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From the Dust

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Ezri picks at her salad. “I don't know why I thought it was a good idea—the two of us getting together. I mean, I know why. When I look back at it from a distance, the whole thing seems pretty clear. I mean…” Ezri jams a forkful of greens into her mouth, chews for a moment, and then speaks around the food. “What better way to distance myself from Jadzia than willfully choosing the one person on the station she considered to be a last resort romantically, someone she could fall in love with to stave off the aching loneliness she covered up with smiles, innuendo, and raktajino.”

Julian stares at her blankly over his bowl of Andorian gazpacho.

Ezri wrinkles her brow and swallows. “Too much?”

“I think…” Julian folds his hands on the table. “Perhaps we ought to scale back from 'friend and confidante' to 'just friends.'”

“Right. You're absolutely right. We have to maintain proper boundaries.” Ezri sighs, her shoulders slumping forward, looking very much like a deflated Trill balloon at the end of the annual Federation Day parade. “This would be so much easier if Benjamin was here.”

“I know. The station feels so empty since he and the others left. But I think we all have to hold fast to the belief that he'll be back again someday. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day we'll turn around and—”

“He's back.”

“Exactly. Until then we have to be strong for Kasidy and—”

“No, Julian, he's back.

Julian follows Ezri's pointed finger across the replimat. Captain Sisko is leaning woozily against a pillar, holding his belly, eyeing the replicator line with a grimace.

Aware that drawing any attention to the captain's presence would result in a crowd of Bajorans blocking his patient, Bashir eases out of his chair and walks calmly over toward Sisko. “Sir, are you alright?”

With some effort, Sisko nods and whispers hoarsely, “Kasidy? Jake? The baby?”

“They're all fine. Kasidy's pregnancy is progressing normally.”

“Good.” Apparently satisfied, Sisko slumps into Bashir's arms, unconscious.

Julian is slightly surprised when Sisko decides to spend his first night back in a closed-doors staff meeting rather than with his wife. (Considering the look of disappointment on Kasidy and the captain's faces when he told them in no uncertain terms that Sisko is restricted from physical activity—any physical activity—until his body readjusts to linear time, Julian guesses whatever plans the Sisko-Yates' had for the Emissary's return were already postponed by the time Sisko called the meeting.) Julian is even more surprised when Sisko opens the meeting with his usual greeting followed by grabbing everyone's earlobes and assessing the state of their pahs. (When Sisko tells Kira her pah is strong, Julian swears this is the happiest he's ever seen her.) Apparently satisfied with their spiritual fortitude, Sisko sits down at the head of the table. “Let's get started.”

Kira spends about ten minutes briefing Sisko on the state of the station and Bajor, while Nog discusses the kind of additions he'd like to make to the station now that their population is bounding back with all its accompanying power usage. Ezri talks crew morale in light of several political events that occurred during his absence. And Julian prods the captain every few minutes to take sips of his apple juice.

When they're done, Sisko nods. “Good. Now I suppose I ought to tell you what I've been up to these past few months.” He turns over in his hands the baseball Kira retrieved from his office. “I've been watching Bajor. From its birth in a nebula to its death by supernova. And I have tried so hard to focus on Bajor—on the people, their lives, their fates—but every time I got a good look, out of the corner of my eye, I'd see Cardassia. I received counsel from the Prophets on how to strengthen my discipline, but nothing they told me helped. I could still see Cardassia. Eventually, I came to realize that whenever I look at Bajor, I will also see Cardassia.”

Kira closes her eyes, processing his words like a painful spasm. “Is there anything we can do?”

“No. The fates of Bajor and Cardassia are irrevocably tied.”

“That's not terribly uncommon,” Bashir says. “Colonized peoples and the nations that colonized them often have deep ties long after the occupation ends. My family never would have lived in England if it weren't for British imperialism.”

“True. But this relationship predates the Occupation. Bajoran lightships made contact with Cardassia Prime centuries before Cardassians even had warp drive.”

“So this is our fault?” Kira asks.

“None of this is anyone's fault. Not Bajor's, not Cardassia's, not even the Prophets. Some things are beyond the realm of anyone's doing; they just are.”

“And we just have to accept that?”

“Yes. If Bajor is to have any kind of future between now and the sun going supernova, we have to accept that the Cardassians will always be a part of this planet's destiny.”

Julian swears this is the saddest he has ever seen Kira; she blinks the tears out of her eyes. “I will accept this because I trust you more than anything in this universe, but I will not be happy about it.”

Sisko lowers his voice. “I'm not asking you to. I don't expect you or any Bajoran to welcome this news with smiling faces, and I wish the message I brought from on high was a better one, but this isn't as hopeless as it seems.”

“Sir.” Nog grits his teeth. “That's probably a lot easier to believe if you weren't here during the Occupation.” Julian remembers that Nog was here during the Occupation. It obviously wasn't the same for him as it was for the Bajorans, but, still, for a child to grow up in that kind of environment…

“I know. My greatest regret in life—this one and the next—is that I wasn't here for Bajor during the Occupation. But I'm here now. And I'm going to do whatever it is I can to prevent Cardassia from ever hurting Bajor again. No more Occupations, no more pah-wraiths, no more inviting the Dominion into the alpha quadrant. Not on my watch.” Sisko slams his fist on the table for emphasis, sending a shockwave of electricity through the surface, singeing the elbows of Nog's uniform, bringing Sisko's apple juice to a boil, and making Julian, Kira, and Ezri's hair stand on ends.

Sisko lifts his fist and the electricity dissipates. He rubs his hand. “Sorry.”

Ezri shrugs, patting down her hair. “At least we know you mean it.”

“What I'm trying to say is that just because Cardassia and Bajor are linked, that doesn't mean things have to return to the way they were during the Occupation.”

“You have that much faith in the Cardassians,” Kira says dryly.

“No. I have that much faith in us. And Bajor. Now that we know that Bajor and Cardassia will always play a major role in the others' existence, we can use that to protect Bajor, to help Bajor flourish even.”

“If Bajor is stuck in a relationship with Cardassia,” Ezri says, “it might as well work in Bajor's favor.”

“Even the worst business partnerships can bring in profit,” Nog adds.

“Exactly,” Sisko says, punctuating the word by jabbing a pointed finger in Nog's direction.

Nog ducks, his Ferengi hearing keen enough, Julian supposes, to alert him to the bolt of electricity heading his way.

Julian looks to Sisko. “I'll need to run some tests on that.”

For now, Sisko sits on his hands. “We need to cultivate a special relationship with Cardassia. From what you've told me, Cardassia is still incredibly vulnerable following the Dominion's final bombardment. That means they'll be less trusting than ever, but we need them to trust Bajor. And we need Bajor to not abuse that trust. It will take time: years, decades even. But it can be done. The Prophets are on our side. They've even taken the first step for us.”

Sisko pauses, seeming to know metaphorical shockwave his next words will send around the table. “There's an orb buried on Cardassia.”

What?” Nog and Kira snap.

“On Cardassia?” Julian asks.

“Did they steal it?” Ezri asks.

Sisko shakes his head. “The Prophets placed the Orb of Restoration on Cardassia centuries before the Occupation began, before even the Bajoran star sailors made first contact. The orb has remained buried ever since.”

“What does it do?” Nog asks.

“I'm not certain. But it is important—vital—to keeping Cardassia from dragging Bajor and the rest of the alpha quadrant into more trouble and despair. The sooner we uncover the orb, the better.”

“You're not suggesting you go to Cardassia?” Julian asks. “You can barely hold a conversation without incinerating someone.”

“He's right,” Ezri says. “I don't need Curzon's memories to know that the Emissary electrocuting a bunch of Cardassians can't be good for Bajoran-Cardassian relations.”

“That's why I'm planning to call on our Cardassian contacts,” Sisko says.

Kira glances quickly at Julian before averting her gaze. “Our Cardassian contacts?”

“Garak,” Sisko clarifies.

Julian feels Kira and Ezri and Nog's eyes on him now, no one even pretending not to look at him.

Julian folds his hands on the table. “We lost contact with Garak about a week after he returned to Cardassia; no one has heard from him since.”

“Is he still alive?” Sisko asks.

“I'm not sure. I'd like to think that if a leader of the rebellion died, there would be stories on the quadrant newswire, either hailing him as a traitor or a martyr, but his name hasn't come up once. Not even in reports about the ousting of the Dominion.” Julian looks down at his hands. “It's like he doesn't exist.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.” Sisko pauses. “Since we can't count on Garak sending us the orb, we'll need someone to go to Cardassia and retrieve it.”

“I'll go,” Kira says. “I have the most experience with the orbs and the Cardassians.”

“We can't risk sending you,” Sisko says. “If Cardassia has disappeared one hero of the rebellion, they can disappear another. And, besides, Bajor needs you right here.”

Before Ezri or Nog have the chance to volunteer, Julian says, “Send me. I know enough about Cardassia from Garak to get by and I have a fair shot of learning Kardasi by tomorrow morning.”

“If you're sure…”

“I'm sure.”

With Cardassia's atmosphere as devastatingly polluted as it is right now and the planet's orbit littered with space junk from the war, finding a stealth trajectory and a concealed parking spot for the runabout isn't difficult even with Julian's limited piloting experience. Hidden within the remains of a derelict Jem'Hadar vessel, the Thames should elude Cardassian detection long enough for Julian to beam down, dig out the orb, and beam back. The Cardassian government has dedicated next to no manpower to clearing orbital debris due to the much more pressing concerns of the citizenry's immediate survival; Julian could feasibly leave the Thames out there for weeks with the Cardassians none the wiser. In any case, Julian doesn't plan on staying that long. He entertains the idea of looking for Garak briefly before dismissing the venture as dangerous to his mission and therefore the future of Bajor. And as bad as not knowing what has come of Garak is, the possibility of finding out that Garak is irrefutably dead would be so much worse. At least now Julian has the smallest flicker of hope that he will see Garak alive someday. (They do, after all, live in uncertain times.)

So, without delay, Julian beams down to a secluded area near where the orb was buried (the Prophets were helpful enough to give Captain Sisko the exact coordinates of its location), prepared to dig through the night. Once he reassembles on-planet, Julian follows his tricorder to the orb's location, and realizes his plan of remaining unseen may not be so feasible. For one thing, the orb is buried under a pile of rubble up to Julian's waist. (A house, perhaps? The dust chokes his throat and he tries not to think about who he is inhaling.) There's also the small matter of a still-standing structure—a shed? servants' quarters?—a few meters away from the orb site. It's the only intact building within sight—small enough that the Thames's sensors didn't pick it up, but large enough that someone must be making use of it on this shelter-deprived planet. The best Julian can hope for is a benign citizen willing to forego alerting the authorities to a strange human's presence in exchange for food and drink. The worst—well, the worst is confirmed when Julian feels a phaser pressed into back of his neck.

If they were able to sneak up on him with his genetically enhanced hearing, they must be dangerously well-trained. He's not wrong.

“My dear doctor,” Garak drawls, lowering his weapon. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

Julian turns slowly to face him. “You're a hard man to find, Garak.”

Julian can't see well enough to tell for sure, but he imagines Garak gives a wry smile. “True, but something tells me you're not here on a social call.” Garak taps the shovel handle sticking out of Julian's bag. “Unless you came to bury me. Although if Dukat, the Dominion, and the new provisional government couldn't do it, I doubt you'd have a very good chance of finishing the job.”

“The provisional government?” Julian whispers. “Why would they want you dead?” And, more importantly, if they wanted Garak dead, why isn't he dead?

“You needn't whisper. Not anymore. There's no one around to hear you. No one at all.” Garak takes a few steps toward the shack before calling over his shoulder. “And besides any answer I could provide is already common knowledge around these parts. The Dominion may have taken our land, our freedom, our lives, but the Cardassian drive to gossip remains alive and well.”

Julian follows after, genuinely surprised that Garak is letting him walk behind him, especially with a shovel in his bag. Garak must be feeling incredibly confident or dangerously unconcerned with his well-being. Julian can't say which option is more frightening.

Garak opens the door, revealing the interior of a shed lit only by the emergency glowpacks handed out by the Federation in disaster areas. “Do come in.”

Inside, Julian can see enough to discern the empty kanar bottles littering the shed. He frowns.

Garak apparently catches that, because he says, “Don't worry, doctor; I've given it up. Whatever meager supplies of alcohol that remain on this planet are going to people far more important than me.”

Julian clears a spot on the hard-packed dirt floor and sits. “I would have thought with the role you played in ousting the Dominion you would be drowning in kanar.”

“Well, I'm afraid the provisional government is the kind of discerning employer that inquires beyond an applicant's most recent job history. Apparently, my work with the Order was not up to their standards.”

“You were exiled almost a decade ago; they still won't forgive you for that?” Years since Garak spread his tales of exile and his friend Elim, Julian is still not entirely sure what Garak needs to be forgiven of.

“Oh, no. On the contrary. They can forgive my failures as an agent of the Order; my successes are another matter entirely.” Garak sits down carefully on the Federation standard issue relief bedroll in the middle of the cramped shack. “The Cardassian government has chosen a very inconvenient moment to develop a conscience.”

Julian recalls listening to countless press releases from the provisional government, hoping for a mention of Garak's name but instead hearing what at the time seemed like a bunch of state propaganda about reform, transparency, a disavowal of the old cloak and dagger ways of the past.

Julian swallows. “The new government doesn't have a place for Enabran Tain's protege.”

“No, it doesn't.” Garak gazes at a dust mote floating in the green light of a glowpack. “It seems after the the Dominion slaughtered so many of us, society no longer tolerates anyone who makes a career of killing and torturing Cardassians. Even when in service of the state.”

Julian doesn't know quite what to say to that. “I'm sorry?”

“Don't be. I'm fortunate, you see. They've done away with the death penalty, and imprisoning me would require feeding me, and I'm too famous and they're too self-righteous to do away with me off the books, so I have been allowed to live as a free man, toiling away on the ruins of my childhood home.”

“You used to live here?”

“Oh, yes. The stately Tain manor. Pity you didn't get a tour while it was still standing; I had finally gotten around to cleaning the basement before it was leveled. My mother had been nagging me about that for years.” Garak seems to go far away for a moment before snapping back with a sharp smile. “Now you didn't come here to listen to my sob story; you would have sent your paramour Dax if that was the case. So why don't—”

“Ezri and I aren't together anymore.” Julian doesn't know why he says that; it's hardly the most important piece of information he has to relay to Garak.

Garak raises his eyeridges. “Oh.” His face falls into a more neutral expression. “How unfortunate.”

“It was for the best.” Julian cannot believe he is on a covert mission for the Bajoran Emissary to retrieve an ancient, holy artifact, and he's talking about his love life. (Or lack thereof.) “Anyway, you're right. I didn't come to find you; I'm here to get something for Captain Sisko.”

Garak picks a bit of mud off his sleeve. “I heard he was back. But unless Bajor has run low on rubble, I'm not entirely certain what he could need from Cardassia.”

“There's an orb—”

“The provisional government returned all the remaining Bajoran artifacts months ago; if the orb isn't among them, it doesn't exist.”

“This isn't one of the orbs the Cardassians took during the Occupation; it was placed on Cardassia by the wormhole aliens.”

Garak laughs for about five minutes until forced to stop by the wracking coughs trying to expel the dust inhaled during his hysterics. “Here?” Cough. “On Prime?” Cough. “What were they trying to do?” Cough. Cough. “Start a war?”

“Sisko thinks the orb will create harmony between Bajor and Cardassia.”

“And then I imagine it would make Vulcans abandon logic and the Klingons denounce honor.”

“I don't know how you can dismiss this; you know how powerful the orbs are.”

“Of course. Why else would the Cardassian government hold onto to them for so long? But to bring Bajor and Cardassia into some kind of alliance? That would take...”

“An act of God?” Julian smirks.

“He's made you a believer.”

“He died and came back to life; that's enough to make anyone stop doubting. I'm not about to put on an earring or anything, but I trust he knows what he's doing.”

“So where is this orb?”

Julian looks down at his tricorder. “About two meters below sea level and three meters that way.” He points towards the shack's door.

“Under the house?”

“Yes.”

“You want to dig up my house?”

“That was the plan, yes.”

Garak glares at him coldly, appraisingly as the connections form in Julian's head: Kira's report said she, Damar, and Garak hid out in the basement of Garak's childhood home. The housekeeper made them clean the basement. The housekeeper was fond of Garak. She knew him as a child. Garak was devastated when the Jem'Hadar killed her. Kira had to call him away from the body. “I had finally gotten around to cleaning the basement before it was leveled. My mother had been nagging me about that for years.” The Dominion bombardment. There wasn't enough time.

The words come spilling out of Julian's mouth: “No one removed the body.”

“Providing proper burials for housekeepers, lovers of monsters, and mothers of outcasts hasn't been at the top of the provisional government's list of priorities.”

Julian wets his lips, cracking in the dry night air. “If I dig out the orb, I might be able to—”

“Find her? Dig her up? Say a few words so I can let the healing process begin?” Garak scoffs. “Don't be so Human; we both know you're not.”

Julian grabs Garak's wrist. “Don't be so cold. I know you're not.”

Garak wrenches his arm away. “If you want to dig up the orb, then do it. It'll probably be the first good thing to come out of that house. But don't make this into some Federation excavation into the heart of an exotic Cardassian! I'm not here for—what? What could you possibly be smiling about?”

Julian doesn't notice the smile on his own face until that moment. “I guess I've missed you and your rants about the Federation more than I thought.”

This seems to disarm Garak. He lowers his gaze to the ground. “My dear, patient doctor.”

“My dear, impatient tailor.”

Garak takes a deep breath. “Do you think that orb could help Cardassia?”

“Sisko seemed to think so. He said it would stop Cardassia from falling prey to men like Dukat, people like the Dominion. He told the Vedek Assembly that the orb would uplift Bajor and Cardassia together.”

“Then you have my permission… and my assistance in excavating the orb. Just so long as you promise that if we find… the body, I deal with it my way. No Human protestations.”

“You have a deal.”

It's too late and Garak is too underfed for them to begin digging that night, so they make plans to meet again at dusk the next day. In the meantime Julian goes back to the Thames, updates Sisko on the mission's status, ensures the runabout won't be detected, sleeps a good while, replicates more supplies, and prepares a nutritionally and medically sound feast for Garak.

When Julian materializes in Garak's shack with a tray of food, the shock and delight is plain on Garak's face. After a few seconds, Garak schools his expression and quips, “What? No dessert?”

Julian lays the food out on a workbench. “I've got you on a famine recovery diet. Nothing rich. I don't want it all coming back up again. And, besides, with the way Cardassians eat, if I packed dessert, we'd be in here until sunrise.”

Want has apparently laid waste to the Cardassian custom of eating at a glacial pace; Julian keeps having to scoot the dishes away from Garak to stop him from eating so fast. Garak always takes a spiteful spoonful from that dish, glaring at Julian teasingly through his uncombed fringe, before slowing himself down. The messy hair, the hunger, the unspoken gratitude all cause Julian to look at Garak with such unrelenting fondness that he has to hide his face behind a cup of Tarkalean tea.

It's good and dark by the time Garak is done eating, but Julian makes him wait an hour to digest (and possibly, but hopefully not, vomit). Outside, they strap on the night-vision glasses and respirators Julian pulled from the runabout's emergency survival kits, and set to figuring out how to uncover the orb. Fortunately, the Dominion's final bombardment did a stellar job at breaking up the housing into manageable pieces. The challenge then isn't so much how to remove the debris, but what debris to remove so that the hole down to the orb doesn't collapse in on itself. After a few false starts, Julian is able to sketch out a plan that should keep the structure steady for the rest of the dig. By the time the sun starts to come up, they've made a sizable dent in the rubble, coating themselves in dust in the process.

Julian leaves Garak with a fresh set of clothes, some water to wash up with, and a light breakfast. He goes back to the Thames, checks in with Sisko, catches some sleep, and heads back down at dusk. They maintain that routine for the next few days: eating a welcome dinner together, working quietly through the night, wishing each other a good day's sleep. In a way, it's nice. Like they're having their regular lunches together again. Once the novelty of a warm meal wears off, Garak banters his way through dinner, teasing Julian in those little ways he thought he grew out of, but apparently didn't. Julian starts looking forward to nights of backbreaking labor because they mean an hour or two chatting with Garak. Eating, working, talking, night after night until... The smell.

Julian lifts his respirator to take a sip of water and the odor nearly gags him, tears spring to his eyes. He's a doctor; he's used to death and its smells. But he's a man of the 24th century; he's accustomed to certain levels of decomposition, and this goes far beyond his tolerance. No body should be left to rot like this! They aren't in the Middle Ages; they have technologies available, systems in place to keep this from happening. But all that seems to have fallen to the wayside on Cardassia.

Garak quickly notices Julian's shock. “What's wrong?” he asks, slightly muffled by his respirator.

“We're close.”

“To the orb?”

Julian shakes his head.

Garak takes a moment and then returns to his work, digging furiously and faster than ever.

Julian pulls his respirator back down, unable to take the smell any longer. He grabs Garak's elbow. “I can take care of it; you can wait inside while I—”

“No.” Garak doesn't stop digging. “If you can smell the body, it won't be long before someone else takes notice. We have to get it out tonight.”

“And then?”

“I have a phaser.”

It takes Julian half a second to realize what Garak is suggesting they do: fire a high frequency beam of anti-matter at Mila’s body, disintegrating it into nothingness. “We don’t have to do that. I can bring her back to DS9 and give her a proper cremation.”

“That's not what we do, doctor.”

“I thought cremation was the standard burial ritual for Cardassians.”

“For legates, yes. Guls, their families, bureaucrats. All cremated. But not housekeepers. They're disintegrated like the rest of the service class.”

The idea of blasting a person—a whole class of people—into nothing while others remain in urns on mantles for their families to remember them by… It makes Julian's stomach turn more than the smell did.

“It doesn't have to be like that,” Julian says. “She can be cremated.”

“Like a gul? That's not an honor I'd want to bestow upon her.”

That's not what we do, doctor. Enabran Tain may have tried to shape his son in his own image, but in the end Garak's allegiance remains with his mother.

“If that’s what you want, then that’s what we’ll do,” Julian says, picking up his shovel. “We’ll have to remove the body from the rubble completely and then disintegrate her. We can’t risk firing downward and having the hole collapse in.”

Garak nods and they return to work. In about an hour’s time, Julian’s shovel hits something soft right in the center of the hole tunneling down to the orb. As they work to uncover the body, they discover her curled up in the fetal position, looking more like someone’s child than anyone’s mother. She has—had?—a wide, sturdy frame like Garak but she manages to look so small in the ground, doubly so when Garak cradles her in his arms, lifting her out of the rubble. Julian follows behind, steadying Garak with a hand on the small of his back.

Once they’re clear of the manor’s ruins, Garak sets the body down gently and unceremoniously shoots her. Mila disappears instantaneously; the only remaining evidence of her existence falls to his knees, staring down at the spot where she once lay.

Before the first rays of morning light the sky, Julian manages to coax Garak back inside to rest. Rather than beaming back to the runabout as he typically does, Julian lingers in the shack, hovering around Garak, who is taking the attention with his usual charm.

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can get for you?” Julian asks for at least the sixth time.

“No.” Garak sneers up at him from the bedroll. “What is it about this situation that makes you think I’ve entirely lost the capacity to care for myself? I’m not a child. I’m not your patient.”

“No. You’re my friend. And whether you’re willing to admit it or not, you’re obviously in a great deal of pain.”

“Oh, and we can’t have that, can we? The Federation won’t allow anyone to be anything less than optimistic and cheerful twenty-six hours a—”

“This isn’t about the damn Federation; this is about me.”

“Strange. I thought this was about me. How foolish of me.”

Julian crouches down next to Garak and looks him square in the eye. “I can’t bear to see you in pain.

Garak’s demeanor softens, the fury fading from his eyes. “You never could.”

Julian thinks back to piloting a runabout into Cardassian space—he was so young then, practically still a child—to meet with Enabran Tain, one of the most dangerous men in the quadrant. All to save to Garak’s life. “No. I couldn’t.”

Garak reaches out, cupping the back of Julian’s head, fingers stroking his hair. “You should go,” he says softly.

Julian tilts his head, resting his cheek on Garak’s wrist, suddenly feeling very tired. “If that’s what you want…”

“It isn’t.” Garak disentangles his fingers from Julian’s hair and pulls his hand back. “But you should still go.”

“Okay.” Julian stands up. “I’ll see you at dusk, yeah?”

Garak nods. “I’ll see you then.”

Julian hesitates before hitting his comm to request beam up. “Let me know if you have any trouble sleeping. I have something I can give you.”

“I’m sure you do.”

The innuendo floods Julian with a wave of fondness and previously unacknowledged desire so intense that he slaps his comm hard enough to leave a bruise on his chest in his haste to get away. He doesn’t trust himself to stay in that shack much longer.

He rematerializes on the Thames and feels almost immediately more in control of himself and his emotions. True to Newton’s law, the distance has decreased the gravitational pull between them. At least, on Julian’s end. For all he knows, Garak is down in his shack alone, regretting having just sent away his sole source of comfort…

Julian reaches for his comm, but thinks the better of it.

This is going to be a long day’s journey into night.

After a fitful day’s rest, Julian has the self-restraint to wait until the sun is exactly six degrees below the horizon before beaming down to Garak’s shack.

Garak is reclined on the bedroll, fully-dressed with not a hair out of place. He stares up at Julian, giving him a subtle once over. “Doctor, you disappoint me; I was expecting you hours ago.”

Julian smirks, setting down a tray of food on a workbench. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Garak stands, straightening out his tunic. “You’re a little late with that apology, don’t you think?”

Julian steps forward, leaving about a breath of air between them in the cramped shed. “How late exactly?”

Garak picks a bit of dust off Julian’s collar. “For my liking? I would have appreciated an apology right after we played that spy holoprogram.”

“After I shot you?” Julian laughs.

“There’s no accounting for taste. And you?”

“I suppose it would have been mannerly for me to apologize in the Dominion prison camp.” Julian remembers wanting to offer Garak some measure of comfort following Tain’s death, but only managing a feeble utterance of Garak’s name. He won’t make that mistake again. “I’m sorry,” Julian says, holding Garak’s hands. “For everything.”

Garak wets his lips. “Thank you.”

Julian leans forward, pressing a kiss to Garak’s forehead, muttering into the skin, “If you don’t feel like digging, we can take the day off.”

Garak pulls away slightly. “No, I think the outdoors might do me good.”

“We can eat outside, if you’d like.” Julian drops Garak’s hands and circles his arms around his waist. “In the moonlight, under the stars…”

“Next to the rubble heap,” Garak adds.

“You’re such a romantic,” Julian says and closes the distance between their lips.

The kiss is soft and chaste, deepening as Garak entwines his fingers in Julian’s hair, pulling him down closer. Pressed up against each other, Julian can feel the jab of of hip bones that shouldn’t be so sharp, trace ribs that shouldn’t be so exposed. Any gains to Garak’s health made through regular meals have apparently been undercut by the hard labor of digging through the night.

Julian pulls back, suddenly feeling incredibly guilty for accepting the help of someone so utterly affected by chronic hunger. Not that he would’ve had much success in dissuading Garak from helping; the man is ridiculously stubborn with a martyr complex a mile wide. (What a predicament Julian has found himself in: caring so deeply for and being unable to stomach the pain of a man raised to believe self-annihilation is his civic duty.)

“Is something wrong?” Garak asks.

“No.” Julian glances at the tray covered in a dinner of light, bland, nutritionally sound food designed to stave off starvation and vomiting rather than pack on weight and satisfy the palate. If Garak has made it on almost a week of that food, surely he could go for something richer? “I was just thinking a picnic requires dessert.”

After quick trip to the Thames, Julian plies Garak with zabu steak drenched in yamok sauce, I’danian spiced pudding, and tranya. Tonight, it’s Garak who scoots the dishes away, unable to take another bite. He lies back on the picnic blanket with a sigh, hand resting on his distended belly.

Julian leans over him, whispering into his ear, “If you want to take a nap, I can shovel by myself for a bit.”

Garak turns his head so their lips are almost touching. “Julian, if your idea of a romantic evening is pouring me some juice, making sure I eat my supper, and telling me to take a nap, then we need to have a talk.”

Julian ducks his head, chuckling softly. “And the two of us digging a hole together all night is so much better?”

“Two people working to achieve a common goal for the good of Cardassia? Here, that’s practically foreplay.”

“I’ll get the shovels.”

An hour of digging reveals the manor’s foundation, cracked and crumbling, but still in relatively good shape following the bombardment, at least compared to the rest of the house.

“The foundation has always been strong,” Garak explains, lifting a broken off piece out of the tunnel. “When I was a boy, soil erosion caused practically the entire neighborhood to repair or replace their foundations, but the city inspectors said the manor was unaffected. Tain said it was because the manor was older than dirt and therefore immune to erosion.”

Julian picks up a splinter off the foundation to peer at it more closely. “It does seems fairly old. Pre-warp, if I had to guess.”

“If that’s the case, it makes sense that no one has uncovered the orb; the house was already built when the wormhole aliens deposited it into the ground.”

Julian props his forearm on the handle of his shovel, furrowing his brow. “If the Prophets placed the orbs beneath the house, did they know who lived here? Who was going to live here? Did they know you’d return and we’d be the ones to dig up the orb? Are we only standing here right now because someone else’s gods planned it?”

“I don’t know, but if that’s true, I applaud their powers of manipulation even if I’m not entirely certain what they’re trying to achieve here.”

Propping up part of Julian’s weight, his shovel has slowly started to sink into the cracked soil, stopping abruptly with a soft clink. “I think I’ve hit something,” Julian says, pulling his shovel from the ground.

A few minutes digging reveals a rectangular object made out of pale stone embedded in the ground. Julian and Garak carefully dig around it, exposing an orb much like the few Julian has seen since being stationed on DS9.

“What do we do now?” Garak asks.

Julian kneels down next to the orb. “I’ve strict instructions from the Vedek Assembly to fully inspect the orb before beaming it back to the runabout. They issued several vague but dire warnings about what would happen if the stone casing around the orb was cracked or compromised during transport.”

“Can you do that from down here or should we bring it inside?”

“Inside would be better. I’ll have to clean it to get a good look at it and there’s too much dust out here.”

“Inside it is. If you want to climb out, I can hand the orb up to you.”

“Alright,” Julian says, getting a foothold on an exposed bit of foundation and lifting himself out of the hole. “Just be careful not to open it; we don’t have any idea of what that thing does.”

Garak bends over and Julian (finally) allows himself to appreciate the view before seeing Garak’s vulnerable lower back exposed by his raised shirt and yipping down at him, “Lift with your knees, not with your back!”

Garak turns his head and glares up at Julian before returning to the task at hand, bending with his knees (to Julian’s relief) to examine the orb. He spends enough time staring at it to make Julian concerned.

“Is something wrong? Is it cracked?” Julian asks.

“No,” Garak says. “Just trying to figure the best way to lift this without opening it and getting myself accidentally converted or something.”

“I don’t know; I think you’d look rather dashing with an earring. It would really bring out the color of your eyes.”

“Never joke about accessories, doctor.” Garak moves around the hole so that he’s facing Julian. “I think I have it.”

Julian gets himself into position. “I’m ready when you are.”

Garak places his hands parallel to the orb’s sides, taking a breath before gripping the orb tightly, taking obvious pains not to expose or disrupt its contents.

But to no avail. As soon as Garak’s bare hands touch the stone surface, a latch flies open of its own accord, sending a ray of brilliant light straight up into the air, where it briefly illuminates the sky before fading into darkness.

Julian looks down at the hole, at Garak who is slumped against the tunnel wall, gripping his chest. “Garak!” Julian shouts, forgetting momentarily that he and the orb are supposed to remain a secret from Garak’s neighbors and the rest of Cardassia. “Garak!” He jumps down into the hole and comes to Garak’s side. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” He raises two fingers to Garak’s pulse. Fast, but no faster than Julian’s at the moment. Probably slower given the fright he’s given Julian.

Garak blinks slowly. “I’m fine. Merely surprised.”

“Did it do anything to you?”

“No. I think it just passed through me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Garak nods. “I’m just as secular as ever.”

Relieved, Julian envelopes him in a hug. He would kiss Garak (which would be especially romantic given the soft drizzle of rain beginning to fall), but both of them are still wearing their respirators.

“Are you crying?” Garak asks quietly.

“No.”

Garak pulls back and wipes a drop of moisture from his cheek, gazing at it seriously.

“It’s just the rain, I swear,” Julian says.

“Get inside, now!” Garak shouts.

Julian hesitates momentarily, confused.

“Acid rain! One of the Dominion’s many gifts.” Garak breaks away from Bashir and hoists the orb up over his shoulder.

Julian scuttles out of the hole, plucking the orb from Garak’s arms. Cradling it under one arm, he pulls Garak out of the tunnel with his free hand and they run back to the shack in the now pouring rain.

Garak slams the door shut. “Take off your clothes.” He pulls off his sodden shirt, taking his respirator off with it. “Before the rain catalyzes and eats through them!”

Julian puts down the orb and tears off his clothing. Once they’re both naked, Garak throws him a towel to dry his hair, taking one to do the same with his own hair.

“Any burning on your face? Your hands?” Garak asks.

“No. Nothing.”

“Good. With what the acid does to Cardassian skin, I’d hate to see what it does to yours.”

“How often does this happen?”

“Maybe once a month. People have learned not to stray too far from shelter.”

Julian looks down at the pile of wet, but intact clothing on the floor. “How long does it take for the acid to eat through fabric?”

“Only a few minutes. Why?”

“Look.” He gestures to the clothes.

“Strange.”

Julian picks up his medical bag from a workbench and takes out a micro-tricorder, running it over the clothing. He shakes his head. “All I’m registering is rain. Plain, non-acidic rainwater.”

Garak looks at the tricorder readings. “That’s impossible. The planet is in its worse drought in centuries. The only rain we’re getting is residual chemicals from Dominion bombardment.”

Julian gives Garak the tricorder and picks up his shirt, wringing it out on the floor. They watch as the dirt absorbs the moisture. “It’s just water, Garak.”

Garak opens the shed door, reaching his hand out into the downpour. When he draws his hand back in, he takes a lick of water from his fingertip. “My word.” He looks outside. “That’s more rain than the planet has seen in years. If people start putting out buckets, they could have drinking water for days.”

It’s sad how much that means on Cardassia.

Julian lays a hand on Garak’s shoulder. “And they’ll have you to thank for it.”

“Me?”

“You opened the orb.”

“You really think some Bajoran artifact has the power to control the weather?”

“Well, I’d hardly call it a coincidence that rain started moments after you opened the orb.” Julian steps closer to Garak, wrapping his arms around him. “And what was it you said about coincidences? Something about not trusting them?”

Garak leans his head back on Julian’s shoulder, purring into his ear, “That mutant memory of yours is going to get you into trouble some day.”

Julian pinches one of the more sensitive areas of Garak’s anatomy. “What kind of trouble?”

“The kind that leaves you alone, naked, and utterly defenseless in a shack somewhere with only a ravenous Cardassian to keep you company.”

“I think I like that kind of trouble.”

“I thought you might.” Garak kicks the door shut.

Lying more on Garak than the bedroll, the only sounds Julian can hear over the rain on the shack’s reliable tin roof are Garak’s steady heart beat and their inhales and exhales, now nearly in sync following the work out they’d just given their lungs.

Giddy over the position he finds himself in (or, to be more apt, the many positions he had found himself in earlier), but exhausted from the day’s labor, the acid rain scare, and the seriously underestimated sexual stamina of the middle-aged Cardassian male, Julian has only the energy to grin widely and sing softly into Garak’s ear through bouts of giggles, “No little shack do you share with me. We do not flee from a mortgagee. Nary a care in the world have we. How can love survive?

Garak pets Julian’s hair. “I was told oxytocin was intoxicating to the human brain, but now I’m afraid I’ve overdosed you on it.”

Julian nibbles on Garak’s ear. “A few more nights like this and you’ll have me addicted. I don’t think you’ll be able to keep it up.”

“If I recall correctly, ‘keeping it up’ was your issue, not mine.”

Julian bites down on Garak’s ear harder than usual, but only for a moment. “I’m only human,” he mutters.

Garak pushes Julian away slightly so he can look him in the eye. “You know I don’t mind, right?”

“I know. You said it often enough for it to register.”

“I meant it.” Garak runs a thumb along Julian’s lower lip. “Especially after that human trick you showed me.”

“I still can’t believe Cardassian don’t do that!”

“We have very sensitive gag reflexes. You should know that, doctor.”

“So, you could never…” Julian trails off.

“Not unless you want me vomiting all over you.”

Julian frowns. “Well, I suppose if you can get used to my limitations, I can get used to yours.”

“You’d want to do this again, then?”

Julian wraps the blanket around them tighter. “Yeah. Of course. Do you?”

“Oh, yes. I want this as often as I can get it.”

“Even if that’s only three times a day?”

“I am prepared to make sacrifices.”

Julian feels the last remaining bit of tension and uncertainty drain from his body, leaving him loose and exhausted. He settles in on top of Garak, resting his head on his chest, curling in close.

A knock on the shed’s rickety door wakes Julian from his slumber.

Garak slips out from under him, calling, “Who is it?” He locks eyes with Julian, pressing a finger to his lips.

“Kelas Parmak,” a man’s voices answers from the other side of the door.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” Garak quickly dresses himself and steps outside.

From the bedroll, Julian can hear their muffled voices.

“Garak, my friend, something has happened,” Parmak says.

“What do you mean?” Garak asks.

“No one is quite sure. Word is coming in from around the planet that the land has changed. Areas that were once deserts are now forests, canyons are now filled will fresh water, arid wastelands are now meadows. What few farms we had are destroyed. They’re blaming you, Garak.

“Me? What could I have possibly—”

“Some people are saying they saw a light in the sky last night all across the planet. And your neighbors say the light came from your property just before the rain came. And what’s more they heard a man call your name when the light faded from the sky. The way this man said your name—he did not sound Cardassian.”

Julian mentally berates himself for his loss of control the night before

“And what have the people decided to do with this information?” Garak asks.

“Nothing. The provisional government won’t allow it. But you should know that if people looked unfavorably upon you before, I don’t think they will look at you at all now.”

“Thank you, Dr. Parmak. You should go before anyone sees you here.”

They say their goodbyes and Garak steps back inside, closing the door with a sigh.

“Garak?” Julian asks, once again only able to offer a feeble utterance of the man’s name. (Isn’t that what got them into this mess last night?)

“I assume you heard everything,” Garak says.

Julian nods although it’s less a question than a statement.

“The Prophets have played some trick on Cardassia. Given us a paradise we can’t possibly survive in.” Garak shakes his head. “Centuries of dryland farming brought to an end. Perhaps this was Sisko’s plan—starve us out so Bajor could finally be free of us.”

“Sisko couldn’t have known—”

“It doesn’t matter. He won’t be the one to pay for it.”

“You will,” Julian says quietly.

“Yes. Except on the new Cardassia, they won’t arrest me, they won’t execute me to feed the public’s blood lust and reassure them that justice is always served. Hell, they’ll probably place an armed guard outside my property to make sure a mob of enraged citizens doesn’t take matters into their own hands. No, they’ll let me live. And what a life it will be. Hated, ignored, silently despised. I might as well be in exile again.”

“Then come back to Deep Space Nine with me. We can have a life there. A real life. Together.”

“I can’t just leave my people. Not when they’re suffering like this.”

“Garak, what do you think you’re going to do to help them? You’ve made it clear that Cardassian society doesn’t have a place for men like you now.”

“Now, yes. But you know as well as I do that eventually every society needs men like me. The provisional government may be deluded by their own self-righteousness, but one day they’ll realize the state’s survival relies on men working in the shadows. Until then, I’ll be here waiting.”

“What about us?”

“What about us?” Garak repeats

“Are you willing to give our relationship up so you can go back to being Enabran Tain’s clone?”

“I don’t see why I should have to. If our relationship is that important to you, there’s always a place for you here.”

“No. There’s not. There’s not even a place for you here! I’m not going to give up my career, my friends, my life, so I can live in a shack with the planet pariah. I’m not going to support you ruining your life!”

Garak glances at the orb. “I think you already have.”

“Then I guess there is no us. We’re done. Because if I can’t stand you being in pain, I sure as hell can’t stand you thinking I’m the cause of it.”

Julian stares down at his salad glumly. “I don’t know why I did it. I mean, I know why. We were both caught up in the heat of the moment, we had just buried his mother, we were already naked…”

“Wait,” Ezri says. “Right after you buried his mother?”

“No, no. Not right away. The night after. Although, I think if he asked me to stay after we disintegrated his mother, I would have. I would have done anything. Just to make it better. I thought I was making it better, but then the orb… That just made everything worse and I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take him being so sad and angry and self-destructive. I had to leave. I guess that makes me a coward.”

Ezri smiles at him. “Julian, I think that makes you grown-up. Or, at least, more grown-up than I’ve ever seen you.” She squeezes his hand. “You recognized that your connection to Garak made you feel his pain and when things got too bad, rather than trying to fix everything—which is a nasty habit you fall into—you reasserted your boundaries and ended the relationship. You can’t force people to be good to themselves. And if you’d waited for Garak to let go of his self-destructive tendencies, you’d be just as self-destructive yourself.”

Julian rests his chin on his fist. “I don’t think I like being a grown-up.”

Julian sits alone at the bar, as he has every night for the past week or so, scanning the room for eligible, attractive individuals to chat up, but never making eye contact or any real effort. He sighs and takes a sip of his tranya, thinking he should tell Quark to put in another shot of vodka next time.

He should feel proud; after weeks of moping alone in his quarters, he’s made the leap to moping alone in public. Now everyone can share in his misery.

“Is this seat taken?” Sisko asks.

Julian shakes his head. The entire bar has given him a wide berth, lest they be sucked into his downward spiral.

Sisko sits down on the stool next to him, folding his hands on the table. “I heard you haven’t been feeling quite yourself lately.”

“Who told you that? Dax?”

Sisko nods. “Dax, Nog, Kira, Quark, Morn. And I can’t say I haven’t noticed myself. Ever since you came back from Cardassia, you’ve been different. Visiting a planet struggling to recover from genocide affects even the grizzliest Starfleet officers, but you—”

“Did you know the orb would ruin Cardassia’s environment?” Julian snaps. It’s a question that has been on his mind for weeks.

“Yes,” Sisko says evenly. “I knew the orb would alter the Cardassian environment, but I don’t believe the Cardassian environment is ruined. If anything, it has been improved. No more acid rain, plenty of fresh water—”

“Having drinking water is all well and good, but people can’t survive on water and Federation disaster rations for long. They have no way to feed themselves; they don’t know how to work the land now.”

“Not everyone. They are a few Cardassians who know to farm in the new environment. They call themselves the Oralian Way, holders of the Hebitian Civilization. The First Hebitians lived on Cardassia for centuries in an environment much like the one created by the Orb of Restoration. The Hebitians understood how to work with the land, keeping themselves well fed and the planet hospitable. When the Hebitian Civilization fell, the planet’s ecology rapidly grew toxic and hostile toward life. Forests became deserts. Lakes dried into canyons. Meadows fell arid. With the planet unable to sustain its people, the people looked elsewhere, eventually turning to Bajor.”

“And you think restoring the environment will keep Cardassia from colonizing Bajor again?” Julian asks.

Sisko nods. “To feed itself, Cardassia will be forced to listen to the Oralian Way, who I hope will teach the people to prize self-sustainability over plundering the resources of other planets.”

“In the meantime…” Julian takes a sip of his tranya. “Everyone will just have to be miserable.”

“Not everyone.”

Sisko excuses himself, leaving Julian alone at the bar once again. He forgoes the second tranya, opting instead for a glass of water in an unspoken solidarity with Cardassia. After his last meal with Garak, fine food and drink hold little appeal without having someone to share it with.

Someone sits down next to him, not even bothering to ask permission, which really gets under Julian’s skin. If he’s miserable enough for everyone to know it (and report it to Captain Sisko) then sure enough this jerk can tell he wants to be left alone. He turns around, ready to snap at the person, to tell them to take any other open seat at the bar, when the words stop dead in his throat.

“Hello, doctor,” Garak says.

“Garak.”

“Captain Sisko told me I could find you here.”

“What… What are you doing here?”

“In the bar, getting a drink with a dear old friend. On the station, serving as the Cardassian Ambassador to Bajor and the Celestial Temple.”

“You’re going to live here?”

“Yes. The position demands a certain proximity.”

“They exiled you again.”

“Oh, no. I’m afraid they couldn’t if they tried. The Oralian Way seems to have taken quite a liking to me, since I’ve re-awakened the Land of the Hebitian or whatever they’re calling it. Apparently, I’m some kind of minor religious figure now. I don’t know how Captain Sisko stands it. In any case, I’m here of my own volition. And, if I’m to be perfectly candid, I came here because it gave me the chance to apologize to someone very dear to me.”

“Oh?”

“I said a very cruel thing to them for which I feel intense remorse.”

“You? Remorse?”

“Stranger things have happened. Although I must admit, my remorse isn’t entirely selfless. You see, when my dear friend feels pain, I feel it as well. Knowing that I am the source of this pain is nearly unbearable. It’s enough to drive a man from some very bad habits passed down over the course of several generations.”

“You got out of that house.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. Physically, there wasn’t much to disentangle myself from, but otherwise…”

Julian lays his hand on top of Garak’s. “I’m glad you did.”

“If your offer for a real life here on Deep Space Nine still stands, I would most gladly take it.”

Julian entwines their fingers. “I think you have a deal.”