ordered Romulan dishes instead of his usual kava nut salad. He claimed that even though he couldn’t taste, it was important to explore other cultures. He always said what while gazing into Candak’s eyes.
This Bira cared much less about personal space. When he walked down the corridor with Candak, their shoulders were almost always brushing. He even stopped by the sickbay to sit on the corner of Candak’s desk when the doctor wasn’t busy, and sometimes when he was.
All of this wouldn’t have been a problem. Candak was no blushing virgin (no matter what K’uwar may have said) and he could handle a bit of flirting. He was an adult.
But when this Bira kissed him for the first time, he felt both crushing relief and incredibly nauseous. It was perfect and memorable and completely wrong. It wasn’t how Bira would have kissed before. It had been dark and fast and sharp and one of Bira’s fangs had punctured Candak’s lip and Bira hadn’t even paused when green coppery blood trickled out of the cut.
But Candak had wanted it, perhaps for even longer than he cared to admit, and the small bit of pain was worth running his fingers through Bira’s hair when it was down.
That Bira had died of blunt force trauma to the head, caused by a crash landing.
The Bira that replaced him was once again the same as his predecessors. Candak walked him to the replicator and Bira barely noticed the falter in Candak’s expression when he ordered kava nut salad and a strawberry smoothie. Candak offered Bira part of his Romulan meatroll and Bira laughed and reminded Candak that he couldn’t taste.
“What do you remember from your last clone?” Candak pressed over lunch. Their friends around them were busy betting on who could fit more human tater tots into their mouth. T’Leng was winning.
“Nothing, actually.” Bira shrugged. His eyes were glued to his plate. “I’m sorry if I… said or did anything.” He finished. Candak took another bite of his meatroll and said nothing. After several moments, a round of cheers surrounded the table.
“Who won?” Candak muttered. Bira craned his neck to see past the other patrons.
“I guess it’s Danir again. First the T’mirak rice and now the human food. He’s amazing.” When Bira was done speaking, he turned back to face Candak. The doctor was gone.
Bira was walking back to his quarters from his shift, eager to get some sleep. He rubbed his eyes where the bright monitor had practically left imprints. This was an empty part of the ship, a secret route that Bira used to get to his quarters that bypassed the crowded hallways that always felt too crowded after Alpha shift ended.
He suddenly wished he had decided to walk in the crowd when an unknown force backed him into the firm wall of the ship. Bira was about to shout for help when he saw the humanoid’s face.
“Candak? What are you doing?” Bira squeaked. The expression on Candak’s face could be described as thunderous. In true Candak fashion, the doctor didn’t waist any time.
“At lunch you told me you did not remember anything from your previous life, then minutes later you recounted Danir’s experience with the T’mirak rice, which had happened during that period of time. I believe you won fifty credits.” Candak said, his hands were pinning Bira to the metal hallway and his face was inches away from the Lieutenant’s. Bira’s face was flushed deep violet and his arms trembled under Candak’s fingers.
“I could have heard about it from someone.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Candak-,” Bira began, but Candak interrupted. Even with his forehead hidden by straightened hair, Candak’s Romulan heritage made itself known in the cool harshness in his face and the aloofness in his voice.
“I will not be toyed with.” Candak said simply. Bira looked away.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said softly.
“Don’t lie to me!” Candak growled. When Bira winced. Candak moved his hands from their vice like grip at Bira’s wrists and moved them until they were gently resting on his biceps.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it,” Candak began, taking a step back from Bira and looking shamefully at his feet, “But I need to know.” Candak looked up after he was finished talking, and his eyes found Bira’s. There were tears threatening to spill from the Vorta’s eyes, and Candak felt horrible guilt rise like bile in his throat before Bira took a careful step towards him. Before Candak had time to react, Bira stood on his toes, his lips pressed gently to Candak’s.
It was loving and chaste and everything that the first kiss hadn’t been and Candak couldn’t resist the urge to wrap his arms around Bira and dig his face into the crook of his neck. Bira absolutely melted into the embrace and ran a hand through Candak’s hair and told the doctor how scared he was, how ridiculous he had been.
“Next space station,” Bira chuckled, “me, you, K’uwar, and some place that sells synthehol. I have fifty credits to spend, you know.”